Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Harney Peak Horseback
One goal Patti and I had when we married was to have horses. We had the perfect place to keep a couple of saddle horses, and I was itching to ride again, after being horse-less for fifteen years. Several of our friends in the Hills who knew their way around and were eager to be our guides. We spent several months looking for horses that would fit our purpose, namely to trail ride, and selected Tennessee Walkers, gaited horses that traveled fast and smooth. I told my friend Tom Eliason what we had bought, and he being a quarter horse breeder and trainer, said, “Well, they are probably alright if all you want to do is go straight”. I told him that was our goal.
We hauled the horses to the Hills shortly after we had bought them, barely having time to get familiar with their personalities. The lure of riding in the Hills was enough for us to throw caution to the wind and see how they would do. Our friends knew Custer State Park intimately and took us for a five hour ride through the timber, across fallen trees, past buffalo grazing twenty yards away, up hills and down, crossing streams and gullies without our horses making one false step. We would meander up a mountain, having to stop several times for all the horses to blow, before reaching the top and then decide how to get back down. Fallen timber and tree limbs covered the ground and all the horses were scraped up pretty good by the time we got back to the trucks. Our concern about our Walkers disappeared when we rode out into an open meadow, and they went into their swinging walk, leaving the quarter horses trotting behind.
Our friends decided to make a day of it on our second trip to the Hills, packing food and supplies on a pack horse for the trek up the back trail to Harney Peak. That sounded like fun. Soon after we started up, the trail narrowed and became a continuous series of steps carved out of the rock. Trees lined both sides of the trail and I kept hoping we wouldn’t meet someone coming down since there was little room to pass someone hiking, let alone another person horseback. The climb was steady, and after a few hours I was hoping to see the Peak come into view. It finally did, after another hour and a half of climbing. As we neared the top the trail ran along a ridgeline, and we were looking out over the trees, only then realizing how high we were. All kinds of scary thoughts ran through my mind. Remember when the rider jumped his horse off the mountain in “Snowy River”? We tied the horses to a hitching rail at the base of the tower and did the sightseeing thing, then unpacked and ate our lunch while watching a wedding group struggle up the hill, a part of someone’s special day at the highest spot in South Dakota. Several people asked if we wanted to sell a horse. They were tired of hiking.
The trip back down was rougher on the horses and riders even though it only took two and a half hours to make it to the bottom. Again, our horses had proven themselves equal to the test. Today, when I see aerial photos and film of Harney Peak, I am amazed that we actually rode up there, and lived to tell the tale. When I think now of all the things that could have gone wrong, I am glad we had horses that did nothing but go straight.