“The first date should be about getting to know the other person. If you show interest in what the other person likes and how they communicate – it goes better,” said Ben.
That seems like solid advice I think as I nod my head. But then again, I’ve never been too good at dating before, did I really think this time would be any different? Self-doubt was starting to creep in; I am a 50 year old single woman…I clearly don’t have much luck with dating in my life.
Jake was tall, dark, handsome, and curious. I had seen him in the distance and he looked confident yet kind.
Maybe this time it would be different, after all, Jake had dated a lot, and was used to adjusting to many different styles and personalities. But this time would mainly be different because Jake is a horse.
I had arrived at Vista Verde Ranch in Northern Colorado to have a dude ranch experience; enjoy the fresh air, western culture, wide open spaces, and improve my beginning level horseback riding. And apparently, I’d be working on my dating skills too.
A Diamond in the Rough – Vista Verde Ranch
Vista Verde is not your typical Colorado Dude Ranch – they describe themselves as a ‘luxury western all-inclusive experience’. They offer a high degree of personalized service; they basically ooze Western hospitality.
Once I started talking to the other guests, I realized I was the only one there who was a first-timer. Every guest at the ranch that week was a return visitor – and not just a one-time return visitor – but these are people who had come there for years and generations. That is the sign of a great travel experience!
I asked one of the ‘regulars’ why she continues to come back to Vista Verde every year. “I come back for the horses; they are special here. If you aren’t super comfortable on horses, this is the place to be,” she responded. I must be in the right place I thought.
Vista Verde is not just about horse riding; you can fly fish, mountain bike, do archery, practice your horsemanship, do wine tasting, photography, yoga, and hiking. This is all included in your stay. I told you this isn’t your typical dude ranch.
But I was mainly there to try to get more comfortable with horseback riding. In my travels I have ridden many horses, however, it was normally a short experience with horses that were simply following each other nose-to-tail. That’s super – but much like dog sledding…I wanted to move from being a passenger to being part of the team. In fact, I don’t think I ever got on the same horse twice in all of my experiences. To put it in dating terms – it was a bunch of one-night stands.
Head Horse Matchmaker
Samuel, the head horseman, was a tall, slim young man with a buzz cut. He wore jeans, with a big belt buckle, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. He looked like a young country music star. Samuel asked about my riding experience and I went into detail about my past nose-to-tail rides, as well as a time I was bucked off a horse. He looked at me and silently measured me up.
He turned and looked at a big whiteboard with horses’ names on it. Samuel was a man of few words, like all good cowboys. He stared at the board for a long time, I was curious about what was going through his head as he focused on the board. Finally, he picked up a dry-erase marker and wrote my name down in a square next to the name Jake. The match had been made – Jake and I were to be a team.
“On the most basic level I’m thinking about a horse that is the right size for a rider. I also take into account your experience level,” said Samuel when I asked him about his matchmaking process. “You said you were a bit more than a beginner but you were eager to learn – I also take all of that into account.”
He said there are some horses that are well-trained and nice horses, but it’s like driving a Formula 1 car. It’s a nice engineered vehicle – but it’s complicated and stressful to drive. Some people want a horse that is a bit more forgiving. This analogy made complete sense to me. I didn’t need a Porsche…I needed a Toyota Camry.
“Jake’s trot and lope are comfortable and smooth, and I thought he would be good for you as you said that you were looking to practice that. He’s a sweetheart and he’s curious. Some people want a horse that is all business, but I thought you wanted a friend – and that is his personality,” Samuel explained when I asked him how he picked Jake for me.
Wow – this cowboy had sized me up correctly – curiosity…wanting a friend…that’s just the match I was looking for! I was actually surprised that he surmised all of that from our short little conversation about my riding experience.
Samuel has ridden all of the 70+ horses at Vista Verde and he knows each of their personalities. I wondered how he kept them all straight. Plus, he also kept track (in his head) of who rode each horse last and what their personality was like; that way he could give the horse some variety. It was clear, making the horses happy was of equal importance as making the guest happy to him.
Next, I was fitted for a saddle – something that had never been done for me before. A new ranch hand looked me up and down and went into the back where more than 70 saddles sat perched along the wall. He came back out with a saddle and swung it over a sawhorse and asked me to get on. This is exactly why dude ranches are vastly different than a trail ride – so much more thought goes into the experience if you are going to be riding for a week.
Love at First Sight – Maybe?
That night at happy hour, we took a wagon ride out to the pasture with glasses of wine in hand to see the horses. As soon as we entered the pasture the horses all looked at us – we were in their world now. Some kept on eating, and some were curious and came closer to the wagon. Our wagon driver asked us who our horse was for the week and we all rattled off names. She pointed out each of them in the pasture as we rode by.
There were more than 70 horses, I was again amazed at how the ranch hands knew each horse so well. She pointed out the horse ‘friend groups’ and the alpha horses. It was impressive and made us all the more excited for our first ride the next day.
In true curious form, Jake was one of the first horses to come up to the wagon and check us out. So, we had a first look at each other over a glass of wine. A good start!
I went back to my cabin that night excited for my next couple of days at the ranch with Jake.
Stay for an All-Inclusive Week
Normally the minimum stay at Vista Verde is a week. It’s a full week of riding and activities plus food, drink, and lodging. Absolutely everything was taken care of. Every day there was even a new batch of homemade cookies out at the lodge for us to enjoy! Yes – this ranch had its very own pastry chef.
Tip – the peanut butter chocolate chip was the bomb!
My stay though was a bit unusual as I only had 2 nights at the ranch due to my Northern Colorado road trip I was doing for Visit Colorado; I was on a tight schedule. At the time I didn’t think it was any big deal to only be there two nights, but once you get to Vista Verde, you really don’t want to leave. After seeing my incredible cabin with a hot tub and rocking chairs on the front porch, a wood burning stove in the living area, and a porch view of the pasture – I was immediately sad that I was only going to be there 2 nights!
Plus, once you get a taste of the incredible food, you certainly won’t want to leave. Many of the dinners were served outdoors and cooked on the big outdoor grill. It had a grate with charcoal in the bottom, and a movable cooking surface that can be dropped down for intense, high-temperature grilling, or lifted up for smokier cooking. The chefs at Vista Verde take as much pride in preparing creative and freshly prepared cookouts as they do in the formal dinners and wine pairings served in the dining room.
It’s not surprising that Vista Verde Ranch is among the top 50 ranch experiences in the world.
In the winter months, they do allow stays for less than a week though if you are looking for a short getaway.
Vista Verde Ranch Minimum Stays
From June-September the stays are Sunday-Sunday. Come October, Vista Verde switches over to offering some shorter stays. Guests can still come a week if they want the full experience, but for those with less time on their hands they also offer a Sun-Thurs or Thurs-Sun option. Wintertime is a 3 night minimum with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s weeks which are Sat-Sat.
Getting to Know the Horses At Vista Verde Ranch
“These horses are special,” said Ben the Manager of Vista Verde. “Horses are designed to think of us as predators. Like most prey, their eyes are on the sides, not in the front like ours. It takes a lot for a horse to let a predator sit on top of them.”
I had never really thought about that fact before. Ben had a way of explaining things that really resonated with me.
It was Ben who used the dating analogy, a way I had never really thought of the horse/rider relationship before. He humbly talked about his own dating experience, and how he found his wife and won her over.
Every week a ranch horse has to adjust to a new rider and leader. That’s what makes these horses special. Ben explained that the horses will make adjustments for you, but you have to treat them like a team. They are looking for leadership.
He told us to consider this first morning with our horse as a first date and get to know its personality, and let the horse get to know us.
My First Meeting with Jake – Taking it Slow
I have been on my share of first dates before, and each one you go into with the hope that it will work out. I showed up at the barn with my cowboy boots, and cowboy hat, thinking that Jake would be impressed with this look.
Tip – if you don’t have your own cowboy boots – you can borrow them from Vista Verde Ranch along with saddle bags, riding helmets, and raincoats.
In my past, horseback riding experiences wasted no time. I normally got on the horse and someone showed me how to hold the reins, and off we went on a nose-to-tail ride. This is where Vista Verde is different.
That first morning with our horse we didn’t even get on the horse right away! Instead, we led/walked our horse out into the pasture and then did an exercise to get the horse to respect our body and movements. Standing on the ground with a rope in our hand we were instructed to walk toward our horse and make it move backward. This is weirdly more intimidating than it sounds. Jake was a large boy, trying to ‘push’ him backward while he was towering over me on the ground was not necessarily easy. It took a lot of hand waving and making myself look big!
I also practiced walking into his space to move him around in circles to the left or right all based on where I placed my body. We were learning how to lead the horse, and it was the best hour I’ve spent with a horse ever. It made me comfortable with Jake before I actually put my foot in the stirrup and got on him.
Ben described this process as being put in a new car and you have to figure out what all the knobs and buttons are. Horses have different personalities and levels of confidence; this was our chance to figure out our horse – just like a first date.
Getting in the Saddle
I stepped up and into the saddle, and a ranch hand showed me how to use the reins for turns, stops, and backing up. Jake and I went in more circles as I tried to get comfortable with the queues I was supposed to give Jake. We took off for a little walk in a small group. I felt comfortable with Jake, it was going pretty well, except for his penchant for wanting to eat grass which I was not supposed to let him do.
I looked up and admired the golden hills ahead of us as we slowly walked along. That’s when it hit me – there was no one in front of me – Jake and I weren’t following another horse, instead, we were walking side by side on another horse. This was a big step…I was actually leading him. I’d turn him right, left, and occasionally make him stop and he actually followed my lead. This wasn’t nose-to-tail…this was the real thing!
I decided right then that I would definitely see Jake again…a second date was in the works!
I had no time to waste, that afternoon I met Jake for the 2nd date for a trail ride. It was a beautiful afternoon to go riding; sunny with a nice breeze. Jake and I picked up right where we left off, however, this was a bit more of a typical nose-to-tail ride since the trail was narrow in most parts. We wound in and out of the golden aspens up to a ridge where we could see out over the whole valley.
Occasionally I’d whisper in Jake’s ear and let him know how good he was doing. And I would notice him looking back at me – I’m pretty sure we were connecting. However, Jake still loved to eat grass at every chance he had. I tried to stop him as I was instructed by the ranches at our morning clinic – but he’s a big, strong boy and that didn’t always work!
We ended the ride going through some water and a little trot back to the barn.
Experience Hands On Ranch Work at Vista Verde
The next day it was time for our 3rd date, and I decided it was time to show Jake that I really liked him. I took my apple that was in my cabin, and I cut it up and put it in a little tin. I straightened my cowboy hat as I went out the door – I was excited to see Jake today!
However, I was embarking on something that made me a little nervous – cow handling. Yet at the same time, I was also pretty excited about learning how to move cows and control Jake at the same time. Rarely do you get to do exercises like this at a dude ranch, it’s just another thing that sets Vista Verde apart!
I think by now Jake knew my voice – he seemed to perk up when I started talking to him at the barn. And then he saw the apple in my hand…and his eyes lit up! From my past experience dating and managing men…I knew the quickest way to win over men was through their stomachs. Jake devoured half of the apple as I rubbed his nose and talked to him about the day to come. I decided to save the 2nd half of the apple for when we finished our work today as a little treat.
Samuel led a group of us to the pasture with the cows. We gathered around him on our horses as he talked about how to use the fences to our advantage as a natural barrier to guide the cattle. He cautioned us from getting too close to the cows because we didn’t want to make them run. “Forget what you have seen in the movies – we don’t want the cows to run,” he said with a grin. “If you find yourself loping after a cow you are doing something wrong. Cows just need to walk slow, don’t apply too much pressure.”
I personally didn’t want to be loping after a cow – so this was fine with me! Then he gave us our final order – “As a group…go pick up those cows and bring them over here.” He said this so matter-of-factly – like it was as simple as opening a door. However, opening a door didn’t make my heart rate rise normally.
I looked off in the distance and couldn’t even see the cows. I wasn’t really sure if I could get Jake to move around swiftly and accurately enough to do this. I looked around at everyone else and they seemed relaxed and confident. After all, they had all been here before and done this! I suddenly said to Samuel in a meek voice, “I have no idea what I’m doing, I’ve never done this before.”
“That’s ok, Jake has done this before.”
That simple answer made me feel warm and calm inside – he was right – Jake and I were a team after all!
Samuel’s final piece of advice was to have fun and enjoy it. “No matter what, your number one priority is taking care of your horse. Anything you can do to not overwork the horse and be gentle and kind to them. Be respectful to your horse and if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. They are your partner,” he said while patting his horse on the neck, “This is the most important livestock out here.”
This pep talk was just what I needed; we all took off towards the ridge where the 11 heifers were.
We worked together pretty well as one of the really good riders got behind the cattle and slowly pushed them without making them run and the rest of us flanked out and gave them a wide berth.
We were all moving the cattle along at a slow pace. I hung out on the periphery, not totally confident of my ability yet to maneuver Jake. I think he realized this too as he took this time to eat some grass. Apparently, the apple was just an appetizer!
A couple of cattle escaped our horseshoe-shaped boundary we had made around them and a few riders went after them. I tried to keep up with them, but I couldn’t so I hung back and helped out as they got closer.
We managed to get all 11 into the pen just as Samuel requested. And we all let out a collective holler. I thought we’d have another similar task moving the cattle around the field after this, but Samuel had other ideas.
Cattle Penning and Cow Hockey
Now that the cattle were in the small pen, we were ready to continue to put our ranch skills to the test. We broke into teams and were introduced to cattle penning – basically separating the cattle into groups within the pen.
All of the cattle were huddled into a corner and we’d pick out one heifer and then go in and try to separate her from the herd and move her to the other side of the pen. I sort of felt like this was a level of precision I wasn’t really capable of – but I might as well try in the name of fun! Luckily, I had a good partner for this task, and we were both able to do pretty well.
Finally, Samuel asked the group, “Have you ever played cow hockey?”
Many people nodded in agreement and I sat on Jake dumbfounded…I couldn’t even imagine what cow hockey was. Was it like polo on cows? Did it have something to do with cow manure? Was there ice involved?
Luckily – it was none of those things. Instead, the cattle in the pen were split up into two ends of the pen. Two horse teams were each assigned a ‘side’ of the pen; the goal was to get the most cattle over to your side of the pen in 3 minutes. The ‘game’ had an element of offense and defense to it…but mainly it meant that you had to have pretty good horse handling skills. I looked at Jake, gave him a pat, and thought…I hope you know how to do this.
This was the longest 3 minutes of my life. Dust was flying, cattle were running around, and I was trying to put Jake in ‘reverse’ as I defended our side of the pen. It was chaos! At one point when I was on offense trying to go ‘steal’ the other teams’ cattle and move them to my side, I could tell Jake was getting pretty riled up. His ears went back and I immediately got nervous. From my years of kitten fostering and working with cats, I know that when a cat’s ears go back, they are pissed. I assumed it was the same for horses.
Then Jake suddenly bit a cow on its hind end – I didn’t even know what to do – I hadn’t seen this side of Jake before! Luckily Samuel saw my confusion and said to me that it was ok – Jake was just trying to move the cows, he wasn’t mad. I guess this was the part where “Jake has done this before” comes into play.
We won a game of cow hockey and lost a game. For my first time – I figured that was pretty good! Plus, I saw a whole new handsome side of Jake that I was pretty impressed with!
The two days I had at Vista Verde Ranch went way too fast. I gave Jake the 2nd half of the apple and whispered in his ear telling him how special he was and how I hoped I would see him again. It was sad to leave him; we were such a great match. I wish real dating was this easy.
I thought about how far my horse skills had come in only 2 days at the ranch, what could I have accomplished in a week? Hopefully one day I’ll find out, and I hope that Jake is still ‘available’.
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Learn more about Vista Verde Ranch
Visit the Vista Verde Website to learn more about the unique experiences you can have at this one of a kind guest ranch near Steamboat Colorado!
I was a guest of Visit Colorado and Vista Verde Ranch for this stay. However, all opinions expressed here are mine.