Steamboat Springs, Colorado, US: What to do when it’s winter in a cowboy town?

A horse walks into a bar. Its rider, aloft in the saddle, orders a beer. The unimpressed barman rebukes his patron, leading to a scuffle in which a man's shirt is torn. The horse and rider plus two companions up and leave, later repeating the stunt inside another saloon further down the road. 

By this stage the local police have gotten wind of their shenanigans. Two police officers confront the riders, ordering them off their horses. But one of the riders refuses to dismount and instead "spurs" his horse so that it rears up in front of the policemen.

One of officers draws a Taser from his belt and uses it to jolt the recalcitrant rider into submission. The stunned cowboy is taken back to the police station, where he's arrested on charges including suspicion of harassment, disorderly conduct, obstructing a police officer and resisting arrest.

Believe it or not, this is a true story – one that took place on a wintry evening in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in December 2011. The three riders – two male and one female – had earlier spent the day galloping up and down Emerald Mountain, overlooking the centre of town. From there they visited a series of bars, purchased chips and coffees at a supermarket and ordered a sushi dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all on horseback.

Riding on horseback through a bunch of bars in this day and age may have been ill conceived. And some here argue the riders deserved to be locked away for ordering sushi in a town where steaks and burgers are standard fare. But Steamboat Springs has a reputation as a Wild West cowboy town.

This is a place where one century-old Western-wear store sells 6000 cowboy hats a year, and where cowboys race in a downhill "stampede" each January. In February, a street parade includes children on skis being towed down the main street behind horseback riders wearing chaps and spurs. And the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series is considered the most successful weekly event of its kind in the country. Even the local orthopaedic surgeon is said to be a pro bull rider.

I love the idea of moseying into a bar on horseback and ordering a beer, but I'm primarily here in Steamboat Springs to ski. Skiing is the town's great modern pursuit, and those who live here like to boast that their town has produced more Olympic skiers than any other zip code in the United States. Most of them earned their stripes on Howelsen Hill before graduating to the winter resort sprawling across Mount Werner, where I spend most of my time. However, sprinkling my four-day itinerary are several distractions, and top of the list is a horseback ride through the snow.

Yampatikas Utes were the first to take up residence in the Yampa Valley area surrounding Steamboat Springs. But when white settlers began ranching here towards the end of the 19th century, these Native Americans were forcibly removed and resettled in Utah by US Army soldiers. One man whose lineage can be traced back to that pioneering stock is a rancher named – I kid you not – Ray Heid.

Now I don't know if you feel the same way as me upon learning of a name like that, but I can't hear it without wanting to crack a whip and yee-haw my way off into the yonder to rustle up some cattle. But that's just me getting carried away, so the next best thing is to join 80-year-old Ray and his 46-year-old son, Perk, on a 10-kilometre horseback jaunt across their snow-covered ranch, a short drive out of Steamboat.

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When Ray walks out the door of his ranch house to greet us, already he looks the part. He's dressed in a knee-length coat that's been cut from the hide of an elk that he'd tracked and killed years earlier, with beaver pelt trimmings around the collar similarly the evidence of some bountiful hunting in days gone by. I tell Ray that only the previous night, I'd seen a poster-sized photo of him riding through the snow on his steed in that very same jacket.

"You're pro'bly right," he says, in one of those drawling cowboy dialects that tends to omit words and letters. "I bin wearin' it for decades. Never bothered washin' it, neither. I'll pro'bly wear it till the day I die."

The Heids have run summer horseback riding tours from their ranch in the Elk River valley since 1985. The ranch abuts 2 million acres of wilderness country inside the Routt National Forest and is located on the County Road 62 that winds from the south side of Steamboat Lake to the "town" of Clark. Town, in this case, is a corner store, with a small school allegedly hidden somewhere around here as well.

After the county started snowploughing the roads from Steamboat to Clark in 1990, it enabled the Heids to introduce winter rides to their program, twice a day for six days a week. Sundays are Ray's day off and he treats them with the sort of religious fervour that others around here treat their spiritual duties. If the one-time Olympian (he was a member of the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Games ski jumping squad) can't drive into Steamboat to ski on the groomed slopes of Mt Werner because the roads are still buried beneath overnight snowfalls, he'll saddle up a horse so he can ride for three hours out to the foot of a hill on a distant horizon, where he'll hike to the top for the thrill of skiing down virgin slopes for what amounts to a total of perhaps five minutes.

With the introductory small talk out of the way, Ray leads us to a pen containing a dozen horses of different stock. Most are a combination of American quarter horse and Arabian breeds, with thoroughbred and draught horse genes added to the mix in some.

"They're trail horses," he says, "which means they like followin' each other and lookin' for the best trail with the most solid footin'. You can steer 'em by pressin' against 'em with your knees and by tightening one'a the reins. Of course, if you want to say 'whoa' then go ahead an' do it. But it won' mean anythin' to the horse."

My mount, Sonny, is a 20-year-old gelding that's almost certainly part-hippopotamus, so broad does its girth feel when I try and settle into my saddle. The last time I sat on a horse was 12 months earlier, when I trotted along behind a Chilean gaucho as we rode across the windswept Patagonian pampas. My hips proved terribly inflexible then, making getting on and off the horse hard work. But that's nothing compared to this time, where I'm in physical pain just sitting astride Sonny.

Without so much as a giddy-up, we're out the gate and on a snow-white trail that squeaks and crunches underfoot. Elsewhere it's wonderfully silent, as Ray leads the way on Stormy, his faithful equine companion of 17 years that knows this trail as well as its rider. "I could go ta sleep and he'd bring me back home and wake me up before anyone realised I'd bin sleepin' the whole time," Ray explains.

Sonny is as placid as I could wish a horse to be, and we climb towards a treeless ridge where elk and mice and ermine prints pockmark the snow. A porcupine huddles in the crook of a tree and we learn to differentiate between coyote or racoon tracks. Perk swears that mountain lions also roam these hills.

"I've spotted four this winter, which is a lot," he says. "Populations are definitely on the rise again around here."

Our trail traverses open meadows and winds back through stands of aspen trees. We travel at an easy pace where the horses' rhythmic gait allows us to retreat into our own headspace. Unfortunately my discomfort in the saddle fills my mind. I thought that in time I'd settle in but my hips are giving me hell and I simply can't relax. Despite the obvious beauty of our ride, I begin wishing for it to end.

By the time we return to the ranch I'm hankering for something to numb the pain. Someone suggests a slug of whisky but for that I'll need to find a bar. Be damned if that's going to happen around here though. And besides, I might find myself getting arrested.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

Steamboat.com

Coloradoski.com

TOUR

Travelplan has a variety of Steamboat Springs ski packages including discounted accommodation, lifts and airfares; see travelplanski.com

RIDE

Del's Triangle 3 (steamboathorses.com) winter horseback rides cost $US80, with free, twice-daily winter shuttles available from outside the Steamboat Springs Ski Area Gondola Transportation Centre. Children must be at least six years old.

Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Travelplan.

FIVE STEAMBOAT SPRINGS ACTIVITIES

SNOWCAT DINNER

Catch the gondola to Thunderhead Lodge then climb aboard a snowcat for a five-star, Northern Italian-inspired meal high on the mountain at the Four Points Lodge.

HOT SPRINGS

Soak in therapeutic thermal pools amid the snow-covered wonderland surrounding Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a short drive out of Steamboat.

SNOWMOBILE TOUR

The extensive trail system on Rabbit Ears Pass is a snowmobiler's dream. Moonlight and sunset tours are followed by romantic dinners in a remote cabin in the woods.

PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR

Snowshoe to a frozen waterfall in Fish Creek Canyon while learning how to frame your pictures, play with light and alter camera settings.

HOT AIR BALLOONING

Float above the Yampa Valley on a scenic 45-minute flight then celebrate with a champagne ceremony on landing.

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