There are moments in your life where you wonder whether things can get any better. If you like horses then the BitterRoot Ranch in Wyoming has to be a place that creates one of those moments in life. It would be possible to describe it in just one sentence and then to leave it at just that – if you like horses, this is the closest you will get to horse paradise on earth.
We spent a week as guests of Mel and Bayard Fox and their son Richard and his wife Hadley. Bought in the 1970s, the BitterRoot is a working ranch where they farm cattle as well as a small number of sheep. There are also llamas, dogs, cats, ducks, chicken, peacocks and turkeys (the llamas live with the sheep to guard them from wolves). So everything to make the place heaven for children, especially the dogs who they never left alone while we were there. By the way, don’t engage a Wyoming farmer in a conversation about the (re)introduction of Alaskan wolves into the region by the ‘conservationists’ – it’s like going to a dinner party back at home and talking about politics, sex or religion – you just don’t want to go there. But most important of all, there are 140 of the most beautiful horses. This is Mel’s department where she breeds Arabians and other breeds. They are the perfect hosts – both horse and human alike! Bayard spent much of his life abroad in government service, Mel was brought up on a farm in Kenya and educated in the UK. So there is a genuine international feel to their hospitality and the table talk over dinner. The week we were staying there were French, Dutch, Japanese and American guests as well as us lot (the English and the Irish). Plus the game warden who came in for dinner after having checked on a couple of wolf-kills in the herd – another interesting insight into a life that most of us will never experience.
The ranch itself is 17 miles along an un-made road from the main highway. The nearest town, Dubois, is another ten or twelve miles further along the highway. It’s essentially a long way from anywhere. And apart from the entertainment of meeting the other guests the only other ‘entertainment’, other than the riding of course, the fishing (which didn’t bite despite eating most of Bayard’s flies) and (as we found out, if you ask nicely) the clay (skeet) shooting, is the weekly rodeo on Friday night in Dubois, which is well worth the experience and something else you will never have experienced back home. The place is definitely remote, you won’t see anyone not connected to the ranch and you don’t need to lock your door.
Guest accommodation is in a series of cabins ranged along the river that runs through the ranch. Not 5-star hotel stuff, but clean and comfortable. Anyway, you come here for the riding, not the beds. The food is great, all locally produced and there’s loads of wine supplied. Although you learn, just once, that getting up in the morning for a 5-hour ride with a hangover isn’t exactly the greatest way to spend the day. There are never more than 30 guests at any one time and when we were there it was more like 15 of us, so it’s rather like a large family gathering. This might seem a bit intimate, but it really works in the environment once you get to meet and talk to the others.
So … to the riding. Where to start? Mel is very strict with her riders and horses alike and the first thing that happens is an assessment of riding skills to make sure she understands what you can and cannot do. Here there is fast riding for the best riders and trail walks for the less experienced. You need to know the basics like trotting and so on, but if you can gallop (well, they call it cantering, but by European city riding standards, it’s actually galloping) then you really experience the open spaces and the quality of the horses. There are a lot of steep ascents and descents on the trails, so the discipline of standing in your stirrups to take the weight off your horse’s back on difficult steep sections of the trails is important. The horses are mostly neck-reined of course, but this is an easy transition which you pick up in moments if you are used to the more rigorous contact method. The Tortuga (who had at one point threatened to sleep through the entire week) had only done a ‘learn to ride in a day’ course and one other lesson and she quite happily rode 40 hours during the week. Unless you are off on pack rides or the all day picnic rides, then you do three hours in the saddle each morning and another two to three hours in the afternoon after a lengthy lunch break. Mel matches you with five or six horses for the week so you never have a tired or over-worked animal. Each of the 140 horses has a name and a character and a circle of friends. It’s very touching when you ride out and the wranglers point out all their idiosyncrasies and you realise just what a personality each horse is. And yes, inevitably you get to find a favourite. It’s clear just how much they all love their work – both horses and wranglers!
The scenery is breathtaking. There is no other way to describe it. Mountains, rivers, forests, plains – you ride it all. The ranch is about 7,200 feet above sea level, so you really do notice the altitude when you wake up in the morning with that characteristic shortness of breath – one day we rode up to 9,500 feet for what must be one of the most stunning views anywhere on earth. Each ride has two wranglers who ride out with you. There were six of them in all looking after us during the week. They are experienced women who clearly delight in what they do and most of them seemed to have come back to work at the ranch year after year and often after being guests themselves. They really know the terrain, the trails and their horses. We had a few tumbles in the group and they knew exactly what to do and how to restore confidence back in the saddle. Mind you, when you’re still two hours riding from home and there isn’t a nearest road, there’s not really too much choice in the matter but to get back on.
One of the most extraordinary moments is standing by the corral gates in the evening when the rides are all back home just as they let the horses out to the overnight pasture above the ranch. Watching a hundred or more horses rushing past you it’s hard to explain the thrill and the energy, the swirling dust and the excitement among the animals. It’s like they’ve been let out of school at the end of a long summer term day. I can’t think where else you would ever experience this.
Did I mention the unbelievable stars at night? The startling brightness of the Milky Way (both bits of it)? Did I mention playing with the heart-breakingly beautiful foals? Did I mention the beef? Did I mention hugging your horse? Did I mention being taught to fly fish by Bayard (unsuccessfully)? I can’t fit it all in. This is a blog, not a travel guide … but I hope you get the message.