Thundering hooves and Western Colorado scenery combine to create memorable moments for those seeking a taste of the real Wild West.
by Mark Bedor
It’s like the movie City Slickers on steroids—at least, that’s how one rider enthusiastically described Colorado’s Great American Horse Drive.
Watching the classic Western starring Billy Crystal is always fun, but there’s nothing like experiencing the real thing. And the horse drive hosted by Sombrero Ranches every spring is one of the great real-life horseback adventures left in the American West.
There’s simply nothing like it. Imagine driving a herd of 500-plus horses 60 miles over two days—almost all of it at a fast trot, if not a lope—through the rugged, mountainous country and wide-open spaces dotted with sagebrush west of Craig, Colorado.
From a distance, the huge and spirited herd—featuring plenty of horses with chrome—is a thrilling sight. A line of cowboys and cowgirls ride out in front of the remuda, giving horsepower a whole new meaning. Dozens more riders flank the herd, bringing up the rear of this multi-colored, teeming mass of horseflesh. It’s a rare, beautiful and exciting scene to witness, and one that draws photographers from all over the country.
“It’s a pretty intense, emotional, spiritual experience,” gushed Jo Arlow, a photographer from Olympia, Washington. “Being next to all those running horses is really great.”
Being horseback in the middle of the action, however, is an even more intense experience. In 2017 I was lucky enough to saddle up as one of the 46 guest riders along for this adventure, a multi-day adrenaline rush.
Words escape me when trying to describe the feeling of riding with a massive, moving herd and the up-close, living power of more than 500 horses. It’s two days of memorable moments when every instant counted—when every part of my being felt intensely alive. Doing your individual part to keep the herd moving against the soundtrack of hundreds of pounding hoofbeats was all that mattered in that instant. It was thrilling, invigorating and electrifying to be part of it all.
When we met for the orientation meeting at Sombrero Ranches’ headquarters, I could feel the energy and anticipation in the room.
“Y’all are going to get to experience something that very few people get to do,” Sombrero owner Rex Walker said.
The Legend Begins
Rex founded Sombrero Ranches in the 1950s with his late business partner Pat Mantle. A Texas native, Rex grew up watching the Saturday matinees of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, harboring dreams of being a cowboy. He was just 11 years old when he began spending his summers working at a ranch in Colorado—a job he continued throughout college. Along the way, he met Pat, a native Colorado ranch kid and an expert horseman, whose equally capable cowgirl-sister Queeda would later become Rex’s wife.
In 1958, Rex and Pat opened their first riding stable in Estes Park, Colorado, with 16 horses. Together, the trio grew Sombrero into what they believed was the biggest horse company in the United States. Sombrero has owned as many as 2,000 horses at a time, renting them to dude ranches, summer camps, movies and TV productions. Sombrero has also previously supplied stock for rodeo and operated a string of riding stables around the country.
As many as 900 horses can spend the winter on the 50,000- acre slice of paradise Sombrero owns west of Craig where U.S. Cavalry horses were once raised. In the spring, cowboys spend their weeks gathering the horses scattered throughout the ranch’s immense pastures. And it’s from this ranch that we begin the 60-mile drive to move the horses from their winter range to another massive ranch that serves as Sombrero’s headquarters.
At the headquarters’ ranch, the horses receive new shoes, vaccinations and a few wrangler tune-up rides before they’re shipped out to wherever they’ll spend the summer.
“What we’re doing today is no different than what they did 150 years ago,” Rex said. “It really is the Old West out here.”
The chance to experience this legendary way of life is what draws people from around the world to the ranch, including Bernard Fontaine from Gemenos, France, where he, too, always wanted to be a cowboy.
“I think it’ll be a wonderful ride,” Bernard smiled, clearly excited when we met on that first day.
But this two-day horseback thrill ride takes teamwork, training and two horses for each rider—one for each grueling 30-mile day.
Learning the Ropes
On Thursday, the first full day of this epic weekend, we got acquainted with the two mounts we’d be riding on the drive through short morning and afternoon trail rides. The guest riders were then divided into four teams, each lead by a seasoned driver.
“If you have some fear, just remember it’s teaching you to be cautious, not scared,” wrangler Christy Cramer advised her team.
A horse trainer from Longmont, Colorado, Christy’s been a team leader on this drive for 14 years and says her guests come with a lot of questions.
“I like watching the success and what people can achieve,” Christy said. “I try to convey to the team that we will succeed, that we will make it through to the end, from gate to gate, and it’s imperative that they do.”
Riding “gate to gate,” or completing the drive, is rewarded with a commemorative buckle that riders only receive if they finish the entire 60 miles. Typically, however, not everyone does.
“It’s quite tough,” admitted Lee Peters, a longtime Sombrero executive. “Out of 40 guest riders, we’ll have 20 percent who can’t make it.”
Johnny Garcia, lead rider of the team I was part of, commanded us to “jig” as we headed out on our first shakedown ride.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.