For the last 11 years, Montana Horses wasn’t quiet about its spring roundup, running hundreds of horses right down Main Street in Three Forks in what has become an unofficial kickoff to the summer season.

Tomorrow, the horses will come through town for the last time, led by a crew of 40 horsemen, said Renee Daniels-Mantle, who owns Montana Horses with husband, Kail. Horse-drawn wagons carrying family and friends and a vintage Coca-Cola wagon pulled by Sid Stromme’s team of horses will hold up the rear.

“It’s the end of a historic event, a bittersweet moment,” Daniels-Mantle said Thursday in the middle of dealing with the various mini-crises that seem to arise daily in ranching life.

The Mantles are getting out of commercial horse leasing, instead focusing on other aspects of their business – cattle, horse sales and dude ranch consulting and horse placement. The change means a reduction in the herd as well as the sale of the business’ 500-acre headquarters outside of Three Forks.

And without a large herd, the need for a drive disappears.

“We don’t just do a horse drive as a trail ride,” Daniels-Mantle said. “There are too many horses to truck them so we trail them here (to the ranch).”

The roundup starts today, with wranglers and paying guests gathering the horses from winter pastures near Willow Creek. There are also 10 photographers and two guides along for the ride.

Tomorrow morning they will set off for Three Forks, where they’ll roll through town and spend the night. Sunday, they’ll finish the trek along the Missouri River to the Mantle Ranch.

In Three Forks, a festival of sorts has sprung up around the annual horse drive.

“It’s turned into quite an event,” said Mayor Gene Townsend.

The City Council was a bit skeptical of the idea at first, he said. The council gave the Mantles the go-ahead 11 years ago, but didn’t think much would come of it. Now, the council is not sure what sort of event will have the same draw.

“We would love to have something replace it; I just don’t know what’s out there,” Townsend said. “Reed Point’s got sheep, so we can’t do that.”

Downtown Three Forks will start filling up Saturday morning, with people milling around the streets waiting for the arrival of the herd between 2 and 5 p.m. Western vendors, stage coach rides and a barbecue are planned. The museum is open and a fundraiser for the depot building will include a bake sale and raffle in Sacajawea Park. By evening, the town is still hopping, as “establishments” host music and dancing, Townsend said.

“It’s great for Three Forks, and we will miss it, no doubt about it,” he said.

The mayor, though seemingly a huge fan of the roundup, is not a horse man.

“If I rode a horse from Willow Creek to Three Forks I’d be dead and they’d be packing me off or something,” he joked.

Though he hasn’t joined in, people from as far away as England and France do, trying their hand at driving the horses. Ron Freer and his wife, Bibi, are fox hunters from Tryon, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They have come on every drive and have become close friends with the Mantles.

Now, they come early to help set up as a “working vacation,” Freer said.

The people that join the ride are all single-minded horse people, he said, but sometimes they overestimate their experience.

“They’re scared to death the first day,” he said.

On the 35-mile trip, however, the riders overcome their fears, learning more about the horses, becoming better riders and making fast friends with other guests and hired hands.

“It’s a lot of hard riding and gives people a lot of sore butts,” Freer said. “By the end of three days in the saddle, all these people are big buds.”

Rachel Hergett may be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or 582-2603.

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