The "country" in High Country | VailDaily.com
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The "country" in High Country

Julie Halzel

My mom once asked me if I was “a little bit country.” You know, country music, Western hats, big belt buckles … Those things sounded unfamiliar, and I told her I wasn’t. But something about her statement lingered on my mind, and I decided to schedule a couple of trail rides to see just how much “country” I really had in me.

Triple G Outfitters at the 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott was my first testing ground. Armed with sunscreen, hats and the most obvious tourist accessory of all ” a camera ” the five people in our group were introduced to our guide, Juan Harris. Juan led us over to a picnic table, where he explained how the ride would play out.

We were going on a cattle roundup ” we would ride up the hill in search of groups of cattle, round them up, and drive them back down to the ranch. Using small pebbles as his pieces, Juan moved “horses and riders” around groups of “cattle.” He showed us the ideal U-shape we would make, wrapping ourselves around the cattle to prevent escapees. It looked complicated and strategic, and I had doubts that we would be able to re-create it. Formations like that can take soccer players weeks to get right, and we were going to be on horses that we might not even be able to turn.

I was not to worry about the turning issue. Following the strategy demonstration, we were guided to the arena, where horses tied to their hitching posts were waiting. I boarded Smoke, a docile brown horse, and felt immediately comfortable. When we were situated on our horses, we headed to an arena and rode around for about 20 minutes, getting comfortable with basic commands and gaits. I was feeling a little bit rusty and not at all country, so the time in the arena was very valuable. When the group was ready, Juan jumped off his horse, opened the arena gate, and we were off. The terrain in Wolcott is very arid, and the plants and wildlife lent themselves to the country feel that I was seeking, right down to a giant jackrabbit that darted across the trail.

As we talked and idled along, we wound our way up a hill. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and all of the riders ” Juan included ” seemed more than happy to take in the view.

At the top of the ridge, the terrain flattened out and we got a surprise: our first cattle. These were the young steer, Juan explained, and they typically hang back from the rest of the herd because the bull, threatened by the young, strapping steer, “bullies” them out of the group. The steer could be a little hard to control, Juan said, and we might not be able to keep them with us the whole time. Despite his warnings, we went to work.

This is where the trail ride became unlike any other I’ve ever been on. Our horses split up, leaving the path, and each rider was in complete control. When I wanted my horse to go left, cutting through some low brush and creeping up behind two rebellious steer, he did it. And when I looked around, everyone was managing just fine, even those in the group who had who had very little riding experience.

With about 12 steer under our guidance, we were no longer on a meandering morning trail ride. Alert and on our toes, we continued to work our way up the open hill. Around the next small ridge we got our second cattle sighting of the day, and Juan shouted back to us that it was a large group. He wasn’t kidding ” there were anywhere from 40-50 cattle in this group, from the bull (yikes) to a mama cow and her little calf.

Remember that U-shape Juan taught us at before the ride started ? Well, I barely did, as it seemed more a priority to stay clear of the giant bull. But Juan did his job expertly, pointing out where each rider should go to keep the herd of cattle together and moving along. Juan told us we had all the cattle we were probably going to get during this ride (there are about 60 in the herd), and we rode up a little farther to a good turning point. The stress of finding the cattle over, we now had to concentrate on keeping them moving in the right direction. Sometimes stubborn ones would stop, and we were instructed to ride up behind them and urge them on with a whooping noise or a shout, anything we wanted to that would get them moving.

Even though our group had grown by about 40, the ride was still relaxing. The bull was no longer intimidating ” I don’t think he even noticed the horses and their riders, and the ranch (and lunch) were in the distance.

Rounding up cattle is hard work, and we were grateful that lunch was waiting for us when we got back. While real cowboys might sometimes resort to drab campfire food, this was nothing of the sort. 4 Eagle Ranch had provided us with a real meal, complete with salad and lemonade ” the perfect finish to a real Western ride.

With the true Western experience of a cattle roundup under my belt, I was ready for more. This time, I decided to go for something with a little more quiet and a little less strategy. A call to Beaver Creek Stables led me to the high mountain meadow picnic ride. Here I was introduced to Lil’ Bits, a small brown horse. Our group guide, Battle Mountain High School senior Robin Rickert, gave us a quick riding demonstration, and we were ready to go.

When the mountain is covered in snow, you can’t see how different the scenery is at different elevations and sometimes, snow is all you see. With white stuff melted away, though, color is everywhere. Yellow and green aspens with tall, elegant trunks surrounded us for part of the ride, and a meadows filled with wildflowers were another backdrop. Looking out to my left, I could see parts of Beaver Creek Mountain and the village below.

Going from sunny meadow to shady aspen grove to meadow again, we finally came upon our picnic spot. We spread out our picnic blanket and lunches, and all that was missing from the scene was a hammock for an afternoon nap. With an occasional horse whinnying in the background, we took our time eating and enjoyed the break. It was a nice way to split the three-hour ride.

When the food was gone, we meandered back to our horses and partook in some quality petting time. Riders who hadn’t previously felt comfortable around horses had the chance to get up close, making the ride back down to the stables that much more enjoyable for them.

From dry, rugged terrain to lush, arid surroundings, there was plenty to take in and enjoy in both of the trail rides. Well-behaved horses and knowledgeable guides make the trail rides an adventure open to riders of any age and any level. And for anyone looking to feel “a little bit country,” there is no better place to start than on the trail.


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