You can’t hold a picture of the West in your mind for long without a horse galloping into view.
But Kari Hall says the real horses are having a hard time in Jackson Hole. As is the case for most the people who live here, the cost of living is rising if you are a horse — or a person paying the way for one. Horses are being priced out.
Hall explained that circumstance recently during a break from a session during which she yelled encouragement and gentle criticism to a 12-year-old girl who was trying to learn the basics of equitation.
Don’t react that way to the horse, Hall hollered to the young rider after a misstep: “If we ask something of her and we get in her way, she’s not going to want to do it again.”
When the mount semi-elegantly made it over a short jump, Hall sent it some love: “There’s a jumping pony!” she called, and then encouraged her human student to join her in congratulating the horse — “We want her to know she did a good job.”
“It’s all about communication,” Hall said, “not control.”
The girl was one of about 70 students who work with Hall and her two instructors, Niki Lynes and Briley Pickerill. She figures there is no other significant riding instruction program in the valley and that even the old-style method, common among ranchers, of just sitting kids on a horse and letting them figure it out is a thing of the past.
Students range from 6 to 70, but “so many” are the stereotypical pubescent females who fall in love with the idea of riding. About half of Hall’s students come to her with some experience; half are finding themselves way up off the ground on a big animal for the first time. The students include a few ranch kids, but they’re mostly youngsters who lead lives in Jackson that are closer to generic suburbia than the Wild West.
Hall has been teaching in Jackson for about four years. Her business, Bright Star Riding, became a nonprofit in January after she realized she “couldn’t keep my prices affordable.”
Hall likes horses, remembers how important riding was to her when she was growing up in an unsettled family in Maryland, thinking even as a child on horseback that “there is nothing as fulfilling as this.
“I was on four legs before I was on two,” Hall said. “I was always on horses. I was totally horse obsessed.”
She also testifies to the belief that horses are a boost to mental health: “I would not be a fully functional human being if not for horses.”
But while horses are part of the history of Jackson, sometimes it seems they’re becoming history. There are fewer people who own horses, fewer stables where you can find a place for a horse to stay, Hall said. Family budgets are tight, schedules filled, and a horse is a commitment most people decide they can’t make. But it would be a shame, Hall thinks, if horses rode off into the sunset of Jackson.
The horse itself is just a bit of the equation. Oh, you could get a horse — say, a mustang captured on Bureau of Land Management territory — for a few hundred dollars. Cheap rides also come from racetracks, where thoroughbreds that aren’t bringing in the cash prizes are headed for slaughter if someone doesn’t take them in. At the other end, you could spend as much (or more) on a horse as a new pickup truck.
Once you own a horse, Hall said, feeding and boarding it will cost at least $750 a month, more likely $1,000. They eat like ... you know.
And a horse also eats time. A big mammal that wants exercise isn’t something you can put away and forget about the way your kayak or your bike disappears into storage for much of the year. It’s an everyday thing, either for the owner or someone hired by the owner.
The result, Hall said, is that there are fewer and fewer places to keep a horse, fewer chances to ride for owners and those who rent or borrow.
She’d like to see Bright Star, in its new nonprofit configuration, become a focus for finding a permanent place to ride and keep horses, a headquarters for all the people and groups that are linked by riding culture.
It won’t be easy. Bright Star now operates on borrowed land south of Rafter J, and Hall knows that the space won’t be available for her use for more than a few more months.
What’s needed is about 20 acres, either owned or with a long lease, and places to keep horses. With more and more talk about turning the Teton County Fairgrounds in Jackson into worker housing — more economic pressure — an indoor arena is also on the wish list.
Hall doesn’t have a price in mind, not yet. But she has been joined by her new board — Lisa Paddleford, Kate Lucas, Natalie Hayes and Sinead King — to begin figuring out all the important questions to ask before they start looking for answers. Hall, in her position of president and head instructor, said she has heard initial support from a variety of groups that do their work from horseback: the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association, Jackson Hole Horse Rescue, Horse Warriors, 4-H, the police department-sponsored Citizens Mounted Patrol.
“If we can work together the donors will feel that their dollars are going three, four times as far,” Hall said. “It’s a big dream, but I believe in it.”
Without a plan and some work the future of riding in Jackson seems dim, Hall said, likely to be forced out and away to cheaper places. It might not matter to many people, but she thinks it would be a sad day and the end of a tradition.
The heritage “is just disappearing,” she said, and with it goes a lot of what makes Jackson Hole what it is.
“Wyoming has the bronco as its state symbol, and Jackson claims to be the last of the Old West,” Hall said. “But none of that is true without horses.”