Horseback Riding Through the Streets of Denver

Rancher Gary Lake drives Longhorn cattle in places you wouldn’t expect, with the help of his American Quarter Horses.

From America’s Horse

You will not find two more iconic American critters than American Quarter Horses and Longhorn cattle. Put the two together on Main Street in downtown Denver or Colorado Springs, and you’ve got what Gary Lake, AQHA member and manager of the Searle Ranch near Ellicott, Colorado, calls a “downtown trail drive.”

It’s a fitting name.

The scene unfolding between the curbs along this section of a parade is right out of an Old West cattle drive.

The Searle Ranch raises Texas Longhorns for the beef market. But, as Gary and ranch owner Stan Searle learned years ago, the breed’s sizable signature headwear is so high profile that the ranch can turn a little extra profit by occasionally hiring out around 40 head to accompany parades through cities to announce the arrival of certain events.

In true trail-drive fashion, the job of keeping the herd along the route goes to the ranch’s own cowboys, along with occasional VIPs, on registered American Quarter Horses.

The downtown trail drive started when organizers of the Denver National Western Stock Show were looking to have some cattle driven in the event’s opening parade. They thought a herd of Longhorns moving along the parade route might really spark excitement about the event.

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A call was made to the Searle Ranch.

“We went up and did it the first year for them,” Gary says, “and they thought they tripled their crowd that year. They went from 1,200 people on the street to 3,000 and then 10,000 the next year. So we do that for them every year now. We get a lot of great promotion out of it, too. Busloads of kids are on the street mooing and yee-hawing. The spectators are right out on the edge of the street. We allow folks to meet and pet the horses. If we have time afterward, we’ll throw some kids on their backs and walk them around.

“We take horses that we trust and that have been around cattle. I wouldn’t say that they don’t spook at anything, but their minds handle things that are new. In January in Denver, the storm sewers under the streets are quite a bit warmer than the air outside, and the steam rises out of the streets – that’s something new to my horses. But, the mind of a great horse is an amazing thing. He looks at it; he is cautious about it; then he gets used to it, and he goes on, and pretty soon, you can walk him right through.”

You don’t have to talk to Gary long to realize that his passion for Longhorns is rivaled by that for American Quarter Horses.

“We do almost everything horseback (on the ranch),” Gary says. “There’s always the unexpected that happens when you’re working with cattle, and when that happens, you have to have a way to handle it. A horse is the only way I know to do that The Quarter Horse is kind of a necessary. You might be able to push cattle on a motorcycle or a four-wheeler or call them with a grain bucket, but neither one of those things has any instinct when a cow turns. There’s nothing like being horseback to be able to get the job done.”

For more than a decade, Gary was one of America’s leading posed livestock photographers, and his main subjects were American Quarter Horse stallions. He seems to have a photographic memory for Quarter Horse bloodlines – and not just a few favorites; his memory is almost encyclopedic in scope.

For all Gary’s successes involving Quarter Horses, cattle and livestock photography, it seems a bit unusual that he had practically no experience with any of them before his 20s.

“I grew up in the Midwest, in central Illinois,” he says. “When I was 21 or 22 years old, I was dating a girl who had a big gray Quarter Horse mare…and she thought that I ought to own a horse. It was all new to me, but that kind of got me started.”

Over the years, Gary gained experience buying and selling colts, photographing livestock and spending time with the Dickinson family who bred and raised American Quarter Horses. Darol Dickinson, an established photographer, became a quick friend of Gary’s.

Besides their horses, the Dickinsons also had a few Longhorn cattle on the place. Darol had gotten involved with the business because the breed had all but disappeared from view and he enjoyed the unique cattle.

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Gary spent a decade based in Colorado flying all around the country photographing Quarter Horses and cattle and riding colts at the same time. When Darol got busy with the Longhorn business, he quit photography and Gary went off on his own.

After 10 years, the manager of Darol’s place moved on and Darol asked Gary to manage the 1,000-head herd. Darol later moved his operation to Ohio, and Gary chose to stay in Colorado.

He continued photographing horses and cattle, until his friend Stan Searle, who had published Hoof and Horn magazine and Texas Longhorn Journal, came calling.

“Over the years, we’ve put a partnership together,” Gary says. “We sell lean ranch-raised beef. Our primary market is breeding stock.”

Gary loves the Longhorn business.

“They’re just beautiful,” he says. “A thing with 70-inch horns is just impressive! They’re very easy to handle, but they can turn around to swat a fly and knock you down, so you have to be attentive.”

That goes for parade routes, too.

“We take very gentle cattle that are used to being around people and used to being handled horseback. Really, the key is to take animals that have been handled a lot. Once they’re in town, they’ve been around people enough that they’re not afraid of them, and they’re content to get down the street.”