When I think of ranching and horses, I think of my dad. The conversations we shared, dreaming of a ranch of our own, were some of my favorite times; he taught me about horses and cattle. Although we were never able to make those dreams a reality together, they are some of my fondest boyhood memories, and some desire for the lifestyle remains in my blood today. I find myself dreaming, again, any time I’m driving south on Highway 95 passed Potlatch, where I can see my grandfather’s old ranch house. I also think about those days when I catch the scent of horses, or wander through the barns at the Kootenai County Fair. Although I’ve accepted that I’ll never have a ranch of my own, I’m glad to know there are other ways to realize those dreams, if only for a short time.
When Janice Schoonover invites us out for a day at Western Pleasures Guest Ranch, Benjamin Powell and I don’t waist any time. It’s early Fall, the weather is perfect, and it’s only a short drive north of Sandpoint. Ben can’t stop expressing how excited he is to shoot some photos from the saddle. And with herding cattle, and shooting skeet on our schedule, I’m excited for a day of firsts.
The miles of dirt road leading to Western Pleasures speaks to the authenticity of the ranch – nothing quite says country like a long dirt road. The ranch itself sprawls, picture perfect, across a gorgeous North Idaho valley, a ring of mountains acting as a natural frame. The lodge and guest cabins are rustic log structures, most of which look out over an expanse of lush, green lawn, complete with fire pit encircled with granite bench seats designed for the perfect evening of firelight and music.
We pull into a gravel parking area, thrilled to have arrived. After stretching our legs a bit and enjoying some fresh air, we head into the lodge and it’s our pleasure to meet Janice.
It seems she will accompany us on our day’s adventures. Soon we’re in the barn for more introductions; we meet the Schoonover’s son, Isaac, and his young wife Libby, both offering that honest country hospitality. Then, we’re introduced to our new horse companions. Isaac briefs us on proper horse etiquette and commands, checks straps and stirrup length, and sends us into the corral to get used to riding. I admit, my heart is in my throat, though I try not to show it. It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve been on a horse, and although my dad is quite the horseman, I’ve never ridden with him, and he’s never had the opportunity to teach me. Ben, however, having spent some time around horses in his younger days, seems to slip comfortably back into old habits.
At Western Pleasures Guest Ranch, it’s not all play; the work we’re asked to do serves a purpose, it’s not just about fun, though it’s certainly fun to do. Today, our job is to bring in the cattle, separate the bull from the herd, and return the herd to the pasture. The cattle are well mannered, which makes our job easier. Of course, Isaac and Libby do the real work, we’re just along for the experience. There are certainly some entertaining moments, and a few laughs at my expense when my steed takes some unexpected liberties, causing my reaction to be one Ben wishes he had caught with his camera. Even Janice laughs out loud – I’m happy she’s that comfortable with us – though she tells me I handled the situation well. “I’m not going to tell you what Ben said,” she teases, and we all laugh some more, this time at his expense.
After we bring the herd back to the lower pasture, Isaac and Libby take us on a short trail ride. I find myself relaxing a bit more the longer I’m in the saddle; I could use a few more days of this. We’re able to have a more casual conversation now, and I ask Isaac why he stays to work the ranch. He chuckles as if to say, “Look around. Isn’t it obvious?” And it is, but when it comes down to it, Isaac makes it clear that he’s not here because he has to be. He wants to be here; It’s the life he’s chosen, at least for now. There’s a saying I’ve heard from another ranching family – “If you’re lucky enough to live on a ranch…” (Nspire Mag, Winter/ Spring 2015).
When we finally meet Roley Schoonover, he takes us skeet shooting. Just the idea of holding a shotgun instead of reins calms my nerves, though shooting skeet will be another first. It’s here, standing on an old overgrown dirt road, looking down over the pastures and streams, gazing across at the mountains, where I come to a realization: Until now, I’ve been all business, worrying about the story instead of truly enjoying the moments. The thing that brings me back is deciding to sit on the ground, and lay back against the hillside. It’s that connection to the physical environment, to nature, that awakens my truer self; I take a deep breath and finally relax.
Janice, Isaac and Libby join us after a while. Once again, it’s all laughs and honest smiles while Ben and I shoot it out – it seems everything must be a competition with that guy (correct me if I’m wrong, Ben: Marines 3/Army 5). And when Janice miss-throws clay pigeons into the brush directly in front of Roley, it’s all I can do to keep the teasing to a minimum. I feel like I’ve known these people all my life, like we’re family, and I already hate that we’ll have to leave tonight.
At the end of the day, I experience another first when Isaac and Libby run the horses out to pasture for the night. Janice drives us down to the pasture where they’ll be running in. Ben sets up to shoot some photos. I stand in the open field and watch. Isaac takes the lead, stretching out over his mount in a full gallop. When the others come rushing through, it’s like a summer storm, these amazingly powerful creatures, without bridals or saddles now, pass like thunder. It’s almost frightening, and my heart races just a bit as if, perhaps, I were running with them, and I have to keep myself from joining them.
As the sun descends below the tree line, and then the horizon, we sit around an open fire and enjoy what I may forever remember as the finest steak dinner of my life. I just can’t seem to convince myself that life is this good anywhere else, and I wish my Dad were here to enjoy it with me.
By: Toby Reynolds/Photography by: Benjamin Powell