01 of 08
Bringing Home Cows On a Cattle Drive Isn't Like the movie "City Slickers"
When I tell my friends I just came back from a roundup and cattle drive the inevitable response includes jokes about playing Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers. In actuality the similarity ends with horses and cows.
I was at Vista Verde Guest Ranch, northwest of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the last week in September for the final days of a month-long cattle drive. I live in Colorado and chose this particular week for three reasons. First, the weather is usually good, with colder nights that quickly turn into warm days. Second, the aspen trees have turned golden and it’s just beautiful. And third, the majority of the 1,000-head herd has been brought in, so we were heading up into the high country to help roundup strays that generally didn’t want to be found. We needed to bring cows down from the open range before the deep snow falls to get them home before winter truly set in.
While all levels of riders can participate in the drive, my group's experience made City Slickers seem... like a walk in the park.Continue to 2 of 8 below.
02 of 08
Horses Lured Me to Vista Verde Guest Ranch in Colorado
Vista Verde Ranch has lots of activities including fly-fishing, rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking. For me, however, it’s all about horses and riding. I’m considered to be an experienced rider. I learned early on in life and have been riding for many years. I even worked at a stable riding new horses that had been in pasture for a year or two, and I've gone on horse packing trips in the Colorado mountains a time or two as well.
At night the horses are sent out to pasture, and at about 7:30 AM wranglers drive them back to the stables. The running of approximately 75 horses is a sight to behold. First you hear them coming; then they start cresting the small hill in the distance. They’re always full of energy, and moving like the wind, kicking up their heels and (pardon me) horsing around. It’s a very special experience and a photographer’s dream.
With a string of 90 animals, the ranch has horses for all levels of riders. You fill out a questionnaire about your riding ability... before arriving. The first day there’s a “casual” discussion about your riding experience, while you’re fitted for a saddle and assigned a mount. This helps to ensure that they don’t place a five-foot tall rider on a draft horse size animal, for instance and it means you'll matched with a horse that fits your experience and personality.
The first morning I got introduced to “my” horse, 8-Ball. All the connotations about the name don’t fit. This is a horse I could own. We bonded instantly – after 2 apples and a few treats!Continue to 3 of 8 below.
03 of 08
How to Learn "Balanced Riding" Skills
The first riding day at the ranch was spent in the large rink under the watchful eye of Terry Wegener. Terry, who also owns the Terry Wegener Training Center in Bennett, Colorado, has spent 30+ years training horses and judging riding events. He is the finest horseman I’ve ever ridden with, and even with all my riding experience I wish I could spend six months under his tutelage. Every rider will definitely improve before they go home.
From my perspective, the day in the rink has three purposes. The first, though left unsaid, is to evaluate the competency of each rider for grouping in upcoming trail rides and the cattle roundup. The second is to use the riders to train the horses through consistent repetition of commands and the same movements. The third is to improve the rider’s skill and train the riders to ride the way the horses are trained, to ensure consistency, and not confuse or frustrate the animals. I learned the importance of this quickly when I leaned forward to get... 8-Ball into a quick lope. He backed up instead.
Terry teaches, “balanced riding” and the horses respond to subtle weight shift and leg pressure. They move in the opposite direction of the weight shift. So, by my leaning forward 8-Ball got the message to back up. Had I leaned slightly backward he would have started forward.
Terry is easy, funny and knows how to teach in a way that resonates with the riders. The clinic was really fun when we teamed up and ran relay races. We’d work our way through cones set up like a slalom course, make a turn and a half around a barrel, ride into an area between two logs, stop, back up and then go tag the next rider. Each action translates directly to one needed on a roundup, such as in stepping around logs, moving around trees and backing away from cows.Continue to 4 of 8 below.
04 of 08
Wranglers Make Training for a Cattle Drive Fun
Cattle may be considered stupid animals, but they have good survival instincts. One of those instincts is to stay with the herd. Another is to take a look at that large horse, which could be a predator, and this other creature on its back yelling, “Move cow” or something similarly inane, and run away.
Welcome to Cattle 101. If you’re going to round up cows in the wild it helps to know how they act and react, and that’s the purpose of the second day in the rink. This day is really fun for all levels of rider.
You learn a few things pretty quickly. Ride at the cow’s head to turn it. Ride at the flank to move it. Don’t get too close or you’ll spook it. Fences are your friend and are as good as several extra riders, because the cows won’t go through them. And if you separate a few cows from the herd, one or more will try to turn and get back to the group.
Again we split into teams for time trials. Task number one was to move a herd of 20 cows from one end of the rink to another, through two... cones and back to the start. Seconds were added for runaway cows and bunching the herd so closely that one cow jumped on another’s back. Next, eight cows were cut and the task repeated. Except, this time riders had to keep cows in the remaining herd from joining the ones we were moving. And, we also had to keep the cows in our group of eight from running back to the main herd. It becomes even more difficult when you try to move just one or two.
Finally, four cones were set in a square as a “pen” and the task was to move the herd into the pen, settle it down and keep it there. All great fun with Terry cracking jokes and yelling instructions. Now we were ready to round up cattle…sort of.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08
Heading Into the Wilderness on a Cattle Drive
It was finally round up time. I headed into the nearby national forest with ranch manager Ben Miller, as well as his brothers and father-in–law. We trailered the horses part way up the mountain, while looking for any of the remaining 50 cows from the herd. With the exception of a jeep road, the area is mostly untouched forest. The jeep road would prove important if we were to find any cows because we’d have to move them onto the road and keep them from straying, while herding them back toward the ranch.
There wasn't a piece of paper, a plastic bottle, or any other sign of human presence in this wilderness. As we rode, the day warmed up, the aspen leaves were golden, and the sun shone overhead. The view through the trees was spectacular. Finding cows would have almost ruined a great trail ride.
Ben led the way looking for fresh signs of the animals (a.k.a. cow pies). He obviously knew the area and as we trotted along (the fastest way to cover ground without tiring the horses) it’s... soon obvious that there are cows nearby.Continue to 6 of 8 below.
06 of 08
Cattle Drives Aren't Always in Open Country
We finally found eight cows on the jeep trail. John and I circled around, came in behind them and started back down the trail. A piece of cake, right?!?
Wrong!! Within five minutes something spooked the cattle and they took off into some of the nastiest, most deadfall timber I’d ever been in. We went after them. You move forward to find an opening in the trees but have to back up and try another route. In some cases it was dismount, walk the horse and mount up again.
I moved away from the group to take up a position in case the cows bolted uphill. It was probably some of the most difficult riding I’ve done and I got temporarily lost. 8-Ball didn’t like being away from the other horses and started a conversation with a buddy. I was able follow the sound and get back to the group. We got the cows back on the trail and started moving them down once again.
I asked Ben what they do with less-experienced riders. He said that less experienced riders do better on earlier roundups, when the cattle... are more accessible, more settled and closer to the ranch. Less-experienced riders are taken to more open areas where there are more service roads. Wranglers stay close to the riders, giving them instructions and keeping them safe. They don’t go bushwacking as we did.Continue to 7 of 8 below.
07 of 08
Bringing Home Cows Who Like to Bolt Isn't Proving Easy
"Dick, back off. Don't push them so hard." "Jim, stay out in the brush on the flank in case they bolt." "John, get in a little closer to the other flank." " Richard, move up ahead and keep them in."
As the trail turned into road, following Ben's instructions we moved those cows along pretty well. After awhile "go cow", "hey cow" and even the occasional "don't even think about it" for yours truly, didn't sound so strange.
The area alongside the road was more open and easier to move through, but had its disadvantages. There was a logging operation going on in the area to remove some of the beetle-killed pine trees. A truck would come along the road (slowly), the cows would look at that big, scary thing and off they'd go, maybe up a steep embankment, or maybe into the brush. It happened with several trucks, a car and a trail bike. Each time it was harder to get them back on the road, settle them down and keep them... moving. Eventually, the cows tired and were easier to move. We got all eight back to the ranch and into the pasture.
Mission accomplished!Continue to 8 of 8 below.
08 of 08
Home to Vista Verde Guest Ranch - Off the Range at Last
By the time we got the cows through the gate and into the pasture they had become used to us. Believe it or not, as we left them and rode off, they followed us to the gate. Nobody ever said they were smart. Then it was across the pasture and back for a shower and a cold beer. As we rode five abreast I thought about singing the theme from Rawhide, but my singing was the last thing the guys wanted to hear.
It took us about four and a half hours to move those eight cows about five miles. Fun doesn't begin to describe the experience. I had the opportunity to ride with four great men and form a bond with them. We had become a team.
I developed a deep respect for the cowboys and gals who do this for a living. It was not an easy task, but we succeeded. I'd say that satisfaction describes my feeling. Would I do this again? In a heart beat. Would I like to do it at Vista Verde Ranch with the same team? It's on my list. This was an experience I'll remember and talk about for the... rest of my life.
More Places to Find Cattle Drives
I experienced this cattle drive vacation at Vista Verde Guest Ranch in Colorado. A number of working cattle ranches and dude ranches offer cattle-drive vacations, especially in the early fall. Here's where to find a list of cattle drive trips.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.