The HS Gaited Horse Ranch, also known as the Gaited Horse Capital of the West, is a must-stop for anyone traveling through the intermountain West who'd like to see one of the finest gaited-horse training facilities in the country, who's in the market for a trail-tested gaited horse, or who simply wants an opportunity to ride a gaited horse on some of the prettiest terrain anywhere.
The ranch is located approximately two hours south of Denver, in the shadow of Pikes Peak. It sits at 4,000 feet elevation; its varied terrain is key to the ranch's training program.
The ranch is owned by Esther Hornecker, a fifth-generation horsewoman from Wyoming, who grew up doctoring cattle on Quarter Horses, but made the switch to gaited horses after her first ride. "I still appreciate Quarter Horses for their ranching skills, but one ride on a Cadillac, and I was hooked," she says.
Hornecker purchased the ranch more than 14 years ago, because it provided all of the elements necessary to train and demonstrate gaited trail horses. "We have mountains, streams, brush, wildlife, sand, slopes, and trees," she says. "It's the only way we can assure that a horse will be comfortable with all of the scary things a customer may encounter. In addition, we haul the horses off of the ranch property on a regular basis to perfect trailering, handling, and [dealing with] unfamiliar surroundings.
"You simply can't train or demonstrate a gaited trail horse on a flat ranch with no mountains, water, or challenging terrain," she continues. "I've seen too many horses perform fine in a round pen, arena, or level field, only to be a huge letdown to the buyer when introduced into a true trail-riding terrain."
The ranch has a friendly open-door policy. Hornecker always welcomes customers or visitors to drop in for a ride. "Customers need to be able to experience the ride of a gaited horse," she notes. "It's not something you can read about or see at a show - you have to experience it for yourself.
"We regularly have several interested horsemen and horsewomen who just want to try out a gaited horse," she continues. "We ride about five to seven horses a day, up and down the mountains in all kinds of weather, and always have room for one more rider on our ranch trail rides."
Although you might visit the ranch "just to ride," Hornecker has a feeling you might be back to purchase one of her well-trained, smooth-riding mounts. "[A day rider] may not be a customer this year, but may be next year or in the future," she says. "We've made a substantial commitment to gaited horses and our facility, and are in it for the long run."
A Perfect Match
What makes HSGHR unique is its program of matching the horse and the rider. Hornecker starts every match with an assessment of the buyer's riding skills and abilities. Then she saddles the one or two horses that best meet the buyer's expectations (including color and breed preference) and riding style. "Some customers simply fall in love with a particular horse, but we make sure that there's still a good match," says Hornecker.
She once sold a horse to a buyer from Kentucky who found the perfect horse at her ranch after shopping all over the country. Ironically, the horse sold was originally from Kentucky, not far from the buyer's location. But after time on the ranch, the horse became more desirable. Hornecker purchased the horse for his natural gait, then spent several months perfecting the trail and handling characteristics that the buyer was looking for.
Hornecker travels the country acquiring gaited horses that meet the ranch's high standards. "We typically only bring to the ranch horses between 5 and 10 years of age that are naturally gaited," she says. "We can teach 'gaiting,' but prefer our horses to have that natural ability, and we can concentrate on perfecting their attitude, handling, and trail skills."
She explained to me her unique "no questions asked" return policy. "We're so committed to having each of our buyers be totally happy with their new horse, that we'll allow a buyer to exchange their purchase for another horse, regardless of the reason," she says.
A recent customer from northern Colorado, who was recovering from a prior injury, called and told Hornecker that she was just "not yet comfortable" riding. Hornecker not only took the horse back and refunded the entire purchase price, she drove all the way to the customer's barn to pick up the horse.
When I first visited the HS Gaited Horse Ranch, I expected to see 20 to 30 horses, but counted only seven. Hornecker explained that seven to 10 is as many as she and her employees can concentrate on.
The ranch employs a full-time trainer, and Hornecker personally rides each horse at least once each week. "We ride every day and attempt to get a horse under saddle at least every other day," she says. "A key philosophy of the ranch is to train and sell a limited number of finished horses, not simply to sell a larger volume. We're committed to our fundamental belief in quality, not quantity."
Hornecker has even referred customers to other reputable training ranches committed to selling quality finished horses if she doesn't have the perfect fit for a specific customer.
The ranch recently added a large round pen with a sand base to facilitate ground-work training. The pen is also used by novice customers who aren't yet ready (or don't think they are) for a mountain trail ride. Many once-timid souls who started out in the round pen were ready for mountain riding by the end of their ranch stay.
The ranch also has an eight-stall primary barn with outside turnouts, an indoor tack room, an indoor washroom, and a barn office complete with Western art, cold beverages, and hot coffee. A second barn is used for indoor/outdoor horse boarding and hay storage; it also includes a sick pen.
The ranch will soon offer a fully furnished guest house that can provide overnight housing for out-of-town guests. "We have customers travel from all over the country, and a major airport (Colorado Springs) is located less than 30 minutes away," notes Hornecker. "It isn't unusual to see one of the HSGHR vehicles parked in front of the airport picking up a guest or customer.
"On a recent weekend, I picked up a customer with our trailer and two horses in tow, and headed straight to the mountains."
I was very impressed with HSGHR's professional approach, the quality of its horses, its extensive training program, and its commitment to its program of matching horse and rider. On the ranch's website, the "Recent Trail Rides" section showcases the horses doing what every trail rider dreams of doing every day.