There’s more going on here than it looks.
Acres of arid sandy desert soil punctuated by tufts of dry foliage appears from a distance desolate and lifeless. But get in the middle of it, on horseback, and your eyes dart across the ground watching for snakes, scorpions, lizards and creeper crawlers that populate this area.
Holes of all sizes give away the presence of prairie dogs, cottontail bunnies, Jack Rabbits, ground owls, roadrunners and even coyotes that enjoy this desert buffet. Rabbits do dart out and the horses are non-pulsed. Their reaction to coyotes, though, I’m not sure – only saw one of those from the car window during the short drive to the stable from the resort.
It’s busy out here – especially after sunset – but this morning at the crack of dawn when my ride starts, the desert is inhabited by harmless birds of no interest to horses. We need to watch a hoof doesn’t end up in a deep hole. However, our mounts are out almost every day and barely need to be led. Nothing will set them off, except a rattler, and fortunately, we don’t hear one of those.
I’m riding through the Gila River Native Reserve in Chandler, Arizona during one of the hottest summers on record. Today, temperatures will reach 95 degree F, which is normal, but it’s why a 5:30am alarm woke me up this morning.
This time of year, Arizonans only ride before things really start to sizzle.
The KOLI Equestrian Center (all western gear, of course) is minutes from the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass resort near Phoenix, host to this year’s BlogPaws conference, an annual gathering of pet bloggers and brands from around the world – I’m thinking every conference should be adjacent to a riding facility.
Before anything gets going inside the highly air conditioned conference centre, I’m heading outside to climb into a saddle and meet the members of the KOLI herd – some part wild mustang thanks to stallions that roam the thousands of acres extending from the mountain range in sight to where we stand beside the barn.
Yes, wild mustang. Two foals now at the KOLI barn are surprise wild mustang offspring, and apparently that’s not uncommon.
But more about the Mustang later.
First, I’m here for a one-hour introductory ride along the resort’s edge close to the golf course. (There are two on the property, along with a casino and outlet shopping mall).
I’m riding Sundance, a frisky gelded Paint, across the cracked and peeling soil through no discernible trail. My guide Grace is astride Slider, another Paint. Paints are popular in this stable’s herd of 25. I meet them all at the barn including the inseparable Clydesdale brother and sister pair that pull the wagon during the resort’s Saturday evening hay ride activity, and Marvin, the former wild mustang now the owner’s personal mount and favourite.
Our ride this morning covers only a fraction of the 2400 acres of Gila River Indian Reserve all the buildings on this property sit on. The Sheraton leases land from a Native Band made up of Akimel O’otham and Maricopa tribes. The Estrella and Maricopa mountain ranges are in view at all times, but our route circles in the other direction.
We pass the Wild West set used to stage shows for conference groups, but today it’s filled will grazing baby bunnies with apparently no fear of horses. We trot a short distance – cantering is not allowed thanks to the many holes borrowed in the desert’s surface.
Yet Sundance senses the direction of home and with wide-open terrain in view, and picks up the pace. Without my intervention, I’m confident we could have galloped straight back to the barn.
This is a pleasure ride. To learn more about the history and culture of the people who own this territory, you have to book a longer ride with either Chuck or Roger, the brothers who own and operate the KOLI Equestrian Center and grew up on the reserve.
No surprise, I make this booking two days later, especially after Grace tells me about the Wild mustang roaming this land – 1100 in total. To find them, you need at least two hours to ride toward the mountain range and back.
The Mustang, grouping in small easy-to-find herds of less than a dozen, are accustomed to but not entirely comfortable with their saddled brethren.
Unless it’s time to mate … but that’s a story for the next ride.
Read about other warm weather rides such as Horseback Riding in Turks and Caicos on horsetrotting.net.
The Gila River no longer runs through the Gila River Reserve (though it’s recreated in the garden at the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass). What happened to that river set historic president for both ecological preservation and legal rights of Native American tribes.
Interested in the history of the Gila River? Check out Gila: The Life and Death of an American River available on Amazon.
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