John Wayne did it. So did Clint Eastwood and Johnny Depp for that matter. They all slept under a blanket full of stars while their horses waited patiently to ride them out of danger or away from a band of wild savages on horseback. No one is asking you to sleep on the ground or gallop like the wind after a rouge stagecoach pulling a team of runaway horses without a driver, but you will have the opportunity to step back in time to a real life Western adventure.
The Wild Horse Sanctuary, tucked in the volcanic landscape of the Shasta Cascade wonderland, isn’t a false Hollywood set and Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t about to step out from her little house on the prairie. Instead, you’ll be given the opportunity to join in on your very own spaghetti western adventure in Shingletown a short distance East of Redding, California.
I had the opportunity to ride with Sanctuary co-founder Dianne Nelson and her posse of volunteers during an overnight outing into the wild frontier. I was joined by a photographer from Canada who was on a hunt to capture wild mustangs (with her camera) an equestrian from Santa Rosa who works in the therapeutic riding industry and a couple of engineers from San Jose’s Silicon Valley who were interested in re-connecting with nature in northern California.
Our journey started off in the Sanctuary corral where we were given a safety talk about the basics of horseback riding and matched with a horse that fit our level of riding ability. Ben, a bay Quarter Horse was my mount for the weekend. He was responsive, steady and sure-footed on the rocky slopes of these oak tree-studded trails that we explored over the next 48+ hours. Each horse was perfectly suited to their rider and very used to walking amongst the wild mustangs and burros scattered about the 5,000 acres of pasture and brush land.
We were fortunate to see a small band of wild mustangs as soon as we walked our horses into the Sanctuary pasture. A trio of horses were hanging out under a shade tree and gazed at us, slightly interested, from a safe distance. I use the word safe because, while we were never in danger throughout the weekend trail ride, these are wild horses and the stallions will protect their herd if they sense threatening behavior. Having said that, we did see a lot of wild horses on our riding adventure and that was absolutely thrilling.
As we climbed the trail in the late afternoon and crested the plateau looking out over Mandon Valley, we hit the motherlode so to speak. Large groups of mares with foals were gathered around the lake, tails swishing the flies away as they waited for dinner. Yes, dinner would be served to the herd, as well as the guests. The horses are given supplemental hay and mineral salt licks to keep them healthy. That’s why this place is truly a sanctuary for the wild horses to live out their lives. Only the babies are adopted out annually when they are ready to leave their mothers, as they make the best riding horses – no bad habits have been developed and most are eager to please.
We dismounted and unsaddled the horses and turned them out into the corral for a well deserved evening off. It was happy hour at base camp with drinks flowing and chips and salsa before our barbequed tri tip, chicken, camp rolls, corn on the cob, salad and dessert were served. Guests are asked ahead of time of food allergies and the staff is eager to please.
After some time around the campfire I called it a night and headed to my cabin. My sleeping bag was waiting for me, as was a hot shower and clean bathroom in a stand alone building next door. I could hear horses and people moving around in the morning and was happy to dig into a cowboy breakfast of homemade biscuits studded with chunks of sausage in a creamy country gravy, eggs, fried potatoes and a fresh fruit bowl piled high with California’s bounty. Soon enough we were up in the saddle and headed back to civilization, but not before our last picnic lunch under the trees with wild horses in the distance.
Insider tip: The Wild Horse Sanctuary offers a wild flower trail ride in the spring, a cattle round up in the fall and annual open house in mid-August. For additional insider tips follow @Nancydbrown on Twitter and @ridinghorseback.
If You Go:
Wild Horse Sanctuary http://www.wildhorsesanctuary.org/
Rates vary depending on the length of the ride. My two day, one night overnight ride cost $475 and included two sack lunches, dinner, breakfast and horseback riding. You don’t need to be a rider to sponsor a horse. The non-profit organization is open to donations, including volunteering your time with the horses.
Article, photography and video by travel writer and wild west explorer Nancy D. Brown. Thanks to Shasta Cascade and The Wild Horse Sanctuary for arranging this adventure on horseback.