The “Great American Horse Drive”

EPN Horse Drive & Sombrero Ranch — Craig, Colorado

I just returned from an absolutely great photography workshop trip in northwestern Colorado. The event was centered on the annual gathering and 62-mile drive of about 450 horses from their winter range home in Brown’s Park Ranch southeast of Dinosaur National Monument, to the 20,000-acre Big Gulch Ranch, west of Craig, Colorado. Big Gulch Ranch is one of the numerous ranch holdings and stables in Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona which are owned and operated by the family-owned Sombrero Ranches Company, and its herd of about 2,000 head is said to be the largest single horse herd in North America.

Somewhat more of a photo event rather than a true workshop (not a huge emphasis on instruction), this is an event organized under the banner of the Equine Photographers’ Network (www.equinephotographers.org). No great surprise that the focus was on horses, more horses, wranglers with some long-horns and ranch scenery thrown in.

Not having done much in the horse photography world before, I was very intrigued when I first learned of the “Great American Horse Drive”. After reading the background of the horse drive and EPN’s related workshop, my expectations were fairly high on being able to be amongst horses, real ranch hands and in an exciting photo shooting environment. And, I hoped that I might even be able to catch sight of some of the wild Mustang horses that roam the open federal lands in Northeastern Colorado and Southwestern Wyoming. But this event far exceeded even my best expectations.

Yes, the instruction was a much lesser part of the workshop than the actual field shooting, but there was still no shortage of helpful technical guidance, tutoring, discussions (topics: digital workflow, what equine clients look for, business Q&A, etc.), and even a very good critique. Scott Trees (www.treesmedia.com) ,who is widely recognized as one of the preeminent equine photographers in the world, was the main professional instructor. Also providing both photographic and technical guidance were EPN’s founder, Carien Schippers (www.horsedrivephotos.com), also a highly recognized equine photographer in her own right, and Mark Kettenhofen of Nikon Professional Services who brought lots of Nikon toys for us to use and who introduced us to Nikon world of video capture.

Carien did a masterful job of organizing this event, and I’ll be sending in my reservation for next year right away.

Sombrero’s primary business is the raising of horses for large-scale rental to guest ranches (aka “dude ranches”), seasonal camps, guide services, vacation lodges, resorts and stables of the National Park Service. The ranch operates year-round, but most of the wranglers come just for the few weeks involving the drive, then move on to other ranching jobs for the summer and fall.

They call themselves “Itinerate Cowboys” (and “Cowgirls”, of course). At first, the word “Itinerate” conjured up other not-so-flattering ideas of what that word sometimes implies, but after mingling with them for these days, and having thought about it some, I’ve come to realize that, after all, wasn’t the original American Cowboy mostly an nomadic being, working here and there for a few bucks, a decent meal, a bath, and one night in a real bed.

We spent the first two days (i.e. full days from 6:30 to dark) with the ranch’s wranglers who all did everything imaginable to accommodate our nearly insatiable appetite for horse (and longhorn) photography. Action, corral work, roping, water crossing, range stampedes, portraits (horses and cowboys) and even an authentic stage coach drive – repeated multiple times until we got all we needed. Yeah, I know, much of these shoots were staged (forgive the pun here) to give us what we wanted, but it was never, and I mean never, hoaky or boring, nor did it ever feel contrived.

The regular permanent and seasonal wranglers are supplemented by a contingent of about 50 or so “guest riders” who converge on the ranch to help with the drive. It was pure brilliance on the part of Sombrero’s ownership twelve years ago to take advantage of the yearning that many have to be on a real horse drive. So, they actually charge the guest riders for that privilege (“City Slickers” sortof). The guest riders pay to suffer the bodily torture from riding for 60-plus miles through dust, all the while actually working to help drive and control the herd.

While the first two days (the workshop portion) were highly (but comfortably) organized, the last two days of the actual horse drive was the flip‑‑side. Let’s face it, organizing 20 photographers, while sometimes challenging, can’t be compared in any way to the actual driving of a herd this size over that distance. We were transported in pickup trucks beds ahead of the drive for the first part of the drive, then surrounded within the herd, then behind it. Then off we’d chase to start the cycle again.

The first half of the drive is mostly along the dirt roads and trails, ending for the first night near the small “town” of Maybell.

One of the most exciting parts of the drive is the stampede to the creek along the Yampa River as the horses bolt for water and the open range to graze.

The second day’s drive actually goes through Maybell, then along about 30 miles of US40 to the ranch. Now I’ve seen sheep and a few cattle crossings along Oregon’s Outback ranches. But it is a completely different experience to see an entire highway being obliterated by the onslaught of nearly 500 horses and a hundred riders (not to mention the lineup of cars and trucks that have to wait behind the herd until a break is created). What an amazing experience! Horses crossing in front of cars, people running alongside, cowboys yelling to get out of the way, dust, and of course, the awesome beauty of so many powerful animals on the move.

OK, sorry for gushing and going on for too long. But I just couldn’t help myself. It’s not always that a workshop experience meets, let alone exceeds, my standards of good value and rewarding experiences. But this one was a very welcomed example of one that did. I wish I could claim it as one of my own, but I’ll stay content to be an attendee, hopefully again next year!

from the “Great American Horse Drive”.


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