Horse-Drawn Wonderland

By Beacon Staff

Duke and Dutch, a pair of Percheron draft horses weighing nearly a ton each, are perplexed. A stubborn goat named Carlos has crossed in front of them and refuses to move off the road. The massive horses, described as “gentle giants,” don’t quite know what to do.

“Get out of the way, Carlos!” yells Andrew Weaver, who is seated behind the horses in a sleigh with reigns in his hands.

Of all the things that could disrupt a winter day dedicated to training Duke and Dutch for the sleigh ride season, a goat has decided to take a stand. But the disruption is short-lived. Prodded by a helpful dog, Carlos reluctantly scuttles out of the way and the gentle giants once again take to the snowy road.

Duke and Dutch are the newest team of draft horses used for the popular sleigh rides at Bar W Guest Ranch outside of Whitefish. As of last week, Weaver and his colleagues at the ranch were still waiting for sufficient snow to begin taking visitors on rides. The holiday season always brings a flurry of reservations.

In the meantime, Weaver was working with Duke and Dutch, who will pull one sleigh filled with visitors once the season gets underway, while another pair of draft horses will lead a second sleigh. Bar W Ranch offers sleigh rides six days a week, three times each day. Often both sleighs, which hold up to 10 people apiece, are full or nearly full for each of the three rides.

“They’re very popular,” Ashley Arment, Bar W’s general manager, said. “This is something that everybody can enjoy, young and old.”

Given the postcard qualities of sleigh rides, with horse-drawn sleighs gliding across sparkling Montana snow, it’s not surprising that the winter activity has found plenty of fans in the Flathead Valley, both tourists and locals alike. The speeds are pleasantly moderate, allowing for conversation, sightseeing and quiet winter reflection.

Gaynor Ranch and Resort, also located outside of Whitefish, offers sleigh rides seven days a week, four times a day with a single sleigh. Gaynor Ranch uses Belgian draft horses, large like Bar W Guest Ranch’s Percherons but differently colored. Co-owner Don Gaynor said the sleigh rides, which carry up to 12 people per trip, are “wildly popular.”

“It’s a very romantic type of activity,” he said. “We go down our valley here and through the fields. We stop along the way so people can stop and take pictures of the steam coming off the horses’ coats. It’s just a beautiful experience.”

After the busy summer seasons slow down at Bar W Guest Ranch and Gaynor Ranch, sleigh rides ensure that the two Western-themed resorts remain destinations even in the winter.

Both ranches offer dinner with their evening rides, while visitors are treated to hot chocolate, snacks and a warm fire after the daytime trips. Rides at Bar W last 45 minutes and at Gaynor the trips are an hour long. At both ranches, dogs run alongside the sleighs.

Weaver of Bar W Guest Ranch grew up driving teams of draft horses on Mennonite and Amish farms in Lancaster County, Penn., beginning when he was 11 years old. He would steer the horses as they pulled wagons and various pieces of machinery through fields of hay, tobacco, wheat and other crops.

Weaver left that lifestyle behind at age 18. But at Bar W Guest Ranch, he has returned to the world of sleighs and draft horses. And he’s happy. As many of the ranch’s visitors discover, Weaver knows there is something magical about these nearly 2,000-pound draft horses.

“They’re awesome,” he said. “They’re smart and they’re big and they’re gentle. I like draft horses.”

Bar W Guest Ranch can be found online at www.thebarw.com or reached by phone at (406) 863-9099. For more information on Gaynor Ranch and Resort, visit www.gaynorsresorts.com or call (406) 862-3802. Both ranches ask for reservations.