Swede in the Saddle—A Guest blog about horseback riding in the American West.
This article was published in the fall of 2018 in Western Horse (UK), Western Horse (Germany), Westerner (Switzerland), and Paints & Quarters (the Netherlands). No printing or online sharing is allowed without the author’s explicit permission. Contact email@example.com should you wish to publish this article online or in print. Article and Images are all Copyright Åsa Björklund.
It had snowed the previous night, big flakes mixed with icy sleet. In July. So as I approached Bar W Ranch, I had some serious doubts. For the first time ever, I was going “glamping” – this concept that lingers somewhere in the twilight zone of glamour and camping. Fortunately, the weather had abruptly changed into sunny, bright skies, but I was still worried the nights would be freezing under a canvas roof. Plus I was wondering how close this glamping experience would be to camping. I had stayed in a tent countless times, of course. It’s all about trying to sleep despite rocks piercing your back, plus a healthy dose of sweaty socks and mosquitos. Add horses to that and I could see flies the size of helicopters kamikaze-attacking me in the tent, killing any hope for a good night’s sleep.
But I summoned my courage and kept driving on a windy dirt road through thick pine forests. On my right side the woods opened up to a lake and an apple green meadow where a large herd of horses happily grazed: Appaloosas, Quarters, Paints, Drafts, in all types of colors and patterns. To a horse lover like me, the herd was as fascinating as a box of assorted candies.
The road came to an end at an immense house, most guests’ temporary home. Not for me, though. I steered to the right where four white glamping tents had been placed along the meadow with adjacent bathroom buildings in between.
As I opened the tent zipper, I immediately realized that Bar W had embraced the “glamour” rather than “camping” part of the glamping concept. The spacious room was tastefully decorated with wooden ranch style furniture and fabrics with colorful Native American patterns. Lamps shed a cozy light and the comforters could even be electrically heated on chilly nights. I made a mental note of bringing one of those on my next camping trip. The best surprise, however, came the first morning I woke up. As sunlight peered through the canvas walls, I heard a sound I was not accustomed to hearing next to my bedroom: horses neighing. Outside, about fifty horses grazed on the other side of the meadow while the sun basked their shiny coats. I was basically sleeping in the candy store. And there was no snow in sight.
Staying at Bar W Ranch was like cowboy summer camp for adults. The jam-packed schedule offered trail rides and a variety of ranch activities, such as cattle herding, roping, barrel racing, and pole bending, all in the company of other guests. For those who wanted a break from ranch life, there was a range of options off site, such as fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, and exploring the nearby Glacier National Park. The Park’s jagged peaks were still snow clad when I visited in July, as the winter had been particularly cold this year. Thanks to all the moisture, bright yellow and purple wildflowers colored the meadows with bright patches, while melted ice poured down the creeks.
For the Odart family, from London, England, coming to the Bar W Ranch was the result of a compromise. Sister and brother Sophie and Ben wanted to have an active vacation while their dad’s priority was fly-fishing. At Bar W, they could engage in their respective passions, while also spending time together. While Sophie owns her own Thoroughbred back in England, Ben had hardly ridden since childhood, yet he seemed very comfortable in the saddle, which he attributed to the supportive atmosphere at the ranch and among the guests.
“Many guests were doing the activities for the first time, and everyone was very encouraging, so there was an important team-building aspect.”
Dressed in smart English riding gear and with a scarf wrapped around her neck, his sister Sophie dismounts her horse after the guest rodeo, an activity offered as a hands-on introduction to some classic rodeo events, such as barrel racing and pole bending.
“Staying here definitely gives you the experience of being a cowboy or a cowgirl and to try out a variety of activities related to that lifestyle, for instance the rodeo. Another advantage is getting to know the other guests and the conversations you have with people you wouldn’t normally meet. We made friends with some very interesting people here,” Sophie said.
Spending so much time together while learning new skills allow friendships to develop quickly. We laughed as our lassos landed nowhere near the cows’ heads and cheered as another guest finally got the stubborn calf into the pen. Almost immediately, their successes felt like our own. Ben added another unique feature of staying at a dude ranch, perhaps even more important for someone who lives a busy city life back home.
“There’s something unique about being surrounded by animals. It allows you to snap out of your routine.”
At a regular rodeo, the events look so easy but when I steered my horse around the poles we took the turn far too wide making us miss the next pole. Yet I crossed the finish line with a huge smile. Cantering and turning at such a fast speed was simply hilarious. Taking turns racing, all guests cheered each other on. At the end of the day, sweat trickled down my back and most of us sneaked down to the lake where a bunch of kayaks and paddle boards waited for us.
The dude ranch tradition roots back to when ranchers would invite their friends from the East Coast to come help out herding cattle. The local cowboys would call the clumsy city people “dudes,” a derogatory term back then. Soon the demand was so high that the ranchers could start charging their visitors, eventually earning more money on the hospitality business than on ranching. Another boost in the guest ranch demand came with the cowboy movies that featured fast horses, spectacular landscapes, and handsome heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
“Don’t believe anything you have read or seen on TV, said Bar W’s ranch manager Dave Schettine, with a chuckle. “Being a cowboy is not a glamorous job.”
In fact, the most accident-prone guest is a guy in his 20’s who has seen too many cowboy movies and wants to impress his girlfriend, Dave added with a laugh.
Rather, he hoped dude ranches would offer a glimpse of what life was like in the pioneer days.
“I wish people would empathize with the hard times of people back then. A broken leg could kill you, kids were dying from diseases that don’t even exist today. We went from that to developing space rockets and not knowing from where steaks comes from—as if they magically appear in the grocery stores.”
During his years at the ranch Dave has witnessed many families bonding while learning new skills together and children gaining an understanding of what their grandparents’ lives were like when they were young. Another advantage is that staying at a ranch allows you to slow down and create a connection to the place.
“Unless you experience the smells and the feeling of riding a horse at three miles per hour, you never get the feel for Montana, for its land. You certainly don’t have that experience when driving on the Interstate at 70 miles per hour. Riding a horse employs all senses, working in concert,” Dave said.
Swede Horseback riding in the American West
Next day, as we rode across the wildflower-dotted meadows along the Canadian border, I saw Dave’s point. We let the horses sip water from a pristine lake and nibble grass as tall as their bellies. The horses slurped and neighed in content. A slight breeze carried the scent of pinesap, offering a brief respite from the heat. True, to travel by horse is a sensory experience of the land that—in my biased opinion—no other mode of transport can rival.
On our last night, the ranch prepared a classic campfire cook out on a nearby meadow. Steaks sizzled on the barbecue and ice-cold beer was served. After dinner, the guests gathered around the campfire to get their boots branded with the Bar W’s sign by wrangler Becka. Others played traditional ranch games, like throwing beanbags in a hole, while a country singer riffed off songs on her guitar in the background. At one point Sophie took over the guitar, her beautiful voice floating into the evening air.
The kids grilled marshmallows then squeezed them between graham crackers and a piece of chocolate to create the quintessential American campfire dessert: S’mores. It had been an intense few days, filled to the brim with horseback riding and ranch activities. The last morning I said goodbye to my fast, dark brown Quarter horse, Whiskey, with a heavy heart. The lake glittered in the sun when I drove away, happy to have experienced a slice of Montana’s magnificent lands with all my senses.
Staying at Bar W Ranch
Whereas most ranches only welcome guests for a full week, Bar W Ranch offers half-week stays, which is a great way to get a taste for ranch life, while also being able to do other activities. While other ranches may be located in remote areas, Bar W Ranch is only a 5-minute drive from the town of Whitefish, and only 40 minutes from Glacier National Park. Other outdoor activities abound in this area: kayaking, rafting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, not to mention all the winter activities. As for lodging, the ranch offers different options, from glamping to staying in a room at the large main lodge. All meals and activities are included in the price, which should be taken into account when comparing with regular hotel accommodation. Best time to visit is June, July and August. Although the ranch remains open year-round, all horses except the Drafts—that are used for pulling sleighs with guests—are taken to warmer states during the winter, which tends to be long and snowy in Montana. For prices and bookings see: www.thebarw.com.
Visit Montana and Whitefish
As one of the least populated states in the United States, Montana offers big skies and wide open landscapes, ideally enjoyed from the back of a horse. Add plenty of mountains, rivers, wildlife, and a thriving cowboy culture, and you have a perfect reason to pick this state for a ranch stay.
Nearby Whitefish is a quaint little town with a respectable number of good bars and restaurants. Summertime the town serves as the gateway to Glacier National Park and wintertime it turns into a ski resort offering both downhill and Nordic skiing. Don’t miss Sweet Peaks’ ice cream made with local ingredients, such as huckleberries (similar to blueberries) and the pinesap and chocolate mix (called “Bear scat” of course). Latitude 48 has great food and drinks, while Amazing Crepes serve up delicious lunch and dessert options.
Visit Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. The park preserves more than a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks and contains 25 “active” glaciers that move due to thawing and melting. Glacier Park’s diverse habitats are home to over 70 species of mammals including the grizzly bear, wolverine, gray wolf, and lynx. A hiker’s paradise, the park provides an exceptional backcountry experience, the perfect summer vacation for families and adventurers. However, if you don’t like crowds, stay clear of the most popular areas and choose hikes off the beaten path, such as near Two Medicine.