The DeWald family has built a legacy with the Verndale River Trail Riders Saddle Club, taking adventurous trail rides and competing in horse shows across the region for well over 60 years.
Larry DeWald says he's been a member longer than he can remember, joining with his family sometime in the 1950s.
“Irreplaceable,” he says of the club's value to him and his family.
The River Trail Riders started in 1949 with a humble membership of four, which grew to 94 over the next two decades. The club held horse shows in the Verndale ballpark, Wadena Sale Pavilion and, starting in 1963, their arena on County Road 4, according to Volume One of the Verndale history books. Carl Peterson, Norman Adams, and Barry and Mickey Blaha were the founding members.
The club’s foundation was simple: all you needed to join was an interest in horses. The DeWald family definitely had that.
Larry DeWald says he was caught riding the family’s mustang around the farm at just 5 years old, and from then on, "I spent as much time as I could with them,” even riding the neighboring farmer's horses on the plow field.
He and his sister Sheila liked equestrian games like wheelbarrow, rescue race and scoop shovel, while their sister Jean enjoyed trail rides. The kids' father, Howard, was known for taking off in any direction he chose while on the trails. He was a rider, but it was their mother, Erma, who “really liked horses,” according to Larry.
The stories that quickly come to his mind are those of competing in games with Sheila, from when she won her first blue ribbon to when the horse would come “wide open” at her during rescue races. For those, he'd pull young Sheila up onto their horse, Flicka, as Flicka was on the move, clocked at 45 mph.
“It’s beautiful when it’s done right,” Jean (Birch) says. “Larry’s literally got her by the arm, and she’s just in the wind on the horse.”
On their family farm, Larry would practice event after event, day after day. For the key hole event, which requires staying within a white line, he came up with the idea to use balloons in his training. The horses would stay inside the lines to avoid the balloons.
DeWald's unique efforts paid off, earning him the high point in Eagle Bend for his first ribbon.
“We were hard to beat," he laughs.
The impressions from all that practicing are still in the ground at the farm, where Birch still lives.
“You can feel the embankment of where they went around the barrel and then the next one," she says. "Amazing after all these years that’s still there."
In 1968, the River Trail Riders began sponsoring quarter horse shows, which were a seven-day series of shows from Wadena to Fergus Falls.
“That was unheard of up here at that time,” DeWald says.
The “huge event” filled the 33-acre arena with horses and trailers, plus storage spaces at the Wadena County Fairgrounds and neighboring farms, according to Birch and DeWald.
DeWald had partners from Alexandria to Iowa, including Ronnie Sundby and Gail Taggert. He considers Sundby one of the best riders in five states, and he competed with Taggert in five states and Canada.
The trail rides, too, brought club members to new places.
“We went Maplewood trail riding, that was before there was trails; I mean we could go anywhere we wanted to," DeWald says. "And my dad was a good one to figure out trails to go on, and that’s an understatement."
Rather than stop and figure out a good place to ride, Birch explains with a laugh, "He just said, ‘I think there’s a trail over there.’”
On one trip, a group of 40 to 50 riders ventured to Spider Lake with their father, as well as Barry Blaha, leading the way -- until Blaha’s horse Blubberguts got in past his chest. The “soft ground!” warning came and the group pulled Blubberguts out from the side.
“Those things happened because we always went a lot of places where there were no trails, let’s put it that way,” DeWald says.
“When the Saddle Club rode back then, they crossed rivers a lot," Birch says. "Water was kind of associated with what they did."
DeWald still enjoys trail rides today, though Birch no longer rides. And rather than the “brush riding” of yesteryear, as they describe the old trail rides, DeWald's rides now are more like "going out for a drive in a Cadillac," he says.