A Herd of 400 Horses: Keeping Western heritage alive with Sombrero Great American Horse Drive | TheFencePost.com

A Herd of 400 Horses: Keeping Western heritage alive with Sombrero Great American Horse Drive

Story and Photos by Tony Bruguiere
Fort CoLlins, Colo.
Once the horses have left the wide open spaces of Bureau of Land Management land and moved onto Colorado Highway 50, they are confined to the highway right-of-way and are much easier to photograph. They really bunch together when crossing the many bridges in the Yampa River Valley.
Tony Bruguiere |

You can see the dust rising into the clear Colorado sky long before you can see or hear the horses.

As the herd moves into view, you can begin to hear the sound of four hundred sets of hooves. Suddenly the herd is upon you and your senses are assaulted by everything that is going on.

The swirling dust is everywhere.

The pounding of thousands of hoof beats seems to shake the ground. The cries of the wranglers and the sharp crack of their stock whips above the heads of the horses can be heard over the sound of the horses.

To an observer, the tension and adrenalin is almost palatable as the cowboys work to keep the four hundred individuals together and moving as one.

Suddenly the herd has passed and the sensory tabloid is moving away. The intensity is receding and the awesome silence of the high sagebrush country returns.

Does this sound like a historical narrative from the Old West of the 1800s? Well, it certainly could have happened just like this back then, but this is describing an event that happened in early May near Craig, Colo.

Gathering up horses from winter pastures and driving them to a central ranch, where the horses could be re-shod and wranglers could ride the “fresh” off of the horses before sending them out to their summer jobs as stable horses in Rocky Mountain National Park, was pretty routine for Rex Walker and the crew at the Sombrero Ranch. Aside from RMNP, Sombrero Ranches rents horses in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico.

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, so moving 400 horses was just another day for them.

The American West of history has become a mythical place and the cowboy a heroic icon to many in the eastern United States and Europe. There are people on the East Coast that have never seen a living, breathing horse that was not attached to a carriage. They certainly have never seen 400 to 600 horses running free.

In fact, not many people in the West today have seen that many free running horses, and they absolutely have not been a part of a real horse drive.

Moving large herds of horses or cattle is something that has all but vanished from the West of the 21st century. Cowboy tradition runs deep at Sombrero Ranches, and 30 years ago Rex Walker decided to share with others the Western experience of gathering and moving a large herd of horses. Walker opened his horse drive up to a limited number of guest riders, and the Great American Horse Drive was born.

“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,” said Rex Walker.

Although guest riders pay for the experience, they are not coddled and, to the best of their ability, are expected to be participating members of the horse drive. People come from all over the world to be guest riders, and each year Sombrero has to turn away some of the eager applicants that want to share Rex Walker’s vision of “trying to keep the West alive.”

The experience of being one of the riders to help move the horses across open country in Moffett County is something that just cannot be duplicated. Moffett County is larger than many states, yet has only 12,000 residents. The vastness of the open space can be somewhat disconcerting to many that live in crowded cities.

Riding experience is not required, but it does make the time spent in the saddle a little easier. Knowledgeable wranglers make certain that guest riders have lots of saddle time prior to the drive. The real requirement to making it through to the end and receiving the coveted, custom made “Gate to Gate” buckle is determination.

If a guest rider shows desire and grit, the trained Sombrero wranglers will go all out to make sure that a guest rider completes the two day drive.

Sombrero Ranches is keeping their 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 Ranch’s Great American Horse Drive and claim your “Gate to Gate” buckle, call Lee Peters at (303) 442-0258 — and don’t wait, as space is limited, and it fills up fast. ❖