Lacey Middlestead is a Montana native and freelance writer currently living in Helena, Mont. She loves meeting new people and helping share their stories. When she’s not busy writing articles for newspapers like the Independent Record and Helena Vigilante, she can usually be found indulging in her second greatest passion–playing in the Montana wilderness. She loves skiing and snowmobiling in the winter and four wheeling, hiking, boating, and riding dirt bikes in the summer.
This past weekend I took a drive over to Bozeman on highway 287. Along the way, my head swiveled side to side admiring the vast openness of the landscape surrounding me. Save for some power lines and farm roads dotting the land, the view remained remarkably similar to what I imagine it was when Lewis and Clark passed through on their way to the headwaters of the Missouri. The still wild and uncharted nature of the area and so many others here is one of the many reasons I love Montana.
About the time I was having this thought, I was coasting down the hill a few miles before Wheat Montana. I noticed a large shadowy area on the hillside to my right that appeared to be a herd of horses grazing. As I drew closer the stillness of the animals caused me to whisper under my breath, “What is that?”
I pulled my car over to the side of the road and squinted up at the hillside to better inspect. They were in fact horses, but not real ones. Dozens of sculptures in the shapes of horses lay scattered across the top of the hill. I had driven that stretch of highway many times before but had never once seen anything like this. I had to get a closer look!
Thankfully I had my Nikon DSLR camera in my back seat. After slinging it around my neck, I abandoned my car right there on the highway and began awkwardly traipsing up the hill in my cowboy boots.
The first horse sculpture I came up on made me gasp and jump back a step. Its metallic head swayed side to side in the wind, and for a second, I thought it was real. I clicked a few shots and continued walking.
A total of 39 horse sculptures decorated the hill top. They were made from steel but bore a bluish tinge to their bodies that was both eerie and mesmerizing. Their lifelike manes and tails seemed to be made from a de-braided nylon rope and fluttered in the wind like real hair. Some of the horses stood with their heads hanging as though grazing while others stared off into the distance or lay on the ground in rest. There were even smaller colts that nuzzled up against their mothers.
While the sculptures caught my eye from the highway, they were so much more spectacular up close. I felt like running back down the hill to flag down all of the cars unknowingly flying by on the highway never noticing the magnificent work of art right in front of them. I took dozens of pictures and all the while pondered who had built the sculptures and why.
I left the sculptures eventually but with severe reluctance to return to my car. After throwing a final glance to the herd, I pressed down on the gas pedal and continued on to Bozeman. But I was determined to uncover the story behind the blue horses.
A quick search on Google later revealed an article in the Three Forks Herald newspaper on the mysterious sculptures. Shockingly, the horses had been erected earlier the very same day I saw them. They were sculpted by Jim Dolan, who is known for his elk sculptures displayed on the lawn of a Bozeman bank. He was quoted in the article as saying that, “It’s my gift to the people of Montana.” The article was brief but revealed the wizard behind the work of equine magic on the hillside near Wheat Montana.
While I still long to know what inspired Mr. Dolan to build the sculptures, I feel privileged to be one of the first people to observe them. To me, horses epitomize what it means to be free and untamed. To me, the 39 horses on the hill are a testament and reminder to all who pass them that Montana truly is the “Last Best Place” that will never be tamed.