Horsing around: A Daily journalist goes horseback | VailDaily.com

Horsing around: A Daily journalist goes horseback

Ryan Slabaugh

“The best cattle horses will run up and snort and bite them until they get moving,” said one of our guides, Shonna West, who rides in professional rodeos when she’s not giving tours with Triple G Outfitters. Our other guide, Mike Campbell, rode Spider and convinced us the best way to round up cattle is not with the horse. It’s with the mouth. The latter half of the ride, the Pagnotta family from Kansas City and I acted as pushers, meaning we held the vocal responsibilities.

A good cattle call can be learned and we learned quickly. Cheryl Pagnotta, who’s husband David and daughter Paige accompanied me, had it down from the start. It can range from a mild “Yeah” to a energetic “Hup Hup” and for the shy, there’s the deep growl. Cheryl knew the pattern, the quick chatter, and transformed our targets from near slumber into a horn-waving trot. I tried to follow her example, but couldn’t bring myself to reach the motherly tones she did. Our throats burned from the dust and the shouting and caused a fellow wrangler to note the ugly pun. “I’m going hoarse,” he said, but kept shouting. It wasn’t the time for puns – our respect in the eyes of the guides was at stake –which made me censor myself when two cattle got frisky in the open field. They had horns, which made them….

The ride began around 10 a.m. with a quick lesson from Shonna about how to steer a horse. Moments later, we filed single-file onto the trial to the No Fear Arena, where wrangler and Vail Daily photographer Melinda Kruse learned her horse Rio preferred to stand in the center. I could understand. The whole time I was learning my horse, I was also glancing about, looking to find a cow lost among the thicket.

We headed out in single-file line again. Hali Slott, an 8-year-old from Memphis, Tn., rode behind me and informed me of the standard procedure. She was calm, comfortable and as helpful as the guides. She rode Chewie and for a long part of the way, whispered good thoughts into his ear. I tried the same, but Bud knew that trick. He just cocked his head back, gave me one wink from his black oval eyes and went about his own business.

We found the herd after 10 minutes of strolling in the open sun, which made us sweat and talk about water. The cattle, all 50 head, had similar thoughts. They were knee-deep in the marshes, cooling under the taller bushes. Shonna and Mike took the tough track through the deep mud, which led to Shonna’s horse Hudson, green and still fighting, to bellyflop in protest, and to her taking the long walk back to the ranch.

“He got scared,” Shonna said. “It’s not easy for us to get them out and when we do, it’s still tough. The ones we give you guys we already know about.”

For example, one member of the group rode a horse they aptly named Sassy. Still, the guides, our mentors in big hats, succeeded in pushing the cattle from the marsh and up the rock face of a nearby hill. We followed in our horseshoe pattern – we were just learning – while Mike freed Spider and himself from the muck and approached a small irrigation channel. Spider was tentative about taking the two-foot leap after his last encounter. Mike explained: “We kick and yell and get them moving because we want to teach them to trust us. It’s a part of the process.”

Spider crossed the water and our horses followed and soon after, Shonna returned with O.J., who was not a white bronco nor orange in color as I had presumed. We rounded the cattle up the ridge and to a watering hole and then back down the trail to the ranch, where a pair of dogs took over the final duties and herded the cattle into the pen. By then, we were all shouting, whooping, praying that our legs would unwind from our time on the saddle.

Two hours after we started, we were finished and hungry. We dismounted and finally, the jokes began. We walked bowlegged and Jane Packard, a part-time resident in Vail, made plans for another trip. She’d ran the barrels in the arena on Monday as well and hooked up another trip with Eve Harris, who coordinates the different trips for Triple G.

“We have people returning who remember their horse’s name, but don’t remember their guides,” Harris said.

And then, we congratulated one another. Hali, who talked to her horse all the way to the finish, looked as fresh as when she started. Waiting for her mother, JoEllyn and her 12-year-old brother Matt, she smiled when I complimented her wrangling.

“You did good too,” she replied back.


Triple G Outfitters, based in 4-Eagle Ranch near Wolcott on Hwy 131, offers everything from one-hour trail rides to overnight camping or fishing trips. They also offer packages combining morning horse rides and afternoon white-water rafting. For information and reservations, call (970) 926-1234.

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