Sandhills Ride by Horseback
June 8, 2011
The welcome sign read: “May peace be with you while you stay, And joy be with you on your way.” That is exactly what I found when I rode my horse through northwestern Nebraska … wonderful, warm and welcoming folks who allowed me to stay and nothing but beauty along my way through the Sandhills and pine ridge forests.
I had originally wanted to ride my horse from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as many “long riders” have done. A long rider being defined as someone who rides a horse at least 1,000 miles (without having a truck/trailer/camper along for support). Being from the east, I had doubts about even attempting to ride from the Atlantic even to the Mississippi River with so many paved and busy roads. Now, west of the Mississippi looked a lot more promising as there are wonderful gravel/dirt back roads in the west. I even had a friend in Nebraska who had a 34 mile driveway! Now that is my kind of country. Ranches of thousands of acres were something I could only dream about.
To turn a dream into a reality takes motivation and determination. I had done a short 8 day test ride with my horse, camping each night as I covered 100 miles in a National Forest not far from my home. That went well and other than being out there during the first week of bear season (yikes), it all was great fun. I do love to trail ride.
I packed up my rig and drove to western Nebraska, to Lewellen, near Ash Hollow Park, where I would leave it while I did my short-long ride. I had given a lot of thought as to what I would need to carry: tent, food for dog, horse and me, stove, clothes, rain gear, towel/soap … and that was about it. It helps to be a minimalist in this endeavor. I had gone over some possible plans for a ride route, wanting at first to ride a circular route that would take me south, then west to Chimney Rock, then north to Fort Robinson, then back southeast through the Sandhills. My hosts, Butch being a native Nebraskan, suggested that I just ride northwest from their place, through the Sandhills to Fort Robinson. That turned out to be just what I did and it was the perfect route for my first short-long ride.
Day 1: There was a great deal of laughter as I actually packed up my horse that first day, June 16. My mare, Maple, is very tolerant which I think is a wonderful trait in a long riders mount. She does not care what I put on top of her! Not just any horse can do this.
I loaded saddle pad, saddle, front saddle bags, rear saddle bags, a cantle bag behind the saddle and a tent on the front of the saddle. Part of the challenge for me was that I do not ride in a full western saddle with wide skirts and places to tie to; I ride a “Sports Saddle” which only weighs 11 lbs. I used this saddle successfully for the past 15 years in the sport of endurance. Oh yes, that is what I used to do … race my horse 50-100 miles in a day. Maple and I were well suited for sane, slow trail days now.
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Roughly, I figured that Maple was carrying about 220 lbs. when I was in the saddle (the saddle, pad and I weigh 168 lbs). I rode out at 8:30 a.m. on a beautiful 60 degree day, heading northwest through the Sandhills of Nebraska, accompanied by my faithful dog, Tana.
We rode 13 miles that first day and camped that night at the Thelander Ranch. Let me just say that the best part of my ride was meeting such nice folks all along the way. This ranch has been in this family for six generations which is a pretty impressive statistic! Their huge stone barn with walls 3 feet thick was over 100 years old. These busy ranchers welcomed me and even got into the act on day two by helping me solve some of the pack load distribution and tie down problems. Again, lots of laughter as I packed up and rode out with several new ties holding my packs in place (they tended to shift).
Day 2: We went through the Peterson Ranch, another beautiful and huge ranch, where I met Dan, the foreman, who greeted me and even opened gates for me! He told me that Maple would carry me well on this ride because she was a red dun (Dan happened to own three red duns I think)! Kay, the owner, even stopped to say hi as I rode through the ranch. Everyone was so nice!
We did 19 miles on day two which took its toll on all three of us in the heat. Note: there are no shade trees in the Sandhills! We watered at cow tanks, but kept moving in hopes of finding a creek with some shade. Ah ha … we came to a beautiful creek on a ranch owned by the Mormon church. I learned that they have bought up a number of ranches in the area and have thousands of cattle. This one was originally part of the huge Eldred Ranch. We welcomed the cool creek water and the shade of the huge cottonwoods. A perfect spot to camp. We rested.
Soon, stock trailers began to pull in near me and lots of horses were being readied. I learned that there was to be branding the next day! I was welcomed to watch, help and eat with the cowboys. The ranch manager came out to welcome me and said that I was more than welcome to camp. He said “Little Lady, we don’t get many visitors out here, so the ones we get, we like to treat them right!”
I was treated “right” for sure. He offered his house phone/internet/shower and I assured him that I was doing this ride to get away from phones and internet, but I would take him up on a shower. I decided to stay over a day here to let my dog rest.
Day 3 was the brandin’ … a most efficient operation. Fifty cowboys/wranglers/buckaroos roped/dragged/branded 1,000 calves in 5 hours. This was followed by a wonderful luncheon put on by the gals at the managers home. A good time was had by all. Maple loved having so many horse buddies nearby and Tana spent the day resting. It was a great place to camp.
Day 4 took us into the Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge area where ducks and grouse kept Maple on her toes as we rode along. No shade, but lots of good, lush grass for Maple. I kept busy opening gates at all the cattle guards in the ranching country. At a lot of the guards there are three gates to open and close to leave the road and return to it. Partway through the refuge area, I came to the Dietlein Ranch, where a very nice lady, Nancy, allowed me to camp despite the fact that she was leaving to be away a few days. This lady knew my hosts so I had good references. Because this was summer, the cattle pens were empty, so I had a place to put Maple at night throughout my ride. I would hand graze Maple on a lead and then put her in a big pen at night where she had good water.
Day 5 took us onto another Mormon ranch where there were lots of cattle and biting bugs. We came bucking and kicking to the old Eldred Ranch. No one was around and I put Maple in a stall in a cattle barn to get her into shade and out of the bugs. I just waited for someone to arrive before I set up camp. I never presumed that I could stay unless someone told me that it was okay.
Over the afternoon, several folks came in … the mail lady, Bev, then, Cordell and Cierra, and Reed who all work for the Mormon Ranches. They all assured me that I could stay there, no problem. I even took refuge in the big house during a thunderstorm!
Day 6, a Sunday, found us on the old oil road, 155, heading north. Uh oh, we had a flat tire! Lost a shoe. Maple cannot travel without a shoe and I carry two spares, rubber overshoes called Easy Boots. I slipped one on the barefoot and we rode on. I made it about 18 miles that day to the Beck Ranch where I was fortunate to meet Cindy and John because they had a farrier coming the next day. That was an extreme stroke of good luck for me.
These folks were so nice that I did not even have to pitch my little tent, for they had a small camper trailer to stay in. That was really nice as we had a couple of severe thunderstorms the two nights I was there. Sure enough, on Monday, the farrier came and gave Maple a new set of shoes. Yeah, we were back in business.
Let me interject here that I have proven that without a refrig or pantry to go to, one can and will lose weight! I was doing well on my oatmeal and tea breakfast, my jerky and raisin lunches and chicken soup or pasta noodles for supper. Few desserts! Maple, Tana and I were feeling fit and healthy. However, as my trip progressed, and all the nice folks took me in, I began to eat a lot more. They all fed me! I think I started gaining weight.
While I was at the Beck Ranch, three friends (Louie, Ernie and Sherri) from Lewellen drove up to find me, bringing coolers of food (fruit, brownies, sandwiches and drinks) and we had a fun reunion. As it turned out, a lot of these Nebraska folks know each other, so everyone made me feel very at home. I was still in Garden County (the largest of Nebraska counties) after a week of riding! My friends were caught in a bad thunderstorm going back home that night and the tables were turned … I was worried about them on washed out roads.
While at the Beck Ranch I asked Cindy if she had something to read while I waited a day for the farrier. She gave me a very interesting book, Vanishing Dreams, about the history of Lisco, Neb., written by her Uncle, Wm. Vogel. That was a fun read and had lots of really historic pictures of local places. I was tickled to get to read that one.
Day 8: After a wonderful breakfast and send off from the Beck Ranch, I rode north and out of Garden County. Yesterday was the summer solstice and the longest daylight of the year. I felt great! I rode to a ranch up along Route 20 near Antioch. I had met Janice and Brady yesterday when they had come to fetch some cows of theirs at the Beck Ranch and they had invited me to stop at their place the next night. Janice had me stay in her home and fed me well. Brady went over maps with me to direct me on old trails heading west towards Alliance, so that I would not have to ride along busy Route 20, beside the railroad tracks. While spending almost a day with Janice, I got to ride with her (in a truck) to take two bulls to Rushville. Wow, we stopped at several stores and everything. Civilization!