WHITEFISH — On a recent afternoon, Duke and Dutch, a pair of 14-year-old Percheron draft horses, embarked on winter’s maiden voyage, pulling a giant sleigh through snowy meadows and forested trails tucked in the mountains outside of town. The families onboard huddled with blankets and watched with glee as their massive four-legged trailblazers carried them with power and grace, harkening back to a bygone era.
These two equine explorers have become familiar friends during Whitefish winters. Each winter, they arrive at the Bar W Guest Ranch and lead horse-drawn sleigh rides, adventuring through the mountains and along trails for 45 minutes per trip, up to four times a day. It’s a tradition dating back 10 years, when owner Dave Leishman envisioned a fun family get-together that would celebrate the season with an old-fashioned activity.
“It’s calm. It’s peaceful. It’s just a different mode of transportation and brings you back to a time when that was the only way to get around,” Leishman said of the sleigh rides.
Leishman founded the Bar W Guest Ranch in 2005 with his family. The Leishmans offer summer and winter vacation accommodations for those seeking to escape the urban life for a momentary respite in an idyllic rural getaway. At the heart of the Bar W are its horse programs. The Leishmans have an impressive, and huge, equine lineup: Clydesdales, Belgians and the Percherons.
In summertime, the horses lead trail rides and wagon rides. Guests can even work and train with individual horses before embarking on trail rides across 1 million acres of surrounding forestland, including the peaks of Stryker Ridge and Sunday Creek. For those with the proficiency and bravery, the ranch even allows for barrel racing and horsemanship lessons.
New this year, the ranch is planning to offer a “Western weekend,” when anyone can enjoy a two-hour trail ride, skeet and archery shooting, barbecue dinner and campfire with live music.
“A lot of locals don’t get to enjoy these types of experiences even though they live in Montana,” Leishman said.
In winter, the ranch’s quintessential experience is the sleigh rides. The two horses are prepared for the ride by donning reins connected to the large sleigh, which can hold up to eight people. The sleigh driver communicates to the horses with specific commands — “step over” — while pulling on the reins, directing the horses through the meadow and along trails with ease. For nearly an hour, families travel the property with real horsepower before ending at the lodge to enjoy hot chocolate and snacks.
“For winter, it’s a great way to experience the outdoors,” Leishman said.
For more information about the sleigh rides, visit www.thebarw.com or call (406) 863-9099.