Snow muffles everything. Instead of thumping on the ground or clacking against rocks, the horses’ hooves make soft crunching sounds. The shadows of a nearby aspen grove stretch stark and thin across the white surface. Up ahead and to the right, a rabbit startles, scampers over the snow and disappears. To my left and right are the other riders, their horses picking their own trails, close enough for conversation but far enough not to intrude on personal thoughts or scene gazing. A snowy field stretches in front of us, a jagged mountain backdrop decorating the horizon.
Unless you own a ranch or know someone who does, this snapshot is a rare one for winter. Even in summer, my view would often include the backs of other riders in front of me. Not so at American Safari Ranch.
Six miles northeast of Fairplay, just off of Highway 285, the ranch spans nearly 3,500 acres. Formerly a working homestead ranch, it’s now a place where anyone looking to get away from the hustle and bustle can spend some time outdoors. Unlike other similar places, however, American Safari Ranch doesn’t shut down in the winter, and the horses are available for riding year-round.
Stan Kopunec bought the ranch 27 years ago. A transplant from the Czech Republic, Kopunec spent seven years in the Denver area, with a small ranch and a restaurant business. He decided he wanted a larger ranch and began looking. When he found this property, it was rundown and neglected, but he was pleased with its proximity to Denver and Breckenridge, paired with its natural beauty.
“I bought it right away,” he said.
Fixing up the property took a lot of work, but it has all paid off. There are even a handful of the original buildings still around — the homestead house, the barn and the bunkhouse. In addition to those are a saloon and a hotel, where folks can stay in the summer.
“They can stay here, eat here, play here, drink here, party, ride horses, play volleyball, everything right here,” Kopunec said. “They don’t have to go anywhere.”
While there much to do in summer, it’s the winter activities that make American Safari Ranch unique.
With thousands of acres available to roam, Kopunec sees no reason why riders should have to plod in single file. He wants the experience to be more like riding side by side as friends, rather than in strict formation.
“Before I even opened, I invite friends. I say, ‘Come over — I show you my ranch and I take you for horseback riding,’” said Kopunec of the origins of the winter rides. “And you know, when you’re with friends, you’re not going to put them in line, and I don’t have to, it’s private property. So I say, ‘Guys, you ride there and you ride there,’ you know, and we talk to each other. And that’s how I started and I say, why not?”
Those who are interested in simply sitting on top of a horse as a matter of transport from one place to another, without any extra effort, should ride somewhere else. Riding at American Safari Ranch, particularly in the winter, is an interactive experience — between rider and horse, rider and other riders, rider and guides.
Our guide, Aaron Brown, has been working at the ranch since summertime. By now, he knows the horses as individuals with their own quirks, temperaments and social circles.
“It’s hilarious,” he said, of the horses’ interactions when let out to roam. They form their own cliques, with preferred pals, who they also enjoy walking next to during rides.
That’s where more of the interaction comes in. Except for a few places over a creek and through stands of trees, horses and riders spread out. Brown kept his eye on the pack throughout, calling out instructions as though choreographing a dance. Each rider is responsible for his or her own horse, guiding it through the snow and maintaining a safe place within the group.
Dancing around the weather
The reason most other places don’t do winter horseback riding, Kopunec guessed, is the time it takes to get out to the stables, and the possibility of not having customers. But for him and his guides, that’s not a problem, because they all live on the property.
“I can be home, I can be comfortable and watch TV. (If) people call, it takes 40 minutes to set up the horses, takes them 40 minutes from Breckenridge to get here,” he said.
Although sometimes the weather in the winter can become inclement, for the most part it’s doable, and a few extra layers are enough to guard against the chill.
Kopunec recommends people call in the morning to double-check the weather, and advised that morning riding is generally better than early afternoon, though both can be arranged. In the winter, riders must be at least 8 years old; all levels of experience are welcome.
Our group tackled a morning ride, which worked out perfectly. The sun shone throughout, with blue skies above, although off in the distance we could see gray clouds gathering dramatically over the mountain peaks.
Just as I dismounted, a handful of snowflakes started drifting down.
“It’s worth it,” Kopunec said, of the drive to his ranch, even if just for the views. “A lot of people, they want to see Colorado. This is the real Colorado, and you don’t have to drive much.”