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Perspectives from the Saddle: Meet our 2021 Zapata Wranglers

Every year a group of life-long riders joins our seasonal staff at Zapata Ranch as wranglers. While here, the wranglers guide guests on rides through the Great Sand Dunes National Park, with our bison herd, and while working cattle. They are not only skilled riders, but also educate guests on the ecology, history, and biodiversity of the ranch and develop a truly unique and intimate perspective of the land and life in the San Luis Valley.

Here are a few memorable moments our 2021 wranglers have experienced during their first month at Zapata.


Oakland, CA

“I’ve been an animal fanatic for as long as I remember, so of course I was quite excited about the wildlife on and surrounding Zapata. Coming from Oakland, the San Luis Valley had an exciting new array of biomes and animals to learn about, from the majestic bison and elk to the magnificent great horned owls and red hawks, so imagine my family’s surprise when I identified the porcupine as the animal that has truly stolen my heart. Ever since the first time I saw their tiny, spiky form up in a cottonwood, they are what I most look forward to every time I take guests to the Medano. Though most guests are skeptical when I first tell them that the porcupine is going to amaze them, when we later spot one, all of their reactions almost perfectly mirror the delight of my first porcupine spotting.”


Knoxville, TN

“It feels like the land is the main character in every story at Zapata. The best part of my job is introducing new people to it every week and watching them fall in love with it, too. Not long ago I was taking a guest on her first ride in the sand dunes. She was quiet for a long while and then turned to me earnestly, saying, ‘some people never get to experience this in their whole lives. We’re so lucky.”


Concord, NH

“During one of my morning wrangles, I arrived at the corrals with the sky still streaked in shadows of night and thick clouds stacked around the peaks of the 14-ers. I tacked up quickly in the stillness and headed off at a quick trot, leaving behind the corrals and cottonwoods to cut across the large pasture to where the horses spent the night. With a few big hollers to call them in and a final sweep of the far fence to get the stragglers coming, I turned back behind the herd of trotting horses towards the corrals nestled at the bottom of the Sangres. An enormous shaft of sunlight split through the mountain peaks and across the shadowed valley. The horses kicked up clouds of dust that rolled across their backs and the clouds above the mountains diffused the sunlight into deep orange. The sound of hooves, the colors and the enormity of the landscape filled the moment so completely, it seemed as if time didn’t matter compared to these other qualities.”


San Diego, CA

“Spring has breathed new life into Zapata. While each day has brought an adventure, some days the connection to nature and this land is utterly palpable. This feeling was especially strong on a recent ride on the Medano. The day began riding alongside a large group of bison, watching the newborn calves frolic alongside their moms and the group meander to and from the waterway snaking through the newly green grass. As we continued on we spotted a coyote slinking by. Jackrabbits darted through the brush and a herd of elk passed in front of us as they approached Sand Creek. The wildlife viewing seemed almost too good to be true until we were stopped in our tracks. A mother black bear and her two tiny cubs stopped for a drink of water at a spring and then, seeing us on horseback, continued on into the cottonwoods and disappeared.”


Santa Cruz, CA

“One of the most special moments I’ve had is catching my first glimpse of water in Sand Creek. After anticipating it since early March, it was so exciting to round a bend in the creek bed and see the first tendrils of water snaking down the sand just past the National Park boundary. The cottonwoods were bright green and it was a perfectly clear, warm day with snow still up on the mountains behind the dunes — it was so beautiful that it actually made me laugh out loud.”

Join us at Zapata Ranch and participate in spectacular riding, relax at our historic lodge, and enjoy gourmet locally sourced meals.

Photos by Katrina Flynn.



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