When I was 15, all the adults said the same thing–just wait until you turn 16 and your horse craziness will go right out the window. I was a stubborn teen; I refused to believe that boys (ew), friends and fun things like driving could ever replace sunrise to sunset days spent in the scent and the aura of horses. I swore I’d be jumping and showing until I was a champion and I’d have equines nearby until my dying day.

Then I turned 17, got a boyfriend and did some traveling. Slowly the adults’ unfortunate fortune came true. Four hours of riding daily shrunk to an hour or so a week, then less. Soon my horses became lawn ornaments that I sold to pay for my BA in Professional Writing and International Studies. My life, education, dedication toward horses dwindled down to a few drops of riding jobs here and there, exercising someone’s old pleasure horse for $20 a pop. Then I moved to Colorado, comfortably morphed into a dirtbag climber, ski bum, gear head and horses were lost.

Or so I thought until my recent return to the Rockies when something clicked and the horse bug turned on again. Climbing, guiding, skiing, backpacking were fun but only that–fun but not fulfilling. I craved dirty fingernails, the body worn from a day of hard physical labor, the selfless act of working in harmony with an animal nearly 10 times my size. And so I got a ranch job, but on a ranch of the most unusual sort. True to Aspen form, the billionaire owners of this ranch show up for a mere three weeks a year. During the in between, I ride their immensely expensive, gorgeous trail horses around their 5000 acre ranch. Photographs are forbidden, as is disclosing names of the owners and affiliated parties. So here, a few snapshots through words. Close your eyes and let the images unfold. Bring to mind a most spectacularly beautiful place in the West….

A view of Mt. Sopris on my 'commute' to work

Saddlesore, more saddlesore than I ever remember in 20-some years of riding. My legs ache, butt bones scream each time they touch a fresh saddle. But the ranch, the ranch is a fantasy land for the horse and mountain lover. My days are now filled with horse sweat, western tack, silky horse hair and hours on hours in the saddle, gazing at that twin peaked mountain. Sopris morphs before us each day, shedding her snow for scree, exposing her fierce black ridge lines, growing a skirt of lime green aspen leaves. We trot through the meadows of her apron, our horses picking across her streams (her seams) and dancing among the old growth aspen groves. And the horses we ride–these amazing horses–top bloodlines, perfect builds, buckskins, sorrels, roans, bays, a palomino. It’s all like I’m floating in a dream, only it’s real, and somehow I’m getting paid to do it.

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Today I rode out to a point I’d never been to before with Junior–a white speckled brassy coated horse with a black mane and tale. A light breeze played by my ear as we gazed across a full 280 degree view. Red rock cliffs and hills of the Crystal River valley stretched nearly to Redstone; valleys of the Thompson creek drainage and our great Roaring Fork Valley; the river (and the road)  that runs through it heading northwest clear to I70; the sheer faces of Glenwood Canyon that rise and meet the Flattops’ northern expanse; northeast to Glenwood Springs and Lookout Mountain; due east to Basalt and the shimmering waters of Ruedi Resevoir, then southeast farther toward Aspen which the smallest flank of Sopris blocked. Views like this are often reserved for mountain summits, but here on the ranch we have the views and the details often too small to notice when seen from a mountain top. Up here I am the bird, the red-tailed hawk that flies in low circles screaming its call. Up here I see the world below but the world does not see me, perched on this horse on this point in this place unimaginable.

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I’ve never seen Sopris look so big. At the base of it’s 12,965 foot summit, I am dwarfed by the nearly 5000 foot remaining vertical rise to the top. A meadow sits at tree line’s wake, a 30 acre meadow filled with multicolored steer being raised for slaughter. Jose, the Mexican who cleans the stalls, says that Matt–the cowboy who runs the cows for the ranch’s owner–is a rich man, rich with beef. Only in the west do great mountains have acres of open land grazed by angus, herefords and the like. Here on the ranch, I’m surprised at the depth of true wildwest cowboy culture that remains in this region of Colorado increasingly dominated by adrenaline addicts who come for unbeatable skiing, climbing, rafting, kayaking, fishing, cycling, mountain biking, trail running, hiking and backpacking. But the cowboys came long before the climbing gurus or kayak queens, and if you look beyond all the lycra zipping around Carbondale and her surroundings, there are quite a few cowboy hats still to be found. Pretty soon, I may be donning one myself.

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