Saddle Club teaches children, parents

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

BILLINGS (AP) -- Paul and Jackie Olsen raised their four children in the church and in the Saddle Club.

They joined the Billings Saddle Club in the early 1960s when the family bought a horse for their children to ride.

''A horse,'' emphasizes their daughter Becky Propp, adding that, in the early days, all four Olsen kids rode the same chestnut mare in the club's competitive events.

Eventually each child got his or her own horse, and the Saddle Club became the family's major summer activity. Family vacations were planned around loading up the kids and their horses and driving them to state and national saddle-club events.

''People from all walks of life were members who chose horses instead of golf or skiing,'' says Jackie Olsen. ''They were fun years. There was a lot of joy.''

All but one of the Olsen children's wedding receptions were in the log club house off Alkali Creek Road.

Paul and Jackie no longer are as active in the group as they once were, but their son, Pete, and his family are continuing an Olsen tradition with their membership. Becky Propp was the club's first female president when she was elected in 1990.

The club has changed since it was formed in 1939 ''to promote good fellowship among horse lovers.''

The 176 names on charter list include Peter Yegen Jr., the club's first president, and art patron Virginia Snook.

Another charter member, cowboy writer and illustrator Will James, drew the club's logo -- a cowboy on a bucking bronco -- still used on the group's stationary.

Bobby Brooks Kramer of Billings, who still rides every day, is the only living charter member.

During the early years, the club was a focal point for horse-minded local residents. The club organized the first horse show at the fairgrounds. In 1940, the club took charge of the parade and horse show for the opening of the Public Stock Yards. Club members were a fixture in annual Western Days parades.

The club house, a large ranch-style cabin that has become a Billings landmark, was built for $15,000 in 1947 ''log by log,'' by its members, says Josie Skibstad, a club member for more than 20 years.

Members also built the first arena in 1956 and a second in 1988. Three barns were built between the late 1960s and 1988.

Along with equestrian events, the club was a social center for members.

Photos from the 1940s and 1950s show Saddle Club parties in which women dressed as cancan dancers and men in exaggerated, comical Western garb.

''There were some awfully good parties,'' says Sue Malmstrom, a longtime member. ''I can remember people swinging from the rafters.''

The club had spring and fall parties for adults and families potluck every month.

Alcohol was not served at family occasions when children were present.

When Malmstrom was growing up, kids learned to square dance at the club.

''The Saddle Club was a big part of family life,'' she says.

Malmstrom's family joined so she and her two brothers could be members of the Black Otter Patrol, a mounted drill team for young riders.

As a child, Malmstrom would ride her horse to the Saddle Club from her home on Hilltop Road.

''Just us and the antelope,'' she says about the wide-open spaces then surrounding the club.

Malmstrom has six horses and rides at least one or two of them every day.

The Saddle Club has a rustic club house and 30 acres of prairie tucked up under the north side of the Rimrocks. The club preserves a slice of Billings' Western heritage that's rapidly vanishing in other parts of town.

Although the property is hemmed in by housing developments, deer still bound through it and sleep in the barn.

As true as it is to its Western roots, the club has had to make adjustments as the world around it changed.

Now, members are too busy for family gatherings every month. Fourth of July campouts in the mountains are things of the past. The chuckwagon, from which many outdoor meals were cooked at club gatherings, has survived but is in disrepair.

But the club has survived, and that is an accomplishment considering that many smaller saddle clubs in the area have disappeared.

Now only Billings and Laurel saddle clubs represent this area among the 35 saddle clubs in the state.

The club's common denominator among the 90 families that belong -- a passion for horses -- remains as strong as it was more than 60 years ago.

The club is important because it is still a place where people can come to ride, Malmstrom says.

Most members, who live in Billings, Ballantine, Worden, Shepherd, Absarokee, Roberts and Red Lodge, don't have acreage or an arena in which to ride. They join the club for a place to ride.

The club also organizes several competitive riding events.

Games on horses called O-Mok-Sees have been part of the club since the beginning and continue each summer. Club members of all ages race against the clock in a variety of events.

Each year, the club also has several down-home horse shows that stress friendly competition.

A strong family tradition also is at the heart of the club. Sue Schwend has been a member since 1968. Her son, Larry, and Larry's children, including 4-year-old Jared who rides in O-Mok-See events, also belong to the club.

''We wanted all of our kids to ride in a family atmosphere,'' says Sue Schwend about why she's been a member for so long.

The club also is one of the best bargains around and affordable for families.

''It's an inexpensive way to teach kids how to ride,'' Schwend says. ''Everybody helps everybody else out.''

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