I Wanna Be a Cowboy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Horse Sense

I Wanna Be a Cowboy

The Hysterical Parent
The horse will buck or run off
Wranglers look for horses to put in their lines that are "bomb-proof" (their description, not ours) because they don't underestimate their clients' inexperience or the severity of the term "liability." Be honest about your family's riding experience and you'll be assigned horses commensurate with your abilities.

The horse will fall
Horses are sure-footed creatures, and rarely fall unless human riders interfere. Trust the horse to know what to do. These aren't cars with rack-and-pinion steering; horses can pick a line down the trail much better than you can.

Horses are too big; give my kids a pony they can manage
Wrong. Ponies are imps that delight in mischief. But horses the size of buildings can maneuver their bodies to keep kids from falling off, even when they pound the horses' sides in an attempt to get them to gallop. When it comes to horses, bigger is better.

The areas we pack into are too remote; an injured kid is far from medical help
A horse can cover some serious ground in a hurry. For most of the trip the horses have been walking; a galloping horse can cover the same distance in a fraction of the time.

--Lisa Twyman Bessone

C Lazy U Ranch Granby, Colorado
Call it the Mild West: In a well-tamed spot on Willow Creek, two hours north of Denver, is C Lazy U, part ranch, part resort. You'll find no rough edges here: Navajo rugs hang on lacquered log walls, neat rows of saddles and bridles fill the oversized barn; and guests are soothed with massages, saunas, whirlpools, and dips in the heated swimming pool.

With 170 horses in the stable for 115 guests, you're assured of a mount at all times. Various levels of two- to three-hour rides leave daily at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Separate programs for ages 3 to 5, 6 to 12, and teens include early mealtime for both lunch and dinner and after-dinner cookouts, hayrides, and games. Ranch weeks run Sunday to Sunday, beginning with tack and riding instruction and moving on to trail rides and riding games. By Thursday, teens overnight at McQueeries Ridge while younger kids spend all day on the trail. Families ride together on Friday, and everyone competes in the Saturday afternoon "Shodeo" to demonstrate their newly acquired skills.

But for the saddle-weary there are plenty of other options: You could scramble up Mount Baldy on the ranch's southern flank for views of the hard-edged summit of 14,256-foot Longs Peak. Or plan a day of guided fly-fishing, golfing on renowned Pole Creek, tennis, trap and skeet, or rafting the Colorado River.
Families stay in one-, two-, and four-unit log cabins with one to three bedrooms, most with fireplaces and some with private Jacuzzis, but none with a phone or TV. Following ranch tradition, meals are family-style but far from hot dogs and mounds of baked beans; more typical would be Black Angus prime rib or jalape˜o-stuffed mountain trout.

Average rates are $1,725 per week; $1,525 for age five and under; you'll pay an additional 20 percent for tax and service charge. Call 970-887-3344.

Double Diamond X Ranch Cody, Wyoming
In late spring, it's a zoo in the South Fork Valley, 34 miles south of Cody. Entire herds of pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk stop to drink in the Shoshone River, which runs within a couple hundred yards of the Double Diamond X, and bighorn sheep roam in the forested Absaroka Range to the west.

Kids as young as three have made the rounds in the riding ring, but it takes three adults to make it happen--one on each side and another holding the reins. Counselors lead a full program for the kids, with at least one ride a day, along with games on horseback and feeding and grooming chores with the wranglers. One day kids might learn a cowboy song on the guitar, and the next jump on a hay wagon pulled by Samson and Delilah, two magnificent Percherons. They'll hear stories about Wyoming's cowboys and Indians, make picture frames out of bark, and still have time for swimming, softball, hiking, and even parents. They can also use the heated pool, and fish in the pond or at a fishing camp on the river. There are Thursday overnights ($150 extra) for kids whose riding skills pass muster; on Fridays everyone takes part in the family trail ride.

Most weeks, all 32 guests steal away for a day in Cody, poking through the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Old Trail Town and taking in the rodeo. Rates for a week in a cottonwood-shaded cabin with two bedrooms, bath, a porch, and a log interior are $1,460 per adult; $1,020 per child age 6 to14; $550 per child under six. Rates for rooms in the Trailhouse Lodge are $1,210 for adults, $800 for kids 6 to 14, and $550 for under six. Taxes and a service charge add nearly 15 percent. Call 800-833-7262.

H.T. Outfitters Vail to Aspen, Colorado
By car through sinuous Glenwood Canyon, it's two hours from Vail to Aspen. By horse, down the length of the Sawatch Mountains, it takes four to five days. Along the way you picnic in the wildflower meadows of Sawmill Park, skirt three sides of New York Mountain, splash across a dozen ice-cold streams, and climb to the summit of 11,765-foot Mount Yeckel. Once over the top, grab your binoculars and you can make out the ski slopes of Aspen Mountain to the southwest.

You're bound to be saddle sore, so plan on a well-earned soak in the wood-fired sauna at the Polar Star Inn, one of three backcountry huts that are used for overnights (all are part of the Tenth Mountain Division hut system linking Vail and Aspen). Your group takes over the cabins, while guide Pam Green tends to the grub and wranglers tend to the horses. All you have to do is spread your sleeping bag on your bunk's foam mattress and wait for the stir-fried rice and shrimp skewers to appear. The third night you chuck your bedroll for the clean-sheet luxury of the Fryingpan River Ranch.

Twelve to 20 miles a day on horseback can add up to five or six long hours in the saddle, which isn't every kid's idea of a good time. For your first trip, you might consider a two- or three-day outing that covers part of the route or heads north from Vail into the Flattops. Even with that precaution, kids under age ten should have a strong horse background; the minimum age is seven.

The five-day ride costs $1,175 per person; three days is $970 (you stay at the two huts nearest Vail); four- and five-day trips cost $1,150-$1,175 (with overnights at two huts and the ranch). Call 970-926-2029 for information.

Lost Valley Ranch Sedalia, Colorado
White-faced Herefords graze the upper meadows, some 120 quarter horses nicker in the pastures, and a team of beer-commercial Clydesdales pulls wagons up narrow mountain roads. It's a working ranch, all right, but for you, there's no work in sight. Your week at Lost Valley, a AAA four-diamond property, is a family-fest of tennis, swimming, and volleyball squeezed in between morning and afternoon trail rides. Although the ranch is an easy 90 minutes northwest of Colorado Springs, the country you'll explore seems as isolated as when a cowboy homesteaded the Goose Creek property in 1883.

Lost Valley accommodates 98 guests, and three counselors and three wranglers handle the agenda for three age groups of kids (6 to 7, 8 to 10, and 11 to 12) that includes picnics, hikes, and an all-day trail ride through 28,000 acres of Pike National Forest. Kids ride with their own age group except during the thrice-weekly family rides; teens hang together or with the adults, then dash off for tubing in mountain streams or a haywagon ride to a breakfast cookout. Three- to five-year-olds have their own fun, with pint-size excursions, a picnic away from the ranch, and corral rides with parents leading the horse. Bring a rod to fish in Goose Creek, a two-and-a-half mile trout stream.

Back at the ranch, you'll chow down on home-style cooking with plenty of fresh vegetables and even more desserts. Families stay in one- to three-bedroom cabins, each with a porch swing and a living room with a stone fireplace. Weekly rates are $1,495 for adults, $1,350 for teens, $1,095 for ages 6 to 12, and $850 for 3- to 5-year-olds, including gratuity; tax is 4.5 percent. Call 303-647-2311.

Moose Creek Ranch Victor, Idaho
With wild mustangs in the stable and the Tetons right out the back door, this 15-acre ranch serves up the genuine West. What really sets Moose Creek apart is that it rejects the concept of the pampered dude. Instead, the aim is to teach guests basic horse sense along with basic horse care. From day one, you'll be working alongside wranglers to groom and saddle your own steed (the chores are optional, of course). Even kids eventually master the intricacies of latigos, cinches, and bridles.

The Van Orden family that owns the ranch works through the "Adopt a Wild Mustang Program" to rescue mustangs; once trained, they become exceptionally sure-footed trail horses. Four to six of the mustangs pull an 1800s town coach on the jouncy, 40-minute ride to the town of Victor.

All five Van Orden offspring pitch in with the operation, so vacationing children can see how it's done. From about age seven on (the ranch has accepted kids as young as four), kids ride with their parents, thundering up Plumer Loop for views of the Grand Teton or on the sunset ride. Ages six and under have one-to-one supervision for pony rides, games, crafts, and hikes into the canyon, although they're welcome to ride with adults if they're up to it. Also on the roster is a whitewater raft trip on the Snake River (minimum age for rafting is six).

Moose Creek accepts 30 to 36 guests a week; they stay in knotty-pine cabins at the edge of Targhee National Forest. One popular option for lodging is a secluded log ranch home with five bedrooms, three baths, and two living rooms (four-person minimum required).

The weekly cost for cabins is $l,045 for adults; $860 for ages 8 to 12; $675 for ages three to seven (kids under three are free), plus an additional 20 percent for tax and service charge. The ranch home runs $100 more per person. Call 800-676-0075.

Sweet Grass Ranch Big Timber, Montana
When you get directions for this ranch in the heart of southern Montana, you'll know this is the place you've always wanted to find: "From the general store, follow the road to the left. It turns to gravel, then to dirt, crosses a creek bottom, climbs a ridge, and passes to the left of an old white house. You'll have to open and close several gates, depending on where livestock is."

Don't expect any coddling at this bonafide ranch that's been in the same family for five generations. Each day you can join a trail ride into the Crazy Mountains of south-central Montana, or opt for chores instead--you can haul blocks of salt to the Angus in the high pastures, grain the horses, slop the pigs, milk Mooca, the resident cow, or help check the fence line. Activities at Sweet Grass are unstructured so as to best suit the interests of the 20 weekly guests. (Of course, chores are optional for guests. You could just kick back.)

Youngsters fit right in at this home on the range, though there are no special programs except perhaps playing hide-and-seek astride horses. Ages six and up ride alone or with their parents; the theory is that if they're up for it, they can ride as far as adults. No one ever said the West was for sissies.

Cabins, some with private baths, form a horseshoe around the main lodge, a welcoming two-story log building that's on the National Register of Historic Places and has four additional guest rooms. For accommodations with a private bath, weekly rates start at $800 for adults; $350 for ages four to six; under four are free; gratuities are extra. For more information, call 406-537-4477.
--Susan Kaye

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