Sleigh rides have history in valley

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— A sleigh ride through a snow-covered field can be nostalgic, even if it is a first-time experience.

Usually wrapped in wool blankets, the riders feel the pull of two Belgium or Clydesdale work horses, while ringing sleigh bells mingle with the breath of the large animals and the occasional "Yha" of the sleigh driver, proving the ride a unique alternative activity for visitors and locals in the Yampa Valley.

The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association lists six Routt County ranches offering sleigh rides, each with its own specialty, said Susan Ghysels, public relations director of the Chamber.

Some ranches offer upscale dinners in a teepee or appetizers and drinks along the way, while others just a nice ride with a hot beverage, Ghysels said. And most sleigh rides are well attended.

"When people come to Steamboat, they want to do the Old West thing. They want to step back in time in a way," Ghysels said.

In fact, the use of a horse-driven sleigh does have a firm historical presence in the Yampa Valley, above and beyond the recreational aspect.

"Certainly, before cars in the winter, (sleighs) were very significant," said Marty Woodbury of Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.

One of the best-known local stories about the use of a sleigh, she explained, was the one ridden by Doctor Frederick Willet, who was one of the last of the country doctors in the West. Willet began to practice in the Yampa Valley in 1912 and was known for his neighborly disposition, lifelong bachelorhood and his billing practices. Patients who couldn't pay for Willet's services received them for free, while others paid what they could when they could.

Wearing his famous bearskin winter coat and hat, which is displayed at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, Willet often made his winter house calls on a horse-driven sleigh. One of the most famous uses of Willet's sled came right after World War I, when a lethal influenza outbreak plagued the Yampa Valley, along with most of the United States. During those trying times, Doc Willet fixed himself a bed in the back of his sleigh and traveled from house to house through the nights, catching a few winks of sleep here and there in his custom sleigh bed.

Though cars replaced the sleigh's use for basic travel by the mid 20th Century, the sleigh remained an instrumental role in agriculture in bringing feed to cattle in the wintertime a practice still performed on some ranches today, said C.J. Mucklow, agricultural extension agent.

But it seems each year another rancher sells his team of horses and opts for a four-wheel drive tractor to do the work, he added.

"It's a sad story," Mucklow said, who admitted to have a soft spot for sleighs. "It's a reflection of technology."

Though many ranchers may feel personally connected to their team of horses and using a sleigh, some have to sell their team and feed the cattle the modern way to make ends meet, Mucklow said.

"Agriculture is still a hard-nosed business," he said.

However, a ranch or two in the valley still use sleighs to do the work. For example, Jay and Gerry Schalnus, owners of the respected Schalnus Ranch near Yampa, feed their cattle in the wintertime by horse-driven sleigh, just like it was done when the family began ranching there in the '30s.

"It's pure economics," Gerry Schalnus said about the practice. "Each ranch has its own situation."

On the Schalnus Ranch, it's less expensive to feed the 400 plus head of cattle by sleigh than balancing the costs of running and maintaining a tractor, Schalnus said.

"I've never seen the horses fail to start or get stuck," he added.

Most sleighs in the Yampa Valley today carry people, instead of hay for feed. But Mucklow said that doesn't mean the use of horsepower in general will one day go the way of the sleigh.

"Horses as a tool won't leave the ranch," he said, adding that some jobs need to be done by horses, not four-wheel drives.

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