J+F Tails and Trails
By Tracy Erler
J+F Tails and Trails is a small, two-person owned and operated trail ride company. Julie and Festus have been providing guided horse-back rides in South Dakota’s Black Hills since May of 2021.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Julie had been looking to move from Minnesota for the last few years. She knew she wanted to live out her and her mom’s dream of living “somewhere out west” and working with horses, and “probably do exactly what I’m doing, being a guide,” Julie said. She didn’t know the where or the how at that time, just that Montana and Wyoming hadn’t seemed like a good fit. A friend kept encouraging her to check out the Black Hills, and her initial response was, “I want to go out West though.” She knew nothing about the Black Hills and was doubtful but planned a visit anyway. Once she arrived, she fell in love with the area.
Meanwhile, her and Festus had met online in a Cowgirls and Cowboys group and started talking. They made plans to meet, and Julie was already planning on coming out to the area for a visit and to look at properties. They were looking into taking over an already established trail-riding business, but they decided to back out of it. While navigating that first deal, Julie already “had everything in motion to get moved out here.” Her first summer in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, she worked in a similar business to gain the experience she would need to do this herself and to gather ideas about how to run one herself.
Festus suggested applying for permits in the Hayward area of the Black Hills. They applied with the Forest Service in winter of 2020, a process that can take anywhere from two to three years. “And guess what,” Julie shared excitedly, “everything went through amazingly quick, and within six months we had our permits.”
Even though they were given the final word in late March 2021, they had to wait for the snow to clear and for the Forest Service to open the gate to the Hayward area. That wasn’t until Mid-May of 2021. They had their work cut out for them.
In a month’s time, they started working on the trails in the Black Hills before officially opening. They started with the main trails that the Forest Service used. Then they started “to figure out ways to cut the timelines in” for the different ride lengths they offer. Julie shared that it was “kinda an adventure” to go through the forest and create trails for their business. Her daughter, Janae, came out for the first month to help with the horses and to prepare the trails, and various friends came out to help Julie and Festus get the horses ready as well.
Julie and Festus started with eight horses between them. Festus had Jenny and Robert, the two mules that he raised here in Hermosa and have lived their entire lives on the same ranch; Dandy the black and white Nakota breed; and Molly the Paso Fino. Julie came out with Blackjack and Vinnie, both quarter horses and brothers who have been together their entire lives; Jericho, a Spanish Mustang; and Rhapsody, Quarter Horse, who is no longer with J+F Tails and Trails. “He was a bit too spunky for this kind of work,” Julie explains. “He actually went to a working ranch out here.”
THE TRAILS AND RIDE DETAILS
J+F Tails and Trails offers rides in two different places: the trailhead off of Ghost Canyon and out of the Elk Haven/Spokane Ghost Town.
The Hayward trail head is located on Ghost Canyon Road, right next to Ghost Canyon Getaway, a resort lodge for visitors to the area. They offer 1-hour, 1.5-hour, 2-hour, 3-hour, and a half-day ride called “The Lookout Ride.” This last ride has about a half-hour break in the middle before turning back for riders to dismount and explore the area and take-in “the good variety of views” at the lookout point itself.
Trail rides offered out of Spokane Ghost Town/Elk Haven area are half-day rides for experienced riders 13-years-old and up. The rough terrain makes it a tough ride. “But it has beautiful views,” Julie added. There does need to be a minimum of three riders in your party. Contact Julie through the same number you see advertised on the Ghost Canyon website or on their Facebook page and ask about this riding package.
“And the reason it’s called Elk Haven—it’s not because of the horse camp. It was named Elk Haven because there used to be lots of elk there,” Julie shared.
“There used to be about a hundred head of elk that used to hang around in this area right here,” Festus added.
When asked if they saw very many elk on rides, either out of Ghost Canyon Road or Elk Haven, Festus shared that the elk have moved out of the area due to the increase in tourism. Julie and her daughter saw a couple of elk in the Elk Haven area last year when they were out getting their trails ready, “but that’s the only time I’ve got to see them in that area,” Julie commented.
Riders are matched with a horse based on their weight. Jenny is a draft mule; her mother was of the workhorse breed called Percheron. She is bigger and stronger and provides rides for the riders who are over 230lbs. J+F does require a minimum of two and maximum of eight riders, at least six years in age currently, and no shorts or open-toed shoes worn while riding. Which horses are going is decided on the size of the group, who went out most recently to allow for breaks, etc. Two wranglers—Julie and Festus themselves—will be present on a group of four or more.
Julie’s main wrangler horse is Blackjack, who is her favorite to ride “because he does everything I need him to do, and he’s got some spunk and that’s what I like.”
Festus’s new favorite is Buddy, another Quarter Horse on the team, “because he’s very laid back and he does very well for Festus,” Julie explained. “Festus used him a lot when he was trimming branches and the branches would drop all over him and he didn’t care.” Buddy is one of the seasonal lease horses that’s working with J+F Tails and Trails.
Jericho and Julie found each other around eleven years ago when Julie was selling another horse and the people who came to see that horse had Jericho headed for slaughter. “He was deemed a dangerous horse,” she explained. They told Julie he would explode, which is usually very dangerous. He was going to go out on the truck the night she found him, but she persuaded the people to “try him out”—meaning, she wanted to ride him and see how he would act for her and behave around her. Although they didn’t even want her to, Julie persisted. “He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever owned,” she stated. “I wasn’t even looking for him.” She was “extra, extra careful”, went through her routine, went slow with him, and bonded with him before working with him.
In working with the horses in what Julie calls group therapy, Jericho can sense their nervousness with the umbrella, so he plays with it, picks it up, and moves it closer to them. “He’s kinda a mentor to other horses,” Julie shared. Out of the horses she owns currently, Jericho is the one she’s owned the longest. “He went from going to slaughter to being my sheriff horse, and now he’s the horse I put 6-year-old kids on.”
THE TEAM’S NEWEST HORSE EMPLOYEES
Peaches the Quarter Horse joined the group on some friends’ recommendation. “We were looking for more kid-safe horses,” Julie explained, “and they thought she would be a good kids’ horse. And yeah, they were right.” Peaches will celebrate one year with J+F Tails and Trails next January.
Tobi, another Quarter Horse, joined the team as a lease horse from Wyoming in September of 2021. One of Julie’s first rides with him was to Black Elk Peak.
When working with the horses, Julie puts them all through what she calls Group Therapy. She gets them used to ropes, tarps, umbrellas—all things to help desensitize them to items and noises that could startle them. With new horses, she allows them time to settle in and get used to the environment. Kali is a Fox Trotter who has been with the group for almost a year and Julie is still working with her, getting her used to the trails before pairing her with riders.
As Summer turns to Fall and cooler weather (hopefully) arrives sooner rather than later, we tend to turn from vacation-planning mode to local Fall festivals and pumpkin patches, and we start gearing up for the holidays. However, if you’re a local looking to explore the Black Hills in Winter or someone who’s looking for a winter getaway, look no further than the Black Hills themselves. While the town of Keystone and the State Park offices close, the parks themselves remain open. This will also be the first winter season that J+F Tails and Trails attempts to be open. It’s never a guarantee due to the weather in the Black Hills. The safety of the wranglers, horses, and riders is always J+F’s Tails and Trails foremost priority.
The biggest factor will always be the weather. The amount of snow will determine if Julie and Festus can even get over to the Ghost Canyon Road trailhead. For the rides themselves, it will need to be clear enough to see rocks so the horses don’t slip. When there isn’t snow, there is the mud to consider.
While some of the finer details will be worked out this first season, J+F did say that they would probably up the minimum age to eight years old and limit winter rides to more experienced riders.
Julie shared that last year on New Year’s Day , “it was super cold here—it was zero for a high—and we had like four calls for rides…For some reason that’s a draw on New Year’s Day.” But she quickly followed it up with the high needing to be at least 25 degrees for winter rides.
Winters generally in Hermosa are typically milder than Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. More snow falls, but it melts quicker. She said once they got 12” of snow but Festus didn’t plow because he said it would be gone in a couple of days. The variations of the temperatures in the hills and how quickly it melts the snow is amazing to Julie, who is used to Minnesota snow conditions.
MEET YOUR WRANGLERS:
When they’re not providing guided rides of the beautiful Black Hills, Julie and Festus are off on their own explorations on horseback. Julie’s personal favorite is a ride of to the formerly named Harney Peak, renamed to Black Elk Peak in 2016. Festus loves it all and can’t pick a top favorite.
Julie is also involved in competitions with her dogs, Belgian Malinois, and she is forever riding and hiking with them, exploring the Black Hills. Julie loves the views around Custer. Her main winter hobby was going to the shooting range; she started a local women’s shooting club. Julie also enjoys target practice with her handgun.
Julie and Festus also have a leather and tack business. Festus also does leather work and leather repairs, “a little bit of everything for horses.”
They have also both been outriders for the Days of ’76 in Deadwood, South Dakota. It’s still a horseback event but different than trail rides. They’re members of the organization called The Back Country Horsemen; they go on rides and help clean up the forest and trails in different places. Julie and Festus also have an iron horse they take out, a Harley, and they attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally every year.
Their favorite attraction that they recommend to tourists is a scenic drive. Needles Highway and the Iron Mountain Road drive, where you can see Mount Rushmore through the Piggy Tail Bridges.
Julie also just signed both of them up for a history class found through an ad in a local paper. It’s learning about the Black Hills before anything was in the area. “That’s how I want to learn: from the beginning on up,” Julie said. She went on to elaborate: “I think that takin’ this class, too, will give us even more to talk about when we take people out on the rides.
When asked what they thought made J+F Tails and Trails stand out from other guided horse-riding businesses in the area, Julie answered with this: “I think it’s because we are smaller and personalized and personable. We love when we have little breaks in between where we can actually visit with people…We allow enough time in between so we can visit with people and let them take pictures. So I have more gaps in between my rides to allow for time for that.”
This is most certainly true. Both Julie and Festus were raised around horses, and you can see their love for the animals and for the area in the scenic rides they offer. If you’re a first-time visitor or a returning visitor or even a local looking to explore your area of the southwestern corner of South Dakota, look up J+F Tails and Trails to get an up close and personal look at the Black Hills.
Where to find J+F Tails and Trails:
The Details for Trail Rides: ghostcanyongetaway.com/trail-rides/
On Facebook: facebook.com/blackhillstrailrides
About the Writer:
Tracy Erler lives with her husband, two cats, and a handful of potted plants in the foothills of Northern California. She’s a well-rounded nerd; loving Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Office, and the Old Testament aren’t mutually exclusive. She’s primarily a novelist but loves story in all forms. Contemporary YA is her jam, but Fantasy is vying for first place. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, A Thousand Splendid Suns, if i stay, and The Green Mile are her “Always” stories. She has a heart for small businesses and all things local wherever she travels. You can find her at home or a friend’s house, in a Dungeon and Dragons campaign or playing a board game, in a coffee shop, or sitting outside staring at the scenery and the sky. She’s on a mission to find the best iced chai latte and a cup of coffee she doesn’t have to drown in milk and sugar.