As 70 head of horses hoofed their way to the corral for morning rides, a Mercedes Benz horn honked, loud and impatient.
But horses stop for no man.
Not even Don, who was on his way to a business meeting and wanted to grab a quick breakfast beforehand.
The whole experience was pretty bizarre, as four newly formed female friends suddenly found themselves in charge of Don’s vehicle as he flipped them the keys and headed to breakfast. The women had come to watch the horses run, and now they had a Mercedes.
Not quite what they would’ve expected from a dude ranch vacation, let alone one at the down-home, yet ritzy, Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, Arizona.
A horse paradise
The road to the ranch was traveled by actor William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) when he stayed here in the 1940s; Henry Wickenburg had traveled this country in its true desert state in 1862, when he first discovered the Vulture Mine that would produce over $30 million in gold. Situated on Vulture Mine Road, Rancho de los Caballeros truly represents the Old West mixing with the New.
The 20,000-acre ranch—with historical mine ruins nearly in its backyard and an 18-hole championship golf course in its front—may not cater only to dude guests, but the ranch’s true heart beats in its horses.
Which is why 12 gals, ages 12 to 81, have signed up for the ranch’s Giddy Up Gals Getaway, a three-day, all-inclusive retreat that brings together horse lovers of all types: whether a novice who picked up her first cowgirl hat and pair of boots at the nearby Double D Ranch store, or an experienced hand who had a little special something to commemorate her upcoming adventure sewn on her well-worn hatband at Ben’s Saddlery.
Whatever the gals’ experience with horses, 30-year-old corral foreman Willum Malernee matches each one with a horse that best fits her needs.
Willum chooses the trustworthy Boysenberry for 81-year-old Golda Myers and the hard-working cow horse Wallabe for Rebecca Leah Curtis-Wilson, who raises paint horses in Tucson when she’s not building missiles for Raytheon. For me, a 24-year-old who has ridden a few horses but is not comfortable reining in a spitfire beast, Willum chooses Blue Boy, who pays attention to his reins (although he doesn’t like horses following too close behind him, as I discover over the course of my stay).
Not everyone has to ride a horse from the ranch’s string. Family and marriage therapist Vicki Loyer-Carlson and her 12-year-old daughter Paige brought their own.
Female wranglers Maria Alcorn and Liana Dietrich are one crewgirl short, but no one can tell. The duo easily soothe unsettled nerves and chat up the history of each rider’s horse, all while tying cinches and adjusting bits. For the group’s first morning ride, the gals ride together before splitting into those who prefer to walk their horses and those who want to lope.
While Liana watches the rear, Maria leads the group and instructs each of us to raise our left hand if we need to stop. With the safety signal out of the way, we head off on a pristine desert trail that soon has us forgetting a world of highways and automobiles even exists.
With every saguaro, mesquite tree and creosote bush looking like the next, it has me wondering how anyone keeps from getting lost.
Maria, a small-town girl from Illinois who’s worked at the ranch for three years, shows me four landmarks that keep the wranglers oriented: north, the Weaver and Bradshaw Ranges; south, the 3,663-foot Vulture Peak; east, the Wickenburg Mountains; and west, an unsightly radio tower.
“Once you know your landmarks, trails are easy to find and simple to follow,” says Liana, a Wisconsin girl beginning her first year at the ranch.
Nature tours to cutting cattle
Rancho de los Caballeros offers scenic jeep tours led by cowboy naturalist Dick Frederickson. Dick takes you up the nearby Hassayampa riverbed, and several gals opt for this educational look at the desert eco-system. Others crave another horseback ride and climb back in the saddle. Still others want to bond with their horses by putting them to work.
Five of us gear up for lessons in cutting, where riders separate cows from the herd and move them to the other side of the pen. I find it important to work with the horse’s lead because, as Willum explains, “if he needs to turn left and he’s on a right lead, he’ll have to overstep his feet to start turning left.”
Maria shows us how to work with our horse’s lead (if I want my horse on right lead, then my right shoulder should be forward). Then she tells us how to turn by gently kicking the right side if we want to turn left, and vice versa. And if we need to move quickly because the cows are getting away, “hold the reins closely together so that when you pull on them to move the horse, he moves immediately,” Maria instructs us.
When we think we have it down pat, we break into pairs and try moving three cows. Maria and I go first. After I finally get Blue Boy behind their butts, we herd the cows to the other side of the pen.
When Rebecca Leah Curtis-Wilson and Anna Gallop first face their three cows with their horns pointed toward the girls, Rebecca can only think, “I’m bigger than you, but you’re sharper than I am.” Nevertheless, she and Anna successfully stay on the cows’ flanks and get their horses to push them forward.
Our two days have been packed with horseback activity as well as mouth-watering gourmet meals, thanks to new chef Richard Lepree. And it’s not beans and hot dogs, rather chicken breasts stuffed with roasted poblano chilies and sumptuous buffets that make me wish I could sample everything.
On our last night, we bundle up for a sunset hayride to a campfire cookout of chicken, ribs, cowboy beans and cornbread.
Western balladeer Ray Callaway serenades us, and after we’ve filled our tummies, we start requesting songs.
There’s a catch though. Ray tends to introduce his songs with “Here’s a new song from 1932.” We soon realize that the older our requests, the better chance we have of hearing them, since Ray doesn’t even know that Garth Brooks has friends in low places.
Ray often peppers his songs with stories. When “Strawberry Roan” is requested, he recounts how Curly Fletcher was in a hospital recovering from a rodeo wreck when he wrote this song in 1915.
When “Old Chisholm Trail” is requested, he jokes that legend says the cowboys created a verse for all 1,800 miles, and he’s going to sing all of them.
Before belting out “Yellow Rose in Texas,” he makes sure we know it was sung after the Alamo battle, regardless of what John Wayne would have us think.
Ray even shares a poem about a cowboy shopping for a bra for his wife. When the salesperson asks for the bra size, he tells her it is the same as his hat size as that’s what he used to measure them.
“My Darling Clementine,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and “The Hunt of the Appaloosa” soon fill the night sky as we warm ourselves by the fire and munch on smores, fresh from the campfire’s blaze.
Don’t benz me in
As the gals head home from the campfire cookout, ready for their last day of adventure at the ranch, Vicki finishes her tale about her strange experience with Don’s Mercedes Benz.
With the keys to the car in her hand and on her way to drop them off at the office, Vicki says she was reminded of a Tracy Byrd song she had heard on her drive to the ranch: “Revenge of a Middle-Aged Woman.”
Don was as careless with his Mercedes as the scorned woman in the song who was selling off her ex-lover’s Mercedes for $700 and even throwing in a set of Arnold Palmer golf clubs. Except, Vicki figures, Don probably wouldn’t throw away a good set of clubs.
Despite a few odd guests that filtered in from the golf course side of Rancho de los Caballeros, the ladies had to admit that their horse adventure was every bit what was promised: their rides across the 20,000 acres of spectacular desert truly did rejuvenate their souls.
The cowgirl boot camp is offered April 8-10 and May 6-8, 2005. Single occupancy costs $608; double occupancy costs $992. For reservations or more information, call 800-684-5030.