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Willow Lane Ranch is an authentic working cattle ranch that opens its doors each year to guests who wish to claim a slice of the Western lifestyle. Your hosts won't simply toss you on a trail horse and walk you through some well-traveled trails; instead they will initiate you into the cowboy lifestyle completely. You'll ride their horses on the virtually untouched lands, herd the cattle, perform standard ranch tasks, share stories by the campfire and indulge on delicious food. What more can an aspiring cowboy want?
But enough chatter… on with the interview.
AH: You pride yourselves on not being just another dude ranch, which might seem like a confusing claim to some. What is the difference between a dude ranch and the ranch experience you offer?
A working ranch is a place where you become one of the team, learning from seasoned cowhands how to care for cattle and horses. If you're happy to spend your days in the saddle, eat with 'the folks' and really live the cowboy's lifestyle, then we are for you! A dude ranch is usually a place where riding is one of many activities, not the main event.
AH: I firmly believe that although horses and the country lifestyle are highlights of a horse vacation, the hosts are ultimately what will separate an average experience from a memorable one. Can you share a bit about yourselves and your experiences?
Keith, my husband of 25 years, bought our ranch when he was 19 years old… some 30 years ago. He was born and raised not three miles north of here and has ranched all his life. We run 100 head of mother cows on our 1300 acres and also look after an additional 1100 head of cattle that run in a 17,000-acre forest reserve, for a grazing association, so we keep pretty busy. In his spare time Keith enjoys roping and trap shooting and also plays a pretty mean guitar.
I come from rodeo stock… the bucking kind. I was raised on a ranch about 100 miles east of Calgary and along with cattle and irrigation crops, my family were rodeo stock contractors. My Dad was a three time Canadian Champion All-around Cowboy back in the late forties and early fifties. He retired to raise rodeo stock and our family has supplied rodeo stock to the Calgary Stampede, CFR & NFR for many, many years. When I'm not working on the ranch, marketing or managing our guest business, I like to play baseball and curl. I also enjoy playing the piano and occasionally sing harmony when my husband entertains.
Keith & I have three married daughters and four grandchildren that we love to spoil. Unfortunately for us and them they all live in the city, but come home lots to enjoy the ranch and all it has to offer.
AH: It's clear that you are stewards of the Western way of life, but I'll bet a good deal of people would be somewhat surprised to hear that Canada is nearly as rich in cowboy heritage as America. Are visitors ever surprised at just how authentic an Old West experience can be had at your ranch?
Yes, they are frequently quite surprised that Canada has a cowboy heritage too. From the pioneers that settled this land back in the 1800's and endured winter in sod huts and tents to the men that started our big area ranches (most from homesteading), they were a tough breed.
AH: What are some of the events a guest might expect during the typical day at your ranch?
Breakfast is at 8:30 a.m., but guests are more than welcome to help with the ranch chores, catch, groom and saddle the horses beforehand, if they are early risers. The morning ride might find us checking out the new baby calves or bringing in a sick momma that needs our attention. Lunch would be back at the ranch house and then it's back in the saddle for the afternoon to look after whatever needs doing. Take salt and mineral to the cows, fix a fence, check on a spring-fed water trough… all the while soaking up the natural beauty of the area. Supper usually hits the table about 7:00 p.m., leaving time for a pre-dinner soak in the hot tub. With lots of tales to swap and stories to brag about, guests usually drag out supper for a very long time. Then it's a campfire and music supplied by Keith and sometimes neighbors and friends show up for an old fashioned jam session.
AH: You also offer a variety of special vacation packages for the more adventurous souls, such as The Great Canadian Cowboy package where guests will experience some tent camping as well as the Calgary Stampede package where guests can attend the rollicking Calgary Stampede and Rodeo. Do you have any packages that stand out as being extremely popular among guests, or is interest pretty evenly divided?
Trends change every year but our most popular packages are ones that have an old fashioned cattle drive or round-up in them. Since having a story in the Horse & Hound magazine in 2003, our packages including the Calgary Stampede have become very popular as well.
AH: Mending fences, branding cattle, riding horses and other such activities can really get the belly rumbling. What types of delicious meals would guests have to look forward to at Willow Lane Ranch?
My recipes have been handed down for a couple of generations and you can expect hearty ranch fare while staying with us. You'll start the day with a hot cooked breakfast, lunch is usually wholesome homemade soup, stew, or a packed lunch is provided for a day ride. We serve lots of ranch raised Alberta Beef accompanied by fresh vegetables and produce grown locally at the nearby Hutterite Colony. Homemade buns, cakes, pies or cheesecakes complete our evening feast. Friday Night is BBQ Steak night, a favorite with our guests.
AH: Aside from the special packages mentioned earlier, guests can also choose between two types of living accommodations: a comfortable space in the ranch house or a cozy log cabin. Do guests express a preference for one over the other?
The cabin is preferred by couples wanting a bit more privacy at the end of the day, and the ranch house is the preference of our single guests or a few guests traveling together.
AH: Life on the range and humorous stories go hand in hand, particularly while surrounding a campfire. Do you have any amusing anecdotes that you can share with our readers involving yourselves or prior guests?
A few years back, we had three guys from a large city that signed up for our annual 'City Slickers' cattle drive. The night before the big drive we were having a bit of an orientation, telling them what they could expect and how to handle certain situations. My husband told them that the cattle would be scattered all over the hills and up in the brush and trees and they would have to make sure they got them all out. One of our guests then asked, "How high up in the trees do they climb?" He was most relieved when we explained that cows couldn't climb trees.
Another time, we had two guests, who on booking went to great lengths to tell us about their extensive riding experience and how often they rode. So when the neighbors called the day before these guests were to arrive and asked if we could help move their heifers home from the hills (about a six hour ride), we never hesitated to say 'Yes,' thinking our newly arrived guests would be just fine, since they rode so much. Unbeknown to us, the only reason they told us this was because they were afraid they would get a couple of old nags to ride. In fact, they only rode on holidays and to say they were sore was the understatement of the year. The rest of the riding holiday was spent sitting on a sheepskin while riding, in the hot tub soaking sore muscles and on very soft cushion when indoors.
AH: Are there any local sites or attractions that might interest guests staying at your ranch?
For those rainy afternoons or just to have a change of pace, lots of our guests like to visit Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage Site that is about 15 minutes from our ranch. We also take our guests into the Frontier Western Shop, the largest tack, saddle and western clothing shop in southern Alberta. If there is a rodeo happening nearby guests usually like to attend. There is also Historic Fort Macleod, the Antique Walk in Nanton and Waterton Lakes National Park close by.
AH: Before calling this interview to a close I think it's important to point out that your guest ranch vacation is as authentic as they come. Is there anything a prospective guest should be aware of when debating whether to partake in a standard dude ranch or your true cowboy experience?
The more hours you have spent in the saddle, the more you will enjoy our brand of vacation. However, we have had many guests whose first experience on a horse was at our ranch and they have gone on to become competitive riders. Really, the choice is completely up to the individual. Vacations at the ranch proper are suited to any level of rider. Our Cow Camps and end of the season Round-up and Cattle Drive are more suited to a confident intermediate rider with staying power.
Basically, if you are in good physical condition, crave adventure, are willing to learn and have that 'all-important' good sense of humor, you will have a great time on our ranch.
AH: Well, you've been more than patient having suffered through my questions, so the least I can do is give you the floor. Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
Keith and I have been entertaining guests from around the world for the past 15 years and pride ourselves on the experience we provide. Our accommodations are squeaky clean, our well-trained ranch horses will carry you over some of the prettiest country anywhere and our hospitality is genuinely warm. We look forward to having you with us.
AH: Thanks again, LeAnne, for sharing a bit about yourselves and your ranch with us.
If you would like to learn more about Willow Lane Ranch please visit their website at http://www.willowlaneranch.com.