Photos by Billie Taylor
Billie Taylor stands out in the field of horseback outfitting — a far cry from the stock image of an older, grizzled man with a handlebar mustache and sweat-stained cowboy hat. And she’s okay with that.
The F-350 crawled up the steep incline toward the stable. A 12-horse trailer rumbled behind it. In a series of precise maneuvers, the truck and trailer backed into a tight slot next to a fence. Curious horses in the corral dropped their heads over the railing, ears flicking toward the snorts and stomps coming from inside the trailer.
Behind the wheel was a young woman with a rope of blonde hair under a faded ball cap. She anchored the trailer wheels with concrete blocks, then unhooked the back door and started unloading horses.
I was still struggling to pull on my boots as she gave me a one-arm hug and slapped a pile of lead ropes, each attached to horses, in my hand. She walked her own cluster of horses to the rail, hands flying as she secured each rope before she hurried back for more horses. We had a 10-person ride leaving from a trailhead far away, and we needed to switch an entire trailer of horses. There wasn’t a minute to waste.
No Handlebar Mustache Here
Billie Taylor is the owner of Yellowstone Roughriders, a 30-animal operation out of Paradise Valley, Montana. She is 10 minutes from the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, has a coveted in-park operating permit, and possesses an inexhaustible well of dedication and grit.
I’ve known Taylor since 2010. It was my first summer as a wrangler at Roosevelt Corrals in Yellowstone, and Taylor was the 23-year-old assistant manager.
It’s been more than a decade since we first met, and Taylor has never left the horseback-guiding world. These days, her ownership of Yellowstone Roughriders gives her the distinction of being the only female-owned outfitter in the entire park. She stands out in the field of horseback outfitting—a far cry from the stock image of an older, grizzled man with a handlebar mustache and sweat-stained cowboy hat.
She moves confidently around the corral, shifting horses we won’t need through a complicated series of gates and securing today’s horses in the trailer. I was filling in for one of her wranglers that day. We were taking a special, extended ride up the 9,642-foot Sepulcher Mountain. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the client, a retired Yellowstone park ranger.
Taylor’s eyes darted over the gates (they were locked), the water trough (it was full), the horses in the corral (nothing stood out), and the truck and trailer (she’d already moved the cement blocks). She hopped into the front seat and we headed into the park.
A Real Legacy
Taylor grew up in a large, tight-knit family in Ohio, the only girl among six brothers. They took family trips to Montana. After graduating high school in 2006, Taylor started working for Xanterra, Yellowstone’s corporate horse operation.
She moved west after college, working summers at Roosevelt Corrals and piecing together income during the off-season. She was promoted to corral assistant manager, then manager, but the time between summers was challenging.
She worked a series of odd jobs, as a nanny, caretaker, classroom aid, and at a vet clinic reception desk.
“I’d go from living my dream in Yellowstone to scrubbing kennels and changing adult diapers,” Taylor said. “All the while I was wondering what I was doing with my life.”
As she neared a decade of post-college seasonal work, it became impossible to ignore the passage of time.
“For everyone else, seasonal work was a fun experiment for a year or two,” she said. “Then they would move on. And I kept coming back.”
Though she questioned herself, her experience and reputation were growing.
“Billie has a real legacy in Yellowstone,” says Jerry Thomas, manager of corral operations for Xanterra. Thomas is a 22- year veteran of the Yellowstone horse operation. He worked alongside Taylor during her management years.
“Billie’s winning combination of guest communication, safety, horse knowledge, and corral operations were indispensable to me,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Change In Trajectory
Her trajectory changed in mid-2018, when a local outfitting business came up for sale—and a guiding permit for Yellowstone National Park would also be available. Taylor toyed with the idea but put it out of her mind.
“I didn’t want to own a business,” she said. “But the idea didn’t go away.”
As another Roosevelt season got underway, she made the call. After weeks of meetings, references, and piles of paperwork, the business transaction was complete. What Taylor purchased was essentially a starter kit: two trailers, four mules, a horse, a truckload of tack, and the opportunity to procure the license for guiding in Yellowstone.
Legally, you cannot sell a national-park operating permit. There is a limited number available, and they go through an exhaustive transfer process separate from buying the business. Taylor submitted 176 pages with her application. They needed to know her outdoor experience, her background, what her parents did, why she was committed to operating in Yellowstone, her business plan, and her financial situation. Applying became a full-time job on its own. Once it was submitted, all she could do was wait.
She purchased 18 horses around the same time. Necessary for the business, they also doubled as a sort of contract with herself.
“The horses were the reason I couldn’t quit,” she said, adding there were many anxiety-ridden, sleepless nights. “I had 18 mouths to feed. If I couldn’t get a business started, I wouldn’t have a job for them to do.”
After suffering through a couple of slow years, Taylor’s Yellowstone Roughriders, aided by her dedication and skills, and the Covid-inspired increase in outdoor participation, operates at full capacity most weeks of the season.
Then, in December 2018, the government closed down due to a clash in Washington, D.C., about the Mexican border wall.
The shutdown threw everything into turmoil. Though the government reopened in January, her application collected dust in a massive backlog of paperwork. Taylor had anticipated six months of marketing before her opening day, but without the permit, she couldn’t advertise or book rides.
Months passed as she watched her hay dwindle and horses remain idle. Finally, on June 8, 2019, the permit for her Yellowstone Roughriders was approved. She was guiding riders the very next day.
That first season was a trial by fire.
“I knew I could run rides in my sleep,” Taylor said. “But if I had a flat tire, I had to change it. If I couldn’t park the trailer, I couldn’t operate from that trailhead.”
For the first time, Taylor was on her own. She dug deep, learned as she went, and asked for help when she had to.
“Roosevelt was a seasonal gig,” said Thomas of Xanterra. “When you work for a corporation, everything behind the scenes is taken care of for you. Then suddenly she was living it full-time.”
Though the local community was behind her, Taylor still felt like an outsider. She would put on her Yellowstone Roughriders vest and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, hand out business cards, and hang flyers around town. She introduced herself to other outfitters and could immediately tell who was behind her and who wasn’t happy she was there.
“No one told me to my face that I shouldn’t be there,” she said. “But I was afraid I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t fit the outfitter mold.”
That first season, she never openly said Yellowstone Roughriders was owned and operated by women. It wasn’t something she wanted to stand behind. She feared she wouldn’t be taken seriously. All of her wranglers have been women, except for her brother who helps out now and then.
“I was trying so hard to be an outfitter,” she said. “But I was so far from what the world expected an outfitter to be.”
Running on Empty
The 2019 season had a slow start. She’d sit by the phone waiting for it to ring, then end up taking a 12-horse trailer loaded with just three horses—all the labor yet a fraction of the operating capacity. Anything was better than nothing, and she felt like she was keeping her head above water.
As the season went on, word spread of her operation. Reviews on Trip Advisor lauded the quality of the rides, the health of her horses, and the wranglers’ knowledge of the park. Clients told friends about the experience. By the end of the summer, she was running larger rides, and I would help whenever her employees had the day off.
At the end of the day, I’d often see the guests overcome with emotion. They’d dismount their horses and hug Billie. It was overwhelming. I was seeing the culmination of everything that had drawn me to her all those years ago.
Unfortunately, the phone wasn’t ringing enough to make up for the pasture rental, hay deliveries, farrier visits, vet bills, business loan, insurance policies, and the vehicle maintenance that it takes to run a complex horseback-guiding operation.
Taylor blew through her life savings to support the business that had been strangled by her inability to advertise. By the end of 2019, she was running on empty and had to call her brother to borrow $60 for groceries.
Then as spring drew closer, reservations and deposits started coming in. I promised to help guide at least once a week as her books filled with full-day rides, fishing-destination trips, and extended pack trips.
Then, in a gut-punch repeat of 2019 stressors, the Covid-19 pandemic swept the country and Yellowstone National Park closed. Her phone started ringing off the hook, this time with cancellations. The nine-person pack trip that was going to carry her through the season dwindled to seven, then six, then five people. It was the second year in a row filled with uncertainty, and her nerves were frayed to the breaking point.
Horseback guiding in Montana has a tight timeline. Operating costs are high, and the weather offers only a narrow window for operating. Outfitters need to maximize every day possible to run rides because more than 50 percent of the year isn’t operational. Taylor needed to bring her horses in from pasture in May, decide how many were getting shoes, and start getting ready to open.
By May, Yellowstone still wasn’t open. Taylor brought horses in and shoed them a few at a time. She laid off her two employees and brought on family members who wouldn’t need Yellowstone Roughriders paychecks to survive. Once again, she was flying on a wing and a prayer.
But when Yellowstone reopened in 2020, the pandemic had created an explosion in the market for outdoor recreation. Within the third week of opening, nearly every Yellowstone Roughriders trailer that entered the park carried 10 to 12 horses. She ran major pack trips and booked returning customers. She ran so many rides she had to turn people down to give her horses a break. It was a dream come true.
You’ll find no lack of confidence in Taylor these days. The response from the community, her unforgettable pack trips, and the client reactions all reinforce that this is what she’s supposed to be doing.
The retired park ranger’s eyes filled with tears more than once as our line of horses started ascending switchbacks up the Sepulcher Mountain. He regaled us with tales of the backcountry, reliving his decades with the National Park Service. We climbed higher over the valley. Taylor made easy conversation with the guests, occasionally stopping to adjust stirrups or hand out water. No one questioned her authority, no one seems surprised that this young woman is both leading the ride and the owner.
Taylor didn’t feel the need to wear the cowboy hat every day. Her confidence and expertise extended past trying to look a certain part. She isn’t a grizzled old cowboy, and with pride she wears her dusty ball cap emblazoned with the Yellowstone Roughriders logo.
“Riders don’t care if I wear a cowboy hat or not,” she said. “They love my operation because we care about our horses, and we love what we do. I’m not playing a part.”
Whether she’d internalized it or not, respect for Taylor had been growing since her time at Roosevelt Corrals. At the end of that first, tumultuous Yellowstone Roughriders season, Taylor took part in a local horse drive.
During the opening speech, the lead horseman said he wanted the most trusted riders up front. He told them to wait, he’d call out their names. She automatically turned her horse toward the back.
He called Billie Taylor’s name first.
Maggie Slepia is a full-time freelance writer (and occasional horseback guide) based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of backpackingroutes.com and spends a lot of time outdoors.
Photos by yellowstoneroughriders.com.