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La Reata Ranch, Kyle

Saddle up: Q&A with a Saskatchewan rancher

La Reata Ranch, Kyle

On the remote prairies of south Saskatchewan, bison graze golden grasses and horses roam free along sandy lake banks. Against this backdrop, you can experience what life is like on a Canadian cattle ranch.

George Gaber is the owner of La Reata Ranch, on the Saskatchewan prairies. In this interview, he describes what you can expect during a stay there, from exploring the hilly plains on horseback to learning to lasso in the saloon and camping out beneath starlit skies.

1. What’s a typical day like on the ranch?

We’ll often start out on the porch, just listening to the birds. It’s all blue skies and quiet, something peaceful to start the day. We’ll drink a coffee or two, taking all this in, and have a big, hearty breakfast, then it’s off to the horses.

In our stables, each guest grooms their own horse and learns how to saddle them up. This way, both horse and human can feel comfortable with each other. That’s an important part of our process. I know and trust the horses, and they know and trust me. I want my guests to build that sort of relationship with them, too.

Once you’re feeling confident, we take you out onto the prairies. There’s no trail riding here. No set route either. We use the open space, and we gallop when we can. I love that glow people get when they first gallop — the trust they build with the horses is amazing.

After a long stretch, we take a good hour for our lunch break, sometimes longer. People appreciate this isolation. You’re totally cut off — no telephones, no news. So, we just sit, eat, chat, and soak it all in together.

We can keep on riding then for a good long time — it all depends on the guests. Sometimes, we’ll be in the saddle for five or six hours. Then, it’s time for supper back at the ranch. That’s what we call it in Saskatchewan — supper, not dinner. And ours is a whole feast — meat, potatoes, vegetables, you name it. Everybody sits together, just rubbing shoulders.

Saloon, La Reata Ranch
Saloon, La Reata Ranch

2. Does the ranch offer any activities in the evenings?

After supper, you’re free to take things at your own pace. You could go for a walk or get ready for the saloon. Or, you could swim in the lake — we’ve got over 9 miles (14.5 km) of water out here. Most of us just sit on the deck of the cookhouse and watch life pass us by. It’s like you’re sitting in a painting because nothing moves, not even the water, except on windy days.

Everyone ends up in the saloon at some point. It’s the building I love most on the whole property. The bar is in a horseshoe shape (naturally!), so everyone can sit across from each other and just talk.

Many locals come down, and they have so many stories to tell. We’ve had some really good parties — sometimes until daylight — all together in the saloon, but it’s also a great place to relax. We’ve also got a tipi set up so you can sleep there overnight and watch the stars, listening to the crickets.

Because we like to work around what our guests want, you never really know what we’re going to end up doing. Line dancing, campfire, barbecues, lasso — you name it, we’ve done it. It’s all soul feeding. You’ve just got to find out what feeds you.

3. What are the best parts of staying on the ranch?

For me, it’s the lifestyle, the freedom, being isolated. You don’t have to deal with traffic. There are no honking horns or sirens. It’s just absolute quiet. You hear the birds, or you hear nothing.

Then there’s the nature. You’re surrounded by hills. I’ve got the lake running through the grounds. There’s lush grass in the coulees — that’s what we call valleys here — and bushes where chokecherries and Saskatoon berries grow. It makes for all sorts of different shades every season.

To me, this sort of setting is ripe for comradery. I’ve seen people instantly become friends because it’s like family here. You fit right in, no matter what, because everyone comes for the same reasons — the horses, the peace, the nature.

Rounding up the cattle, La Reata Ranch
Rounding up the cattle, La Reata Ranch

4. Can novice riders visit the ranch?

Both beginners and experienced riders can visit the ranch. What unites us is we all want to be with horses. We ride together, but there are no lessons. We give basic instructions only. If there were more instructions, people would get nervous — and that’s not what our experience is about. So, what I teach is learning to trust your horse.

However, we do provide extra help for fledgling riders. One guide will go at a pace that’s comfortable for the beginners and give them any help they need.

5. What made you set up the ranch in the first place?

It’s pretty simple actually. I grew up in Germany. I grew up with horses. My parents had a farm. I always loved it and wanted to stick with it.

Later on, I saw the movie City Slickers, and that really made me want to go on a cattle drive. So, I ended up in Canada. Actually, I’d wanted to go to Montana, but I came here because of some people I met at a horse show in Germany. I hadn’t even considered Canada.

So, I spent two weeks in northern Saskatchewan — and it was beautiful, but it wasn’t cowboy enough for me. I missed the wide-open spaces. But then we came down here, and I fell in love. We camped overnight along the lake. I learned how to rope, got good at it, too. And I was determined to come back, get myself a ranch.

I eventually did. I bought the guest ranch in 1996, and then the cattle ranch in 1997. We called it “La Reata” after the ranch in the James Dean movie Giant.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

6. What are your highlights of Saskatchewan?

I’m drawn to Saskatchewan’s yellow south most. You’ve got the smell of the sage, the 360-degree views, the farmland up ahead, and the rolling hills behind you. They call us “the land of the living skies”, because our sunrises and sunsets are that beautiful.

This part of Saskatchewan is also home to a bunch of archaeological sites, like the Lemsford Ferry Tipi Rings (a collection of 158 stone circles marking historical First Nations encampments). Saskatchewan’s history is thousands upon thousands of years old, and there’s much to learn about the culture of our First Nations people.

There’s plenty to do in the north as well, which is as different from the south as can be. It’s covered in all these green forests and great lakes, which means you can canoe, fish, go white river rafting or even dog sledding.

As for cities, I recommend Saskatoon. It’s got this historical downtown and then there’s the seven old-style bridges that make it look almost European.

All that said, what I love most about Saskatchewan are the people. We’re a community. Almost everyone — doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, lawyer, grocer, whatever — has a farming background, and they’re used to sharing, being generous. The people here really are that kind. When they invite you over, they mean it — and they will invite you over.

Get me there: Make a stay at La Reata Ranch your own on a self-drive journey across Saskatchewan’s highlights. The ranch is open to guests every May until October, through Canada springtime, its warm, sunny summer months, and into autumn, with its fall foliage.

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