Putting the tragic and bewildering '08 Triple Crown races in the rearview mirror, my wife Jane and I flew to Wyoming in late June. After exploring Yellowstone Park and carousing the packed-full-of-things-to-do-town of Cody, we landed at Crossed Sabres Ranch.
A gifted horseman named Ray McCoy calls it home.
Ray is what people like to call an American original. Best I can tell that translates into being hard working, fun loving, and a stand-up guy. He spins tales with a contagious enthusiasm that belies his 62 years.
Peering through his oval-rimmed glasses, he sports an 18-inch handlebar mustache that required 15 years of growth to be able to spin and wax it. He's decked out in a fringed vest, chaps, leather wrist cuffs, silver spurs on his dark boots and a charcoal gray Western derby hat.
Cowboy gear aside, it's clear Ray has that singular knack of being one with his horse. Count yourself lucky to be invited into his world.
First Dude Ranch
Crossed Sabres opened for business in 1898 initially as a stage-stop; six years later it became the first dude ranch in Wyoming and the west. Six miles from the east-gate of Yellowstone, the ranch sits at 7,000 feet elevation and is in the heart of the Shoshone National Forest flanked by the Absarka and Washakie wilderness.
A year ago Ray, his wife Linda and two partners took over the reins at the ranch. The lodge, cabins, corrals and grounds all underwent an extensive renovation. The couple and their staff offer Wyoming hospitality at its finest. You can enjoy an early evening beverage by the lodge's tall stone fireplace or on the porch in a burnished rocking chair while gazing at the stunning beauty of the Absarka Mountains.
The Main Lodge includes the dining room where we enjoy hearty homemade meals. Dress code for dinner in the lodge is "clean jeans." Guests are mainly from Rocky Mountain States and California. We swap that day's adventure stories.
Fifteen hand-peeled log cabins offer a rustic mountain flavor, each individually appointed. An antler functions as the door handle to our warm and inviting home. Fifteen feet from the front door runs the Libby Creek with its thick, emerald stand of pine and fir. The rushing waters chill a bottle of wine and ease us to sleep in the evening.
Unlocked from winter, the surrounding waters were tumbling wildly so fly-fishing was shelved. Instead, Ray mapped out three separate rides into parts of the Shoshone National Forest-- a captivating mix of rugged mountains, quiet, open meadows and boot-high streams.
35 Saddle Horses
Each morning we head down to the corral that holds a string of 35 horses. The saddle horses are leased from "Wyoming Horses," that has thousands of working horses scattered across a few ranches in the West. Most are Quarter horses, others paints, palominos, Belgians and Appaloosas as well as a handful of leggy ones with plenty of thoroughbred blood.
"The Mantles have the largest single family-owned horse herd in North America," said McCoy. "I've helped gather their herd from their winter pasture and lead a caravan of nearly 1000 horses twenty miles to their ranch. Linda and I will go over there in April and they'll ride them for us. We'll add a few new ones, but mostly we lease the ones from previous seasons."
Like the rest of the dwellings on the ranch, the wooden barn and tack room exude Western charm. Saddles adorn their racks, while halters, bridles and chaps hang on hooks on the wall. The sweet smell of leather is in the air.
Ray is our guide as we trot across a wooden bridge above a swollen stream and out to the trailhead. He's spent two decades in and around the Yellowstone region. Mostly his work has focused on horses, but he's also carved out stints as a snowmobile guide and driven trucks hauling cattle.
Prior to taking over at Crossed Sabres, the McCoys hung their hats at a guest ranch near Jackson Hole.
Bucked Off at Ten
Born in the northeast corner of Nebraska, Ray first went riding with his father and grandfather at age ten, and got bucked off, breaking his right arm.
"Somehow I got back on and rode the horse home," he recalled. "That's when I knew I wanted to be involved with horses for the rest of my life."
Jane slips a boot into a stirrup and tugs herself on to a worn saddle. The reins sway in her hands as she settles in on a palomino named Sunburst. Bailey, Ray's ever-eager border collie, is on the point. Ray sits atop his handsome Paint horse, Fritz.
"Ol' Fritz has pulled me out of a lot of wrecks," McCoy related. "He's always right there if I need to go back and grab another horse."
I'm straddling Thunder, a seven-year old Quarter horse, a handsome chestnut with a wide blaze. He marches along through the glacier carved valley that places us literally on the edge at times. It's a premier wildlife corridor nurturing native elk, deer, coyotes, antelope and grizzlies. We hustle our mounts on a long trot through rocks and muddy gullies. An hour into our four-hour trek Ray raises a hand, climbs off Fritz and circles a grizzly paw print on the trail.
We break for a sack lunch in an open meadow and hitch our mounts to nearby trees. They nibble on the native buffalo grass. We sit on massive fallen timbers, gazing at a nearby herd of 50 elk. A light breeze whispers through the trees while the swollen north fork of the Soshone River rushes past at our backs. Buffalo Bill Cody led Prince Albert of Monaco on a hunt along this same trail where the prince killed a black bear in 1913.
Easy to Catch
So what does Ray look for in his saddle horses?
"Easy to catch with the bridle," he laughed. "I'm looking for a gentle eye, one that doesn't pull on the lead rope as he walks by you. I want them quiet when they stand. Like people, not every horse is a leader. If he's a nice horse we'll take him even if he doesn't go out on his own."
We zigzag through a paradise shaded by aspens and log-pole pines at an elevation of 8,000 feet then traverse open slopes of scree and loose rocks.
We come upon a steep uphill climb. Our sure-footed mounts respond, easily finding their balance and smoothly rocking us in our saddles.
We're gaining elevation in hundreds of feet. I gaze out at a crest of the Absarkas that spills into a meadow dotted with a carpet of wildflowers.
I lean down and pet Thunder. Neither of us wants to leave.
With Ken Martin at the wheel we're headed to the badlands, looking for the "Wild Bunch." Twenty miles east of Cody, we're surrounded by the Red Paint Mountains that look if they've been brushed with scarlet paint.
The McCullough Peaks wild horse range is home to roughly 200 mustangs (Spanish for running wild) that roam a rugged and mysterious 110,000-acre refuge along with bands of pronghorn antelope, coyotes and prairie dogs.
Mustangs have long been a been romantic symbol of the American West--their manes and tails flying as they gallop over the wide open dusty range, answering to no one. Wyoming is home to the second largest (behind Nevada) wild horse population.
The wild horses date back to the Spanish conquistadors who brought them to the New World in the 16th century. At McCullough Peaks many of the scruffy horses are thought to be descendants of horses from Buffalo Bill Cody's legendary Wild West Show. They are found in herds for reasons of sociability and security.
Tougher and a bit smaller (14 hands) than the average horses in a pasture, the mustangs sport intense colors that are accompanied by dramatic and primitive markings.
A compact and fit man with a rapid-fire speaking mode, Martin turned his pastime of watching wild horses into a tour business seven years ago.
Red Canyon Wild Mustang Tours has been a winner, climbing to nearly 1700 people last year.
"The wild horse have personalities just like people-- boisterous, quiet, some are aggressive to other horses," Martin related. "The fathers help raise the babies, unlike most male species. They seem to like the companionship."
Martin passes out binoculars and then leads a single-line trek across the open prairie. Beyond wild horses, we're on the lookout for cactus and rattlesnakes. In the distance a band of paintbrush ponies trudge down to a watering hole. Martin knows them all-- the dominant stallions, the prospective mares, and the babies. He ticks off their names.
"There is War Bonnet, Buck, Sonny Boy, Four Socks," Martin shouts. "Raven had a band of mares, but lost them to War Bonnet in a fight. They're part of the Wild Bunch that is actually two bands traveling together. Red Paint Band is another band and the Paints and Gray much further east."
Breaking off from their band, the stallion Shorty, a mare and newborn foal roam. They watch us as intently as we do them. Mares typically drop their foals from May through September. As one might expect, the stallions are constantly fighting for dominance and control over their harems.
The bands increase roughly 20 percent each year. The growth has sparked a heated battle in a politically charged story of public land use.
In ten western states there are roughly 27,000 wild horses and 2,000 wild burros versus three million cattle. Five years ago, 400 of the 500 mustangs were rounded up in McCullough Peaks.
The original idea was to improve the herd, leave the dominant stallions and mares. This fall a roundup is projected to remove 130 of the 200.
"That's too many, over the past several years we've had the food and water supply," Martin insisted. "The horses get put up for adoption, go to long-term holding pens or could be euthanized. What to do with them is the critical issue." Martin is hopeful a reasonable plan can put in place by Wyoming's Bureau of Land Management.
"Listen, I've been floating river trips here for 37 years," he said. "I never get the comments like the folks on the wild mustang tours. For most it's the highlight of their vacation. The wild horses' hoof sparks are all over the West. If they go, so goes a big piece of America."