A week before the Sombrero Ranches Great American Horse Drive begins, the Brown’s Park wranglers are out sweeping 50,000 acres of rolling hills and sagebrush in the northwest corner of Colorado for Sombrero horses that have wintered there. For days, they push the 500 horses into even smaller pastures until they finally reach an 8,000 acre pasture where the sorting pens are located. For a lot of people 8,000 acres would be considered a good sized ranch, but at Sombrero it is known simply as the “gather pasture.” “Most people don’t realize that Moffat County is almost bigger than some states. It’s a massive area, but only about 11,000 people live in Moffat County,” said Sombrero Ranches owner, Rex Walker.
Sombrero Ranch is a family business started by Rex Walker and Pat Mantle in 1960. Pat Mantle is part of the pioneer Mantle Ranch in northwestern Colorado and the brother of Queeda Walker, Rex Walker’s wife. Rex bought his brother-in-law out, but the Sombrero horses still graze on BLM land that was once part of the historic Mantle Ranch. The humble beginning by Rex Walker and Pat Mantle with nine rented horses and an old pickup truck has grown to be the largest stable horse operation in the United States.
Rex Walker is still at the helm and still rides in the Horse Drive. His son, Cody Walker, rides in the Horse Drive and is active in the promotional and business aspects of Sombrero Ranches. Adopted son Donald Broom is manager of the three ranches on the Western Slope and the Steamboat Springs Stable.
Freda and her husband Mark Bishop are the horse experts at Sombrero and manage the herd. As Rex and Queeda Walker’s daughter, Freda has grown up with the Sombrero horses and Mark has dedicated over 20 years of his life to them. The horses are the stars of the show at Sombrero Ranches and Mark and Freda Bishop make sure that the gather, inspection and Horse Drive run smoothly. The Bishops also run the ranch in Niwot, Colo., which is the distribution center for Front Range riding stables and the hay operation for Sombrero.
The Sombrero Ranches and the Great American Horse Drive are known world-wide due to the Guest Rider program and the photographs of the countless photographers that have attended the photo workshop associated with the drive. “This year we have people on the Drive from Ireland, people from the Netherlands, people from Germany and we also have someone from Queens, New York,” said Rex Walker.
The Sombrero Ranches have over 100 employees, but not all of them have the cowboy skills to move 500 horses on the Great American Horse Drive and ensure the safety of the 30 to 50 Guest Riders. The group leaders play a critical role. They have to be skilled horsemen who can assist riders of varying ages and abilities. A big plus goes to the more colorful employees than to someone from Europe or Queens, could be said to epitomize their vision of what a cowboy should look like.
Fortunately, in the cowboy tradition of “neighboring,” there are folks to help out. “We have a lot of friends that are good cowboys and know the country and have been working with us for a long time,” said Rex Walker. “They just come and donate their time because it’s a very unique opportunity. You just don’t get to gather a bunch of horses every day. Preserving the western heritage is one of our main themes. It guides everything that we do. We need to preserve this valuable heritage that we have.”
Cody Walker has in past years invited celebrities like Rocco Wachman, from the hit TV series Cowboy U, and Kathy Sabine from 9News in Denver, to participate in the Horse Drive. This year he invited an extraordinarily talented horsewoman, Sarah Wiens, Miss Rodeo Colorado 2013. “I am so honored to be asked to come out for this. It’s been a lot of fun so far. I am looking forward to seeing all the horses be let out of the pens tomorrow and be able to spend more time with these folks.”
The first day is the most physically stressful for the riders. The horses are fresh and have not been ridden for months and seem to take great pleasure in running the five miles from the pens to the first rest stop at the Yampa River. The frenetic pace of the first day did little to diminish Sarah Wiens enthusiasm.
“I loved it. Those images will be forever written on my heart — beautiful, beautiful. I love the beginning when the horses left the pen. You could just feel the adrenaline from the horses,” said Wiens. “There is no other way to experience our American heritage other than on the back of the horse and pushing other horses, and just being out in the middle of nowhere where you can’t see any mark of man, except for a fence here or there. It’s an unbelievable experience, truly.”
The Great American Trail Drive is not a dude ranch with nose-to-tail riding. This is the real deal and not easy. It is two days and 62 miles of moving 500 horses out of the northwestern Colorado backcountry and to the Big Gulch Ranch at Craig, Colo. It is hot, dusty, and even the best riders are beat up when it is over. Not all the riders are able to make it from the pens to the Big Gulch Ranch. For those that do, they come away with personal satisfaction of an accomplishment that few have experienced, memories that will last a lifetime, and the trophy buckle that shows the world that they were tough enough to ride “Gate to Gate.” ❖