Find out what it takes to make an American wrangler

Find out what it takes to make an American wrangler

Interview by Phoebe Oliver, Oliver Relations

Let’s face it – most horse riders at some point have wanted to work on a ranch. There is something intoxicating about the Western way of riding and incredible skill that is tempting to most of us in the UK – but what hat does it take to make a wrangler on one of America’s most popular ranches?

We caught up with the unstoppable Steph Kuenast who is head wrangler at Vista Verde ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Vista Verde is located 25 miles from the  nearest traffic light so is the ideal post covid retreat and Steph overseas 100 horses as part of her job.

Steph Kuenast, head wrangler at Vista Verde ranch
Steph Kuenast, head wrangler at Vista Verde ranch

Last week she began the annual cattle round up which sees her (and guests) take the horses out to the 16,000 acres where the cattle are hiding and round them up for the Winter.  Like a gigantic game of hide and seek this week includes early starts,  riding, over hills, through meadows over logs in an effort to get them all tucked up for Winter.


What is your title at Vista Verde and how long have you been doing this role?

I am currently the Head Wrangler, but I have been leading rides at Vista Verde for over two years now.

How did you get into this job and have you always loved horses?

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I started riding when I was 4, and I grew up riding all different types of horses.  I always had a place in my heart for horses but never thought I would have the opportunity to have a paying job working with them. After being immersed in competitive riding during my formative years I discovered the world of dude ranching, and fell in love with ranch riding.

I really love how much horses can teach us, and everyday I learn something new from them.  Working with a herd of 100 horses gives me the opportunity to observe and work with a variety of personalities and each horse brings their own mix of gifts and challenges.  Being able to communicate with a creature that doesn’t speak the way we do and be able to work together is incredible. And I feel very fortunate to be able to teach that to our guests.

Can you tell us about the Cattle Round Up week and what it entails?

The Cattle round up week is one of the highlights of the year.  After seeing the cow-calf pairs grazing out in the National Forest all year, the time for us to round them up is exciting and high pressure.  We need to teach our guests in a couple days to do the work that cowhands take years to learn.  And then we are on a deadline to get those cow-calf pairs in before Oct 1, when we need to have them off the forest according to the arrangement with the US Forest Service.  Some days the gathering is easy as the cows are all gathered up and willing.  Other days it’s like hide and seek to find them, and we’re happy just to bring in 4 pairs.

The riding is rugged and independent, so the guests need to have enough confidence to be sent out on their own to one side of a meadow and handle their horse and the cows without a wrangler right next to them coaching them.  And they need to trust their horse as we are on trails just some of the time, but more often bushwacking through down trees, down and up ravines, and crossing water.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

We know that a great deal of ground work takes place before you match the horse to the rider – why do you spend so much time in this preparation?

Every horse has their own personality and style, and so does every guest.  My job is to understand what the guest is showing up with as far as skills, expectations, and the complex mix of their personality and then match that to one of our horses who will help guide them through the learning process.  Some guests just want to be a passenger and not have to work, so those guests need to be paired with a horse that will happy to just follow the leader.  Some guests are interested in learning more and being more of an active rider.  With those guests the tricky part is to sort out how much are they willing to be challenged, and how much do they need to succeed?

Horses are teachers, and they give us exactly what we need and are adept at pointing out our blind spots.  Some guests are open to receiving this message and some are not.  The goal is to pick the horse that gives the guest what they need, knowing that no horse is perfect.  The hardest guest to match is one who wants a horse that works like a car, and our job is to help them see that doesn’t exist and help them embrace the process of learning to work together with their horse and be a leader to their horse.  At the end of the week, we want our guests to be madly in love with their horse, and enjoy the feeling of having connected and formed a partnership with their mount.  We have guests who request the same horse year after year, and that is always a good sign that we paired them up well!

How many hours a day are you in the saddle?

We start round-up anytime between 5-6:30am  depending on the day.  That involves saddling up one of our round-up horses, going out to the pasture and gathering the herd to run them into the corral.  Once they are in the corral we saddle anywhere between 50-60 horses.  Our typical day with the guests involves a morning and afternoon ride, typically about 2 hours each.  Then we unsaddle, run the herd back out, finishing chores, and start scooping the corral.  Actual time in the saddle is about 4-5 hours each day.  During our round-up weeks it’s more like 6-7 hours.

Steph Kuenast from Vista Verde Ranch
Steph Kuenast from Vista Verde Ranch

Any highlights from this year’s round up we can mention and anything we can announce for next year?

This year was special as we have a high percentage of guests who have been coming to do the roundup for years.  They’ve figured out what they are capable of and have learned how to work with each other, and they understand the flow of the round up.  So it was easier to get everyone organized and lay out the plan with this group.  We have a group of women who have met up at the ranch for over 5 years to round up, and we were able to witness some really powerful moments of them celebrating their friendships, working through challenges during the round up, work through some really profound personal struggles, and lift each other up.  Also it didn’t hurt that we are having one of the prettiest falls we’ve had in a long time, so the weather and the colourful aspens were just perfect.  That sure helps when you’re out on the trail all day to have stunning views!

For next year we still have some things we are working through with our cattle partner, so we can’t announce any news yet, but there’s a lot to navigate in the cattle business with drought and fires, so that has opened up some conversations about interesting changes that we could implement.

For more enquiries on a once in a lifetime holiday at Vista Verde please visit www.vistaverde.com

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