SHIPROCK — About 20 riders set off on horseback Monday morning from Kayenta, Ariz., and rode north into Utah before weaving back down into northern New Mexico.

They met up with more Navajos and camped along the way. By the time they reached Shiprock on Friday afternoon, there were more than 160 riders, slowly trotting down U.S. Highway 491 on their way to a ceremony to celebrate livestock outside the Yei' Bi' Chei Grounds near the Northern Navajo Nation Fair in Shiprock.

The traditional trail ride is an event of growing interest for many Navajo Nation residents.

Groups of Navajo riders from throughout the reservation traveled toward Shiprock from all directions as part of the ride. The riders spent between one and four days on the trail, camping out along the way.

A group of riders arrive Friday at a meeting area near Navajo Route 36 and U.S. 491 in Shiprock.
A group of riders arrive Friday at a meeting area near Navajo Route 36 and U.S. 491 in Shiprock. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Jeanie Tsipai, who helped organize the event, said riders in this year's trail ride were more than double those in previous years. The trail ride has been an event for the last seven years.

The purpose, said Gerald King, a "trail boss" from Cove, Ariz., is to relive the journey Navajo elders took to the same fair 100 years ago. The Northern Navajo Nation Fair is in its 102nd year.

"We camped out and told stories and prayed with other riders as a group," King said. "It's healing. It heals stress."

King was in charge of 28 riders from Arizona's Red Valley and Cove who woke early Friday and started riding toward Shiprock. As part of the trail riding tradition, the riders decorated their horses with their nicest blankets and saddles to celebrate, he said.

"It's just a good day to get outside," said Tiffany Segaye, a 17-year-old Shiprock High School student.

She rode in the trail ride with her father. Many families, especially fathers and sons, participated in the event together.

During the long trip, the group focused on spreading the word about caring better for horses and stressed the importance of learning the Navajo language to the children on the trail, said Ajaye Boone, the trail boss for the Kayenta, Ariz.

The riders held flags to honor different chapters. Behind the contingent of riders who approached the fairgrounds Friday, two people held a sign that said "Freedom for the horses" as they walked down the busy highway.

Boone said one of the joys of the trip for his group was to spend so much time traveling over the "backwoods" of the Navajo Nation.

"It was seeing the land as our elders lived," he said. "It was going back to when they lived in hogans out with horses and sheep, not like today with the housing along the highway."

Ryan Boetel covers crime and San Juan County for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him @rboetel on Twitter.