MEDORA, N.D. -- Neil and Laura Tangen have a message for the 50,000 guests to their trail ride operation in the heart of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“It’s been so very good riding with you,” they say.
The Tangens’ long tenure at the park’s Peaceful Valley Ranch is over after 17 years.
The couple has since sold about half their trail horses, their saddles and tack. They drove away from the historic ranch for the last time in September as the longest-standing operators of the trail ride concession in the park’s history.
The park says it won’t look for a replacement operator now and will take the next few years to complete some long-overdue improvements to the ranch buildings. The ranch house was the park’s headquarters when the park was established in 1947 and a horseback concession was started in 1967.
Chief ranger Dean Wyckoff said the Tangens offered a wonderful adventure for park visitors. The couple had varying trails, plenty of horses for a variety of ages and experience levels and took out as many as nine riding parties a day.
“The Tangens were passionate about providing a high-quality riding experience, and they will be missed,” Wyckoff said.
It was a sad farewell, partly because the Tangens know no one will replace them, at least for now, and also because it was the end of a great life. The Badlands and the music of the Little Missouri River were their backyard, visitors from all over the country and the world were their daily companions and their three kids were raised to work hard in the great outdoors.
The Tangens spent their summers at Peaceful Valley Ranch, which was built in 1885, lived in the historic house and used the outbuildings as a base of operations.
The remaining nine months of the year they lived at their small comfortable ranch near South Heart, where today they’re starting a new horse enterprise, this one involving breeding horses suitable for ranch and cowboy work and riding.
Laura Tangen is also a teacher and Neil Tangen a hand at a ranch operation near Amidon. These are jobs they worked alongside everything else over the years.
Laura Tangen said she would leave the classroom at the end of the school year on a Friday and be on horseback by Saturday.
It’s hard to believe how fast those years flew by, they say.
“Neil and I will never be the same. We had a good life out there. We’d never change it,” said Laura Tangen.
They could see their time coming to an end last summer, when their five horse wranglers, including their youngest son, Clayton, were moving on to college and elsewhere. That and they weren’t getting any younger for an operation that requires constant physical labor working with the horses and riding for hours each day.
“It’s go, go, go. That’s why it’s a young man’s game,” said Neil Tangen, 57, whose days started as early as 4 a.m. feeding horses and didn’t end until the last ride came in at sunset.
That’s not a complaint; in fact, just the opposite, they say.
The operation afforded them an extraordinary family experience and taught their children that dreams come true when you work hard.
Their life at the ranch started when they were living in Minnesota and were riding horseback in the Badlands, enjoying a picnic lunch the national park.
"We thought, ‘Wouldn't this be fun?’ so we called the park to see what it was about. We got the call. We bought 20 horses. We put up practically everything we had. We were greenhorns, about as greenhorn as you're going to get," Neil Tangen said.
Clayton Tangen, a South Heart High School senior who recently earned a berth at Class A state wrestling this year, wrestling in the 152-pound weight class on the co-op Dickinson High School team, was a baby when his parents took over the concession and remembers the years of working with his folks and playing with his brother, mining for gold and building rafts like Huck Finn. There was no television service, ever, just the wild kingdom right outside the back door.
“That was home. It’s where all the memories are,” he said.
It was an experience too big to put in few words. There were horses that were beloved family members, all the riding, meeting so many people and running an operation that was safe above all.
After all they'd been through together, it wasn’t easy to decide which horses to sell. The Tangens decided the least they could do was market them locally with the expectation that area ranch families would know the circumstances and want them for riding, as opposed to kill buyers in the slaughter market.
“We knew these would be good horses for people,” said Laura Tangen, who made it a point to learn where every horse went after the two sales and was a little worried when she lost track of Rascal, a beloved older horse that “never missed a day of work in 17 years.”
She went looking outside the sales barn and watched a 5-year-old boy lead him up to a trailer for the trip to his new home.
She still smiles at the memory.
The Tangens say they’re not as sorry to be leaving as they are pleased they were able to live the trail-ride life so long.
“I would live it all over again,” Laura Tangen said. “It’s going to be really empty out there at the Peaceful Valley Ranch.”