Ever wanted to gallop across a wide open plain in a stetson, yelling 'Yeee-haw!'? Whether you're a first timer or a hard-bitten rider, there's a real cowboy adventure out there for you
The lives of cowboys – and cowgirls – are a Hollywood producer’s dream. Think iconic images of freedom and adventure, of hard-riding heroes wearing distressed denims and shiny silver buckles, galloping astride valiant horses in awesome big-sky country.
But that’s not the real story. It all started in Spain, where 800 years of Moorish rule brought agile steeds, sit-deep saddles and the power-steering efficiency of the curb bit to the country’s horsemen. Spanish riders used this improved horsepower in their colonisation of the New World. The grasslands of the Americas were a paradise for grazing animals; feral horses and cattle grew into thousands-strong herds that were free to anybody who could catch them. The catching was the problem. In huge, fenceless wildernesses, the skills of the cowboy – lassoing, herding, branding etc – were born.
Still, the life of the cowboy – cavalryman, farmer, dandy, adrenalin-sports junky and cow psychologist – is too romantic to not want to join in. Finding work on a ranch is difficult. If you were happy to labour all hours in extremes of weather, weren’t a vegetarian and relished monotonous, often dangerous, work with little in the way of comforts other than a bunk and a few roll-up ciggies, then there are ranches that might take you on. But don’t count on it. And, if you did, don’t count on it being anything like the life you – or Hollywood – have imagined.
However, everyone from the city-slicker dude to the experienced rider can climb into the saddle for a western adventure. Outfits across the Americas, and in Australia and Spain, provide romantic and more comfy cowboy escapades. You can mount up for cattle drives, sleeping out beneath the stars and eating chuck wagon meals around campfires. You can learn to throw lassoes and brand cattle. And you can take long gallops over wild, wild countryside. Here are the best places to learn to ride out...
Cottonwood Ranch, near Elko, Nevada
Best for… Those wanting to ride their favourite western. Aimed at intermediate to experienced riders, though can also take beginners.
Why go? This working ranch run by the Smith family combines hard riding with the comforts of deluxe accommodation and hot tubs. Mounts are Quarter Horse type – a muscly breed, native to the US – ridden western style. There are 1,000 head of cattle to husband – that’s plenty of roping, branding, fence riding and bringing in strays to help with. And several times a year the cattle are moved between grazing areas; guests can join in this drive, sleeping out in tents and eating from a horse-drawn chuck wagon with the ranch wranglers.
How to get there: Ranch America runs trips from £1,745 for a week, including flights.
When to go: Mid-May to autumn. In 2006 there are cattle drives starting on 12 August and 16 September.
What else is there? Shop in Elko for essential cowboy hats, boots and belts; get literary at Elko’s annual Cowboy Poetry Festival; indulge in the bright lights of Las Vegas, just an hour’s flight away.
Or try this… For families keen to head into the wild west, Brush Creek, Wyoming, provides horses for all levels of rider as well as fishing, hiking, rafting and visits to nearby Yellowstone National Park. In The Saddle runs trips from £1,452 for the week, including flights to Denver.
Springbrook Farm, Goomeri, Queensland
Best for… Wannabe jackaroos and jillaroos who want to experience station life or find longer-term employment in the outback. Suitable for total novices and upwards.
Why go? Dan and Joanna Burnet run short Introduction to Agriculture courses at their farm in south-east Queensland, guaranteeing to find a suitable farm job somewhere in Australia for those who pass the course successfully. Learn to work with and around horses, move cattle, drive quad-bikes (‘the Japanese Quarter Horse’), build fences and do all the other jobs that a hand on a cattle station will end up doing. People who show the greatest ability – and, above all, guts – will get the pick of the jobs, but many who’ve spent time working in the outback speak of life-changing experiences. Even if you’re not parlaying your course into six months of gap year employment, the course is still a great chance to see what Australian cowboying and farming are all about.
How to get there: Visitoz runs nine-day courses for A$1,790 (£728), including three days beach lazing and a five-day agricultural course, followed by a ‘guaranteed’ paid farm or station job if you pass. Many airlines fly to Brisbane, where the Visitoz team will pick you up.
When to go: Year round
What else is there? Enjoy the sights and city lights of Brisbane; hit the Gold Coast and the sandy shores of Fraser Island.
Or try this… The Kosciuszko Ride, led by John Rudd through Kosciuszko National Park, promises nights camped out in swags and the chance to sight brumbies (feral horses) and other Australian wildlife. Although you’re riding challenging Man from Snowy River country, these rides are suited to all levels of rider. In The Saddle runs six-night trips for £585 excluding flights.
Estancia Huechahue, San Martín de los Andes, Patagonia
Best for… Romantics who want to experience gaucho life in a stunning wilderness. Though all levels can ride at Huechahue, riders confident at all paces will enjoy this open country most.
Why go? Hard against the Andes, this working estancia is as good a chance as any to ride – and help with day-to-day horse and cattle work – on a frontier-style Patagonian estancia. There is cattle to be moved, herds of horses to be driven – which can mean fast riding for good riders – and long distances to be covered. Introduced deer and boar are seen out on the grasslands, and you’ll head out on at least one evening ride to watch condors coming in to roost on the high cliffs above the estancia. There are puma, but they’re rarely seen. Once out of the saddle life becomes classically comfortable: a hot tub, great food around the dining table and drinks in front of a roaring fire.
When to go: The southern hemisphere’s summer – November to February – is the time to head to this northern part of Patagonia.
What else is there? Famed trout fishing on Patagonian rivers; local rodeos; wildlife watching.
Or try this… Estancia Los Potreros in Cordoba is the Anglo-Argentine Begg family’s cattle estancia. It’s great for groups and families that include less experienced riders – you can help with gaucho work, play country polo and take long or shorter rides. From £130 per night inclusive of riding, meals and activities – contact Ride World Wide.
Finca el Moro, Sierra de Aracena, Huelva, Andalucía
Best for… Keen riders with a taste for good food and wine. A ride for those firm in the saddle at all paces.
Why go? In the New World the horses of Iberia, along with the Spanish saddle and the Conquistadors’ style of riding, became the basis for cowboy horsemanship across the Americas. Hermione Tudor runs horse trips around the white villages of the Sierra Aracena on Spanish horses ridden local style under the sheepskin-covered silla vaquera. The horses are responsive to experienced riders and there are opportunities for long canters through the chestnut forests and across oak-shaded grasslands, as well as lazy midday picnics and siestas deep in the country. The key to this ride’s pleasures lies in crossing private estates and following little-known tracks – the benefit of Nick and Hermione’s local knowledge.
How to get there: Contact Hermione and Nick Tudor (www.fincaelmoro.com) for more information. Six-day trips cost €1,375 (£970) including accommodation in the Sierras and a night in Seville. Many airlines, including BA, Iberia and Ryanair, fly to Seville. The finca is a two-hour drive away; transfers are included.
When to go: Spring for the carpets of wild flowers or autumn for abundant local delicacies.
What else is there? Superb restaurants featuring famed local hams, cheeses and sherries; an exploration of a little-known corner of Spain.
Or try this… The Anadalucían Lakes Ride in the Arcos de la Frontera is the ideal weekend break for those with non-riding partners. Those in the saddle ride around Lake Amarga or deep into the mountains, while non-horsy partners can cycle, canoe, windsurf and paraglide, before meeting up again in the evening. Weekend trips with Equitour cost from £350 per person based on three nights’ twin share, including two days’ riding, most meals and transfers.
Copper Canyon, Mexico
Best for… Experienced and adventurous riders with a head for heights.
Why go? You start the ride on the Chihuahua Pacific Railway to reach the start of the canyon. Horses for the ride are mountain-bred and surefooted – they need to be to follow the old silver miners’ trails and mule tracks through the canyon. Sheer drops challenge those with vertigo, but the reward is reaching remote pueblos where you stay with local people, or camp out under the stars. This is the land of Tarahumara Indians and the ghosts of silver miners long dead. And it’s the land where a hard day’s across landscapes straight out of Bogart’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre is capped off by a round of fireside margaritas.
How to get there: A 12-night trip (including eight days’ riding) with Unicorn Trails costs £1,988 excluding flights. Continental flies from London to Chihuahua with one stop. The trip includes transfers from Chihuahua airport.
When to go: Year round
What else is there? Mexican rodeos are the original and best with exceptional roping skills and plenty of pomp and mariachi music.
Or try this… Stay at Finca Enyhe, in the Sierra de Madre, where you ride out from a colonial hacienda on relaxed trips hosted by José and Lucia who ride in elegant, sombrero-ed charro style. Travel between November and March and you might see hundreds of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies. The eight night Classic Ride costs from £1,270 excluding flights with Ride World Wide.
Chilcotin Mountains, British Columbia
Best for… Able riders who want an authentic, horse-powered wilderness experience. Big climbs and remote areas demand a feel for adventure.
Why go? It’s the ultimate North American safari – spot grizzly bear, timber wolf, bald eagles, bighorn sheep and moose from horseback. Your mount is a sure-footed Cayuse from the Cariboo-Chilcotin Mountains, where feral herds still roam. Rides go to different habitats depending on the seasons: in spring you ride in the low meadows, where the grizzlies congregate to breed; as summer progresses the bears and the rides move up into the sub-Alpine region, where you can follow their territory markers, explore dens and help collect data for research. And all while riding and camping out in stunning mountain landscapes.
How to get there: Equitour’s seven day Grizzly Study Adventure trips cost from £1,225 excluding flights. They also offer other trips in the Chilcotins. Several airlines fly to Vancouver; transfers from the airport are included.
When to go: Spring to early autumn.
What else is there? White-water rafting; jet boating; fishing; wilderness mountain-biking.
Or try this… At Edmonton Ranch riders of all abilities can learn cattle penning and western horsemanship as well as enjoying long trail rides, gold panning and wildlife watching. Visit in July to yeehaw! at the famed Calgary Stampede. A week between May and mid-October costs £608 excluding flights and transfers with Unicorn Trails.
Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador
Best for… Experienced riders with a sense of adventure wanting to ride in an exotic mountain landscape and work with cattle.
Why go? Join chagras – local cowboys, dressed in goat-skin chaps and ponchos – as they round up and sort cattle on the east slopes of the Andes. The round-up is fiesta time, with the family and friends of the estancia owner providing an asado (barbecue) and music. You will be riding well-schooled Criollos, Peruvian Pasos and Andalucían-type horses on sheepskin-covered American cavalry saddles, and you’ll have your own warm woollen poncho. Rides go from estancia to estancia, with accommodation in colonial houses and classic country hotels along the way. Remoter rides climbing to the high Andean grasslands and reaching the famed Avenue of Volcanoes mean nights spent in simpler lodging.
How to get there: Ride World Wide offers a seven night hacienda ride and cattle round-up from £1,215 excluding flights. BA and Iberia fly to Quito via Spain or the US; trips begin in Quito.
When to go: Cattle round-ups for 2006 start on 25 November and 19 December.
What else is there? Pop to Otavalo’s massive mountain market for weavings, pottery and wood carvings.
Or try this… Ride for eight days along the white-sand beaches of Uruguay’s Atlantic coast guided by Viking-bearded gauchos and an English-speaking horsewoman, and staying on estancias and in castellated inns. Boojum Travel (based in Montana) runs trips for $1,700 (£910) per person.
Or maybe this… Ride around Chile’s Torres del Paine in a next-stop-Antarctica, glaciers and guanaco adventure that favours the fit and pioneering traveller. Local baqueano guides and tough, fast Criollo horses make for an authentic experience. Blue Green Adventures’ 12-day Estancia ride costs from £1,660 with Last Frontiers.