The nostrils of his black velvety nose knickered softly as I approached, and his big brown eyes peered out from behind his blinders. He twitched ever so slightly, making the harness bells jingle. Frost was beginning to form on his long black winter coat from the steam that came from his nose.
Dan is a 15-year-old Percheron gelding who traded a life as an Amish carriage horse for one of sleigh rides and summer trail adventures in the Gunnison Valley. Fantasy Ranch owner Chuck Saunders purchased Dan from a horse sale as a 4-year-old.
“He was the top selling horse that year,” Saunders said proudly. “I like how in all the chaos of the sale, he stood in the arena with his harness on, calmly with no one holding him.”
I stared down at his massive feet. He wears a size 5 shoe, which in the horse world might be the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal’s foot size.
Saunders has operated Fantasy Ranch since 2001, giving sleigh rides on and off during the course of those years. He learned to drive a sleigh in his early years at Keystone Resort.
Saunders has driven a sleigh through Crested Butte and up on the mountain, even hosting the classic dinner ride. However, he found it was a lot of work for little money. He has come to settle on the Almont Resort property 10 miles north of Gunnison for offering winter services which include trail rides.
“It makes Harold happy,” Sauders said about Almont Resort owner Harold Seiff.
This winter, Saunders said, he will have about 30 sleigh rides and another 300 people who will take trail rides on the snowy landscape just north of the resort. Combined with summer trail activities, Saunders estimates his company serves about 4,000 clients annually.
“We will take them for a ride for about 30 minutes, and then take them to the resort for hot cocoa,” said Saunders. “We get a lot of people from out of town who come here to enjoy the ride and see the wildlife. We get a lot of repeat business.”
Saunders said he is booked solid between Christmas and New Year’s, but said he will continue the rides all winter.
“You ready to go?” he asked.
I climbed up into the sleight — which was made in Canada and purchased at a draft horse sale — and sat on one of the red velvet benches. Ranch staff joined me on the ride, and we laughed at the antics of the dogs which ran alongside the sled — one even jumping at Dan’s face. The scene was right out of Currier and Ives.
After a tour of the area which borders the banks of the East River, Saunders stopped the sleigh.
“Have you ever ridden English,” he posed, referring to using two hands on the reins to direct the horse.
Of course, I thought, hasn’t everyone?
“I ride both English and Western,” I said.
He lifted his hands and placed the heavy leather harness reins in mine.
“Now, you do it,” he said.
With a chill of excitement, I clucked to Dan and he trotted off, his big, heavy feet making huge strides in the snow. As most horsemen will describe, you don’t just use the reins to direct a horse — you use them to feel their thoughts.
Dan was all about work that day. With every stride, the sleigh picked up speed. Are we going too fast, I thought, are we still on the trail?
“Just look down and look for the tracks,” Saunders said.
The winter breeze bit at my cheeks, but I didn’t care. For that short time, I thought nothing of the stories awaiting me back at the office, or the phone calls I had to make, or any other cares. I listened to the soft chatter in the back of the sleigh, the steel runners cutting through the snow, and the steady beat of Dan’s hooves. And yet it seemed so quiet.
And then the thought hit me like a snowball in the face. Maybe I should quit my job and ask Saunders to take me on as a trail guide — spending summers riding among the wildflowers and winters dashing through the snow.
After all, isn’t that why they call it Fantasy Ranch?
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .)