Offering trail rides to tourists is big business in Colorado. A search on Colorado.com shows that there are 67 riding stables, or liveries, in Colorado. A few of those offer rides year ‘round, but the vast majority operate from mid-May to mid-September.
When most people think of horseback riding, they think of ranch cowboys & rodeos. Mountain trail riding is a whole different ball game, buckaroos. Trail riding isn’t easy and not all horses are cut out for it; if they were, there wouldn’t be a demand for trainers, clinics, and magazines devoted to trail riding. Being a livery horse is even more difficult. The horses at livery stables are often labeled “trail nags” and thought of as useless. That impression couldn’t be further from the truth. Those horses work six to ten hours a day, day in and day out, with several different riders of varying ability, all of whom are strangers. The nature of the business doesn’t allow any time to develop trust between the horse and rider. Not only do they take their riders in stride (mostly), they have to deal with situations that the typical privately-owned horse never has to deal with. Traffic. People honking and waving. Loud motorcycles. Screaming kids. People sawing on the reins. Crossing water. Crossing bridges. The list is endless.
80% of the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park are non-motorized mixed-use trails, meaning that they can be used by hikers, bikers, or horses. Riding the mountain trails is also completely different riding than most people believe. They are called the Rocky Mountains for a reason. There are rocks. On the mountain. The trail will go up the mountain, and probably over the rocks. And, guess what? Basic physics law states that what goes up must come down. The trails are well-established, but not groomed. Trees branches or snow drifts may cross or block the trail. Rides may cross running water or bridges. There may be wildlife to deal with. There will be hikers & bikers; in the forest there may be dogs, either leashed or unleashed.
Livery wranglers are a different breed of cowboy. One former wrangler, who grew up riding and barrel racing, thought she knew what she was getting herself into. She admitted later that she actually had no idea what “Cowgirl up” meant until she was 10,600 feet above sea-level, four hours away from the trailer with a group of sore and cold guests in the snow in July and all she wanted to do was get some place warm and dry, yet she had to rally the troops, get them back on their horses and lead them back to the pick-up point safely. Only then did she understand that “Cowgirl up” in a rodeo arena and “Cowgirl up” in the Colorado mountains meant two completely different things.
Like the horses, the wranglers must be able to deal with multiple situations – from atop a horse and leading the ride – that the average person does not. Traffic. People honking and waving. Loud motorcycles. Screaming kids. People sawing on the reins. Crossing water. Crossing bridges. A good wrangler will know exactly which horses do and don’t get along, can pace the ride so that there are minimal gaps between horses, and can identify and head off potential problems. On top of that, they have to be friendly and informative no matter how difficult the situation (or the guests). Good wranglers put Boy Scouts to shame when it comes to being prepared for every eventuality.
A wrangler’s job during the season is often six to seven days a week from early morning until late evening. While the job sounds great (“wranglers get paid to ride horses in the mountains!”), it is physically demanding and often emotionally draining. Most livery stables provide room and board, guide horses for the wranglers to ride, and a small salary. Wranglers are tipped employees, so the monthly salary would make most sane people cry.
Wranglers come in all shapes and sizes, with horse experience ranging from essentially none to someone who was practically raised on a horse. Some are excellent horsemen, but terrible with people, while others are wonderful with people, but terrible with horses other than their own. The reasoning behind many Barn Bosses’ decisions to hire people with little or no horse experience, but who are good with people, is that teaching people skills is much harder than teaching someone to ride. I tend to agree with this train of thought with one caveat – they must be willing to learn and not think themselves an expert after one or two rides. Anyone who spends any real time around horses knows that the more they learn, the more they don’t know.
The beginning of each season is a lot like “Cowboy U”; wranglers come from all over the United States, and occasionally we even get a few from out of the country. The reason they want to be wranglers is pretty much the same – we get paid to ride horses in the mountains!
I got started as a wrangler after my parents bought a Bed and Breakfast in the mountains; we were told that they’d need help from all of us as they ironed out the kinks and got the business off the ground. After the first season, I told them I’d rather scoop horse poop than change another bed. And a new wrangler was born! My first day at the livery found me bright eyed and bushy-tailed without a clue as to what I was in for. The end of my first day found me filthy, sore and still clueless. I never got near a horse the first day – I got to wax the stock trailer from top to bottom. By myself.
One memorable wrangler named LB was literally a department store cowboy. He was a city kid who had been working with our Barn Boss at a department store during the off-season. LB was one of the wranglers who had no horse experience, but was wonderful with people, not to mention that once he was costumed up he looked like the kind of cowboy that graces greeting cards. The ladies loved him! He quickly found out that no amount of working out in a gym, no matter how chiseled the body becomes, prepared him for the physical aspects of the job. Daily feeding included loading between fifteen and twenty one-hundred pound bales of hay onto the back of a truck, then throwing the bales from the truck into the feeders. Find me a weight machine that duplicates that!
Every career has people who are attracted to it because they think they know everything there is to know about the career; at a livery those are typically the wranglers who grew up around horses, but who are terrible with people. They tend to be “stiffed” or under-tipped much more frequently than the wranglers with no horse experience.
Somewhere in the middle is where most wranglers come from; they’ve had some horse experience, but also have an idea of what it takes to work for tips. My favorite wranglers to work with are these, maybe it’s because that’s where I came from.
Once the staff is set, then housing becomes an issue. The bunkhouse is typically nothing more than shared rooms (segregated by sex) with multiple beds and external bathroom facilities. This is where the fun really begins, “Cowboy U” meets “The Real World”, but without any cell service, internet access, or cable. And often, wranglers from out of town don’t have transportation of their own. It’s a recipe for disaster any way you look at it, but year after year, the wranglers survive.
One bunkhouse – and I use the term loosely – was nothing more than an 8’ x 12’ building with a built-in bed platform, no insulation, and a hole in the roof that had been haphazardly patched. The bathroom facility was an outhouse; the sink was next to the outhouse and our running water came from opening the valve on a five-gallon water jug. Our lights were battery-operated. At least we had a phone to call the main house and to take reservations. Since the livery was small, only one wrangler at a time was required to stay in the bunkhouse over night. On my nights at the livery, I often had one of my children with me, sleeping on a twin mattress at the other end of the room. To say that it was an adventure would be an understatement! What I remember most about that bunkhouse is that it was cold! Even with a portable propane heater, we’d often wake up to frost on the inside of the windows (in July!).
Livery stables can run as few as ten head or as many as one hundred fifty. No matter the number of horses, the daily routine is predictable and is not for the faint of heart. A typical day may begin with barn call as early as 4:30 a.m. The horses must be chosen, caught, and pulled from the pen. They must then be brushed and saddled. Breakfast is usually an hour or two after barn call, but if the horse chores aren’t done, there won’t be time for breakfast. After breakfast, the rides begin. The wrangler may spend eight hours in the saddle on any given day, taking out different groups of guests. When not out on a ride, there are always chores to be done; rides to be loaded and unloaded, poop to be scooped, horses to be watered, injuries to be tended, and tack to be mended. If the wrangler is lucky, he or she might be able to get out of the saddle long enough to scarf down lunch and run to the bathroom. The work’s not done when the day’s rides are over, though. The horses must be fed, broken down, and turned out. Once the evening’s chores are done and the horses are taken care of, then the wranglers can eat dinner, shower, have a beer or two to decompress and stumble to his or her bed in the bunkhouse.
Very few wranglers make it the entire season, running into one who has worked for more than two or three years is the exception, not the rule, but those who do will have enough stories to last them a life-time.
My family and I are some of the few who have made it well beyond one season. I’ve been blessed to have worked for a multitude of barn bosses, some good, some not, at different stables in the area. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have continued to do it for as long as I did. Even though I’m not currently working as a wrangler, I’ll always have the “itch” to work new horses, catch up with returning guests, and meet new guests. And, of course, compile new stories.