What’s a Nice English Rider Like Me Doing at a Dude Ranch?! Yippee-Ki-Ay!

What’s a nice little trail rider like me doing on a Dude Ranch?  Well, it just happened.  I was minding my own business when an email came into my box from a friend who casually mentioned that she was getting her trailer ready for Cowboy Camp.  Like Scooby-Do, my head cocked alert and I replied, HUH??


Evidently, 20+ women from around my area had grouped together to make enough members to sponsor a weekend at V-6 RANCH in CA near the Paso Robles area.  (V-6 is family owned and operated with 20,000 acres of glorious ranch land.)  I hardly knew any of the women, and I am a creature of comfort so anything with “camp” attached to it was probably not for me — but for some reason, I was compelled to attach myself to this group.  I asked my most important question, “What are the bathrooms/showers like?” and upon hearing that no one had ever been there before… I stepped up anyway (I surprised myself, actually…).  Now that I had wriggled my way “in”, I had no idea that I was embarking upon an adventure that would live inside my heart for the rest of my life.

First of all, let me explain the variables.  You could bring your own horse (a 6 hour trailer ride for us) or you could rent a ranch horse.  You could stay in a hotel nearby, the “bunkhouse”, or your vehicle/trailer or tent in the campground.  And, you could decide how much riding you really wanted to do each day.  There would be organized rides everyday.  You could go all day, break off at lunch, or not go at all.  It all sounded fine and dandy but I wanted to know more.  So, I called Barb, the family member in charge of fielding such calls — poor girl.  Barb was lovely and explained it all in a very genteel way.  After she most graciously answered all my city slicker questions, I decided to bring my horse, stay in the bunkhouse, and determine how much riding I wanted once I had my first ride.  (I felt like I was playing CLUE … I’ll take Col. Mustard with the wrench in the Library…).

However, after I committed myself and a few weeks later, work got crazy busy for me and I called back trying to cancel.  This time I got Barb’s husband, John, who in his best Marlboro Man voice, talked me out of it.  He said, “use one of our horses and drive up when you can.  Just make it easy on yourself and we’ll take care of you.  If you need to use your computer, you can go to my house and use our Internet.  But, your Blackberry should work fine here.  Do you have Verizon?”  Wow.  This Marlboro Man was not spending all of his time on the range, I see…  The bathroom/shower situation was looking up!

OK, so I decide to go without hauling my horse so I beg out of the Macy’s Parade of horse trailers caravaning down all at once (safety in numbers but I’d hate to get caught behind them on I-5).   I left later hauling buns down the 101 to get to camp before dark.  The V-6 Ranch is somewhere between Paso Robles and Bakersfield in a town called Parkfield, the “Earthquake Capital of CA.”  The population is 18.  Yet, they have a restaurant, hotel and a schoolhouse.  Interesting.  I come to find out that basically, the Varians, who own V-6, pretty much built the town.  John Varian, the Marlboro Man, is a log home builder so he just builds whatever they need to accommodate visitors.  Cool!

So, I arrive late.  It’s dark.  I creep my truck into the black pathway towards the raging campfire that I see ahead.  Total merriment!  I feel like the person who arrives at the party after it is in full swing… which is exactly who I was.  I walk up to the campfire like the stranger from Mars and everyone stops and stares.  It was a bit unsettling.  But big Marlboro Man John gives me a warm smile and instructs me on how to get to the bunkhouse, “just drive right up there…”.  I say, “right up there?” and he says, “Sure!”  So I drive right up, literally right up,  to the entrance of the fabulous, built with love, bunkhouse.  “Pick any one with a key in the door!” OK.  I picked the first one on the right.  I opened the door and it was cute as could be!  Clean, tidy, two beds, a chair, a mirror, a waste basket and plenty of wall hooks.  Perfect!  I put my stuff down and went back towards the fire.  There I saw the enormous, three-sided dance hall type Western room filled with tables and happy people. On the right side of the vast expanse was a kitchen with lovely ladies washing dishes and putting dinner away.  When they saw me, the new stranger, they opened their arms and started serving up whatever I wanted.  Nice!  This is when I met Barb, John’s wife, face to face.  What a doll!

Of course, the biggest issue for me was yet to come.  What about the bathrooms? Well, I leaped over that hurdle like an Olympian.  No worries.  Another feature built by Marlboro Man John.  There were four really cute bathrooms and a quad shower.  I would survive. Phew.


THANK GOD I HAVE A RANCH HORSE. That was my mantra to myself all day.  Here we were, over 20 ladies (and a few gents) who mostly brought their show or trail mounts from home.  I must say, most of the horses are in great shape.  And, I would also have agreed that, not knowing what I found out on Day 1, most of these horses would be fine to trail ride all day.  Heh Heh.  THANK GOD I HAVE A RANCH HORSE… OMG!  Trail riding is one thing, cross country is another thing and endurance riding is yet another thing… but NOTHING is like riding the range.  OMG!  We had a pack of 20 some horses who were jigging and bucking and romping around like newbies at the Puppy Bowl.  None of these horses had ever done anything like this.  Uphills, steeps, loooooooong downhills, narrows, curves, up, up. up, cows, other loose running horses, wide open spaces, running deer… you get the picture.  Nonsensical, hysterical, fun and nostril flaring mayhem! .  Even my wonderful Fizz, the seasoned ranch horse, was a bit jiggy.  But for me, on not my horse, I was liberated from any guilt or pressure that one feels when their horse is acting up or too tired to take another step.  I just rode.  Fizz had the “been there, done that” attitude that kept me loving the ride and totally free to absorb my beautiful surroundings.

That night, all of us who survived — just kidding — had a lovely home cooked meal served by the Varian family, listened to John senior (Jack) tell his tales, sat by the fire, joked, recounted and licked our saddle wounds.  The more time we spent, the more stories were told and the closer we all became.  That night, we slept like babies — well most of us anyway — those folks in tents weren’t such happy campers.  I think late October is a bit too frosty for tents in Earthquake country.  Needless to say, the next night, no one was in a tent…


THANK GOD I HAVE A RANCH HORSE was again my mantra for the day.  We had the lovely opportunity to ride past one of the lakes and up to the top where there is a cabin to have lunch.  Seems innocuous enough, right?  I now know that nothing seems as steep when you are on the ground looking up.  Ha!  Again, we masterful riders felt like wussies.  But before I get into our spiderman ride up the side of the mountain, let me tell you that half of the riders peeled off and went back to camp after reaching the lake.  Their adventure would be as remarkable as ours due to the Varian’s 13 year old son who was leading them to camp while texting.  This I say with a smile because he was as cute as could be and totally adept in the saddle.  He was 13… and busy. ;) Truth to tell, it wasn’t his fault that this party got lost.  (And, you can’t really get lost, you just take a different and longer route than anticipated.)  The father, Marlboro Man John, kinda told the son to take the wrong turn by the tree near the fence with the hole near the bog  — you know what I mean (again feeling like I’m playing CLUE here).  Still this party had a great time, they just got to take the more scenic route.

Anyway, back to us.  Our small party, led by John, was going up and up and up and up.  (THANK GOD I HAVE A RANCH HORSE.)   I have to honestly say that all of us were scared at one time or another.  One gal, and I don’t blame her, got off her horse and took the lunch van back down… Another asked John quite seriously, “Has a horse ever died up here doing this?”  “Not yet…” he said with a smile.  It was really an adventure beyond adventures!  We were never in danger but it was so intense that there wasn’t a time that we weren’t all watching the ground, the horse, the land ahead and our pulses.  My horse gave me the impression that she had certainly done this before.  She knew when to rest, she knew how to navigate where we were going, and she knew how to take care of me.  I loved her. She was the first quarter horse I had ever ridden and I loved her.  Anyway, back to the ride… when we finally made it to the cabin, it was like we were thirsty travelers lost in the desert and emerging from anticipated death.  Once we knew we had finally arrived, we were exuberant!  It was totally awesome!  We did it!  It was like base jumping and surviving.  We turned around and looked at the incredible scenery from whence we’d come and we were so proud.  OMG.  I will never forget that ride.  And, I’ll always have respect for the range riders.  How do they do that every single day.  Hats off…

That night, the weary but satisfied riders had another wonderful meal provided by Barb and her mother, punctuated by a lovely wine tasting offered by Sculpterra Vineyards (Really good.  I purchased several bottles).  Wow!  I slept like a baby, again, that night.

As an aside, I did notice that I kept dragging in acorns from outside my room. I could not figure out why there were progressively more acorns on my bunk room floor every time I entered. More on that later.


Thank God I have a ranch horse (but it sure would be fun to have my own horse; I kinda miss not sharing this with him).  On the last day, we all took a shorter, equally as lovely route through the valley and stopped at the the family barn/arena to watch the Varians prep for a local rodeo.  Kids from 8 to 50 were roping and riding like Wild Bill!  I was totally impressed by one young girl who rocked out there!  We had another faboo lunch while we watched the festivities and gently rode back to camp, laughing and recounting the events of the last three days.

(This last photo is me atop my trusted mare, Fizz.)


As I was stripping my bed, a flurry of acorns flew out from the bed frame and scattered about the room.  Evidently, some clever woodland creature had also been rooming in my bunkhouse before I arrived.  He must have been very upset that I had ruined his winter storage area.  So much work, dashed by the huge, ignorant human!


This is the story of my Dude Ranch Experience at the V-6.  I will never forget the sweet hospitality of all the Varians and the incredible adventure that would never have happened anywhere else.

By the way, I found out, or at least urban legend says,  that “kai yea” is an Indian term for “move fast” and the cowboy made it into Ki-Ay while gathering cattle.  Yup.  Exactly.  For me, it was truly an event that moved in and out of my life far too fast.  Yippee kai yea!

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DEMO SADDLE EXTRAVAGANZA, Part 2 — Treeless Saddles!

In my previous post  (2/21/10) I spoke of my Treed Demo Saddle Extravaganza.  Today, I’d like to chat about my Treeless Adventure!

For me, I prefer treeless if it works for the horse.  I say that because in my experience, I have had sore backs with treed saddles but not with treeless.  Now, I’m not trying to convert anyone… so please no worries or ruffled feathers.  I’m just reporting what I found in my demo process.  So, here we go!

First of all, I am short (5’4″) with an even shorter leg.  I don’t weigh that much (113lbs) but I do have a large thighs.  (All that speedskating… ;) )  For me, I tend to prefer a very lightweight saddle that is easy to rig, stirrups are forward, sturdy enough for me to mount from the ground, I can stand in the stirrups when I need to and it has to have a spine channel and adequate padding for the horse.  I also like close contact so I don’t like much fluff under my leg — like long/thick flaps.  My biggest question is regarding weight distribution.  Most people argue that a treeless saddle will sore the horse because the rider weight is centered in one spot on the back (I wonder what the Indians did… ).  But, you know, I had this very wise Cavalry Expert and he said to me, “The Indians never wore saddles and they were always ahead of the Cavalry…”  So, hmmmmm….

Anyway, let’s start with the list of Demos – and there are many more out there.  I just ran out of steam…

  • Sensation Hybrid
  • Sensation Harmony Element
  • Freeform Enduro X
  • FreeWest
  • Kuda Endurance
  • Startrekk Comfort
  • Startrekk Western
  • Startrekk Espaniola
  • Barefoot Cheyenne
  • Barefoot Atlanta
  • Black Forest
  • Ansur
  • Cashel Soft Saddle
  • Torsion
  • EZ Fit
  • El Companero

Here are my top 5.


Pros:  I liked this saddle because it is built well, uses quality leather and addresses most of my issues. Truly, these saddles are very carefully designed, easy on the eye and you can pick just about any color over several styles.  One of the models is sure to fit most any horse, even gaited shoulders.  And, it is easy to adjust, is very lightweight (7 lbs) and easy to clean.  I preferred the Hybrid because it suits my needs as a trail rider.  However, I think all the styles have the same quality and attention to detail for you and your horse.  And, you can speak to the manufacturer to request what you’d like in your particular saddle.  They have a great demo program going with several of their US reps.  I strongly suggest demoing several styles until one is juuuust riiiiight.

Cons:  For me and my shorter leg, I found the stirrups, in any position, were not quite right.  I know that the manufacturer is looking into this for the shorter legged rider.  So, they will probably fix this in time.  In the meantime, I have cut off their stirrups and added one from the Freeform that works well.  You will need a very good pad (an investment) underneath this saddle – as with most treeless saddles.  And, for me, I wish this saddle had a version with waaay shorter flaps.  I hear that is in the works, too. The biggest drawback for me is if you have a higher withered horse, the Sensation may not work for you.  Make sure to demo it.


Pros:  I like this Italian made saddle because it has structure and it feels like a treed saddle.  (Some people don’t like that about the Freeform.)  It is very adjustable as the seat and stirrups are all velcro’d on so you can put them where you like them.  The Freeform saddles allow me to mount from the ground and have no bulk under the leg for good contact.  And, it does not get in the way of a gaited or high stepping shoulder.  They have a few different seat styles/sizes and stirrup leather styles so you can mix and match.  I like the short flaps on these styles but they do have dressage models and endurance/trail models with longer flaps.  I can see how the weight distribution would work with this saddle.

Cons:  Because these saddles feel more formed, you do need to have a pad that is adjustable if your horse is uphill, downhill or whatever.  The seat isn’t cushy but I just added a sheepskin.  The manufacturer is in Europe but there are several reps here that are very knowledgeable.


Pro:  I might call this my favorite saddle if I had more rides in it.  I just got my demo and love the volumes of adjustments available.  Literally, you get the parts and you can move them all around.  The girth strap and stirrups are velcro’d on so you can move them anywhere.   You can remove the fenders if you want less bulk.  The pommel is very stout (it is fixed) so you feel secure.  The cantle is also movable so you can adjust the seat after holiday meals….and there are two sizes of cantle should you want a 5″ or a 3″.   You can have several choices of fenders or stirrup leathers as well as stirrups.  It comes in a multitude of colors, English or Western rigging and has several D-rings for trail riders. The foam against the horse is durable and won’t compress to nothingness.  I also love the tacky tack underside.  It stays where you put it.  And, because it has such nice padding, and a nice spinal channel, you don’t have to have a really thick additional pad.  So, that feels more close contact for me.  I also like that it feels substantial, had a wide weight distribution yet is treeless.  I like that you can speak to the saddle maker directly.  He modified my saddle to my specifications and is a really nice guy.  He uses all Amish leather and has put years of thought into his saddle configurations.

Cons:  The velcro is really, really strong.  So, adjusting the stirrup placement and girth can be a 2-person job.  Since the seat is virtually a “skin flap”, it is difficult to get it as smooth as they do at the factory without practice.  Also, I use a sheepskin seat cover to make it more cushy.  Probably the biggest con is that this saddle looks different than most saddles.  I don’t care but some might…


Pros:  I like many attributes of this saddle.  The pommel is adjustable in that you have a choice of three different sizes to fit almost any wither and shoulder.  The rigging is easy.  The leather is nice!  I think the construction is very good.  It feels like a treed saddle.  The spine channel is open and available.  It also comes in a “shorty” size for shorter backed horses.  And, it really does give huge wither clearance, which is rare in a treeless saddle.  You can also grab onto the pommel and many people like that security in a treeless.  There are several styles of Startrekk which are very different from each other so one will most likely fit you and your horse.  There is a great demo program, just go to this website.

Cons:  Changing out the pommels can be time consuming.  But, not that bad.  The leather isn’t soft and cushy but the seat is very comfortable. You cannot speak to the manufacturer directly however the rep is very sweet and goes out of her way to accommodate.


Pros:  The is the best bareback pad I have ever used!  It isn’t a saddle, it is a pad.  However the El Companero is made of excellent suede that keeps your hiney glued right in place.  It has a ohjeez handle and lots of tie straps.  The girthing is easy and it stays put.  If your horse has a fairly comfortably shaped back, this pad is wonderful to ride and FEEL everything.  I love, love, love mine.

Cons:  The material has a huge footprint.  It is like a blanket instead of a pad.  I cut mine back to a reasonable area.  Also, Bareback pads are not for everyone.  They challenge your balance and take time to provide confidence.  But, this is the best one I’ve ever used.  If you like the close contact feel and love the bareback experience, this is the pad for you!


Kuda Saddle:  I tested a Kuda and really liked it.  It is strong and supportive, has great weight distribution and is comfortable and secure.  However, when I went to the website, it had totally changed.  I wondered if the saddle company has been sold?  Anyway, they now call it a Leather-Flex Tree.  There is no tree but it has thick leather as a base.  It sounds like it would be hard and nasty but it isn’t.  I quite liked it, actually.  Since this is made for Pasos and horses with a high step, it really gives shoulder space.  And, it is a great trail saddle.  The Con was that it didn’t fit my wider withered horses.  But, if you have a Paso or an Arab, this might be the perfect trail saddle for you.  When I ordered mine, I got to speak to the importer himself.  That was nice.  He offered to make any changes I wanted.

So there you have it!  Please ask any questions!  Do you have any treeless saddles that you love?

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