Sweet Grass Ranch—real ranch life off the beaten track

By Åsa Björklund. Images: Åsa Björklund. Cattle drive images by Robert Tully and Gerry Jacobs.

The sleepy town of Big Timber, Montana, had seen better days. Cardboard signs with “Closed” scribbled in large letters hung in several shop windows. Only the Family Dollar store and a seedy bar looked like they were still open for business.

As the town closest to Sweet Grass Ranch, Big Timber served as a gentle reminder that my destination was definitely off the beaten track. That was perfect. The same morning I had elbowed my way through a hotel lobby full of tourists headed to the nearby Yellowstone National Park, an experience I did not want to repeat.

An hour’s drive later, mostly on a dirt road, I caught the first glimpse of Sweet Grass Ranch’s majestic surroundings. The snow-clad peaks of the Crazy Mountains towered against the skyline, reaching over 3,400 meter above sea level. Contrary to
Yellowstone, the “Crazies” get little attention from tourists.
A motley crew of dogs welcomed us to the ranch, set in a wide, green valley. With rustic log cabins set along a creek and the main house dating back to the 1920’s, it felt like stepping into The Little House on the Prairie.

The following morning I met Billy Bob, a large bay Quarter Horse, my date for the week. In a small group, we rode up the steep mountainside. A particularly snowy winter had made the wildflowers go haywire in a color frenzy not even rivaled by Photoshop’s saturation filters. On the meadows, the grass grew so tall the horses’ legs were completely hidden in green, and the creek ran high with snowmelt. The views were so strikingly beautiful that they seemed to have been hijacked from a tourist brochure’s front cover, stamped with Montana’s nickname “Big Sky Country.”

Despite the steep climb, Billy Bob didn’t even sweat when we reached the lupine covered meadow at the top. In fact, just as I was snapping pictures of the views, Billy Bob suddenly decided to join two other horses that had left the group and set off in a sudden, unexpected gallop. With my heavy SLR camera bobbing on my chest, I frantically tried to hold him back. Mud cakes from the horses in front splattered my face. The lens cap flew into a bush. Billy Bob was set on winning this self-invented horse race that I was not privy to.

Finally, he slowed down and our wrangler, Jacob, caught up with us. In a firm voice he told the girls who started the gallop that they couldn’t take off without any warning. Aside from this little mishap (and really, who can blame a horse to want to run away with his friends over these wildflower-cladfields ?) the day was extraordinary. Jacob had told us we didn’t have to ride on a line (a common requirement at many other ranches), as long as we loosely stuck to the group. The wind swept through my hair as we cantered across another field.

Even after all the climbing, the horses were so fit that their legs fizzed with energy. On top of that, the wrangler mentioned that Billy Bob was 26 years old. In the human world, this would be the equivalent of a couple of 80-year old retirees climbing a mountain and then sprint for half a mile just for fun—with huge backpacks. I realized that the views were not the only thing that made this ranch exceptional. It was also the horses.

The explanation to this impressive fitness level seemed to be their lifestyle. For eight months of the year, they are left free to roam the mountains and valleys surrounding the ranch, meaning they have to find food and water even in the middle of the coldest snowstorms. In this area temperatures can drop to -28 C degrees and the snow lies deep for months, forcing the horses to crack the ice on rivers and lakes with their hooves to drink.
“It’s really incredible to watch them. They will scoop the snow away with their hooves. But hey always have plenty of grass underneath, ” said Laura Carroccia, who regularly checks on the horses from afar.

Older and weaker horses, as well as mares with foals are kept near one of the family’s ranches where they are fed hay through the winter. The rest of them are basically left to their own devices except that every few weeks Laura and her husband move the herd to a new grazing area by horseback or ATV.
“The horses grow really think coats. In winter they look like fur balls!” she added with a chuckle. “But they do need to have feed constantly to keep warm. They move a lot and I think that’s one of the reasons why our horses live so long. They are constantly moving and grazing, which is really natural and healthy for them.”


Originally from Sheffield, the UK, Laura married into the ranch family and now lives year-round at Sweet Grass with her husband Tony and their children. Laura has settled into the American ranch life and is happy, although she occasionally misses her family back home in England, and one specific thing: “Indian food!” she exclaimed.

Before dinner-time all guests gathered on the main house porch to chat and have a drink together. After only a couple of days, I had already gotten to know most other guests and the staff, because at a dude ranch you spend a lot of time together, particularly at a remote location. Sweet Grass Ranch has been in the Carroccia family for sixth generations and family members easily mingled with guests and wranglers—actually, staff was often family or old friends. Whereas at many other ranches staff eats in a separate room, here everyone enjoyed meals together along the long wooden tables. The food was hearty, varied, and most important, home cooked. One evening was game night and everyone—young and old, guests and staff, family and non-family—played a game of dice that started quietly but soon escalated into roaring laughter. Once again I got the feeling we had moved in with the Ingalls in their Little House on the Prairie.
After dessert (usually a delicious, decadent cake), Erin would make a tour around the tables to ask guests what they would like to do the following day. This willingness to accommodate to the guests’ interests and riding levels was a great benefit to us all.

The Swedish couple Lisa and Stefan Agerman chose Sweet Grass Ranch as their destination because they wanted flexibility and a variety of rides so that they could take turns riding and caring for their 2-year old daughter.

“I really like that they ask for feedback during the stay, not just at the end on some type of form like at most other ranches. Here they accommodate to your needs and wishes. You just have to be clear and tell them what you want to do because obviously no one is a mind reader,” Lisa said while her baby daughter climbed up on the piano chair in the ranch
house living room.

One morning I crawled out of bed at 3.30 a.m. to join the sunrise ride. It was chilly and pitch black outside. We rode into the darkness in silence, trusting the horses in our blindness. Only the sounds of creaky saddles and soft hoof steps against wet grass could be heard. We climbed steeper and steeper up the mountainside, passing a herd of cows that mooed in sleepy protest to us early visitors. Just as we reached the mountaintop, a sharp sunray hit the sky. Then an orange slice of sun appeared on the horizon and cast its golden rays on the meadows’ million wildflowers. A light gray coyote sneaked by, casting the group of riders and horses a suspicious glance. The horses munched the lupines that glowed in a mix of purple and golden hues. Everyone was silent, in awe of this magical moment in nature.

Many guests keep coming back to Sweet Grass Ranch year after year, like Lisa Vaaler and her family from Georgia.
“The riding is great here because of the variety of trails and the beautiful scenery. It’s remote, which I like because I don’t want to go to a fenced in place. Lots of ranches are nose-to-tail,” Lisa said referring to the many dude ranches that require guests to ride on a long line.

“This is an authentic, historic ranch house. Some other ranches are beautiful and huge. They have golf courses, tennis courts, and so on, but I didn’t want that. I can do that at home,” Lisa said.

Swimming with the horses was another highlight of the stay. We rode bareback down to the creek, where we kicked off our boots. I coaxed my horse—Victory this time as Billy Bob was not a keen swimmer—into the creek. Ice-cold water hit my thighs. The bottom disappeared under Victory and we sunk into the snowmelt flowing down from the mountain peaks. Victory’s muscles stretched as she swam with long, soft strokes. It was an exhilarating feeling to float above her back, her body warming mine. As my daughter got back up, her face was one huge smile. “This was the best thing I have ever done!” she exclaimed, while our wrangler Connor chuckled.

Sweet Grass Ranch is not for people who seek a cowboy-themed resort where they can play tennis and sip fancy cocktails. It’s remote and rustic—and I can honestly say it’s the most amazing ranch I have ever visited. I had been welcomed into a family that had ranched for generations. I had ridden horses that were loved and that most of the year lived like animals should—free. And I had cantered with the wind blowing in the face, nothing in front of me except miles and miles of meadows and mountain peaks.

For more information and reservations see: www.Sweetgrassranch.com.

Events: The Ranch has several events in 2019, such as a yoga retreat and a photography workshop. More information about the latter: http://www.jakephotos.net/photography-
clinic/

The Crazy Mountains’ Name
The little known Crazy Mountains are steeped in history of battles between the US Army and Native American tribes. The latter most famously defeated the Army in the battle of Little Bighorn 1876. Legend has it that the mountains were originally named the “Crazy Woman Mountains” after an attack where a pioneer woman went crazy after seeing her family killed by the Native Americans. She fled to the mountains where the tribe left her alone, as sacred spirits possess mentally ill people according to Indian beliefs, explained ranch owner Shelly Carroccia.


Therese Stub Alhaug
Therese Stub Alhaug

Editor

Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.