This Montana rancher and backcountry guide has seen firsthand how riding into the mountains can change a person’s life.
At age 24, Wanda Wilcox found herself waiting tables to support her family. The single mother had been divorced and lost her father and grandmother all within six months, and she had two little boys to feed.
The turning point came when she was offered a job working for a backcountry guide. Not only was that a better fit for a horsewoman who was raised in a longtime ranching family; it also allowed her to raise her sons, Troy and Ty, who rode along and often took naps in the panniers on pack horses. Today, Wilcox owns and operates Paintbrush Adventures, and for nearly 30 years has been taking guests on pack trips, mountain trail rides, fishing excursions and ranch vacations in the Beartooth Mountains of southern Montana.
Her husband, Tiny, her sons and their families help run the business, as well as help operate a small cow-calf outfit near Absarokee, Montana.
Hosting guests is clearly Wilcox’s forté. Along with guiding celebrities such as Jack Hanna, Roy Rogers and Randy Travis, she has served hundreds of people with disabilities and illnesses. She also has helped raise 29 troubled boys and girls in need of guidance and acceptance.
WE TOOK 150 autistic kids into the mountains one year. I’ve taken deaf kids, blind kids and [children with] cerebral palsy, packing them in front of me [in the saddle].
WE JUST GOT DONE working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and [hosted] a little gal from California that had a tumor. Her dream was to be a rancher. She had a ball. She doctored sheep, moved cows. She did everything!
THEY ALL SAY they feel like family when they leave. A lot of them cry. They remain friends forever. We don’t care what race they are, their gender, if they are lesbian or gay. We’ve taken people from Tibet, Mongolia, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Africa—all over.
WE DIDN’T HAVE a lot of clients [in the beginning]. One day, the kids looked at me and said, “Mom, we are kind of hungry.” And I said, “Well, we better figure out how to drum up some business.” We pulled the trailer down into Red Lodge and put a sign on it that said: “Kid Rides: $5.” We made $250, and we ate well that night.
MY KIDS HAD to make do with what they had. We didn’t buy a fancy horse [for high school rodeo]. It was tough, you know. But they learned and are better riders for it. Both boys went to college on rodeo scholarships.
BUDDY WAS AN AMAZING horse. He touched thousands of [people], usually battered women, battered men, sexually abused kids or kids that were broken. You could send the kid into the corral, and there’d be 45 or 50 horses, and if that kid—or woman or man—had a problem, he’d go to them. And he’d put his head down in their arms and nicker to them. I have a portrait of him. He died when he was 37.
WE HAVE MULES AND HORSES. We breed most of our Quarter Horse mares to a jack. So we’ve got a lot of young mules. I like mules. They are just like mountain goats. They don’t drink much water, and they can get by on a lot less feed. A good, gentle mule is hard to find.
WE’VE GOT ONE MULE named Annie Oakley. She’s black and is gentle for anybody. My grandson is 3, and we took him to 9,500 feet on Annie Oakley. She’s careful where she steps.
I GOT HURT REALLY BAD [several years ago]. We were at a branding, and I was tagging calves. A horse in the branding corral was getting real nervous, and he blew up. The guy got off , and the horse ran over me and pawed me in the head. Then he bucked on top of me. I woke up in the hospital and looked at my husband, and I said to him, “Who are you?” And he says, “I’m your husband.” It took a while [to recover].
I NEVER ADOPTED [troubled children], but they came and lived here. Some lived here six years, some two years, some from when they were 9 until they were 19. If they had problems with anger or whatever, they could take out all their aggression on work. You tell them you love them no matter what; that you don’t like their behavior, but you’ll always love them.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Western Horseman.