Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dudes in the Saddle

Howard, Willis and Alden Eaton. Photo courtesy Eatons Ranch.
The Dude Ranch began at Eatons' Ranch in 1879 when the three Eaton brothers came West and established a horse and cattle ranch in Medora, ND. Friends, "dudes," from the East trekked out almost immediately and those who wanted to stay longer than courtesy dictated suggested the Eatons' charge for room and board.

A new concept and business was born. In 1904 the Eatons moved their operation to Wolf Creek near Sheridan, Wyoming, to give their guests better riding terrain.

Dudes in the saddle at Eatons. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The dudes are still coming to the ranch being run by the fourth and fifth generations. Guests have 51 cabins, more than 200 hundred horses and 7,000 acres to explore between the Eatons' property and the Big Horn National Forest. The trout in Wolf Creek and a bass pond keep anglers happy.

Debi and I each had a grand time but for very different reasons. I'll start out and she will follow with the next post.

Cross over the cattle guard and under the Eatons Ranch sign with its Arrowhead and Bar-11 brands and enter a different type and pace of life. You are a dude, dude, and denims are the attire du jour.

The setting is idyllic, surrounded by hills, heavily treed with a creek running along one side. Don't know about playing but the deer certainly come to eat. It's quiet except for bird song and the buzz of benign insects.

Mellon cabin. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The cabins are rustic and comfortable with shaded porches perfect for siting and slowing the day's pace. Mine is Mellon, like many, named for frequent guests.  And yes, these were the Mellons.

Riding through this glorious country is the focus at Eatons and I am apprehensive about the rest of our stay.

You see, I adore horses. Read everything equestrian I could find, spent as much time as I could on horseback, showed English and Western, even rodeoed a bit and grew up with several horses of my own. In my late 30s, I took jumping lessons.

Since then work, life, knees replacements and an artificial hip have kept me out of the saddle. A fall, especially from horseback height, could severely limit any mobility. I had decided not to ride and left my socks and boots at home.

Beginners become comfortable in the saddle.
We were with other travel writers, one with much riding experience, one who had never been on a horse and the rest in between. I followed them down to the barn and corrals where we were to be measured for our saddles.

Saddle fitting comes first. Photo ©  by Judy Wells.
The aromas of horse, leather and hay, my favorite scent, weakened my resolve. Watching the expert and professional approach to fitting guest to saddle was reassuring. It felt good when I got on the sawhorse mount, even better after the fitting.

Evening ride time at Eatons. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Common sense said no but every other fiber of my being said yes. Almost as bad was the indignity of needing a mounting block and no longer having the muscle tone to do what used to be second nature. No running barrels anymore.

Maybe just once? Photo by Judy Wells.
Maybe once, I thought, and signed up for the short, post dinner ride, one of three we could participate in each day except Sunday. Watching the saddling and mounting procedures I relaxed; these people knew what they were doing.

Slow and level to begin. Photo © by Judy Wells.
We asked our wrangler for an easy, level route to reassure the beginners and we headed out along the fence line toward the front pasture. The horses were well-mannered, the pace a walk. Skies darkened with the threat of rain which hit with a vengeance about 20 minutes into our ride. We trotted back to the corral, emerging like drowned rats, but it felt so good in the saddle I decided to do it again.

Crossing Wolf Creek. That's Debi in the pink jacket. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Caution wasn't totally thrown away. There were a few dicey times crossing creeks and climbing up high ridges - my horse was a stumbler - but the views were worth it.

Follow the wrangler. Photo © by judy Wells.
I rode once a day and although I could have taken a map and gone off on my own - a rarity on most dude ranches - I opted to stay with wranglers who knew the trails and terrain.

In between I got to know Peggy, the bartender, with whom I had friends in common. Her late husband had been a lion tamer with Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus and I had met and written about several of his colleagues.

Out to pasture. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Almost as good as riding was watching the wranglers at work. The horse herd was taken back to high pastures each night and rounded up again in the morning.

The day's remuda. Photo © by Judy Wells.
From the large corral, mounts for the day were funneled into a smaller corral where individuals were lassoed and moved to the front corral where they could easily be roped again for saddling and added to the picket line until their riders arrived.

Not today, please. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Some cooperated, others resisted. A real touch of the old West we dudes rarely experience.

Best of all, though, as dudes rather than ranchers, we had wranglers to ride out at 5 a.m. to herd the horses in and do all of the other work from mucking manure to taking the herd back out at night.

Best view of all. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Thank you, Eatons, for putting me back in the saddle.

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