Before dawn one recent morning, as much of the city slept, a small group of elite Fort Carson soldiers was choppered onto a mountain clearing near Colorado Springs and left to find its way down — in the dark, on horseback.

It’s an image straight out of a military thriller, but it’s exactly how Green Berets from the post’s 10th Special Forces Group have been training for upcoming operations.

The horsemanship training at the Stables at the Broadmoor — which began in late July and concluded last week — offers a rare glimpse at what the unit expects on the battlefield.

Not that you’ll hear that from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

“This is basic training for Special Forces,” said 10th Special Forces Group spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Osterholzer, downplaying the maneuvers as “standard stuff” for soldiers who use nontraditional means to get in and out of the hostile areas where they battle insurgents under the cloak of secrecy.

Green Berets conduct confidential missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan and generally bar reporters from accompanying their troops on training. It’s hardly a secret, however, that horses and other pack animals have been used to great effect by Special Forces operatives in Afghanistan.

Last summer’s best-selling “Horse Soldiers, ” for example, delivered breathless accounts of how small teams of Green Berets were dropped into Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and rode horseback alongside tribesmen in the Northern Alliance in the earliest campaigns against the Taliban.

Unlike their fellow riders, however, the 5th Special Forces Group soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., summoned devastating attacks from American bombers and fighter jets, in battles that affirmed the Army’s faith in small-team tactics the units continue to employ.

Horses and mules allow soldiers to keep a reasonably low profile while lugging heavy equipment through forbidding terrain. A 2003 Army Special Forces manual details the care and feeding of pack animals, according to a copy of the document made public by the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists, which fights for openness in government.

The manual shows how to construct a “string” to bind together animals carrying heavy gear and how they should be positioned to allow for a quick getaway after an air strike, among other tactics.

The training in Colorado Springs was conducted across six nights spanning more than a month, said Hugh Trabandt, a veteran horseman who owns The Stables at The Broadmoor.

The ranch is in the foothills west of Colorado Springs, more than six miles up Old Stage Road.

Soldiers in groups of nine to 12 either hiked or were airlifted by Chinook helicopter to a meadow on Blue Mountain, beginning in the early evening and stretching into the early morning, Trabandt said.

The soldiers were met by wranglers from Trabandt’s ranch who played the role of tribesmen and “bartered” for the use of their animals.

Then the novice riders travelled by moonlight 6 ½ miles down a network of mountain switchbacks and onto a stretch of dirt road to where trucks were left at a rendezvous point.

“We weren’t doing anything that anyone on a horse doesn’t,” Osterholzer said.

The unit worked with the ranch to obtain permits from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management because the training cut across public lands, Osterholzer said.

Chad Davey, a ranch guide and former Marine who led at least some of the expeditions, said the Green Berets were mostly mum about what they hoped to glean from the exercise.

“They didn’t really get into specifics,” he said. “They just wanted a few hours in back-country, mountain terrain, which is what they get in Afghanistan.”

Trabandt, who helped found Fort Carson’s mounted color guard while in the Army, said he relished seeing the highly trained soldiers trade in their “multimillion dollar helicopter for a bunch of $500 horses.”

“I’d say that’s a unique sight,” he said.

Trabandt, 76, normally caters to well-heeled patrons from The Broadmoor, including celebrities who book horseback tours under assumed names. He said he’d clear his schedule for the Green Berets any time.

“They’re gutsy, and they’re athletic and they’re fun to have,” he said.

Call the writer at 636-0366.