Students in Sustainability: Cowgirl Summer

By: Caroline Roethlisberger

I’m not a loud person. I rarely yell, and I’m almost never angry. But at 6:15 am every Thursday morning, you could find me on top of my equine partner belting out a guttural “Hey Up!” while chasing a clique of dude string horses refusing to run in from their night out in the pasture. 

My official title at Vista Verde Ranch, a luxury guest ranch outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was “wrangler”; however, I think “cowgirl” might be a more quintessential depiction of my ranch duties. 

After rounding up the entire 120 horse herd, I’d grab a quick breakfast from the staff room before starting the daily assembly line at 7:30. One or two wranglers would lead the horses into the barn from the catch pen. The rest of us brushed, saddled and bridled all of the horses that would be ridden that day. A busy week of guests would require around 50 horses. 

Some days, I led kid rides to play capture the flag, pan for gold in Hinman Creek or race around barrels during the Saturday rodeo. Other days, I rode out to an aspen grove for yoga or taught guests how to herd our group of heffers. On Wednesday mornings, we rode to breakfast at Homestead Cabin, and on Thursday evenings, I led a sunset ride to the mountainside for a steak dinner. When every wrangler and  guest returned from their daily adventures, we untacked each horse and ran the herd back out to one of the pastures, ready to do it all again the next day. 

Besides riding, I scooped a lot of manure, cleared fallen trees from the trails after storms and vetted injured horses. I even mastered driving Gretchen the Tractor. On Sundays, I became a housekeeper for the day and went to battle with the streaky glass shower door in Hinman Cabin armed with only a rag and a bottle of Windex. 

After spending three months riding through the surrounding Routt National Forest, I memorized the trails, learned and taught about local wildlife and traded life stories with countless guests. My adventures often led me to “the cliffs,” Farewell Meadows, the top of Indian Hill, and my favorite lunch spot by the Elk River. 


Guests either wore a huge smile or a look of sheer terror after loping a stretch of trail. Kids laughed uncontrollably as they bounced out of their saddles on top of their trotting horse. It’s hard to describe the feeling of leading a trail ride. Part of me was constantly aware of my role as the guide. I felt pressure to provide a fun but educational, relaxing yet exciting, safe and adventurous ride while fulfilling and exceeding the expectations of the vacationers paying for this authentically western ranch experience. 

While this always lingered in the back of my mind, in front of me I saw a landscape littered lodgepole pines and aspens, stotting mule deer, Columbines, glacier lilies and sage brush. Just west of the Contintental Divide, the ranch hides in a valley near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. I could not maintain anything less than the most positive attitude and sincerest gratitude for the opportunity to share my new home with each week’s visitors. I can remember experiencing long days, circumstances that tested my problem solving skills and a few surprises along the way, but mostly, I remember a summer filled with a new family, skills and memories that will last me a lifetime. If something was lost along the trail, my two pairs of sunglasses for instance, we joked that it “was lost to the Zirkels, never to be seen again”. After this summer, I can nostalgically say that my heart was also lost the Zirkels. 

At the end of my Colorado summer, I traded my bootcut jeans and saddlebag for leggings and a backpack, and I drove through the monotonous Ohio cornfields to the tune of the Dixie Chick’s “Wide Open Spaces,” missing the majestic Colorado landscape I left behind. I decided that I would have to return, at least for one more taste of my ranch summer. But next time, maybe I’ll be a winter cowgirl. 


Photos courtesy of Caroline Roethlisberger

One thought on “Students in Sustainability: Cowgirl Summer

  1. What a great surprise to see this article! Thank you for being a cowgirl at VVR this summer, and for all you did to make the ranch a better place. We miss you, and can’t wait to see you soon!

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