Here they come! 576 Sombrero horses fresh off of winter pastures near Brown's Park, Colo., and ready to start the two day, 62-mile journey to the Sombrero Ranch in Craig, Colo. With the help of friends and family, the Sombrero's horse drive has been keeping the western experience alive for a long time.
Realizing that moving large numbers of horses over long distances was a vanishing part of the western heritage, Rex Walker, the founder of Sombrero Ranch decided to allow a limited number of paying Guest Riders to join them and the Great American Horse Drive was born. The Guest Riders, which this year numbered 53, spend five days at the Sombrero Big Gulch Ranch at Craig, Colo.
Their time at Big Gulch is fairly structured with plenty of fun events and lots of saddle time and instruction to get ready to move over 500 horses from winter pastures at Brown's Park to Craig. Experience is not required, but it does make the time spent in the saddle a little easier. The real requirement to making it through to the end and receiving the coveted, custom made "Gate to Gate" buckle is determination.
Ranching in the west means helping out your neighbor at times when a lot of labor is required. The big event for Sombrero is the horse drive and there are a lot of invited guest wranglers to supplement the Sombrero employees. Everyone at Big Gulch is focused on the guests and getting them ready to enjoy the opportunity of a lifetime.
While this is happening, there is another team 62 miles away that is focusing on the horses. There are no structured events at the Brown's Park Ranch. In fact, if the people who gather up the horses did not think it was so much fun, it could easily be described as work. Rex Walker's daughter Freda and her husband Mark Bishop run the Brown's Park operation, as well as Sombrero's 280 acre hay farm and horse distribution center in Niwot, Colo.
The crew at Brown's Park is made up of family and friends and some Guest Wranglers. To be a Guest Wrangler you have to be invited and there are some requirements. "A Guest Wrangler has to have been on the Guest Rider program and then they have to be invited into the Brown's Park Group." said Freda Bishop, "I only take 10 and people that have come in the past have first preference."
Because this is a working environment, Guest Wranglers at Brown's Park must have advanced skills. "They have to be able to handle a horse out in the open country by themselves, have a sense of direction so they don't get lost, and not panic," said Bishop, and added emphatically, "They have to be a cowboy to be out here."
From year to year, the people who make up the Brown's Park team are pretty much the same. Whizzy Harper and Dori Burnette travel together from the Front Range. They were invited to help out by a Sombrero employee and Whizzy has been on the Brown's Park team for eight years and Dori has been a member for 10 years. They continue to give their time and help out because of the horses and the people that they work with. "To be honest, the one single thing that brings me back every year is that through the years, these people have become my family. It's like coming home," said Burnette.
It really is a family affair for the Snowden's. Father and Mother have come for many years and their two daughters have grown up gathering horses at Brown's Park. "You have generation after generation of families that have been out here helping for years. To have the young kids doing what we did umpteen years ago - that's pretty cool.", said Carrie Snowden.
The task for everyone at Brown's Park is to gather up over 500 horses that are scattered over 60,000 acres. While it is not an easy job, it is not as monumental as it first sounds. First off, it is eight fenced sections, each with horses in it, and not a single, open 60,000 acre pasture. The horses have done this before and the job of the wranglers is to put pressure on small bands of horses and get them moving as a group, from section to section, toward the last 8,000 acre holding pasture. That is good in theory, but the horses seem to take great pleasure in making the wranglers work harder than necessary and there are times when it seems like the wild west out there. It is a week long process of convincing the horses to go where the cowboys want them to go.
By Friday the horses have all been gathered, sorted and counted. Then they are released back out into the 8,000 acres of the gather pasture to overnight where there is plenty of food and water for them. Early the next morning, everyone converges at the sorting pens - the guest riders and the wranglers from the Big Gulch Ranch at Craig, the Brown's Park wranglers, the photographers from the workshop, and, of course, the 576 horses.
Once everyone gets organized, the pen gate is opened and the 2012 Great American Horse Drive is officially underway. The horses leave the pen at a dead run and settle into a fast trot for the first five miles. After the first crossing of the Yampa River, horses and riders alike get a 30 minute rest. From here it is 25 miles to the overnight pasture. The next morning the herd is driven through Maybell, Colo., then east 20 miles along Highway 40 to the Big Gulch Ranch.
The Sombrero Ranches Great American Horse Drive is not a dude ranch, and involves some long and serious riding, which is why the "Gate to Gate" buckle at the end of the drive is so coveted. Most guest riders end up sore, but are able to finish and proudly collect their buckle. This year was tough on Guest Riders. Of the 53 that started, 11 did not finish, but 42 have an experience that will last a lifetime - and bragging rights in the form of the Great American Horse Drive "Gate to Gate" trophy buckle.
Andrew Nudd made the trip from his home in Nottingham, England, specifically to ride in the Great American Horse Drive. Andrew described his experience level as a weak medium with no western saddle time. Getting ready to go out on the second day of the drive Andrew said, "the first day was absolutely fantastic. Certainly will stick in my memory for the rest of my life. A bit grueling to begin with, but no pain, no gain and I'm absolutely determined to get that buckle."
Sombrero Ranches is keeping the heritage of the West alive with its annual Horse Drive. The Horse Drive is a real and vanishing western experience. If you think that you have what it takes to complete the Sombrero Ranches Great American Horse Drive and claim your "Gate to Gate" buckle, call Lee Peters at (303) 442-0258 - don't wait, space is limited, and it fills up fast.