HOME ON THE RANGE - RIDING LA REATA RANCH
I hear the distant thunder of galloping horses. What a beautiful sound. George Gaber, owner and operator of La Reata Ranch, had disappeared on his ATV over the steep hill that backdrops the cookhouse, off to round-up the herd of 24 quarter horses that roam freely over the ranch's 5,000 acres. Guests who had gathered at the corral with their hats, chaps and saddle bags, were chattering excitedly in anticipation of the day's ride ahead. Then all went silent as we hear the beating of hooves and see a rising cloud of dust. The herd comes into view, winding its way down a hillside trail and into the corral in a practiced routine. Some whinny joyfully, shaking their heads and kicking up their hind feet playfully.
I brush and saddle a young Buckskin gelding named Levi - thinking how good it will feel to be back in the saddle. I had spent much of my working youth on the back of a horse, and now here I was back in cowboy country, set to ride out through the rolling grey-green ranchlands that hedged Lake Diefenbaker in Southwest Saskatchewan.
It is a beautiful ride through the undulating grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see. Though we often think of Saskatchewan as being tediously flat, the scenery here is varied and splendid, a mixture of open range, coulees, canyons, river hills and the sandy beaches that skirt the lake. Purple crocus sprout from the hillsides, and flowering pink cactus dot the prairie.
La Reata is a working cattle ranch nestled in the Saskatchewan River valley, a cow-calf operation of about 100 pairs, mostly Black Angus. Guests are treated to a true 'hands-on' experience and are expected to groom and saddle their own horses, take part in the daily chores, lend a hand to repair fences, check and move cattle, and even, in spring, help with the gathering and branding of the herd.
The ride itself is more than your usual nose to tail affair. I trot along up front beside Gaber, a German by birth who left his family farm to come to Canada in 1996, intent on living out his lifelong cowboy dreams. I ask George about the vision he has been able to attain here at La Reata. "It's simple," he says, with a grin as wide as the prairie sky. "I was just born to do this." He is a fun-loving cowpoke, who allows his visitors to feel at home, and to live the cowboy life for a brief moment.
It's not all work here either. We ride down into a wide draw and tie our horses to a bramble of stunted maple. Here we enjoy a lunch prepared by the cook, and boil coffee in a billy pot over the fire. Satisfied, we lie out under the warm sun for a brief nap.
While our morning ride had followed the man-made Lake Diefenbaker, which is part of the South Saskatchewan River, our afternoon ride back to the ranch follows the ridgeline, so we approach the orderly ranch buildings from above. The layout is reminiscent of a scene from an old western movie. Surrounding a little pond are the guest chalets and a saloon. The communal kitchen and dining area are built up on a hill, while the corral and tack shed are below. The picturesque ranch can accommodate up to 20 people. The operation has been entertaining city folks from across Europe and North America since it opened in 1996.
In the evening, there is a game of horseshoes and a roping competition. George led me to the signature La Reata Ranch Saloon, a fun little building where guests gather in the evening to swap tall tales or play a game of pool. Many are regular visitors to the ranch and I was surprised how eagerly they boasted about the place. Visitors can dance to country music or sit in the hot tub under the stars.
For those that wish to try something different, you can walk down to the lake for swimming, boating, canoeing and fishing. There are plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding hills where you might catch a glimpse of the local wildlife; deer, coyote, fox, owls, Golden eagle and pelicans.
As the sun began to set, the landscape began to transition into a new world. The reddish sky brought out a light green hue throughout the contours of the surrounding hills. I decided to clamber up the nearby hill to sit meditatively beneath the canopy of stars. A gentle, warm breeze and the vibrant light show overhead offered a perfect end to a wonderful day.
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IF YOU GO
The Ranch is a two hour drive from the Saskatoon Airport or 45 minutes north from Swift Current. For information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lareataranch.com.
PHOTOS: by James Ross
1. The horses head for the corral.
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