by Bob O’Shaughnessy
(Western Horseman Mar/Apr’44)
High in the Rockies near Boulder, Colorado—8,600 feet up, to be exact—Lynn W. Van Vleet has established a Stock Horse “laboratory” that has drawn the interest and admiration of horse breeders everywhere.
Feeling the need for better Stock Horses—horses with the necessary stamina for working the range at high attitudes, Van Vleet turned to the horse whose courage and powers of endurance have been on record for more than four thousand years, the Arabian.
There are no pampered equine prima donnas in the Van Vleet Arabian stud at the Lazy VV Ranch. On the rough, rocky trails of this gigantic western “spread,” cowboys astride purebred, registered Arabians drive cattle to the highlands.
Transplanted from the hot and dry deserts of Arabia to the cool, glacier-scarred slopes of the Rockies, Van Vleet’s Arabians outshine the western horse of frontier fame, on his own roping grounds.
“And why not?” asks Van Vleet. “The Arabian horse is a tough, hardy, close-coupled horse who can adapt himself to any condition and any situation. It was the Arabian, you know, who was the ancestor of the western cow pony. America had no horses until the Spaniards and the Mexicans brought them here, and they were mostly of Arabian blood. Those horses which escaped from these early expeditions, into the wilderness of the great unexplored New World, founded the Indian pony herds. And those herds, in turn, produced some of our greatest cowponies.”
Van Vleet started in 1938 stocking his Hereford cattle ranch with a pool of some of the finest Arabian blood obtainable. He had studied the Arabian and was intrigued by its history. It was not long after the first of these horses arrived in their new mountain home that he decided there were to be no pampered darlings among them.
“Primarily, the Arab is valuable because of his blood,” says Van Vleet. “The reason this blood is so desirable is because it is hardy, rugged, courageous blood. It was prized in Arabia above gold and diamonds. A man’s true wealth was calculated on the basis of the number and quality of horses he owned.
“Bedouins fought for them—emperors and queens connived for them—and the world’s horsemen now are attempting to perpetuate them. All this is not only because the Arabian is a beautiful horse. Primarily, it is because the Arabian blood is the fountain from which the world’s great horses have come.”
So Van Vleet decided there would be no glass-barred stalls, no tasseled trainers, no formal riding rings, no jewel boxes on his ranch.
“Instead,” he said, “I wanted to bring out all the hardy, battle-born characteristics for which the Arab horse has been noted since the time of Christ. I wanted to transplant this horse into totally different surroundings and revive, even intensify, the traits of courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, and endurance which necessity and the experience of thousands of years of adversity in desert hardships bred into him.
“I wanted to bring the Arab into this mountain setting, which is as much the opposite of the desert as daylight is to dark, and substitute the rich diet of plentiful mountain meadows for the scarcity of desert lands; to substitute cooling, soothing mountain breezes for the hot winds of the desert.”
All this was done. Where the Arab had existed on a handful of dates, camel’s milk and a few drops of water, he now roams mountain meadows filled with wild flowers, and hay which is noted throughout the land for its nutritional values, and streams that trickle downward from the ancient glacier of nearby Arapahoe peak. In addition, these Arabs—whose ancestors the Bedouins considered privileged members of their families, and entitled to sleep in the tribal tents—were given human companionship. The cowboys, the farm hands, members of the Van Vleet family, and even visitors were encouraged to cultivate friendships with the horses.
Despite the human understanding that is extended to them—despite the plentifulness of their pastures—these Arabs still lead a life that is as rugged, in other ways, as the adversities of an Arabian desert.
In winter the stallions are kept at the Nederland ranch, where the barn is 8,600 feet in altitude. The mares and colts are taken to a pasture near Boulder, Colorado, about twenty miles away, where they are more accessible. Although they have shelter, the blizzards which sweep down the snow-capped Arapahoe Peak are bitter cold on the Arabs.
In summer the entire cavvy, which now numbers 69 purebreds, roams the ranch. It’s a many thousand acre spread. Cattle production is its primary business. There are more than 500 head of Whitefaces to be driven each spring from the winter pastures below Boulder to the branding pens on the Sulphide pasture.
That’s a cowpony’s paradise. For two days the herd is trailed up Boulder canyon. The overnight stop is midway up the canyon. The next day the herd is pushed again, upward, into the home ranch pastures. It’s a trip of about 25 miles, a long two-day trail drive in these days of fast cattle trucks and trains.
At the Sulphide, the Arab stallions—Kabar (grandson of fabled Skowronek, for whom Lady Wentworth of England declined $250,000 offered by the Russian government) and Zarife (the classic beauty)—vie with Red Wing and Little Red, two of the best western-bred cow-ponies for corral honors. Either stallion can cut a calf from the herd and its bawling mother, and into the branding pen, as precisely and as quickly as Red Wing or any of his cowpony ancestors.
“The Arabian learns quickly,” says Bob Pack, foreman of the cattle crews. “They neckrein more gracefully than most western horses—they are as fast as a Quarter Horse. Kabar, for instance, whirls on his hind feet, raising his front ones. Not one horse in a thousand learns that trick, but it is an invaluable one in driving and cutting cattle. He’s as fast as a panther.”
Barek, another Arab stallion, foaled on the ranch in 1938, also is a favorite “cowpony.” He was ridden not only in the round-up last spring, but was used on cattle trails throughout most of the summer by Pack. The way Bob cocks his ten-gallon hat each time he sits astride Barek is a signal of the pleasure and pride he has in this young son of the desert. He, personally, trained Barek as a roping horse. And Bob(sic) also has the distinction of being the tallest Arabian ever recorded. Standing 16 hands, one quarter inch, he “shades” the previous record-holder, Nureddin, owned by Lady Wentworth of England.
In addition to their cowpony chores, the purebred Arabs are used as mountain trail horses by the Van Vleets. A westerner can appreciate the meaning of that phrase. In the West, only the hardiest of cowponies and rangebred animals are used for that purpose. Many mountain horses are awkward, heavy, plowhorse type animals, because the fancier breeds do not have the endurance, the legs, or the hoofs to survive mountain trails of the kind to be found on the Lazy V V.
One of these trails meanders through the hay meadows—up Boulder Creek, past the Bluebird tungsten mine, on past Arapahoe Falls where deer scamper away, and above the green-watered lakes of the Boulder water system. Then this trail leads straight upward 2,000 feet and more—across timberline and the tundra of Arapahoe Peak, 13,000 feet in the air.
It’s a full day’s ride to Arapahoe, and slightly beyond to Hell’s Hole—a favorite overnight camp ground that is little sheltered in the lee of nearby Sawtooth range. A cowpony, carrying rider and equipment, has to be conditioned to make that ride safely. It’s across jagged, hard-granite rocks that cut unprotected hoofs to shreds. It’s along trails that weave back and forth over the face of almost perpendicular mountainsides.
Rifage, small, but with the ruggedness and grace of tens of hundreds of generations of pure Arabian breeding behind him, picks his way along with the other larger Arabs over that trail each summer. Rifage weighs 850 pounds. Frequently, his rider and equipment will weigh 250 or 275 pounds, or one-third of gallant Rifage’s own poundage. He doesn’t falter—he doesn’t stumble on that trail. When the pack train stops to “blow” in the rare air, Rifage disdains the opportunity to catch his breath. He’s more interested in snorting and pawing the Alpine flowers to demonstrate his affection for his friends, the mares, who also of an occasion make the trip.
The close association with human beings likewise has sharpened the Arab’s natural affection. Guests who visit the huge mare pastures have but to whistle to bring the entire cavvy—twenty or thirty strong—meandering slowly toward them. Frequently, the mares are permitted to roam the lawns in front of the ranch houses and there, too, they come casually to greet both the friend and the stranger who appears on the lawn.
No special protective fences of wood enclose these mare pastures. Instead, the mares are confined by common wire that may, on occasion, cut a horse’s hoof as if it had been sliced away by a surgeon’s knife.
Does this sort of treatment of purebred Arabians sound fantastic?
“Well,” says boss Van Vleet, “we don’t believe it is fantastic. Arabs love this sort of life. They thrive upon it. They are intelligent. They learn, more quickly than a cowpony, to stay away from barb wire fences. Seldom is one cut. A mountain lion killed one of our colts in the mare pasture on a summer’s night, but that is the only tragedy that has occurred. I believe that the natural way in which we have handled these horses has improved their stamina, their size, and their intelligence. That’s what we want.“