BUILDING THE COWBOY TRAIL CHALLENGE
Story and photos
by Mardi Ford
A friend asked Steve Russell once what the heck he was building out at the Lost Horse Ranch.
"Disneyland," Russell told him.
He laughs as he tells that story, then admits he's had more than one person drive by the ranch while he's hauling boulders and just shake their heads.
"They probably wonder what in the world I'm up to now," Russell grins.
The self-revealing snapshot says a lot about Russell and what he envisions for his ranch northwest of Elgin.
At the heart of the transformation is Russell's love for the western lifestyle. It was the catalyst behind Lost Horse Ranch's first Cowboy Gathering in 2004 and is the same for the third one Â— now a four-day event Â— which begins June 22.
"Promoting the cowboy lifestyle is still the mission. Things are changing Â— you can pretty much see it everywhere," Russell says.
The view across the Lost Horse Ranch and beyond is one of perfect peaceful green Â— pastures and fields fed with seasonal springs and creeks, dotted by shrubs and trees. Close to home, Russell's own herd of horses contentedly graze. Brood mares softly nuzzle frisky little babies.
In a rare moment, a somber Russell says, "This little corner of the country is an oasis. We need to protect what we have for as long as we can."
But cowboy philosophy quickly dissolves on this sunny day. Russell throws his arms open wide and expresses his world view in one carefree sentence.
"Isn't it cool?"
Last week, a small group of women asked Russell if they could come take a look at the Lost Horse Ranch's meadow campsites and riding trails with the idea of holding a women's riding event there.
"Sure. Why not?" Russell told them and now ponders a future sharing his ranch for other private events. But make no mistake, besides the ranch business of breeding and selling horses, Russell's main focus is the Cowboy Gathering. He and his friends have learned a few things about running this shindig after the first two years. One is to provide more off-street parking. So far, Russell's neighbors haven't complained, but he doesn't want to tread on their good graces.
This year the front pasture near the road will be opened for rigs coming in just for the day.
The second thing is a hope for continued decline in alcohol consumption. So far the event hasn't barred alcohol, but the Cowboy Gathering doesn't sell or promote it either.
A couple of beers is one thing, Russell says, but the last thing he wants is to see the Cowboy Gathering turned into the wrong kind of party. He won't tolerate drunkenness.
"I just want people to come and have some good, clean fun," says Russell. "And I don't want them to be worried to bring their families."
So, the passionate Westerner who loves to have good, clean fun, who isn't afraid of hard work and embraces a good challenge, is building a cowboy Disneyland and has learned some things along the way.
So far, Russell has sunk a lot of his own money into the annual event. Improving the facilities are undoubtedly a long-term investment for the property. But there are the added costs of annually hosting hundreds of people on private property, the hiring of quality Western entertainers and, this year, Russell had Elgin Boot and Saddle custom make halters for prizes for a new event Â— the Cowboy Trail Challenge.
Russell employed the aid of a committee this year to share the organizational and logistics load and to brainstorm the big ideas. It's paid off.
The Cowboy Gathering has expanded to four days with the usual activities Â— a mounted shooting exhibition, trail rides and cattle drives and good barbecue. This year's musical entertainer is Dan Roberts, a native Oregonian who now lives in Texas and opened the Garth Brooks' World Tour. Roberts will be in concert on June 23, then joined on stage by the Clear Fork Band for a Saturday night Western dance.
The committee has also added a Sunday morning cowboy church with the Northwest Christian Cowboys and a dutch-oven cookoff complete with tasting party.
But the biggie this year is the Cowboy Trail Challenge.
Last week, Russell and friends were putting the final touches on a challenge trail course for the competition, which includes going over, around or through gates, creeks, stumps, big boulders and smaller stones, dense trees and thick brush, a pond and a small bridge. There will also be a 40-foot suspended bridge for riders to go both over and under. For part of the trail, riders will also lead a pony as well as maneuver through a herd of cattle.
"We added stuff for working cowboys, so it wouldn't be just a trail riding event. That way we figured it would be a challenge to both groups or riders," Russell explains.
Several judges along the trail will score both the rider and mount looking for a willingness on the horse's part to do what the rider asks. Harsh or impatient riders will not score well. Any abuse to the animal, on or off the course, will result in immediate disqualification.
"This is all about horsemanship. How well does your horse respond to you and how do you work with your horse?" Russell says.
He got the idea for the Cowboy Trail Challenge event from RFD-TV's Extreme Cowboy Race. In fact, one couple featured on the most recent broadcast will be competing at the Lost Horse Ranch event.
Because the course takes approximately 10 minutes to complete, they've had to limit the number of contestants to 50. Russell says the interest has been high.
"I'm thinking next year, we may have to add a fifth day to this thing just for the challenge, so we can expand the number of contestants," he says.