Ranch dudes

Trip Start Dec 24, 2013
Trip End Apr 25, 2014

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Where I stayed
Sugar & Spice Ranch

Flag of United States  , Texas
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friday saw us head west towards Bandera, just past San Antonio.  The drive was estimated at being nearly 4 hours in length, in reality it was closer to 5 hours due to traffic congestion. 
As we got close to San Antonio we noticed the change in the landscape, from flat plains to small hills in the distance (though I think our WA hills are bigger which is quite a feat!).
We arrived about 7pm and were greeted by the ranch dogs (all 5 of them) at the driveway entry - a welcome sight for Matt who couldn't wait to get out and pat them!
The main homestead wasn't visible from the entry but the dogs led the way and we were met by Miss Leigh (the ranch owner) who showed us our bunkhouse - which was simple but adequate.
Each of the 4 bunks in the room were totally covered in testimonials from other guests eg 'I love you Henry', 'Flax is the best', 'I will miss you Sunshine', 'Watch our for Tiny at the barrels' etc.  
We quickly unpacked and set up, then headed to the dining area in Leigh's house for dinner.  There we met one of her daughters Elana and boyfriend Winston, along with the hired hand Rebecca, who was being trained for the summer holiday season.
Leigh, or Miss Leigh as she introduced herself, explained the schedule for the weekend and told us the names of our horses. Mason was to ride Captain, a thoroughbred with a bit of a mind of his own, I was to ride Willow (a predictable, gentle horse), Sam was assigned Tiny who was a lovely chestnut colour, Jo had Splash who was a female paint horse (she'd been busting to get a chestnut coloured one) and Matt had Flax (a golden coloured, ex-quarterhorse who still had some speed and personality, not unlike the rider). 
We were all pretty tired and headed off to the bunkhouse to wind down, unfortunately Matt and Jo were wound up in anticipation of riding the next morning and didn't get a great deal of sleep.  Matt says he woke every hour from midnight until he finally got up at 5.30am along with everyone except me.  
I should mention that Matt wrote his graffiti comment on the bunk on Friday night as Leigh had described Flax as such a wonderful animal he was already hooked!!
8am was animal feeding - dogs, cats and chooks. Patricia, Leigh's other daughter, was in charge of feeding the animals along with Rebecca who was learning the ropes. Breakfast was at 8.30am and grooming, tacking and riding started at 9am.  Matt spent most his time before breakfast outside playing with the dogs - there were four adult dogs and one puppy (Rambo) who was about 4 months old.  He was very gorgeous and Matt had great fun playing with him.
For those not interested in horseriding, skip the next bit...
We learnt how to tie up and walk our horse, we then had to use the different brushes for grooming the horse's coat and mane, helped bridle and saddle our horse and finally walked the horse to the arena where we were shown how to mount.  The grooming had me convinced that horseriding is not for me - brushing all the dirt and dust off a horse, brushing it's knotty tail left me feeling dirty and dusty before I even rode it!  However I enjoyed chatting to my horse as I brushed her.  Jo took great delight in her gentle horse who let her hug him and we got some nice pics of her first boyfriend!
Mase and Sam's horses seemed to enjoy creating 'mountains to be climbed and streams to be forded' in the barn and in the arena.  Jo was most indignant that her horse was unable to keep walking when it needed to relieve itself - so in many of the timed courses she had significant delays - aside from the fact that Splash wasn't very keen on trotting despite Jo's efforts.
Finally we mounted our horses in the arena and were shown how to use the reins to guide the horse, along with leg pressure.  Matt had some struggles initially but Miss Leigh spent some time with him and all of a sudden it clicked and Matt was off!  In fact, he felt sufficiently satisfied with his progress to instruct all of us on how to ride. 
We had opportunity to just walk around the arena getting comfortable on the horses, then we tried an obstacle course timed in teams, then timed individually.  The course really helped us get familiar with our horse and how to work with it.
We stopped at about 11.30 and headed into Bandera for a town cowboy parade.  Anyone who wants to get involved can ride their horse, cow, car, motorbike, caravan, tractor or whatever they want to celebrate. 
We returned to the ranch for more riding from 2 until 4pm.  First, we had to lead our horses to the barn for grooming (again), then tack up and this time we rode our horses to the arena at a very gentle walking pace.  The path from barn to arena involves quite a slope and so we learnt to lean backward going down slopes and lean forward going uphill.
We all seemed to need some reminders of the morning's skills but eventually were able to guide our horses round the course again and had a fun afternoon (or at least the kids did!).  As many of you are aware, Mase has had a dud knee for some time and riding the horse seemed to exacerbate the situation and he was in a lot of pain whilst riding.  This seemed to affect his ability to control the horse as his knee hurt too much to put pressure on the horse for guiding/turning which resulted in Captain refusing to go where Mase wanted and turning in circles - frustrating for him, hilarious for all of us!  Mase's horse also seemed to have a mind of his own when it came to the obstacle course.  Captain was obviously familiar with the routine and whenever he reached a certain point he'd just start trotting and then cantering whether Mase liked it or not.  Those of you who know what it's like to trot can imagine his discomfort bouncing up and down and the amusement this was for the rest of us when he'd be calling 'whoa, whoa' and pulling back on the reins - I was shaking with laughter.  However headstrong Captain may have been, Mase never lost his seat and remained calm throughout - as you'd expect really!
As for my horse, Willow was pretty good, she knew the ropes and if I got the instructions right, she'd do the course.  I found trotting to be a very uncomfortable experience (Judy will understand why) but it didn't stop me trying to go as fast as possible to beat Matt's time on the course.
Sam was our quiet achiever, without any fuss he got his horse through the obstacle courses and other timed events with ease. 
Jo was rather frustrated that her horse, Splash, didn't seem to want to trot and she was ever so keen to go faster.  She appealed to Miss Leigh to give her some hints and after she refined her posture and reins technique Splash did trot for brief periods but not enough to satisfy the speed demon in Jo.  So Miss Leigh told her to kick harder, kick more regularly, make kissing noises to her horse and use a small stick as a crop - this still didn't seem to quite answer for Jo but at least she got some speed.
Matt's horse, Flax, was probably the fastest of all our horses and also quite bossy.  Matt had been warned not to let Flax get too close to other he'd likely kick out and unfortunately he found this to be true.  Sam and Matt were both in the centre of the arena on their horses and somehow Sam's horse moved behind Matt's without either being conscious of their positions, causing Flax to rear up on her front legs to kick behind her.  This really shocked Matt who had no idea why Flax was rearing, so he jumped off, letting go of the reins and stood aside.  Sam was also rather shocked but his horse just moved along and the disturbance was over almost as quickly as it had happened.  I think Matt was relieved to find out that Flax reared to kick Tiny, not to try and unseat him!
All in all it was a good day, we all managed to make it round the obstacle course with little difficulty which produces a disquieting thought in the back of my mind that suggests these horse were so familiar with the whole affair that they knew what to do whether we told them to or not - hmmm...
That evening after dinner, Winston and Matt lit a campfire outside and we all (Leigh, Patricia, Elana, Winston, Rebecca and our family) toasted marshmellows whilst playing Who Am I (campfire version of celebrity heads). Leigh had arranged for an old cowboy/guitar player to come over and play some cowboy songs a bit later and we sung along to a few of them.  Home on the Range was one we knew and we were coached on other chorus/lines to join in on. It was all rather relaxing and pleasant after a hard days' ride!!!
We were all pretty weary, particularly Matt who'd had little sleep, and slept like logs - except Mase who's knee was so irritated and enflamed by the horseriding that he couldn't get it comfortable on the thin mattress.
Back to the barn at 9am to lead our horses in for grooming, tack up and ride down to the arena.  To be honest, neither Mase nor I were particularly keen on riding that morning - we'd have been just as happy sitting, watching the kids than bouncing up and down on horseback.  However, the kids were in their element, particularly Matt and Jo.  You'll notice Matt was wearing his cowboy outfit - Texan boots, jeans and check shirt!  Miss Leigh seemed quite taken with Matt and said he was her new love and wanted to keep him on the ranch.  She loved his personality and enthusiasm for everything - that's our Matt!
It was a beautiful day, blue skies with some sun - enough to get a touch of pink on the shoulders which was our first for a while!
We ended our last ride for the weekend by walking around the property, with the horses picking their way through the rocks and sand, down into a gully and up the rocky side of the hill to the barn.  Mase's horse lost it's footing going down into the gully and reared up, startling Jo's horse causing it to rush up the hill but Mase kept his cool and everything settled down thankfully and we reached the barn without further incident.  
With obvious reluctance Jo and Matt said goodbye to their mighty steeds, for Mase and I it was a great relief and for Sam, with his usual equanimity, it was the end of a nice weekend.
Sam says he liked the experience but wouldn't bother doing it again, Matt loved it and can't wait to ride some more and Jo would rather go horseriding than snowboarding which is saying something.
We left the ranch about midday and headed straight for San Antonio, where we hoped to wander along the renowned river walk and see the Alamo.  Until last week I had no idea what 'the Alamo' was (doesn't it mean "served with ice-cream"?), I am now initiated and enlightened, as you will be shortly!
After parking near the river, we walked the short distance to the river walk entry and it didn't take long to notice the Mexican influence in the city - signs in Spanish, many of the people with the typical Mexican dark hair and eyes and every restaurant/café was Mexican food.
The river walk was beautiful.  The river walk project was commenced in 1939 and over the years has been maintained and renovated with cafes, restaurants, hotels and attractions lining the walk.  There is beautiful greenery, interspersed with water features and stonework that makes the area so cool and attractive.  The walk is a loop, which we walked most of, eventually finding a table beneath a bridge to eat lunch.  We were served the obligatory corn chips and salsa whilst waiting for our meals and were entertained by a trio of musicians/vocalists playing songs for a small tip (trumpet, violin and baby guitar).  The family who tipped them were Mexican and were singing along with them - it was fantastic to watch and listen.
After lunch we continued walking the river loop to reach the Alamo (despite the whinging Israelites who seemed to have joined us yet again).
The Alamo was initially the site of a Spanish mission house but later became a military garrison and fort for the Texan/US army.  It was seen as the key to the defense of Texas.  The battle that made this site so important to Texans today was in 1836.  Mexican troops were advancing towards San Antonio and starting on 23 February, approximately 200 Texans inside the besieged Alamo held out against the much much larger Mexican army for 13 days.  They were determined to fight to the end to defend the place and were defeated after a 90 minute battle on 6 March 1836.  Today, the Alamo symbolises the heroic struggle of 200 men against impossible odds — a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of Texas.  
It was an interesting site, had great information on the history of the place and it's hard to imagine the sounds of war and death in such a quiet, beautiful place today.
Well, that was all we wanted to do, so we headed for home (Houston for the time being)!
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