Thundering Hooves

Saddle up for adventure on the Sprucedale Ranch Spring Horse Drive.

Article & Photography by Mark Bedor

Galloping alongside a thundering herd of some 85 horses. A remuda brimming with all kinds of colorful Paint Horses. A long lope across a vast, pristine prairie, beneath a deep blue sky that’s accented with cotton-ball clouds. A thrilling journey that goes on and on and on for three unforgettable days.

This extravaganza, known as the Sprucedale Ranch Spring Horse Drive in Alpine, Arizona, is one of the West’s most unique horseback adventures. It’s like stepping into a real-life history book, living the cowboy life for a few days, complete with a patina of dust and a wide grin that’s hard to wipe off your face.

“It’s magical!” Sprucedale’s Keely Wiltbank said.  “People dream about doing this. We get to live it.”

For more than 80 years, Sprucedale Guest Ranch has driven its horses 60 miles from their winter pasture to their remote, rustic dude ranch headquarters. Off the grid, Sprucedale lies about 25 miles southwest of the tiny eastern Arizona town of Alpine, near the New Mexico border. And since 1993, the ranch has invited a small number of guests—expert riders only—to saddle up for a rare riding opportunity.

“It’s fun to do a more adventurous ride with a purpose,” said Billy Wiltbank; he’s part of the family that’s owned Sprucedale since the 1940s. “It’s something that isn’t offered just anywhere.”

Saddle up as I share my own Sprucedale-adventure diary entries.

Day 1

After our welcome lunch on Monday, we meet our horses, saddle up and head out to get acquainted with our new four-legged partners. Along the way, Billy makes sure our riding was abilities are up to snuff.

“We’ve been doing this for 80 years, so you can kind of know by looking or talking to somebody whether they’re gonna be OK or not,” Billy told me.

Everybody passes the test on an initial trail ride that’s just a taste of the beautiful country we’ll savor the rest of the week. This is a different Arizona than the stereotypical desert scenes sporting giant saguaros.  This area is more like the Rocky Mountain country, with big meadows, creeks and stands of towering timber. We even spot a small herd of elk that scatter as we approach.

Back in the meadows near the rustic lodge and cozy surrounding cabins is another beautiful sight: newborn foals. A pair of babies spend their first spring grazing alongside their mothers, who makes sure strangers don’t come too close.

Inside the lodge, we gather for our first hearty, family-style dinner of the week. We’re 15 like-minded guests, excited to be here, and we easily chat away, eagerly anticipating the days to come. We make an interesting bunch: besides myself, our group includes a pair of Southern California moms with their 13-year-old horse-loving daughters; a roofing contractor; a commercial diver; and Dave Tait, who once competed for a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team and now owns an Arizona aquatic swim center.

Dave, a hard-working entrepreneur, says he was in need of a hobby when he first discovered Sprucedale on a visit with his family.

“I watched Billy wrangle and was mesmerized. I said, ‘Hey! Could I do that?!” Dave said with a laugh.  “He’s shown me a lot of things, and he’s been a really great help with my riding.”

Years after that first visit, the horse drive is now an annual tradition for Dave.

“You need to have some balance in life. And Sprucedale really helped me find that,” Dave said.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2024 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.