Let’s face it, most horse riders at some point have wanted to work on the ranch. Something is intoxicating about the Western way of riding and incredible skill that is tempting to most of us in the UK, but what hat does it take to make a wrangler on one of America’s most popular ranches? We caught up with the unstoppable Steph Kuenast, who is head wrangler at Vista Verde ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Vista Verde is located 25 miles from the nearest traffic light, so it is the ideal post covid retreat and Steph overseas 100 horses as part of her job. Last week she began the annual cattle round-up, which sees her (and guests) take the horses out to the 16,000 acres where the cattle are hiding and round them up for the Winter. This week, like a gigantic game of hide and seek, includes early starts, riding, over hills, through meadows over logs to get them all tucked up for Winter.
What is your title at Vista Verde, and how long have you been doing this role?
I am currently the Head Wrangler, but I have been leading rides at Vista Verde for over two years now.
How did you get into this job, and have you always loved horses?
I started riding when I was 4, and I grew up riding all different types of horses. I always had a place in my heart for horses but never thought I would have the opportunity to have a paying job working with them. After being immersed in competitive riding during my formative years, I discovered the world of dude ranching and fell in love with ranch riding. I love how much horses can teach us, and every day I learn something new from them. Working with a herd of 100 horses allows me to observe and work with various personalities, and each horse brings their own mix of gifts and challenges. Being able to communicate with a creature that doesn’t speak the way we do and work together is incredible. And I feel very fortunate to be able to teach that to our guests.
Can you tell us about the Cattle Round-Up week and what it entails?
The Cattle round-up week is one of the highlights of the year. After seeing the cow-calf pairs grazing out in the National Forest all year, the time for us to round them up is exciting and high pressure. First, we need to teach our guests to do the work that cowhands take years to learn in a couple of days. And then we are on a deadline to get those cow-calf pairs in before Oct 1, when we need to have them off the forest according to the arrangement with the US Forest Service. Some days the gathering is easy as the cows are all gathered up and willing. Other days it’s like hide and seek to find them, and we’re happy to bring in 4 pairs. The riding is rugged and independent, so the guests need to have enough confidence to be sent out on their own to one side of a meadow and handle their horse and the cows without a wrangler right next to them coaching them. And they need to trust their horse as we are on trails just some of the time, but more often bushwacking through down trees, down and up ravines, and crossing water. It’s not for the faint of heart.
We know that a great deal of groundwork takes place before you match the horse to the rider – why do you spend so much time in this preparation?
Every horse has their own personality and style, and so does every guest. My job is to understand what the guest is showing up with regarding skills, expectations, and the complex mix of their personality and then match that to one of our horses which will help guide them through the learning process. Some guests want to be passengers and not have to work, so those guests need to be paired with a horse that will be happy to follow the leader. Some guests are interested in learning more and being more of an active rider. The tricky part is to sort out how much they are willing to be challenged and how much they need to succeed with those guests? Horses are teachers, and they give us exactly what we need and are adept at pointing out our blind spots. Some guests are open to receiving this message, and some are not. The goal is to pick the horse that gives the guest what they need, knowing that no horse is perfect. The most challenging guest to match is one who wants a horse that works like a car, and our job is to help them see that doesn’t exist and help them embrace the process of learning to work together with their horse and be a leader to their horse. At the end of the week, we want our guests to be madly in love with their horses. Enjoyed the feeling of having connected and formed a partnership. We have guests who request the same horse year after year, and that is always a good sign that we paired them up well!
How many hours a day are you in the saddle?
We start round-up anytime between 5-6:30 am, depending on the day. That involves saddling up one of our round-up horses, going out to the pasture, and gathering the herd to run them into the corral. Once they are in the corral, we saddle anywhere between 50-60 horses. Our typical day with the guests involves a morning and afternoon ride, typically about 2 hours each. Then we unsaddle, run the herd back out, finishing chores, and start scooping the corral. The actual time in the saddle is about 4-5 hours each day. During our round-up weeks, it’s more like 6-7 hours.
Any highlights from this year’s round-up we can mention and anything we can announce for next year?
This year was unique, as we have a high percentage of guests who have been coming to do the round-up for years. They’ve figured out what they are capable of, have learned how to work with each other, and understand the round-up flow. So it was easier to get everyone organised and layout the plan with this group. In addition, we have a group of women who have met up at the ranch for over five years to round up, and we were able to witness some really powerful moments of them celebrating their friendships, working through challenges during the round-up, work through some really profound personal struggles, and lift each other up. Also, it didn’t hurt that we are having one of the prettiest falls we’ve had in a long time, so the weather and the colourful aspens were just perfect. That sure helps when you’re out on the trail all day to have stunning views! For next year we still have some things we are working through with our cattle partner, so we can’t announce any news yet. Still, there’s a lot to navigate in the cattle business with drought and fires, opening up conversations about exciting changes that we could implement.