Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Winter Escape from Reality

By Chris Rourke

He nickered softly, fluttering his black, velvety nostrils as I approached, and his big brown eyes peered out from behind his blinders. He twitched ever so slightly, making the harness bells jingle. Frost was beginning to form on his long, black, winter coat from the steam that came from his nose.

Dan is a 15-year-old Percheron gelding who traded life as an Amish carriage horse for one of sleigh rides and summer trail adventures in the Gunnison Valley. Fantasy Ranch owner Chuck Saunders purchased Dan from a horse sale as a four year old.

“He was the top selling horse that year,” Saunders said proudly. “I liked how in the usual chaos of the sale, he stood in the arena with his harness on, calmly, with no one holding him.”

Photo by Chris Rourke.

I stared down at his massive feet. He wears a size five shoe, which in the horse world might be the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal’s foot size. 

Saunders has operated Fantasy Ranch since 2001, giving sleigh rides on and off during the course of those years. He learned to drive a sleigh in his early years at Keystone Resort.

Saunders has driven a sleigh through Crested Butte and up on the mountain, even hosting the classic dinner ride. However, he found it was a lot of work for little money. He has come to settle on the Almont Resort property ten miles north of Gunnison for offering winter services which include trail rides. 

“It makes Harold happy,” Saunders said about Almont Resort owner Harold Seiff. 

This winter, Saunders said, he anticipated about 30 sleigh rides and another 300 people who will take trail rides through the snowy landscape just north of the resort. Combined with summer trail activities, Saunders estimates his company serves about 4,000 clients annually.

“We take them for a ride of about 30 minutes, and then to the resort for hot cocoa,” said Saunders. “We get a lot of people from out of town who come here to enjoy the ride and see the wildlife. We get a lot of repeat business.”

Saunders offers sleigh rides all winter.

“You ready to go,” he asked?

I climbed up into the sleigh – which was made in Canada and purchased at a draft horse sale – and sat on one of the red velvet benches. Ranch staff joined me on the ride, and we laughed at the antics of the dogs that ran alongside the sled – one even jumping at Dan’s face. The scene was right out of Currier and Ives.

After a tour of the area, which borders the banks of the East River, Saunders stopped the sleigh.

“Have you ever ridden English,” he posed, referring to using two hands on the reins to direct the horse.

Of course, I thought, hasn’t everyone?

I nodded.

“I ride both English and Western,” I said.

He lifted his hands and placed the heavy leather harness reins in mine.

“Now, you do it,” he said.

With a chill of excitement, I clucked to Dan and he trotted off, his big, heavy feet making huge strides in the snow. As most horsemen will describe, you don’t just use the reins to direct a horse – you use them to feel their thoughts. 

Dan was all about work that day. With every stride, the sleigh picked up speed. Are we going too fast, I thought, are we still on the trail?

“Just look down and look for the tracks,” Saunders said.

The winter breeze bit at my cheeks, but I didn’t care. For that short time, I thought nothing of the stories awaiting me back at the office, or the phone calls I had to make, or any other cares. I listened to the soft chatter in the back of the sleigh, the steel runners cutting through the snow, and the steady beat of Dan’s hooves. And yet it seemed so quiet.

Then the thought hit me like a snowball in the face. Maybe I should quit my job and ask Saunders to take me on as a trail guide – spending summers riding among the wildflowers and winters dashing through the snow.

After all, isn’t that why they call it Fantasy Ranch?


Chris Rourke grew up with horses and owns a Quarter Horse mare in Gunnison, Colorado. Occasionally she’s known to work for the Gunnison Country Times as a newspaper reporter.

One Comment

  1. Ginny Ginny January 4, 2020

    Great article! Can we see more articles by this gifted writer?

Comments are closed.