Park rangers are not the only ones working at Rocky Mountain National Park who face long hours and rugged conditions. The park also has approximately 10-14 horses and 10-14 mules who have a number of different and challenging jobs. Among other jobs, horses and mules participate in rescues, provide transportation for an assortment of equipment and supplies needed for trail maintenance, and go on patrol with rangers or park Volunteers. Like other park staff, horses and mules work for several days and then take a few days off to rest and recuperate.
A park wrangler says one of his objectives in managing park stock is to assure each animal is as versatile as possible. Thus, most horses, and several mules can be used both for packing equipment and for riding. The wrangler evaluates each animal each year and provides necessary on-the-job training to broaden its capabilities and refine its skills. The younger and less experienced animals come to the park each spring a few weeks earlier and leave each fall a few weeks later than the "old hands" so they can have more opportunities to have a diversity of work experiences. The wrangler also quietly evaluates horsemanship skills of the variety of riders or handlers each animal encounters and makes sure the humans and animals are compatible. All park staff who use horses or mules are required to have an annual course to polish their horsemanship skills.
On an average work day, a horse or mule will be loaded into a trailer, be transported to a trailhead, will transport a human or a pack over steep rocky terrain for several miles, and must tolerate lightning strikes from almost daily thunderstorms with equanimity. Each animal is required to load easily and quietly, be unflappable around visitors, and be capable of encountering dead animals or predators such a mountain lions without problems. The mustangs the park has adopted are especially adaptable to the rugged working conditions.
The next time you encounter a mounted park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, please realize you are looking at not one, but two hardworking park employees!