When I was a little girl I loved horses. Specifically I loved unicorns, but since there weren’t a whole lot of those roaming around the deserts of Saudi Arabia I settled for loving horses. Their beauty and grace. Their freedom. The exhilaration I always feel when I see them run. And growing up in the desert I got to see one of the world’s most exquisite breed — the Arabians — in their natural habitat. To this day I love those horses. To my eyes there is nothing that compares to the sight of an Arabian running. Seeing them I am transported to my childhood, to the story of the Black Stallion and the golden dunes of home. These will always have a place in my heart and so I tend to love that which reminds me of them.

Last week I was fortunate enough to make the trek down to Drummond, Mont., to watch a herd of Morgans being rounded up and brought home for the winter. The Morgan horses are lovely. There is something playful, kind of spritely about their look. They have wonderful manes and long curly bangs that make them look mischievous. And they posses the same power and grace characteristic of those animals. The photos from the roundup are going to be our Montana Life feature this week for the Daily Inter Lake.

The Montana Life section comes out every Sunday. It’s a photographer’s showcase of sorts, a section designed to be carried by photos rather than text. Normally we get to submit between five and eight photographs. That’s a luxury when most assignments have only room for one or two pictures to tell the tale. This will be the second or third Montana Life feature that I have not only photographed, I’ve also written the story to go with it.

Years ago I went to school and majored in journalism and philosophy. I wanted to be a writer. But along the way I fell in love with photography and never looked back. Now almost twelve years into the game I have started testing those old writing skills. I genuinely enjoy getting to tell the whole story – not just the visual pieces. Fortunately the people I work with have been encouraging. I know I have a long way to go as far as professional writing, but I do enjoy it. And so I have begun looking for projects like this one where I can both write and shoot. Projects that really feel as if I own them.

I’m sure my editors will will have corrections to make to this, but I have decided to post the roundup story as I wrote it here. After all, if you’re reading my blog you must like my writing at least a little. So, here it is this week’s Montana Life feature — photos and story by Brenda Ahearn.

An unknown author once wrote of horses that if God made anything more beautiful, he kept it for himself.

It’s morning when the family arrives the Duff Place, the old Duff homestead, near Drummond. The light is soft and the air is crisp and cool. Ed and Valerie Radtke, their daughter Sally Anderson, and her son Angus have made the trek down from Bigfork to the family ranch to round up the horses that have spent their summer running free.

They come up the long drive into the ranch passing a small pocket of cattle along the way. Pulling in near the barn they disembark from their trucks and walk up toward the hills knowing that soon their Morgans will break the crests and make their way down to the corral. Bradley Radtke is up their somewhere in his cowboy hat and jeans, riding a four-wheeler and pitting his will to round up the horses against the will of the herd.

“There’s an excitement that goes along with the round up,” says Radtke. “When you look at their speed, their endurance, just seeing them is enough to get that adrenaline rush.”

The morning’s quiet is suddenly broken as the herd of unbridled horses first comes into view. They don’t want to leave the pasture. Brad watches, predicting which way the horses will run and where he needs to be in order to move them in the direction he wants them to go. He says he enjoys the round up more when he’s on horseback, but with only one person bringing the horses in the ATV make the process considerably less difficult.

Awestruck could easily be the word of the day. Everyone watches as the horses make their way to the edge of the hill. They push back and forth fighting the descent, but eventually Brad is able to head them off and they begin to thunder down.

“These horses are majestic,” says Valerie Radtke. “They have a freedom — you so seldom get to see that in this world any more. We still get to see that side of them as they come up over the top of that hill.”

Beautiful as they are, there is work to be done. Ed and Sally go to open the gates. Brad keeps steering the horses, jutting off as needed, constantly moving them forward. Valerie keeps a close eye on Angus, because a curious five-year-old at three feet, five inches is no match for a herd of horses some of which stand as high as 15 hands.

There are 11 horses which will be taken north; three mares, one filly, one colt, four yearlings and three two-year-olds. That’s actually 12 in the herd, but one has already been sold.

Once they’re up in Bigfork they’ll spend their winter in training before most of them are returned to the ranch the following June. The horses have between four and a half and five months out on the ranch, but a lot happens in those months.

“On the ranch they learn to be horses, they learn how to function in a herd the way horses do in the wild. They grow up,” says Valerie Radtke. “When they’re with us, we handle them daily. The summer in the pasture gives them the opportunity to develop the way that horses were meant to. It’s a healthier environment in general, and for the horses it’s more of what nature intended for them.”

The benefits of this summer of freedom for the horses are manifold. “The horses stay in shape out here,” says Sally Anderson. “They are exercising daily. This environment is good for their growth, it creates good hoof strength,  dense bones, and increases their stamina. Additionally these horses will become excellent trail horses. They will have learned to cross creeks and navigate the hillsides. They will be accustomed to rough terrain.”

Why Morgans? The family’s connection to Morgan horses goes back to 1961. Ed’s father, Marvin Radtke, was looking to add horses to the ranch. He purchased Leota, a Morgan mare, bred her to Luzan and began the registration prefix MoAna. Ed got Kootenai Madi’s Girl and with her began the EMR horses. Three years ago in 2007 Sally picked up the MoAna prefix, carrying on her grandfather’s tradition.

“It’s a love. That’s why we do this,” says Valerie Radtke. “We love what we do. And we love the Morgans because of their minds. They have good, strong minds. They are trainable. They have endurance. They are sure-footed and they have hard feet for mountain riding. They have very few negative attributes, few hereditary problems.”

“I know there will be someone reading this who  loves Quarter horses and thinks the same is true of that breed, but for us it’s Morgans. We like the intelligence and the personalities of these horses.”

The horses gather in the corral and decisions are made about which horses will ride in which trailer. Three will go with Sally, the other eight will ride with Ed and Valerie. Ed and Brad begin separating the horses, preparing for the three-hour trek home.

Summer is officially over and soon the work will begin. The horses will train through the winter. Foaling usually takes place in April or May, breeding in May or early June. And when summer comes along again it will be time to pack up the herd again and return them to the ranch for another idyllic summer of freedom.

“I don’t like paddock horses,” says Ed Radtke. “Our horses always summer out in the mountains. We want to get them out to where they can be what they were meant to be. If you have a horse who only lives in a little pen, or a stall, they never learn how to be free.”

“Out in the hills they learn freedom; they learn to run, to play, and to interact with each other. This is where they are meant to be — out here — free.”