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Whether you’re a city-slicker or seasoned equestrian, Gateway Canyons delivers a cowgirl-worthy ride! We interviewed the previous Stable Manager, Amy Wilkinson, about the resort’s world-class riding program.
COWGIRL: What is your favorite riding experience at Gateway Canyons?
Wilkinson: The Stables at Gateway Canyons have an incredible set up and wonderful horses. There are 500+ acres of trails as well as an Equine Obstacle Course. Every riding experience is phenomenal, but I get the most joy out of observing my guests connecting with their horses. I love to share my passion and it is my goal to spread “horse fever” to anyone who is receptive! Some of my guests have never seen or ridden a horse before and at first, they seem so foreign. I try to explain that we all have horses in our blood! Mankind owes the horse a great debt. Horses have played such a significant role in our ancestry and have a huge impact on where we are today.
CG. How creative can you get incorporating horses into a Gateway Canyons travel experience?
W: You want to get creative with horses? I’m your girl! I will include horses in any capacity I can. I’ve arranged color coordinated horses in pastures for scenery/ decoration in wedding ceremonies. I also keep horses sprinkled around the resort for ambiance. A horseback ride is the quintessential Colorado experience for any vacationer and if you want to take your horseback ride up a notch, we offer a delightful Ride and Dine experience at our mountainside Pavilion.
Guests get to ride up a scenic valley and dine outdoors in the rugged beauty of the Unaweep Canyon. The Gateway Canyons Culinary masters cater the event and grill your food right in front of you. This is a very popular experience with corporate groups! The Stables also offers dynamic Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) programs for Personal and Professional Development.
CG: Do you prefer to have riders on ranch horses or their own personal horses?
W: I will work with anyone on any horse. I strive to help people understand horses better. It’s more about training people than training horses. I have realized, over time, that when there is any discord in a horse human relationship, it is rarely the horse’s fault. I try to help clients refine their expectations and create goals as riders. I love every one of my horses dearly and know them as family. My horses give me more feedback than a rider ever does, so they are invaluable instructors themselves. It can be advantageous for guests to use one of my school horses to broaden their experience as a horseman. I know my horses and their level of training and there is nothing like riding a responsive horse and getting to know what true “feel” is.
CG: What about first time riders?
W: The majority of my guests are novice riders. It is a thrill to share a horse with someone for the first time. I break it down into 3 steps: Observe, Approach, and Connect. I have guests that arrive and look me in the eye and tell me “I’m terrified, but I want to ride.” I say, “I can understand that, let’s start by observing the horses from a distance.” This is when I like to share some of the history behind the horse/human relationship. I also share a bit about how horses view their world. I reassure my guests that in spite of their reservations, my horses have the training and compassion to help them overcome their fears. Then we work on approach.
I believe there is a lot of power in choice, so I allow guests to choose their own horse. Once a horse has been selected we approach the horse together. This is my opportunity to start adding some horsemanship philosophies on how and where we approach the horse. Then I work on the connection! It starts with a friendly stroke on the shoulder and we grow from there. It’s important for guests to get hands on with their horse. Feel them and see them, not only with your hands, but with your heart. Offer respect and admiration, and demand the same in return.
After facilitating the initial connection I like to step away and allow the magic to happen. I encourage guests to spend time with their horse on the ground, delve into the depth of the eye, realize the scope of their strength and kindness. Once a quality relationship has been ignited on the ground, we work on the mount up. People allow anxiety to build because they think when they get here they will have to just “hop on.” They’re often very relieved when we take our time. It all starts on the ground.
Once a rider is ready to mount up I assist them in the process by holding their horse and saddle and offer encouraging words. We get on and we sit. Relax, breath, and get comfortable. For the first steps I lead them until they are ready to “take the reins.” Then I have them do a few simple maneuvers. Stop is the most important cue, especially to a nervous or novice rider. Once they know they can stop the horse when they want or need to, they start to feel better. When we leave the barn most riders are often a little tight in their bodies, gripping the horn. After about 10 minutes they start to relax. By the time we get up the trail, most are smiling and relaxed. Usually in less than an hour, beginning guests are trotting and giggling. That is music to my ears, clip-clop, giggle-giggle.
CG: What makes a good trail horse?
W: The best trail horses have grown up in rough country. Any horse can be acclimated to trail riding, but it is best for them to learn how to navigate terrain on their own accord before you add the interference of a rider. If a horse has zero trail experience, I prefer to turn them out in a rough pasture for a few weeks with a herd of competent horses, so they can get their bearings. Horses that have been treated like horses—raised in the rough—have a tremendous advantage. Trail riding is the most natural activity you can do with your horse. I have always believed a kind disposition is the most important ingredient in an equine partner. Color, conformation, and papers are all icing on the cake.
CG: What specialized horse programs and activities does Gateway Canyons offer?
W: Paint the Horse – A history lesson in Native American Horse Painting. Guests observe charts of symbols then are turned loose with a live horse and non-toxic finger paints. This was designed as a children’s program, but I have just as many adults participate!
A Lesson In Balance – Guests are guided through a series of stretches and yoga exercise on the ground as well as on horseback. Depending on the rider’s skill level the horse can remain stationary or be lunged/moving during the exercise. This activity is designed to improve balance, coordination, and develop an independent seat.
Adaptive Programs – The Stables is special needs friendly! We host a variety of day camps for guests with both physical and or mental disabilities.
Hands on Horses – For guests who do not wish to ride, this program offers an opportunity to spend quality time with a horse on the ground. Every session is customized to the wishes of the client. Sessions range from fun interactive grooming to natural horsemanship ground work. We can also guide participants through basic equine massage techniques as well as energy work/ awareness.
Horse Hotel – The Stables offers box stalls and open air corrals to guests who have the luxury of traveling with their horse.
Equine Obstacle Course – This ten-acre course is made of natural and recycled materials. The course has over 20 obstacles designed to enhance communication and horsemanship skills. The course is beginner friendly and a great place to school a novice horse or rider over obstacles that you might naturally encounter on the trail. We can also host competitive trail challenges.
(Originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).