Riding at the Lazy-J Ranch | VailDaily.com

Riding at the Lazy-J Ranch

Ian Cropp
MP Lazy J Horse2 BH 7-6

WOLCOTT ” At the age of 5, I learned how to ride a bike. At 16, I learned how to drive. And finally, last week, at 24, I learned how to ride a horse.

It wasn’t your typical horse ride, where a wrangler leads you around a circle at a stable. No, I went riding up into the mountains at the Lazy-J Ranch in Wolcott. It was as if instead of learning to drive in a suburban parking lot in a used Toyota, I had cruised scenic Highway 1 on California’s coast in a red convertable.

The Lazy-J Ranch has 3,800 acres of land with some of the most scenic views in Eagle County. For most of the ride, there wasn’t a road or building to be seen. But before I could enjoy the ranch (more on that later), I had to learn quickly the basics of horseback riding.

Katie Mycoskie, the head wrangler, prepared the horses and laid out all I would need to know.

Well-trained horses are easy to ride. It took me about five minutes to get the hang of riding a horse.

Directing the horse is simple. You give a nudge with your feet to go, and a kick to gallop. Pull the reigns to the left to go left. Pull up to stop.

Like a little kid with his first remote-control car, I gave a few test commands. And although the horse’s obedience shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I still found it fascinating that the horse did what my motions told it to do.

OK, I was riding a horse. This was good.

Up we went into the mountains. When the horses ahead of me picked up some speed, I gave an extra nudge with my feet, and my horse went from a walk to a gallop. I couldn’t have been going more than 10 mph, but my stomach led me to believe that I was on a roller coaster. I wasn’t able to see my face, but I could feel the smile spanning from ear to ear.

After my first gallop, I felt comfortable, and didn’t clutch the reigns as tight the next time I gave the horse a good kick.

Much like flying a large jet, you can go on autopilot if you want. Horses are big on self-preservation, and won’t do anything to endanger themselves, which usually translates into not harming the rider.

I relaxed and let my horse follow the other horses while I soaked up the surroundings. The smell of sage filled the air, and I grabbed a handful as my horse brushed me against a large bush. Mycoskie showed me a large ponderosa pine, and I dismounted for a second to get a whiff of the vanilla bark.

After I got back on my horse, I decided to ride with my eyes closed for a few seconds. I bounced up and down and listened to the leather saddle creak and the intermittent clop of the horse’s hoofs against the ground.

We stopped at a pond and Mycoskie led her horse in the water for a drink. Mycoskie told me the pond was stocked with fish, and that in addition to the regular horseback rides, the ranch offers a wide array of unique rides. Anyone wanting to get a good mix of the outdoors can go on a horse ride and fly-fishing trip. For those looking for a big taste of ranch life, there are cattle drives.

And if you happened to be like me, and want to the scenic ride, there are one-, two- and three-hour morning and afternoon trips, as well as sunset and wildlife rides.

While I didn’t have time to try my hand at any of the other activities on the ranch, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll go back.

The five-stand sporting clay shooting range and 10-station, 100-target shooting course may be graced with my presence. In the fall, there are game hunts for elk, deer, mountain lions and bears, all of which can need not worry about me. But I bet the fish are praying that I don’t get on the 4.5-mile stretch of private water on the Eagle River. Chances are, though, if I could successfully ride a horse, I’d be able to catch a fish, especially on a part of the river that has enough fish to be any amateur’s best friend.

And the ranch will stay open year-round for the first time this year, with snowmobiling and an outdoor hockey rink.

There is one part of the ranch I don’t plan on using anytime soon ” the banquet facilities. While the Lazy-J hosts about one wedding a week, they don’t need to worry about me coming by in a tuxedo, that is unless there happens to be another mix of activities at the ranch.

“The joke is we do shotgun weddings,” said ranch owner James Jouflas, whose family used to herd sheep on the land. “We had a guy one time, his daughter was getting married here, and he hadn’t been here. He gets here 20 minutes before the ceremony and finds out we are a gun club, and asks, ‘Hey, can I borrow a double-barrel shotgun?’ I said ‘Sure,’ but I was kind of curious what he wanted.’ He had his daughter on one arm and the shotgun on the other as he walked down the isle.”

As our ride progressed, I noticed the an abundance of wildlife and when we passed by the old log cabins that had been inhabited by homesteaders from Kansas, I really felt like I’d been transported back in time.

“It’s like Eagle County was 40 years ago,” said Jouflas. “You get to see the old, real Colorado.”

From the highest point on the property, you can see the Elkhead Mountains in Steamboat, the Mosquito Range in Breckenridge or the Maroon Bells in Aspen.

On the ride back down, I started planning on when I’d make my next ride. I let my mind wander for a few minutes, and my horse threw me for a quick surprise.

I don’t know what provoked it, but my horse pulled up and gave a little buck. Even though I had one hand on the reigns and my other hand resting at my side, I easily kept my balance. The roller coaster feeling did come back, and I enjoyed it as much as the first time.

We were almost back at the stables when we had to cross some standing water, and my horse stalled for a second until I gave an few nudges. Up we went, off all four feet momentarily. I thought about turning the horse around and jumping again.

When we got back to the stables, I dismounted and patted the horse on its side. I felt like I needed to invite the horse out for a beer, or at least get him some oats. After all, I hadn’t learned to drive in one day, and there I was, ready to gallop back up the mountain.

Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or icropp@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado

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