The Circuit Rider
An old-fashioned ministry on horseback rides through Sandpoint
The circuit rider arrived at the Norton Ranch near Sandpoint on Monday, August 17, 2009, at approximately 3:30 pm. He smiled as he swung off his horse, Pilgrim Blue, and quickly took off the saddlebags, bridle and saddle.
Annette Carr, vice president of the Backcountry Horsemen, said Trailside Ministry had contacted the BCH asking for homes along the circuit rider’s route that could take in a traveling minister and his horse for one night. Carr’s parents, Jim and Carol Norton, have a horse facility with 14 indoor stalls and enough room for 30 head of horses.
Carr led the minister and his horse to a clean stall that smelled like new summer grass and leather. Ken Downey, 69, didn’t look like he just rode 26 miles from Clark Fork, but Pilgrim Blue had a little sweat from the saddle pad and slurped from the water trough.
Downey, the circuit rider, began this cross-country journey last March. He trailered his first horse, Pilgrim, from Minnesota to North Carolina so they could get in shape for the long trip.
“It was a hard winter, and we went to North Carolina in March to get a leg up,” Downey said.
Downey said he was a late bloomer to both horses and Christianity.
“I didn’t get into horses until after high school,” Downey said. “I fed my kids with carpentry, and I didn’t become a minister until 19-something-or-other.”
Downey took his hat off when he walked inside the Norton’s house, and asked if he could take his boots off.
“I don’t want to mess up your carpet,” he said.
Downey’s hair, snow white, matched his beard, and his blue eyes and quick smile reminded me of a jolly Santa Claus. He had a natural presence and spoke softly. When someone else joined in the conversation, he really paid attention.
According to the Trailside Ministries website Downey received Christ as Lord and Savior when he was 16 and has pastured in Illinois, done missionary work in Chicago and British Columbia, ran wilderness learning and character building camps and expeditions in Wyoming and founded Trailside Ministries. He married Carolyn in 1961 and they have five children and 14 grandchildren.
Downey said that he enjoys spreading the word of the Lord via horseback because it is a part of our history and when people see a minister on a horse, they slow down and stop to listen.
“I’ve had people stop me at mailboxes and ask me to pray for them,” Downey said. “And there was this young woman that came out of a bar. When she realized I was on a horse, she got this smile on her face. Just for a moment, she was a little girl again.”
Downey began this trip on Pilgrim, who injured his foot on July 13 after four sets of shoes and 2,000 miles. Downey’s team came from Omaha, purchased a roan quarter horse, Pilgrim Blue, and brought Pilgrim back home to recuperate.
“Pilgrim is healing up fine. Blue is 7 or 8 and he’s had a lot of firsts on this trip,” Downey said. “He’s doing real good.”
Downey said they travel 3 miles an hour and have been pulled over once.
“The officer asked us to ride on the sidewalk,” Downey said.
Downey explained that he details his trip all winter. His team sets up a schedule that includes stops at numerous churches where Downey reminds people how much God loves them. He travels between 24-40 miles a day, and camps at a new location every evening.
“I’ve met so many great people,” Downey said. “The hardest part is riding away. It’s like mining for gold when you meet people.”
Downey and I shared some cowboy cookies that Annette and her daughter, Lenora, had baked. Lenora, a Sandpoint High 2009 graduate, showed us her scrapbook. Downey grinned at the page marked “best friend,” which had pictures of Lenora and her mother.
I noticed that Downey’s pack was light, and he said he travels with one set of clothes, his Bible, an oil slicker, cowboy boots with spurs, 10 gallon hat with a cross a boy made for him out of nails, and a cell phone.
“When I made the trip in ‘94 I didn’t have a cell phone. This time, I’m glad I have it. I haven’t seen a pay phone all across the country, and if I ran across someone who needed help, I’d want to be able to help them,” Downey said. “And I call my wife every day.”
Downey said he has traveled from North Carolina to Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. He plans to arrive in Everett, Wash., September 13, and then he’ll trailer Pilgrim Blue with his renovated school bus back to Minnesota.
“It’s been cool and wet this trip,” Downey said. “But it’s always a joy. Rain makes for a quiet day.”
He looked through his itinerary, adjusting his wire-framed glasses and changing the battery on his hearing aid. I noticed two of his fingers were missing, and he explained that they got tangled up in a rope attached to a mare.
“It hurt real bad,” he said, “and I thought, I’m going to need stitches. Then I realized they were gone.”
Downey flashed me his 10-gallon smile.
“This is my forte,” he said. “There’s super people in this country, and I’m on the front lines, seeing the wide open and all the nooks and crannies. People share from the heart. I’ve met people who don’t have much [and] offer me what little they had. That’s America.”