Stuart Forster tries roping in cattle and goes horse riding at La Reata Ranch, Saskatchewan, Canada.
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Tanned, with a firm jaw and wearing a white Stetson, there’s something reminiscent of the Marlboro man about George Gaber, the owner of La Reata Ranch near Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Did I imagine that he just said ‘howdy’ before giving me a firm handshake and welcoming me to his 5,000 acre property? Nine miles of his undulating land fronts onto Lake Diefenbaker.
On the way in, at the end of the two-and-a-half hour drive south-west from Saskatoon, we sent gophers scrambling for the safety of holes burrowed into the dusty track running between the highway and the ranch’s red-painted, A-frame buildings.
Ranching in Saskatchewan
I’ve never met a real cowboy before today. To be honest, I’d always associated them more with the United States than Canada.
La Reata is a working cattle guest ranch and George invites me to take a rope and lasso in a calf. In the movies the cowboys do it at the first time of asking. Yet it’s not as easy as it looks. I fail. After coaching from George I succeed following a handful of attempts.
“We run about 130 pairs, which is a cow-calf operation. It means throughout the summer months the cows have their offspring with them for six months. The cows are pregnant and will calve again next March. It’s going to be 260 head in total. We also have 15, 20 long horn cattle and some bulls,” says George about his livestock, in terms that even a city-slicker such as myself can understand.
A working cattle guest ranch
“A lot of people get mixed up with a working ranch. They think a working ranch means you have to actually, physically work. That’s not the case. This is a working cattle guest ranch. We have the cattle – every guest has a chance to participate – it’s not just a tourist attraction. You have the chance to get involved and help but it’s not like you have to get up at 6.00am and start working. You have the chance to help with fencing, spend a lot of hours in the saddle and do the round-up, wrestling calves. I do the branding myself but people can put the ear tags in,” says George.
I had the impression people came here primarily for riding holidays. That isn’t too far wide of the mark. Up to 20 guests can stay at any one time but George likes to keep the number to between 14 or 16, so that everyone can make the most of their time here.
Horse Riding in Saskatchewan
“We ride from three hours up to six or seven hours, depending on what the guests what to do. The other day we went out, it was about two o’clock and I asked if people wanted lunch. They said, ‘Ah, we’re not hungry,’ so we headed further west to check the cows. It turned into a seven hour day in the saddle. Everybody was really tired the next day but I guess it was a great experience for them,” he says with a grin and the genuine enthusiasm of someone who’s found their calling in life.
“We have 23 horses at the moment. That’s not enough in the summer and too many in winter,” says George with a laugh. “They have about seven months off.”
Summer temperatures can soar over 30°C but the winters, I learn, are harsh. “Last year was bad, it was -52°C. That was really cold…that was with the wind chill. We had about a foot of snow. We always get wind with the snow and that clears the roads.” Every cloud has a silver lining then.
Dude ranches in Canada
“Everyone grooms their own horses once we’ve taught them what to do. They can do a little theory, learn to saddle up their horses and what the different straps are called; the saddle, the bridle, the breast collar. Everybody loves it. They bond with their horse and that’s the main thing. It’s not just going into a resort where the horses are sitting there waiting, saddled up,” explains George in the tack room barn as Country and Western music plays on the radio.
George speaks with a Canadian accent yet moved here from Germany in the 1990s.
“I just came on a holiday in ’95. We just camped out overnight with our horses along Swift Current Creek, which was fantastic and beautiful, and fell in love with it and decided I wanted to change lifestyle and move to Canada,” he explains on the porch of the cook house, in which meals are prepared and served.
He bought land and opened La Reata in 1996.
Stetsons and cold beer
The original cook house is now a rustic saloon with a pool table. It has the look of a place that could be the set of a Western. Old Stetsons and cowboy boots are used for decoration. A sign on the door states ‘Cowboys – leave your guns at the bar.’ An old revolver hangs behind the bar. Bottles of spirits are marked with the names of their owners.
“Grab yourself a cold beer from the fridge there,” invites George, pointing to the corner of the room while pressing play on the CD player. Country and Western music starts up again and he shoots the smile of a man who’s living his dream.
He’s getting the horses ready so we can go out riding.
“You see the river valley and the lake is full and it’s almost like you are riding into a painting,” he says about the rolling countryside that we’re about to experience on horseback. I can’t wait to get into the saddle and go horse riding out on the range in southern Saskatchewan.
Location of La Reata Ranch
La Reata Ranch is a two-and-a-half hour drive south-west of Saskatoon along Saskatchewan Highways 7 and 4. From Regina the ranch is approximately 3 hours 20 minutes westward, along the Trans-Canada Highway then along Saskatchewan Highway 4. You can see the location of La Reata on this map:
See La Reata Ranch’s website (Box 128, Kyle, Saskatchewan, S0L 1T0; tel. +1-306-375-2225) for accommodation prices and to find out more about activities.
Search for hotels in Regina or Saskatoon via TravelSupermarket (£):
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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A version of this story was first published on 30 December 2014.