To the shrill sound of a whistle, members of the Al Bedoo Shrine Black Horse Patrol direct their horses in unison.
In tan cowboy hats, white button-up shirts and blue jeans, the riders sit in contrast to their dark mounts. The horses are calm, steady, rarely stepping out of turn, the riders quiet as they run through their routine.
"The horses know the routine," said Dennis Sheridan, second lieutenant of the Black Horse Patrol. "They will, more often than not, know to make the right turn when you think you're supposed to turn left."
Sheridan missed out on practice due to a recent surgery, one he delayed for the recent International Shriners Horse Patrol annual drill competition in Pomona, Calif.
"We've been training for three years for California," he said. "I couldn't miss that."
The Black Horse Patrol meets Friday evenings for practice from March through September.
The practice paid off when they won first place in the drill competition in Pomona. The team also earned the Best of Parade trophy in the International Shriners Parade during the concluding ceremonies in nearby Anaheim.
"We took first in the arena drill and first in the parade competition," said Capt. Marty Steffes. "We come down the street and all our horses are black …. Our gear is white and we wear red jackets. It's so beautiful."
Part of an international fraternity of approximately 525,000 men belonging to 191 Shrine Temples, or chapters, throughout North America, the Billings Black Horse Patrol members competed against other Shrine Horse units from all over the country. The Shrine members who competed include Steffes, Sheridan, First Lt. Kevin Fox, Hilliard McDonald (who was voted in as the International Shrine Horse Patrol president), President Jerry Iverson, Clyde Stanhope, Jerry Granning, Harry Michael, Mike Mayott, Ken Waldron, J.P. Jones, Duane Lowdin (International Shrine Horse Patrol secretary) and Clay Costner.
"We've got a great group, an absolutely great group," Steffes said.
The group includes Wrangler Dava Barstad, who lives at the Black Horse Patrol ranch year-round, taking care of the horses, making sure they're ready for parades and competitions.
"If a horse makes the cut for the Black Horse Patrol, he's got a contract for a lifetime," she said.
A new addition for the Black Horse Patrol is the team that draws the wagon, Dan and Dick.
"We bought them so the retired guys, the ones who can't ride horseback anymore, can participate," Barstad said.
"We try to keep our nonriding members still members," Steffes said. "They can ride in the wagon."
The Black Horse Patrol, when not competing against other units, participates in parades all over Montana.
"We try to support as many towns as we can in Montana," Steffes said. "We've had great, great support from the communities."
The members of the Black Horse Patrol return that support in spades. The Shrine operates a network of specialized hospitals that treat children with orthopedic problems, burns and spinal cord injuries, up to their 18th birthday, at no charge.
"I still think the coolest thing is when a little kid comes up, taps one of the guys on the leg and says 'I'm a Shrine kid,' meaning they've been to the Shrine Hospital," Barstad said. "There isn't one of these guys that wouldn't bend over backward to give one of those kids a pin or a ride on the horse."
The pins, featuring a horse and lettering that reads "Al Bedoo Shrine Black Horse Patrol," are a badge of honor for the children.
"Our motto is: 'We ride so children can walk,' " Steffes said. "That's what it's all about."
Contact Cathy Ulrich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1241.