Awesome, Dude!

Sally Parker channels her inner cowgirl at Circle Z Ranch in Arizona and quickly realises that ranch life is more than just horseplay

Now let’s herd just the brown calves back into the pen,” says our Wrangler, Jasper, making it sound easy. A dozen black and brown calves, with six of us on horseback trying to get them to do what we want, is a recipe for bovine chaos. We target a stray and gently nudge him towards the paddock, but a couple of calves sneak past us, escaping the main group and, before we know it, the rest follow. We fail miserably but it’s a lot of fun and we certainly feel like cowboys. Yee-haw!

Arizona veranda

I’m staying at Circle Z Ranch, an all-inclusive Dude ranch nestled in Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands, as part of a wider trip across the state. A dude ranch since 1926, Circle Z is the oldest continuously operating ranch in Arizona and the private railway cars of some of the first guests are still on a siding by Patagonia station. Guests have the chance to live out cowboy fantasies among its thousands of acres of grassland and mountain ranges, which have been used as the setting for many Western movies.

We arrive on a Sunday, the main check-in day, with an option to stay for a four-day ‘Ranch Sampler’ or a seven-day Total Ranch Experience. On the first evening there is an orientation for new hands (that’s us!), though there are many returning guests.

The cow herding was one of our post- lunch Gymkhana games. First, we take our horses around a series of three barrels, right-left-left, in a loop-the-loop fashion. Next is a slalom style pole-bending course. I’ve been “riding” my horse Pestana all morning but still have little control. He can tell I’m a novice and has been very kind to me by just following the other horses.

Now, suddenly, we are on our own and I need to get the horse to go where I want.
After a shaky first attempt (where Pestana decides one barrel is enough, and trots back to the start with me hanging on for dear life) things improve rapidly and we slowly but surely make our way around both courses.

By the time we get to the cow herding, I’m feeling more confident and even manage a trot or two, and a bit of a lope (a Western style canter).

Saddle up

Arizona paddock
Arizona saddle

Riding is the main focus, but every day at Circle Z is different, with morning, afternoon and all-day rides, picnics, valley rides and rodeo. The map shows 52 different trails with names such as Hohokam Loop, Muffies Way and Bathtub, a total of 200 miles, across 8,000 acres. Mostly, we channel our inner cowboy as our horses make their careful way along the rough and rocky undulating trails, squeezing past mesquite, oak, eucalyptus, grasses and shrubs, with stunning views of mountains, ridges and valleys stretching for miles. Sometimes we find ourselves on dappled paths through the trees or crossing the creek.

We quickly settle into the ranch routine: after breakfast in The Lodge I head to Los Corrales to groom Pestana. Foreman Miko selects the right horse for each person so I’m pleased that Pestana and I are becoming a team. There’s a great atmosphere, with wranglers preparing for the day ahead and the horses enjoying a brush down.

Arizona horses

We meet at Los Corrales for the morning ride and, if we’re not out for the day, have lunch back at the ranch, before heading out again in the afternoon. Guests meet in The Cantina early evening for Hors d’oeuvres and to catch up on the day’s events, before an old farm bell announces that our hearty dinner is ready.

Wrangler, Alice tells me she has been coming back for 10 years as the horses are so well looked after. The current count is 100, a quarter of which are bred, raised, and trained on the ranch. Around two-thirds are guest horses, the rest are in training ensuring there is always a rotation.

Once their working life is over, the horses enjoy the retirement pasture, though some sneak back in to rejoin the herd.

Tony, the donkey is one of the gang and nobody seems to know where he came from. He hangs out with his horse buddies, trying to get into areas he’s not allowed and doing his best to persuade a Wrangler to give him a bag of grain.

Wranglers understand each horse’s personality and the equine chums they like to spend time with. While the horses work hard during the winter months, they are let out to roam in the summer, when it’s too hot for riding and the ranch is closed.

On the hoof

Non-horsey activities include a nature walk, yoga, Horseshoe Art and a sing-along around the bonfire. There’s also a games room, a swimming pool, Corn Hole, basketball, volley-ball and tennis court, which doubles for pickle ball.

A hike to the top of nearby Sanford Butte stretches the legs after a day in the saddle. The reward is a panoramic view north over the Santa Rita Mountains, west to the Santa Cruz Valley, east to the Patagonia mountains and south to Mexico.

Evidence of prehistoric farming and pottery making settlements can be discovered along the creek. History buffs can also check out the empty rail bed of the 1881 New Mexico and Arizona Railroad, now one of the riding trails.

Though many people travel with partners, family (children are welcome) or friends, it is a great place and holiday for solo travellers, with its many social meals and line-up of group activities.
The ranch doesn’t have a license to serve alcohol, so guests take their own, but everything else is included in your stay, even the riding lessons.

It’s hard to say goodbye to third-generation owners Rick and Diana, and even more so to my four-legged companion Pestana, but I certainly won’t be hanging up my riding boots anytime soon.

Book it with… Circle Z

A four-day Ranch Sampler package is priced from $1,884 for a standard room or $1,954 for a suite. Package includes lodging, meals, horseback riding, all scheduled activities, tax and gratuity. Flights not included.