Leaving my horse behind is a hardship of travel. I can Skype with family, but quarter horses do not take calls so I love a destination with sunny skies and horses I can borrow.
In Nebraska’s northwest corner, the land looks more Wild West than farmer’s field and horse lovers will feel right at home.
Fort Robinson State Park started in 1874 as a military camp to protect the Red Cloud agency — an issuing point for government supplies to the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho — and evolved to become a cavalry horse-training center for the U.S. Army.
As you might imagine for soldiers tasked with fighting while riding, these guys were some of the best equestrians around. By 1943, there were almost 12,000 horses at Fort Robinson. When the U.S. readied its equestrian team for the 1936 Olympics, they came to Fort Robinson to train.
The fort was decommissioned in 1948 and now sees action as a family-friendly holiday destination. The park has 60 horses; greenhorns to accomplished riders can take trail rides from 50 minutes to several hours long. I felt like a peace-seeking John Wayne as I meandered across the mixed-grass prairie on Seventy-Five — a quarter horse it appeared named for the plant species he sampled, not his speed.
We looked for the bighorn sheep captured in Alberta and reintroduced to the park in 2012, but satisfied ourselves instead with the yellow-breasted meadowlarks chasing grasshoppers. Riders are encouraged to wander among the ponderosa pines and rocky cliffs, but wisely are not allowed to ride near the buffalo herd of approximately 150 breeding cows and their calves.
People who cannot bear to separate from their trusty steeds will find Fort Robinson a welcoming place. There is horse boarding for 151 horses and 22,000 acres to explore. On the day I visited, one lonely horse peered out from his box stall waiting to be reunited with his rider.
But usually, lodging at this park is so popular that it is booked a year in advance. For those whose horse riding days are behind them — or never arrived — stagecoach and wagon rides provide a more comfortable equestrian tour of the grounds.
Fort Robinson still looks like a fort with restored military buildings surrounding a large parade square. I stayed in one of the officer’s quarters. Built in 1874, they have hallways large enough for marching practice, but have been modernized for visitors. There is no Wi-Fi, television or fancy touches — I washed my hair with dish detergent — but the spacious accommodations offer a chance to experience an electrified version of 19th century cavalry life. Michael Morava, superintendent, says, “I challenge you to find a place built in 1874 that you can sleep in!” Or want to.
With the swimming pool, horse activities, and wildlife watching, I wanted to linger and by staying in historical accommodations, I felt like I had stepped back several decades to a slower-paced life.
Although I was tired after a day on the range, I did not want to miss the evening rodeo. Local ranchers compete in an entertaining display of horse skills and personal grit.
I felt like I stepped into a National Geographic photograph as the rodeo lights lit up the infield and I grabbed a seat close enough to see the horses sweat during a round of musical chairs on horseback.
The sun faded over the hills of Pine Ridge and the cricket chorus marked the end of a Great Plains day.
I missed my horse just a bit less.
If you go
• If you want to stay in the officers’ quarters or the 1909 enlisted men’s quarters — called cabins — book early. Units hold two to 20 and are good value for families. Popular among return visitors, some dates are booked a year in advance (http://nebraskastateparks.reserveamerica.com).
• If you are taking your own horse, Fort Robinson RV Park offers 20/30/50 amp service. High Plains Homestead and other members of Northwest Nebraska High Country (http://www.nebraskahighcountry.com) offer horse motels, plus accommodation for their owners.
• Free rodeos with equestrian games are offered Thursday nights from Memorial Day to Labour Day.
• If flying, the nearest airports are Rapid City, S.D., or Scotts Bluff, Neb.
Carol Patterson helps inspire everyday explorers within organizations. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.carolpatterson.ca.