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A Man & His Mustangs

An interview with horse trainer and packer Mustang Matt

Amid a world pandemic, there is normalcy. That is, at Mustang Matt's (a.k.a Matt Bischof's) ranch at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains anyway. When I arrive, his wife Kristin and son Tucker are out and about in the yard, Matt and one of this daughters, Miranda, are amid the lineup of horses that are tied to a hitch rail. It is a glossy, spring day and there is laughter in the air—a shear rip from the steadiness of only my husband’s voice for the several weeks of quarantining at my own home.

The horses he readies are of varied experience, some of them just recently rounded up on our wild public lands. A few are veterans, like Titan, the bay gelding. They stand quietly with curiosity as Matt spins around them with ropes and bags and flails his arms as he speaks about their training. Since my arrival, his oldest daughter Miley has joined the family in what seems like a daily routine of being with these animals, running a hand along their backs and petting their muzzles. This is a day just like a thousand before it—dust in the air, sweaty horses, and an unswerving love for getting lost in the mountains of Western Montana. 

Matt’s horses are ready for a job, packing in particular. So, let’s see what goes into such an isolated experience.

C: Matt, tell me what are the essentials for packing. Give me a list of items that come to mind.

M: Say you’re going in for hunting camp. You’ve got to think about your tent, your sleeping bag, cooking supplies. Basically, you need food, warmth, and shelter. Then you’ll think of your tools, like a saw to clear trails, to cut firewood, and then to get your stuff in there you’ll need your pack saddles and there are two ways to pack: manty method or pannier method. For the manty method, you’ll put all of your gear onto a manty tarp and basically make a Christmas package out of it. The other way, with panniers, is by filling soft-structured canvas bags or solid boxes item by item. You need lots of rope to tie everything down and you’ll need to be versed on the different hitches. There are two types of saddles for either method of packing. A decker saddle will typically be used for manty style and then there’s a sawbuck saddle for panniers. I carry a first-aid kit for horses and myself and I carry a gun for overnight trips. A lot of people will say that’s for bear protection but it’s actually not. The reason I carry a pistol is in the event that I need to put one of my animals down. If a horse goes down and breaks a leg, I certainly don’t want it to suffer. The final part of my essentials is the containment of my stock. There’s a highline that can be tied between two trees where the horses are spread out, all tied to that one rope, and then there are hobbles that bind the two front legs together so the horse can graze and maneuver around but still be contained, and some people bring electric fences to section off a piece of land for free range if that's preferred. Grain bags, senior feed, and alfalfa pellets (all weed free) are the food options I bring to ensure good energy and nutrition for my stock. 

C: When would you typically do a trip like this? 

M: Well, typically, you wouldn’t go out on New Year’s but I’ve done it! But in all seriousness, I got into packing because I love to bow hunt so that’s typically in the fall. I also love going out shed hunting in the spring, and the summer is great, too, for adventurous outings or clinics.

C: One would typically think that a trail horse can be any horse really but I know you think the complete opposite, that these horses need to be bullet- and bomb-proof, so to speak. Can you describe why you use mustangs and how your training method gives you the best chances out on the trail?

M: First and foremost, I spend a lot of time with mules and I think mustangs are very similar to mules. They have lots of self preservation. If we’re on the trail and we come up on a worrisome situation, I’ve dealt with some domestic horses that will panic and get to a point where they hurt themselves to get away from the threat. Not to say that a mustang won’t do that same thing, but I’ve found that they have this base layer of self preservation because in the wild, if they don’t have self preservation, they won’t survive. Similar to a mule, most mustangs will be competent about where their feet are. They were raised by their mothers out on all sorts of uneven terrain they had to learn to navigate at such an early age. They also, as a general rule, are easy keepers. They can survive on very little because that’s what they did in the wild. They have tough feet and are tough, in general. 

C: Why is having trusted partner so important for packing or just riding in general?

M: In the backcountry, the world is extremely unpredictable. You never know what is around the corner, whether it’s a moose, a grizzly bear, a grouse. If you can have a solid relationship with your pack animals, it really sets you up for success and also keeps everyone, including the stock at the safest. If the horse looks to the rider as a leader, the horse is so much less likely to go into that self-preservation mode and get panicked. 

C: If someone is interested in packing or maybe just bettering their horsemanship, what do you offer in terms of lessons or clinics or education in general?

M: If there’s a need, I’m going to do a clinic on it. No matter the clinic, I have that Trust & Respect element, which is the base of my training method and really tends to the horsemanship side. It all stems from communicating with your horse, reading your horse to get that trust and respect at a balanced level so we can get to some work. 

Get in touch with Matt!

Facebook: Mustang Matt Horse Trainer