Horses and the card game poker were a recipe for mayhem in the Wild West. But not today. Horseback poker rides are now charitable events during which trail riders enjoy a day in the backcountry while raising money for a worthy cause. And, as I discovered on a ride last spring in Virginia City, Montana, the events are a good way to bomb-proof a saddle horse under crowded trail conditions.
Scott McClintick, a local rancher who rarely misses a card game (charitable or otherwise), invited me along for the ride. He loaned me Cisco, a ranch gelding that needed some trail time. I saddled him up and Cisco turned to Crisco, skittering across the dirt parking lot like a dollop of lard in a hot frying pan.
“He might be a little bronky,” Scott said, pokerfaced. “We just brought him in off winter pasture.”
We rode up Virginia City’s main street to the Bale of Hay Saloon for rider registration. The building’s false-front facade and boardwalk invoked the sound of gunfire and drunk miners thrown through glass windows. This gold mining boomtown was once a sister city to Deadwood, South Dakota, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead in 1876 over a game of poker. But these are softer times in Virginia City. On that spring day, 125 poker players would walk through the Bale of Hay Saloon’s doors without a shot fired. How peaceful.
But not all was quiet at the hitching rail. Cisco pawed at the ground and blew at the other horses that went by.
Scott and I hurried into the bar and paid $15 for each poker hand. I followed his lead and paid to play two hands at the same time, hoping to double my luck. But even if I busted, the proceeds went to the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce, an organization that supports local businesses. It was a win-win proposition. Poker rides are run across the country as a fundraiser for everything from horsemen’s groups to wildlife preserves to local schools.
Ken Carmichael, ride director for the Fish Trap Lake Poker Ride in eastern Washington, explains that charitable events still need to be in accordance with state gambling laws.
“We award gift certificates and door prizes instead of cash,” he says. “People always tell me, though, that it isn’t about the prizes. They ride to support our cause, Backcountry Horsemen of America, and to explore a trail they haven’t ridden before.”
Now in its 16th year, the Fish Trap Lake Poker Ride is one of the longest-running events in the United States.
“Over the years, the horseback poker ride has been a great way to teach people about the principles of Leave No Trace, and to recruit new members for the Inland Empire Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of America,” Carmichael says.
Speaking of Leave No Trace, Cisco pawing at the hitching rail was a no-no, so Scott and I saddled up and rode out. Virginia City abuts the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the poker ride’s route left town following Alder Creek. Two miles later, we rode into a card station. Cisco had loosened a bit and he stood, only mildly nervous, while I drew my next cards.
A poker hand has five cards, so a horseback poker ride has five card stations. At most events, you draw the first and last card at rider registration. In our case, it was the Bale of Hay Saloon. Three other card stations are spaced out along a six-mile loop. At each, you draw a new card from a full deck. In theory, you could draw the same card five times—an impossibility in regular poker. So, the winning hand is usually very competitive. If you’re not working on a Straight Flush, Full House, or better, your odds of winning are slim.
We left card station number two, and the trail switchbacked up a hill on a series of old mining roads. Prospectors discovered gold here on Alder Gulch in 1863. The creek swelled to a population of 10,000 people in just six months. Today, only one mining operation is left. The other claims have dissolved back into the land, a function of nature’s own Leave No Trace principles.
Around noon, we rode back up to the Bale of Hay Saloon. Vehicles drove by, tourists shot photographs, and the bar crowd was rowdy inside. But Cisco stood quietly at the hitching rail, his hide sheening with sweat in the sun.
“That’s the horse I remember,” Scott said.
We went inside to draw our last card. My hand combinations looked more like a license plate number than a poker hand, and Scott didn’t fare much better. We did like any proper poker player, and saddled up to the bar for a round.
“Why not just give your money to the town and save yourself the trouble?” someone bemoaned at the bar.
The answer to his question was hitched to the rail out front, where Cisco stood quietly. Nah, I thought, it was money well spent.
Odds are, there’s a horseback poker ride scheduled near you.
- Spokane, Washington
Ride: Fishtrap Lake, BLM
Benefits: Inland Empire Backcountry Horsemen
- Virginia City, Montana
May 29, September 4
Ride: Gravelly Mountains, Beaverhead Deerlodge N.F.
Benefits: Chamber of Commerce
- Nevada City, California
Ride: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Tahoe N.F.
Benefits: Gold Coast Trails Council
- Ford City, Pennsylvania
July 4, August 1
Ride: Crooked Creek Horse Park
Benefits: Local Charity
- Fellsmere, Florida
Ride: St. Sebastien River Preserve State Park
Benefits: Coastal Preserve Alliance
- Apache Junction, Arizona
Ride: Goldfield Ghost Town
Benefits: Sunshine Acres Orphanage, and the Apache Junction Boys and Girls Club