Modern Cowgirl – Horse Riding in Colorado

Adrienne takes us with her on a journey in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Within the beautiful setting of this mountain range she had the opportunity to ride horses on trails with tourists as well as roam the wilderness only with a group of pack horses to deliver needed material to trail crews, geological surveyors and wildfire prevention teams. Dive into an amazing story about horse riding in Colorado.

Author: Adrienne Rubin

Land of Friendly Folks

Colorado is known for friendly folks, especially out on the trails. Even when you’re struggling to breathe, hiking high above tree line, every single person you pass will say hey, or how’s it going, and you have to stop and catch your breath, panting and wheezing, to say hello back or risk seeming like a schmuck. That’s just the way we do it here in Colorado, where I spent several summers working as a rider, wrangler, trail guide, and pack trip leader for a ranch nestled high in the Rocky Mountains.

Pack trip with horses through aspen forest in Colorado
Pack trip through the changing aspens. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

It always brings a smile to my face when I say hello on the trail and hikers stop in their tracks. Maybe it’s the dozen or so pack horses behind me, or maybe it’s the beer in hand well before noon. Maybe it’s the outfit – I look like someone out of an old Western, with owl and hawk feathers tucked into the band of my cowboy hat and traditional leather chinks. I tip my hat, old-school-style, and carry on my merry way with my train of loyal and dedicated four-footed companions.

Horse Riding in Colorado

Newcomers are flocking to Colorado, with tens of thousands moving to Denver each and every year, coming from all over the country. One of the biggest draws of living here is the access to the outdoors – hiking, skiing, biking, camping, backpacking, climbing, mountain sports, water sports, trail sports, and even riding sports. The equestrian community is thriving and the industry is booming, propelled by population growth and the momentum of competition. The front range is dotted with stables, equestrian centers, and riding schools, with giant indoor arenas for the snowy winters and a packed summer show schedule.

the view over the rocky mountains from the ranch in Colorado
The view from the ranch I worked for. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

Riders are often seen in state parks, wilderness areas, and out on the trails, but while recreational riding has grown, seeing real-life cowboys and cowgirls at work still throws people for a loop. It’s a remnant of the cowboy culture that’s deeply rooted in Colorado history, but for many it’s just that – a piece of history.  For those of us who are packing in the backcountry, it’s a way of life.

Ranch Life at Almost 10,000 Feet

The ranch I work out of overlooks the Dillon Reservoir and Silverthorne Valley, with the imposing Gore Range across the way. It’s about an hour from Denver, far enough away to leave behind the hustle and bustle of the city but close enough to a convenient, easy reach for tourists. At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, mornings are chilly even in the summer, and there is often mist rolling down from the mountaintops which just begins to lift as we arrive. We often see deer, elk, and even moose in the fields as we go fetch the horses while the sun begins to hit the peaks across the valley. The horses are pastured in electric fencing which can be easily moved around the ranch to new grazing areas.

a moose seen in the dark
Moose caught on camera. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

An Unexpected Visitor

One week, every single day we arrived in the morning to find the horses on the loose (and romping mischievously around the hay field, usually). We set up a game camera to see which of the horses was going through the electric fence and letting everyone else out, so that we could put the culprit in a pasture with more solid fencing. Turns out, it wasn’t a horse at all, but a moose who was storming the castle so to speak, walking right through the hot wire without even flinching and running off the horses to eat the hay we had put out for them. The following summer we got a new horse, a bay gelding retired from a career as a polo pony, who was very clever and could open gates and wiggle his way through fences, and was always out and about. We named him Moose.

a historic barn converted into a weekend getaway on the ranch in Colorado
Historic barn on the ranch, which has now been converted into the owner’s weekend getaway. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

More Than Just Trail Rides

The outfitting company I guided for had the opportunity to help with some fun and unique projects, in addition to the usual run-of-the-mill dude rides and hunting parties. A lot of the pack trips we have led in the last few years have moved equipment, not people. We carry gear into the mountains for volunteer trail crews, geological surveyors, and wildfire prevention teams, so where most packing with horses takes place further into the back country, we often find ourselves on high-traffic trails, where we encounter hikers and mountain bikers up for the day from Denver.

pack horses waiting patiently to be tacked up and taken out to transport goods through the Rocky Mountains
Gearing up for a pack trip, waiting patiently. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

We usually bring in the equipment, unload and cache it somewhere safe where the designated crew can find it. Then we go have ourselves a picnic somewhere scenic where the horses can rest before heading back down the mountain with empty packs. We come back a week later and gather the gear to take back down, or move it to a new spot further down the trail. Imagine how much more work a trail crew can get done when they’re not exhausted from hauling their own shovels and pickaxes up a mountainside!

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Real-Life Tetris for Adults

It’s an art, of course. Packing the paniers is like a game of Tetris, getting everything to fit so that nothing moves, shifts, or chafes, and both paniers must weigh the same. Some horses are better at carrying bulky loads than others, with paniers that stick out as wide as the horse is tall. These tend to be lighter loads, like sleeping bags, but require a careful horse. Some horses are bigger and stronger but clumsier, and might carry more weight but need to carry things that can get a little battered, like firewood or cast-iron stoves. In other words, those horses never carry the beer.

crossing water while leading a packhorse on a trek through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on horseback
We used pack horses to carry gear into the mountains for volunteer trail crews, geological surveyors and wildfire prevention teams. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

It’s amazing to me how much equipment some folks bring, or think is necessary to bring. You know how folks go on a weekend trip with three enormous suitcases? They do that in the mountains too. I can go into the backcountry for a week with one riding horse and one pack horse, but people bring all kinds of things on pack trips that they think they can’t live without. Solar panels, extension cords, folding chairs, etc.

An Amazing Record

The record was set by two men who came on a hunting trip and needed six pack horses (each horse can carry 150-200lbs) for a three-day trip. The tents, cots, chairs, and stove were already set up, ready and waiting at camp, so that was up to 1200lbs just for their personal items!  They brought the biggest portable solar panel I’ve ever seen, and all sorts of other things I can’t even imagine. I guess they just couldn’t live without it!

As tricky as it is to carefully load the horses, tether them all together (each is tied by baling twine to the pack saddle in front, so they can break away if absolutely necessary), and negotiate the trails with a long string of horses behind you, I’ll still take that over guiding riders any day.

Riding a buckskin through the mountains in Colorado
Riding my favorite buckskin high on Ute Pass, with the peaks of the jagged Gore Range behind me across the valley. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

Trail “Riders” Are a Special Breed

Riders isn’t the right word though. While the folks we take on the trail are technically riding, I would not call them riders, a distinction riders everywhere understand.

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I get asked a lot of questions like, “What’s the difference between a mustang and a bronco,” or, “is this one your fastest stallion,” and one of my personal favorites, “How old does a mule have to get before it becomes a donkey?” At least once on every ride, someone’s Fitbit goes off and they get all excited about how many steps they’ve taken that day, even though the horse is doing all the work, and I’m always amazed at how giggly grown-ups get about gassy horses. Even so, there’s never a bad day at work with views like these.

The Auto-Pilot Mistake

The most common mistake non-riders make on these types of rides is they expect the horses to drive themselves, and often drop the reins to take pictures, complain when their horses stop to eat, or never do any steering whatsoever. One summer the other wranglers and I had a contest to see who could take a selfie with the most riders in the background taking selfies. I won, obviously.

a group of riders taking selfies while horse riding in Colorado
All my riders are taking selfies! Come on folks, don’t drop your reins! Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

Our horses, of course, are the best coworkers you could ask for.  Patient, careful, tolerant, and ever-aware of their surroundings, they negotiate the rocky terrain and steep hills with ease. Well, some are better than others. One roan gelding is especially notorious for running his pack saddle into trees that are easily avoidable. Another one likes to take giant leaps across even the tiniest of streams, often charging into the horse in front of him as he lands. One little mustang mare is absolutely the meanest of the herd in the pasture, where she runs the show and rules with an iron fist (or hoof), but on the trail she’s a dream to ride or pack. Named Salsa, which reflects her spicy attitude towards the rest of the herd, she’s the kind of horse who lets you drop the reins, crack a beer, and just enjoy the ride.

The Ultimate Way of Transport

Horses are the ultimate four-wheel-drive vehicle, and can go places that are otherwise inaccessible except on foot, and can carry things that we can’t otherwise transport, even on foot. They allow us a whole new category of access into wilderness areas and some of the most beautiful places in Colorado. Once we leave the crowded trails and find ourselves in the backcountry, we can hear nothing but hoofbeats on the dirt, the rustle of the aspen leaves, the trickle of streams of icy snowmelt over stone.

horse riding in Colorado on Salsa, a mean yet adorable mustang mare
Riding Salsa, the best and meanest little mustang mare who ever was. Photo credits: Adrienne Rubin

There are no sounds of traffic, no people playing music or talking on the trail, no bikes whizzing by or planes overhead. No buildings in sight, no cell phone reception, and the rest of the world feels a world away. Time slows down, sometimes even stands still in the mountains. Those are the best moments on the mountain – sitting in the saddle, taking in sweeping views of the valley full of aspens just starting to change colors, sipping a cold beer. That’s the way we do it here in Colorado.


Adrienne crossing trough water on a horse riding trek with a packhorse through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado
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Apart from horse riding in Colorado, Adrienne has a busy life. She joined us recently on one of our podcast episodes to tell us how she travels the world riding horses and built her own equestrian tourism business. You can follow her adventures on her Website, Instagram or on Facebook.

If you are looking for more inspiring articles about horse riding in the United States, check out our article selection about the USA.

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