By Bill Roden
Photography by Wray Sinclair
Down rutted dirt roads, over jarring cattle grates, then a hard right into the native grasslands of the Great Plains lies the Lakota Oglala nation. The hauntingly beautiful terrain, roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is home to Sage to Saddle. The non-profit native youth horse training school for kids 8 to 18 is rooted in a deep connection to ancestral lands, a second-nature relationship with horses, and the preservation of Lakota rituals and rites of passage.
Sage to Saddle is the noble work of two personalities: Stan Brewer, a rancher and stoic legend in the Pine Ridge community who brought up the most athletic and aggressive relay champions in modern history; and Nate Bressler, an archeologist-turned-professional photographer who has found a new calling on the Great Plains. Stan and Nate were introduced during a feature story for Outside magazine on Hermis Tall, the Michael Jordan of Indian Relay, whose untimely death in 2017 shook a nation. While the article went on to critical acclaim, Nate, who had spent decades volunteering with Native youth programs, felt a calling to his true life’s work. Both he and Stan grew up on horseback and witnessed firsthand the positive influence caring for horses has on young minds.
While the youth of Pine Ridge Reservation kept busy riding horses in the summer months or racing around the country, they remained unable to train throughout the long, brutal winters and were abandoned to their own devices. Nate and Stan set out to find a long-lasting solution to this problem by opening an indoor riding arena available to all youth of all riding levels.
Sage to Saddle isn’t an easy program, yet everyone is welcome, and they’re glad you’re here. Stan Brewer trains and coaches with the hardscrabble demeanor of a boxing cornerman and the big heart of a Texas high-school football coach who turns young girls and boys into women and men through commitment and sacrifice. And he doesn’t dole out second chances easily. Nate is a whirlwind of infectious energy whose built a rapport in the community of all ages and backgrounds over the years. Stan and Nate combined their complementary skillsets and built Sage to Saddle from the ground up with their bare hands and personal money.
“You know if a horse is sad, happy, pissed off, sick, hurt, or mad. Unlike people, horses don’t lie.”
The program teaches more than critical horsemanship and technical skills for ranching and racing. Sage to Saddle is in the business of dignity. As Nate stated on our way to the arena, “Living in chaotic, desperate situations deprives the young mind of positive reinforcement and motivation.” The self-assurance and self-confidence kids gain through the trials of elite horsemanship can be a potent introduction to their true selves. Under the watchful eyes of Stan and Nate, these kids come into their own through shared hardship, fellowship, a renewed passion for their horse culture—and, for some, a newfound passion for racing. I asked Stan what makes this grassroots program so successful, “Easy. Here, horses are absolute truth in a community where everyone is historically on the lookout for an unspoken angle or hidden agenda. Horses are sensitive, 1,200-pound creatures that can feel your heartbeat—even a tiny fly on their leg. Horses are always open. They show you how they feel. You know if a horse is sad, happy, pissed off, sick, hurt, or mad you’re late because they want to tear around the track. Unlike people, horses don’t lie.” In the Sage to Saddle program, a horse isn’t a tool, showpiece, or racecar that only comes out on sunny days. Horse and rider become one, like their ancestors who came into their own through the very same trials on these very lands.
While Stan and Nate raised additional funds for more equipment, trailers, food for the kids, uniforms, and the horses that require continual investment and upkeep, every dollar earned goes straight back into the program. When not traveling the country for races, updating the books, ordering supplies, organizing group rides, fundraising, or instructing, Stan and Nate bale hay, push cattle to help neighboring ranches, train and sell horses to fund the program, fix miles of fence line, and trailer horses to distant vet appointments without a single day off.
Sage to Saddle doesn’t host fancy fundraising dinners and celebrity auctions or ship free tote bags with every donation. Program growth comes with dirt under the fingernails, a started mile horse, a consistent month of healthy food, an extra water jug, and a full cooler on the tailgate. “We’re mostly on our own—a ground-up non-profit built for Natives by Natives,” Nate said. “While we are lucky to receive donations from outside supporters, these talented Lakota Oglala kids are taught that their community is tighter than most, but in the end, only they can save themselves. We let them prove to themselves that they have what it takes when facing life’s hard-knock truths but in a safe and supportive environment for a change. They’re digging into their ancestral strengths to forge a sustainable future.”
To learn more about Sage to Saddle or to donate, visit sagetosaddle.com.