Authentically Montana


I am still in love with being a photographer. That was brought home to me this week as I had the chance to make photos I have dreamed of real.

blog-McGinnis4193In 2009, when I found out I got the job and was going to be moving to Montana, I had no idea what I was in for. I was born in the Colorado Rockies, but we moved away when I was only 3. I had lived in Arizona when I graduated from university, but the Southwest and the West aren’t really all that similar. This is as far north and as far west as I have ever lived. And I didn’t know what to expect.

The movie images that come to mind from a place like this are scenes from A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer. I have gotten photograph fly fishing on the North Fork and I loved that. But until this week I hadn’t gotten to experience much of the cowboy/cattle ranch lifestyle.

blog-McGinnis4483On Tuesday I went out to McGinnis Meadows, about 30 miles east of Libby, Mont. Thanks to Dave Gamble, of Whitefish, I had been grated permission to photograph one of Shayne Jackson’s horsemanship workshops. Jackson is a student of Buck Brannaman, one of the people to inspire the character played by Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer.


I loved everything about this. I have loved horses since I was a little girl growing up in Saudi Arabia and reading The Black Stallion. These were some of the most calm and gentle horses I’ve ever seen. The horses and riders worked so well together that they made it look effortless, seamless, stunning.

The photos are going to run in this week’s Montana Life, but I am putting the sneak preview here on my blog.

Best wishes to you all. Thank you for sharing in my adventures.


The Ultimate Teacher
by BRENDA AHEARN/The Daily Inter Lake


In the early morning light, a group of riders and their horses take off across a sweeping green landscape under a perfectly clear blue sky. The scene is idyllic. It is the living incarnation of the Montana dream, and every year guests make their way to the McGinnis Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch outside Libby to experience what some have described as heaven on earth.


These riders have come from around the country and around the world to experience the Buck Brannaman style of horsemanship with lessons from owner Shayne Jackson. Jackson has been riding with Brannaman for 17 years and has been teaching for 14.
“Buck is my mentor,” Jackson said. “I learn from him and want to share what I’ve learned with others.”
Brannaman is famous as one of the individuals who inspired the Tom Booker character in the The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans. He was the lead equine consultant on Robert Redford’s 1998 film adaptation.
blog-McGinnis4539aJackson said he spends two months a year as a student himself; the other 10 months, he is teaching. His education, however, is never complete.
“The horse is always my ultimate teacher, so I never stop learning,” Jackson said. “If you are really driven, there is no end to the journey. You are constantly refining.”
blog-McGinnis4433aA chance to start from scratch or refine the skills of a more experienced rider is exactly what Jackson offers. Jackson said the advantage of visiting a place like McGinnis Meadows is the horses.
blog-McGinnis4293“If it weren’t for these horses, people couldn’t excel they way they do in a week,” he said.
“We all ride consistently,” Jackson added. “That means the horses aren’t getting mixed signals from us. So the horses know what is expected of them. Then, even with a new rider, the horse can back up what I am teaching because they know their part. Without these horses, this would be just another dude ranch.”
blog-McGinnis4752There is a note of pride in Jackson’s voice as he talks about his favorite aspect of the work. He says this experience is as pure as it can be, and it changes lives.
“It’s about the relationship between the horse and the human. Once that touches someone’s soul, their lives are changed forever. I’ve seen it over and over,” he said.
“And in the years I’ve done this, it has changed me. It is a way of being with the horse that develops a kinship with the horse so that horse and rider become one.”
blog-McGinnis4787Christian Waelder of Round Hill, Va., has been visiting McGinnis Meadows since 2011. He first attended a workshop with Brannaman and has returned every year since. This year, he already has been to the ranch twice and has at least two more visits planned.
“Shayne has such passion and drive. He gives you so much, it just makes you want to be here,” Waelder said.
Waelder said he returns often because his goal is to be as good with his horse as he can be. As a firefighter with Fairfax County, Va., Waelder has plenty of challenges in his life.
“This affects all areas of my life. It’s what I most want to do,” he said. “I have my job and I have my horsemanship. And this is more challenging than anything I have ever done.”
blog-McGinnis4886For Jackson, McGinnis Meadows is a dream come true.
“This is what I want to do until I die,” he said.
blog-McGinnis4712Brannaman will be returning to McGinnis Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch for two weeks this summer, starting July 14. For more information on this and other workshops, visit the ranch’s website,, or call (406) 293-5000.