Freddy Smits’ fascination with cowboy life began, predictably, at an early age.
He fondly recalls childhood hours spent watching Roy Rogers, and reading a 37-volume adventure series about a fictional Native American named White Feather.
Thirteen years ago, Smits became spellbound by a 1,000-page biography of Sacajawea, the Shoshone Indian woman who, carrying her infant son on her back, traveled thousands of wilderness miles with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “That’s when I knew I had to see the land of cowboys and Indians,” says Smits, 51.
His wife, Marianne, nods in agreement. “I also read the book,” she says. “Afterward, I felt I must see this woman’s grave, and pay homage.”
The Sacajawea biography, the White Feather novels, even the Roy Rogers episodes all were in Dutch, the Smitses’ native tongue. But apparently none of the West’s magic was lost in translation. Last summer, Freddy and Marianne boarded a flight in Amsterdam and flew half way around the world for an opportunity to spend a week riding, moving cattle and learning to rope at Lonesome Spur, the same guest ranch where London author Nicholas Evans researched his best-selling novel, “The Horse Whisperer.”
Robert Redford’s big-screen version of “The Horse Whisperer” opens this spring.
Last fall, I had an opportunity to visit Lonesome Spur and two other guest ranches in southcentral Montana, not far from where Redford’s crews were scrambling to wrap up location work on “The Horse Whisperer.”
Each ranch had its own charm and amenities, as well as its own rules. (For instance, the head wrangler at each stop taught me a different way to hold the reins and turn a horse. And all three techniques worked well, since horses at each ranch were trained to respond to those particular signals.)
The following is a roundup of what you’ll find if “The Horse Whisperer” inspires you to head ‘em up and move ‘em out:
Lonesome Spur Ranch
In the book “The Horse Whisperer,” a character named Lonnie is a mediocre rancher who lets cowboy wannabes from Switzerland “sleep on the ground, and cook their own beans on the fire while he sleeps in the Winnie, watches TV and eats like a king.”
The real Lonnie is 49-year-old Lonnie Schwend, a former champion bull rider who bought Lonesome Spur Ranch from his dad, doesn’t own a Winnebago and works round the clock keeping up with 300 head of cattle, 150 acres of hay, 75 acres of oats, 12 to 15 guests from all over the world and a 4-year-old grandson named Stetson who can outride and outrope any city slicker.
Lonnie and his wife, Darlene, began welcoming guests to Lonesome Spur about four years ago. (In the book, a character named Darlene is married to Hank, a respectable rancher who more closely resembles Lonnie.)
“We needed to diversify,” explains Lonnie, “and this is something my dad always wanted to do. Plus, we already had everything we needed” to outfit guests.
Everything, that is, except accommodations. So Lonnie built a pair of cozy log cabins and a two-bedroom bunkhouse. There are also two authentic tepees in which guests sometimes choose to sleep, and a barnlike lodge where meals are prepared and served.
For $154 a day ($108 for cowboys and cowgirls ages 10 and under), guests get three hearty meals, a bed, a horse, an introduction to riding, and an opportunity to work, more or less, like a real ranch hand. That includes saddling up your own horse, moving cattle through the high-plains sagebrush and, in the spring, even branding calves.
“People who come here are guests for the first 15 minutes,” the Schwends like to say. “After that, you’re family, and that’s how we treat you.”
Our day began around 7:30 a.m., when we accompanied Lonnie to a nearby pasture to bring a dozen horses down to a coral next to a century-old barn.
After Darlene served us a breakfast of French toast, sausage, OJ and coffee, we saddled our horses and loaded them into a trailer. A short ride in Lonnie’s club-cab pickup took us out to a grassy range. Our job - with direction from Lonnie and two wranglers - was to coax a bunched-up herd of 40 cattle to higher ground, where they’d find better grazing and water.
“These aren’t ‘yo-yo cows’ that we move back and forth for the guests,” Lonnie insisted. “We don’t move them unless there’s a reason, because every time we move them, they lose weight.”
Except for the lamentable absence of Frankie Laine warbling the theme from “Rawhide,” pushing cattle in real life was surprisingly similar to the television equivalent. Each of us took up flanking positions, and whenever a calf considered doubling back, we’d head it off at the pass with the wave of a hat and an enthusiastic “yee-hah.”
By 1:30 p.m. the cattle had reached greener pastures, and it was time for a different adventure - a ride to Weatherman Canyon in search of Indian pictographs. But on the way, we encountered several reminders of the inherent risks of horseback riding.
First, as several of us playfully galloped our horses along a flat stretch, my fanny pack worked its way open, and my camera fell to the ground, causing the zoom lens to snap off the body. Whoops.
Moments later, while one of the novice riders was sitting still on her horse, a gust of wind blew her hat off. The airborne headgear hit her mount’s rear, causing the horse to do a quick sidestep. Caught off balance, the rider fell to the ground and lay immobile for several minutes. Eventually she regained her composure, but not her confidence - she rode in the truck the rest of the day.
Our journey up Weatherman Canyon was punctuated by breathtaking views from atop a sandstone outcropping … exploration, on hands and knees, of a cavelike shelter where Indians and more recent visitors had left their marks … and introduction to a young rattlesnake that was trying desperately to stay out of our way.
By the time we got back to Lonesome Spur - about 3:30 p.m. - we’d worked up healthy appetites. But before we could sit down to a lunch of chicken, beans, fresh bread and potato salad, we had to feed the horses, brush them and put their tack away - all the while contending with a feisty thunderstorm that suddenly had kicked up.
After a rainbow-garlanded lunch, the other guests went into the nearby town of Fromberg to visit The Little Cowboy Bar and Museum. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (how often do you get to write that these days), I worked my way through “The Horse Whisperer,” concluding that the author had done a credible job of conjuring up the area’s terrain.
I was still reading when the others returned from Fromberg around 9 p.m., and we all sat down to a feast of barbecued spare ribs and steamed vegetables. (Sometimes the Schwends build a fire under a big cast-iron caldron filled with cooking oil, then impale steaks on the tines of a pitchfork and dip them into the oil - steak fondue, Lonesome Spur style.)
Our dinner included good French champagne, a gift from Freddy’s rugby buddies in honor of his and Marianne’s 25th wedding anniversary. Darlene had ordered a cake for the occasion, and we all toasted the newest members of the Schwends’ rapidly growing extended family.
Afterward, Freddy thanked Lonnie for “the privilege of riding with real cowboys.”
When asked what had been the highlight of his week at Lonesome Spur, Freddy didn’t hesitate. “Every moment of every day is a highlight,” he said, the twinkle in his eye evident even in the dim light of the lodge.
And though his Dutch accent seemed at odds with the Western attire he had purchased in Billings, Freddy wore it with panache.
“When I come into Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam,” he said with full-chested pride, “I will wear this Stetson hat and I will wear these cowboy boots. I will tell my friends back home that this is not a costume - this is a lifestyle!”
For more information about Lonesome Spur Ranch, call (406) 662-3460 or contact the Schwends by e-mail at email@example.com. The ranch also has a Web site: cruisingamerica.com/lonespur.html.
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
With three youngsters of their own - all whose first names begin with the letter K - Kim and Kelly Kelsey know how to make children feel at home.
Scattered among the ranch’s mile-high collection of log cottages are an inviting assortment of playground toys and a friendly population of rabbits.
Hay rides, games (including gymkhana events on horseback), live raptor presentations, a fishing pond and Saturday night square dances all conspire to keep kids so occupied they couldn’t possibly miss TV during their one-week stays.
But there’s no risk of adults feeling left out. In fact, part of the strategy of offering so many supervised programs for children is to free parents to explore the nearby hills and blue-ribbon trout streams with other grown-ups.
Hospitality pays the bills at the 1,000-acre Nine Quarter Circle, and the Kelsey family has been distinguishing themselves in the guest ranch business since 1946.
At the heart of the ranch’s appeal is its handsome herd of appaloosa ponies, more than 100 strong. The Nine Quarter Circle herd is “closed,” meaning no horses are bought or sold. Each year’s foals are given names according to a theme. For instance, 1986 was comets and constellations. So, if you happen to find yourself aboard a horse named Cassie - short for Cassiopeia - you know she’s a 12-year-old.
My visit coincided with the shoulder season, when stays shorter than one week are permitted. But from mid-June through late August, families are expected to arrive and leave only on Sundays. The all-inclusive cost of a one-week stay is around $1,100, with discounts of 10 percent to 30 percent for children.
For more information, contact the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch at 5000 Taylor Fork Road, Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730, or call (406) 995-4276.
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
The winding, rutted dirt road leading from Paradise Valley up to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch seems incongruous with the four-diamond rating the resort recently earned from American Automobile Association.
Yet as soon as you catch a glimpse of the gardenlike compound, you suspect the award was no mistake. That suspicion is confirmed as you climb the broad wooden steps and enter the Yellowstone City lodge, where gourmet meals, massive stone fireplaces, a grand piano and a pool table - not to mention a wonderfully accommodating staff - compete for guests’ attention.
If you expect to “rough it” at Mountain Sky, you’ll have your work cut out for you. For starters, steer clear of the heated pool and spa, the tennis and volleyball courts, the trout pond, horseshoe pits and recreation building.
And don’t look for any help from the ranch’s string of 90 wellmannered mounts. Despite the intimidatingly steep pitches we had to negotiate when returning from a morning ride in 8,000-foot-high meadows, the horses put us at ease with their sure-footed confidence. (“Look ma, no hands!”)
Mountain Sky accommodates up to 70 guests in 1930-era cabins - rustic from the outside, but conveniently updated inside - and modern one-and two-bedroom condos. All units include fireplaces or wood stoves and come with a coffeepot, small refrigerator and an endless supply of fresh fruit.
Although Mountain Sky is geared toward families during summer, not everyone brings children. Nor does everyone ride. Some prefer to hike, while others opt to raft or fly-fish the blue-ribbon waters nearby. And Yellowstone National Park is only 30 miles south of the ranch.
Weekly rates from June 7 to Labor Day are $2,050 for adults and $1,767 for children ($1,379 for youths 6 and under). Airport shuttle, bar tabs and off-ranch excursions are extra.
Three-day stays are permitted in the shoulder seasons at a prorated cost.
For more information, contact ranch manager Shirley Arsenault at (800) 548-3392, or write to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, P.O. Box 1128, Bozeman, MT 59715.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 photos (3 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Montana ranches that accommodate guests typically fall into one of three categories: private, family-owned “working ranches” where activities center around raising cattle and horses; “dude ranches” that offer a wide variety of horse-oriented experiences and other activities; and “resort ranches” strong on amenities. Several resources include: The Montana Ranch Vacation Association, which represents a dozen working ranches. Contact Nancy Brence at the Rose Ranch, (406) 775-6736. For information about the Montana Dude Ranch Association, call Ellen Hargrave at Hargrave’s Cattle and Guest Ranch in Marion, Mont., (406) 858-2284. Travel Montana’s free “Montana Travel Planner” guidebook includes a full listing of the state’s guest ranches. For a copy, call (800) VISIT MT (847-4868). The same information also is available on the Internet at travel.mt.gov The Dude Ranchers’ Association in La Porte, Colo., offers information about more than 100 guest ranches throughout the West, including Montana. Phone (970) 223-8440, or visit the association’s Web site at www.duderanch.org/