The 4X4 swung off the highway and began climbing the dirt road. Hemmed between two lines of rough-cut stock fences, it snaked through swathes of vibrant spring meadow until it disappeared from view. I twisted in my seat, trying to take it all in: the vastness, the beauty, the tranquillity. We passed a small herd of horses. Two of the mares had foals at foot, their tails dancing as they fed. Their coats shone gold, bronze and pearl in the late afternoon sunshine. Cattle grazed in the distance and two eagles circled way up above their heads.
I was really here. It was the day before my birthday, and this trip was a gift to myself. My life had unravelled, and with it so had I, through divorce, losing my mother and my father, and then, the last straw, redundancy. To say I needed to “get away from it all” was an understatement.
I’d always loved horses and had ridden as a child. As a counterbalance to my increasingly stressful executive life, I’d recently bought a horse and got back into weekend riding. But I wasn’t an experienced horsewoman back then and my horse knew it – and walked all over me. So getting my personal and professional life back on track weren’t the only challenges facing me. I knew my horse’s behaviour wasn’t his fault, that he was only reacting to me. Booking this holiday of a lifetime at a natural horsemanship ranch in Colorado would, I hoped, rescue both of us.
I was checked in by staff dressed in crisp white shirts, cream Stetsons, immaculate jeans and cowboy boots. This was the ranch uniform – and I could never work out how they kept it so clean riding horses all day. My bags were swung into the back of a golf buggy and off we went to find my home for the next six weeks.
We passed the corrals and working areas for the horses, and then the open stalls where we’d keep our horses overnight so they would be close by. We’d be looking after them as if they were our own, rising early to feed them and bedding them down at night – a daily routine I would grow to love. As we continued, the thick undergrowth cleared here and there to reveal small log cabins. We stopped at one and the cool air from the dark interior drew me in. The bunks and shelving were hand-carved from local wood. Simple, functional. My escort lifted my bags over the threshold and I was left in the stillness.
Stepping outside, I leaned against the handrail of the terrace, gazing out across the treetops at the immense mountains beyond. A rustling in the trees brought a deer into view. She looked at me gently, seemingly unperturbed by my presence. Yes, this trip was going to be truly special.
The next morning it was time to meet the horse I would be paired with for my six-week adventure. Would they allocate me one based on my experience, height or weight, I wondered. One of the instructors interrupted my thoughts: “OK, it’s time for the horses to select their human. Go into the corral and wait for a horse to choose you.”
This was not what I was expecting. Panic set in. Four of us were shown into a large round corral containing four horses. Three were large and looked intimidating. A much smaller brown one caught my eye, but another student started stroking him. Soon two horses, uninterested in me, were left and my fear quickened. What if I was not picked at all? Just at that moment, something soft nudged me in the hollow of my back. I turned, it was the small brown horse. I held out my hand, which he tickled with his whiskers. The ranch-hand passed me a halter and rope: “Looks like you’ve been picked, ma’am,” he grinned. “This horse’s name is Coop. Enjoy him.”
Thus began my love-affair with Coop and an equestrian experience like no other. Little by little we got to know each other. The playful nature of this horse, the colour of ripe chestnuts, was only outshone by his patience and kindness. Named because of his ability to escape from any enclosure, he would abscond nightly to the lush grass of the high pastures, where I would hike to retrieve him as the morning sun burnt off the dew in a perfumed mist. Wild herbs, flowers and grasses yielded their intoxicating scent under our feet as we returned from our working day together. Most evenings would end with me soaking the dust from my skin and the pain from my muscles at a nearby thermal spring. Back at the ranch, on the way up to my cabin, I would visit Coop in his stall, giving him his last feed of the day. Then I would fall into my bunk and into a deep, rejuvenating sleep.
Tens of hours in the armchair Western saddle, coaxed and coached by my dependable quarter horse, restored my confidence as a rider and at a much more fundamental level too. One morning, as we trotted across the meadows, it was as if our lungs breathed as one and I knew I could trust Coop with my life. I tied the reins to the pommel of my saddle, relaxed my arms at my side and let him break into a canter, then a gallop. I felt a freedom and strength that had been missing for so long.
At the crest of the hill, Coop came to a halt. We were both breathless. I raised my arms and let out a yell of triumph. I felt as if anything was now possible. Even so, I didn’t realise quite how much this moment would change my life when I got home: that I would take a leap of faith and establish a business dedicated to helping people transform their lives by interacting with horses – work that would bring me deeper professional satisfaction than I could ever have imagined.
Later, I sat in the deep grass while Coop grazed nearby, and feasted on the mountainous panorama that stretched around me. It was still hard to believe this place was so beautiful. The pastel palette of the distant peaks shifted from greys to blues to pinks as the sun descended. Close by, in the dense forest, elk, deer, bears and the occasional wild turkey drifted to the waterholes.
Perhaps, even more than the riding, it was those moments out there in the meadow with Coop that carved themselves into my heart. An absolute feeling of contentment, which, when I recall it now, reminds me what it’s like simply to be me.
Pam Billinge’s book, The Spell of the Horse, is published by Blackbird Books
Best for foodies
Farm-to-fork dining – or pasture-to-plate as it’s known in the Wild West – has become one of the major draws for Colorado’s Smith Fork Ranch. Chef Marcus Parrott’s menu changes nightly while the wine selection regularly picks up top honours in Wine Spectator’s annual awards.
Best for luxury
For cosmopolitan cowboys and cowgirls, this Montana ranch merges adventure and luxury seamlessly. Fish, ride and shoot your way around the John Long Mountains before refuelling on exquisite Relais & Châteaux cuisine and pampering yourself in the tranquil spa.
Best for wilderness
Wave goodbye to your phone signal as you embark on the 90-minute drive from Jackson Hole to Goosewing Ranch. Once there, you’ll be given your own Polaris off-road vehicle to help you get about – the ranch is, after all, in the middle of 2.5 million acres of wilderness. The cabins are rustic, moose-heads adorn the restaurant walls, and you might well spot an elk or even a bear when you’re out riding.
Best for riding
For more accomplished equestrians, Siwash Lake Ranch in British Colombia offers freedom rarely found on resort ranches. Competent riders can explore the Cariboo country in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains without a guide, while the less experienced can join the Siwash Synergy with Horses programme, which focuses on building a bond between horse and rider.
Best for families
Set on a 30,000-acre working cattle ranch, the award-winning Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming (teepee accommodation pictured above) has been designed to keep the whole family entertained. The “Lil’ Wranglers” programme, for example, is tailor-made for children aged four to eight. Elsewhere, paintballing, rock-climbing and quad-biking will keep teens entertained while you enjoy a spot of cliff-top yoga.