By Nicola Bridges
After three days of learning the ropes, literally, at the Colorado Cattle Company Guest Ranch, I’m leaning on a barn post, chuckling, listening to wranglers Thomas and Willy talking shoes and chews and I-don’t-cares as they fix a horse’s feet. There are some choice words as young mare Marge kicks out suddenly, not impressed at having horseshoes nailed to her feet for only the second time.
The shoeing gets done, we saddle up and I work the corral gates as Thomas four-wheelers out on the 10,000-acre ranch to bring in the 80-horse herd. A mare has a swollen cheek and we’re checking them all for rattlesnake bites before we hit the range for a five-hour ride to check on the cattle.
At this adults-only working dude ranch, guests ride alongside wranglers caring for 800 head of cattle, doctoring, counting bulls, separating herds, learning to rope and barrel-race in the indoor arena, and even branding. Beginner riders can mosey the range with a wrangler on slow patrol. But for someone like me who thrives on flat-out galloping over miles of meadows, it’s exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve slept early and well.
Guests here are free to work to the extent they want and have fun. Moreover, they’re considered a cowhand who’s made to feel like one of the family — dissecting the day over meals in the main house, which owners Tom and Darcy Carr have called home since they first came as guests seeking an escape from their corporate lives. They fell in love with the land and bought the ranch and cattle company in 2009 when it came up for sale.
“We’ve hosted competitive rodeo riders, an astronaut, a fighter jet test pilot, an Army general, a secretary of state, Super Bowl ring football players and everyone in between. But frankly, we don’t care who you are. We just want to give you the experience of a lifetime and hope you leave the ranch a more enriched person,” Tom says.
The Colorado Cattle Company ranch is located on the flat plains of the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado bordering Nebraska that roll out to the horizon in every direction, no other dwellings for hours in sight. Its main lodge (with family-style dining room, bar, indoor pool and sauna), 10 log cabins and the 1910 historic bunkhouse, where I’m staying in one of five deluxe authentically Western king rooms, decorated with old cowboy boots, saddles and blankets all pinned to the walls make up the complex.
As we saddle up, giant majestic wind turbines turn slowly and silently in the heavy heat, just as Thomas announces: “Grab your slicker, we got weather coming in.” It’s midmorning and the sky is graying as eight guests head home after their stay: Rachael and Lara from Switzerland, Norwegian engineering student Mia, submarine builder Sue from Connecticut, fourth-time ranch returnee Karen from Ohio, and two Brits traveling separately — Helen, an equestrian who came to clear her head, and 70-something Peter celebrating his 14th year returning twice annually to the ranch. All are packing home memories of a lifetime.
My flights aren’t until tomorrow and my day is a decadent solo immersion with Tom and Willy in the quiet choreography of herds, horses, cows and country. They ride side by side, sharing bar-brawl stories of mutual acquaintances, commenting on the ground pack, debating how best to eradicate a killer weed. Then with a nod and a spit Willy breaks away and rides the fence line into the distance before looping back to help cover more distance and look for an injured bull.
We crest a ridge and find a large part of the herd around a watering hole. Exchanging few words, the cowboys kick into gear, working silently, fast and in synch to separate an undernourished calf, lasso and tie it down, and let their two horses pull the rope taut between them — silently intent on their own jobs — as the wranglers jump down to administer syringes of nutrition and antibiotics quickly for least distress to the calf. We ride the range for another hour, all cows, calves and bulls accounted for. As we near the ranch we hear distant “welcome-home” whinnies as a river of galloping horses appears over a rise to greet us.
It’s yet another scene from the Western movie dream I’ve been living these last few days, and I unsaddle with a quiet smile, feeling inwardly ebullient and content. I hang a hug on my ride, Blue Duck, thank her for keeping me safe, and head to shower off the day’s dirt and trade cowboy boots for a bikini to soak my aching muscles in the just-right jet blasts of the outdoor Jacuzzi.
Cleaned up and listening to a storm now upon us, I wolf down my steak and pineapple cake at the family table, feeling — as cowboys say — enriched as all get-out and already planning my return.