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Holiday Review: Come on you spurs ..; SADDLING UP AT A RANCH IN MONTANA'S HORSE WHISPERER COUNTRY.

LAST week in Montana I met a real live horse whisperer. Hitching a ride with Alan in his pick-up, we were on our way to the Pryor Mountains moving cattle and horses in a trailer.

Alan, who prefers to be known as a horse trainer, assured me: "There are hundreds of us out here in Montana - we're nothin' special."

Working for himself, he will take on a troublesome horse for a few weeks and transform it by gentle training and trust.

According to Alan: "It's vital to let the horse know who's boss. If they think they are - you've had it."

But whichever way you look at it, trainers like Alan are special. When owners give up on their horses - "and there are plenty of them" - Alan steps in.

Montana is true cowboy country. I was staying at the Lonesome Spur Ranch for a few days.

This working ranch is bracing itself for renewed interest as it was here Nicholas Evans stayed researching for his now world-famous novel The Horse Whisperer.

He based the fictional characters the Bookers on Lonnie and Darlene Schwend - the ranch owners. Ranch holidays in the US are now extremely popular with European riders and Montana leads the way, thanks to the film starring Robert Redford which is released on video on Monday.

Seven of us were staying at Lonesome with varying degrees of riding experience. The group consisted of a family from Leeds - Tim and Pat with horse-mad daughter Laura - Caroline, an accomplished rider from Leicestershire, Christine, a social worker from Hereford, and Rod, a broker from Chicago escaping the pressure of high finance for a week.

A ranch holiday is ideal for solos as everything is done communally - eating, riding and any off-ranch activity. Everyone is always included.

While guests hope against hope that they will be riding with Robert Redford, who plays the Horse Whisperer in the film, they find Lonnie is a pretty good stand-in.

Jess, 19, joins us at breakfast in the converted barn which is used for all meals.

It's hard not to think this good-looking cowboy is straight out of Central Casting - tall, slim, jeans with gleaming silver buckle, hat pulled well down over his eyes and boots covered with a thin coating of dust.

He is working at the ranch until he heads off for college in the autumn - having broken a few hearts along the way. Lonesome Spur is a fifth-generation working ranch set in some of the most stunning countryside in Montana.

And working ranch means just that - moving cattle from pasture to pasture across acres of wide-open space. Rides can often take up to five or six hours daily.

With large herds (300 cattle alone on this ranch) it can take anything up to five days to move 150 cattle. The hotter the weather, the more difficult it is to shift them.

Guests on the ranch are matched with suitably tempered horses and then given a thorough talk about safety and care of your mount. Early-morning starts are normal and guests are expected to brush down their horse and saddle up.

THIS is when many people's fantasy becomes reality - riding out with the cowboys. Lonnie and Jess lead the way.

On our first day it was a search for 12 cattle and two bulls which had strayed from the main herd.

Peering out at miles of empty prairie it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The sheer skill of the two cowboys rounding up those strays took our breath away.

At home, riders would undoubtedly be nervous about pushing along a couple of bulls the size of a Sherman tank, but everyone was assured that bulls moving with cattle are rarely dangerous.

We took Jess's word for it.

Come lunchtime, when everyone was famished, Darlene would arrive at a designated point in today's modern-day chuck wagon - the pick-up truck - stacked full with a picnic and a drum of lemonade.

The riding was hard but immensely rewarding with the feeling you are doing a real job. The cattle have to be moved and you are part of the team.

Other rides took us across Montana through Custer National Forest and on to Pryer Mountain, which must be one of the greatest scenic backdrops in America.

High up the scenery became very green - rolling hills, lush pasture and a carpet of wildflowers of sunflowers, bluebells and Indian Paintbrush, a bright red poker-style flower. Switzerland on a grand style.

Every day, rides were planned by Lonnie to take in as much of the local territory as possible and show us great expanses of Montana. As a general rule, the day would finish by late afternoon and supper would be served around 7pm.

Meals obviously feature a great deal of beef, which is bad news for vegetarians. Although the cooks will prepare veggie meals, after a few days I think the novelty would wear off.

Evening entertainment ranged from sheer exhaustion and aching limbs to driving to a local horse show, ball game or a bar in nearby Bridger.

A trip over the border to Cody in Wyoming was also arranged on a bad weather day when it was too wet to ride. It was a brilliant afternoon packed with the history of Buffalo Bill and finishing with an evening rodeo.

Robert Redford would have approved.

COMPETITION/ TRAVEL CHECK

THE video of The Horse Whisperer (Touchstone Home Video, pounds 14.99) goes on sale nationwide on Monday. We have 25 videos to give away - send a postcard with your name and address marked The Horse Whisperer to Pimms, PO Box 12558, London N1 4TD. First 25 drawn will get videos.

IN the Saddle (01256 851 665) has a selection of ranches in Montana and throughout the United States, ranging from basic to comfortable accommodation. One week full-board at Lonesome Spur Ranch pounds 725 adult, pounds 575 child (August- September). Accommodation is in attractive log cabins with separate bathrooms.

All riding is included in the price. Flights extra, but transfers to and from the airport are included. Flights to Montana with North West Airlines Gatwick-Billings via Minniapolis, pounds 518 (mid-September) can be booked through Fly-Drive USA (01424 224400).
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:King, Sarah Whitfield
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 17, 1999
Words:1031
Previous Article:HOLIDAY REVIEW: 60 HOURS OF SHANGHAI WOK'N'ROLL.
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