Dirt and sweat included | VailDaily.com

Dirt and sweat included

Brooke Bates
Brooke Bates/Vail DailyGeorge Webster's Leadville horsebacks rides are about more than just scenery.

LEADVILLE ” Clothed in flannel and denim under the brim of a cowboy hat, George Webster is one of the few remaining icons of the West. He may seem like the stable-savvy grandpa you never had, but next in line behind his real family are his horses.

“My horses are my children,” he said, and as he flips through his photo album, it’s obvious. The worn book is overflowing with shots of Squirrel and Spot, Ranger and Wonky, names and manes he can recall like most people remember family vacations.

Nine years ago, when Webster started working at Bill’s Sports Shop in Leadville, he began offering trail rides through his private stables.

Texans Debbie and David Hithtower and their children, Lauren and Ryan, discovered Webster’s rides three years ago during their summer vacation to Leadville.

“If you want to get your hands dirty and saddle up, this is the place to go,” David said. They had gone through other outfitters ” many twice as expensive ” and arrived at ranches just to walk up on a platform, mount the horse and go, he said. Webster gave them the entire experience, dirt and sweat included.

Riders arrive at George’s Wild West Ranch, about eight miles outside of town, to find dozens of horses grazing in the field. A pistol shot snaps them to attention and leaves a cloud of dust in the field as they all gallop toward the gate.

Once Webster halters the horses for the day’s ride, each rider walks a horse to the corral and ties it up to be brushed. Even if you don’t know how to saddle a horse, you’ll be busy carrying tack from the trailer to the horses.

Webster may not let you cinch the saddle, but he will make sure you pay attention as he guides you through the steps. If you come in as a city slicker, you’ll at least leave with a little ranch-hand know-how.

An hour or two later, after the horses are geared up, you can finally mount and revisit your childhood by pretending to be a cowboy on the range. Several miles down the trail, the only sound you hear is the steady thud of hooves on packed dirt and the squeak of saddle leather beneath you.

Riding through the woods, with no signs of civilization, you’re transported back to a time before SUVs and drive-thrus, when hoof-trodden trails were the only highways.

Webster, who was born and raised in Leadville, offers a wealth of information as a tour guide.

He remembers when brawls ruled the bars and Vail was just a piece of skiable real estate. He can point out Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, 14,000-foot landmarks that have always been his backyard, with a wave of familiarity.

A cowboy hat ” what else ” shields Webster’s steel blue eyes as he remembers the first pony he had as a boy. His dad had to sell it after it bucked George into a truck.

“It didn’t deter me,” he said from behind a bushy white beard. He began buying horses again in 1972 and has owned them ever since. “I respect horses, I don’t fear them.”

And they seem to respect him in return. Webster reigns over his stock with the gentle command of a father and the sense of humor of an old friend.

You return to the ranch several hours after you set out and dismount with tight quads and aching knees.

Like Billy Crystal, you’re a cowboy today and you’ll be walking funny tomorrow, but first you have to help Webster unsaddle and unbridle the horses.

Before they’re turned to pasture, he rewards them each with a sack of oats, like repaying a child with a candy bar after a well-behaved trip to the store.

As you waddle back to town, you’re stuck with the iconic image of Webster, sauntering down the mountain trail on Big Red, sharing the history and tradition of the West with everyone who rides behind him.

Brooke Bates can be reached at vdeditintern@vaildaily.com

Vail, Colorado

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