Sagebrush dots the buttes and rolling hills. In the creek bottoms, the spring runoff spreads out into sparkling flats of grass so green it almost glows. The rampart of Steens Mountain rises like a black and white wall across the far horizon.
The red rooftops of the Whitehorse Ranch stand out against the sparse southeast Oregon landscape, and the willow trees just leafing out in early May. Irrigated hay fields stretch to the west, broken by blocks of sagebrush and grass. That's where the horses are.
The horses are what I've come to see. The main yard of the ranch is empty when I arrive shortly after noon. I track down the crew in the kitchen, where everyone is eating lunch. Soon I'm riding in a Kubota ATV, a cross between a four-wheeler and a pickup truck, with Virginia Loomis. She manages the breeding program and wants me to see the broodmares.
Virginia is a bundle of energy, cheerful and talkative, with plenty to say about the horses and the ranch. Equine Management, the company she works for, bought the historic property early in 2006, and the transition has been bumpy. After years of managing cattle and horses at four locations, the company's owner, David Herman, is now folding all the operations into one place - the Whitehorse.
The horses and cattle were moved in March, through rain, snow and mud. Virginia is pleased at how well they're doing on the new grass. As we drive through the field, she points the mares out by name, reeling off details about their personalities, ages, breeding and the types of foals they produce. So far, five have foaled, and Virginia is on the lookout for "kidnappers", mares who steal foals before their own are born.
We switch to Virginia's dually and visit the stallions. Their pasture's out of sight, sound and smell of the mares. The stallions amble over to check us out, but only two get close enough to touch across the fence. A few minutes ago, they were grazing side by side, the best of buddies. Suddenly, one pins his ears and bites the other on the ribs. There's a squeal, and they stand face to face, necks arched, snorting and huffing. Then it's over, and they wander off back to their grass.
Our last stop is the geldings' pasture. Virginia "chums" them by tossing flakes of alfalfa off the back of the truck. Soon, we're surrounded by dozens of big, gentle horses stretching their noses out for a pat, or possibly a treat. These are the friendly, well-mannered saddle horses Equine Management provides to guest ranches. They swirl softly around us in a kaleidoscope of colors - bays, blacks, grays, pintos, palominos, spotted and blanketed, blue and red roans, sorrels, duns, buckskins - every possible variation seems to be here.
"You want a lot of variety at a guest ranch," Virginia says. "Everyone has his own idea of what's beautiful."
The colors might vary, but these geldings share big, stocky builds and a calm presence that sets them apart. That conformation and disposition are what Equine Management's breeding program is all about.
For the rest of this article, pick up a copy of Western Horseman's September 2006 issue.