Saddle Up

Get a taste of life in the Old West on a good, old-fashioned cattle drive

May 06, 2007|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Special to the Sun

KREMMLING, COLO. — We had been in the saddle for about an hour when we got our first glimpse of the object of our search.

There, on the horizon, near Bill Moore Lake with its reflective view of puffy white clouds and blue sky, was a herd of about 165 cows, including some of the more ornery bulls seen on the professional rodeo circuit.

We gave our horses free reins and with a kick of our heels and a shout of "Yeehaw!" we began our morning's work.

This was a cattle drive.

Our job was to move a herd of longhorns, Corrientes and Brahmas -- all bred for their bucking abilities -- from their current spot to another grazing area on the 10,000-acre ranch where the grass was greener.

It was like turning back the pages of history to an era when buffalo roamed the prairie, outlaws packed six-shooters on their hips and people traveled by stagecoach. It was also an adventure that we will remember for a lifetime.

In the real world, we are Harford County residents who became wranglers-for-a-day while vacationing last fall in Colorado.

Our party included my friend, Dean Petty, and his wife, Shana; my wife, Cathy Beers (whom we call Butchie), and myself.

We ranged in age from our early 40s to 65 and our experiences with horses and riding was as wide as our age gap.

You can't call Dean, Shana and Butchie city slickers. They were all raised around horses. Each had their own horse at one point, but none had ridden much in recent years.

Butchie and I were last on horseback in the summer of 2005, when we rode Doc and Midnight up to our backyard wedding ceremony.

I was the old man in the group. I grew up watching the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy on a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears.

My only previous experience with horses, before the wedding, dated to the late 1960s. That's when I rode with the Clatterbuck gang (Bill and Ron), a pair of schoolteachers who were taking cowboy wannabes out on weeklong trail rides in the hills near Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

The one thing our vacationing group had in common: We had never driven cattle before.

The adventure begins

Our adventure began on a chilly, late September morning. We turned off Blue River Parkway, just south of Kremmling, at the gate to the Rusty Spurr Ranch. A wooden sign along the dirt lane advised us that we were still 4.6 miles from our destination.

The winding lane, which ran through undeveloped, sagebrush-covered plains and past hills decorated with bright yellow aspen and green pines, offered panoramic views of the foothills of the Rockies.

For as far as we could see, there was nothing but open range.

"This is like the old West," said Dean when he got his first look at the cow camp / office where we were to check in. The building featured a pine log facade and was adorned with the skull of a longhorn.

We were a few minutes early, but we didn't have to wait long before we got to meet our trail boss, 30-year-old Han Smith.

Smith is a real cowboy. It showed. He came galloping in on the back of a white stallion pushing a herd of 12 quarter horses.

He was decked out in full Western attire, including a 10-gallon hat, well-worn leather chaps and spurs. A lasso hung from his saddle.

His grand entrance set the tone for what was to come.

After matching each of us with the appropriate horse, Smith herded us into a small group and went over the fundamentals of riding. We were joined by two other women, both in their 40s, who lived in Denver.

Smith told us how to make our horses move; how to make them stop, turn left or right and back up.

His primary safety rule: "You never get off your horse. That's when accidents occur," he said.

"Most of our guest don't wear cowboy boots," he continued. "When getting down from a horse, your foot could get stuck in the stirrup and there's the potential of falling back and the horse taking off. You don't want to get dragged through 20 acres of sagebrush by your horse."

We agreed.

"OK, let's move out," Smith barked. "Let's find those cows."

We rode up steep hills where we had to lean forward in the saddle, and down into valleys where we leaned back and pushed our feet forward in the stirrups to keep our balance.

For about an hour we enjoyed the scenery. It is not uncommon to see an assortment of wildlife on the trail, including coyotes, antelope, mule deer and elk.

"On occasion, a bear or two will pop out," Smith said. "We have quite a few bears on the ranch. But they are not confrontational and pretty eager to keep their distance. So it is always a unique experience when our riders get to see one."

Herd mentality

Our rears were already beginning to get a little sore and all we had seen were a few snowshoe hares, no cows.

Several times Smith pulled up his mount, took out a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon.

We rode on.

Then as we reached the top of a hill looking down on the lake, there were the cows.

We moved in slow and easy. You don't want to spook the herd. You don't want to cause a stampede.

This is where my lack of cowboy experience showed.

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