It’s 7 a.m., and the sun peeks over the eastern mountains. Dogs bark with excitement, and the jingle of chains can be heard throughout the brisk morning air at the Lazy K Ranch, home of Big Sky Rides.
Megan Wofford and Larry Shandy drive two percheron-mustang horses, Bell and Button, who pull a hay-filled trailer into the pens that house nearly 70 horses, 15 cows and two Texas longhorns.
Throughout the next hour or so, hungry horses, barking dogs and skittish cows chase after the food wagon, just as they did the day before and probably will do tomorrow. Day in, day out, it’s the routine.
Wofford and Shandy do all this work so folks from all over can experience a taste of ranch life and ride horses.
Along with the business’ founder, Becky Kerr, the pair performs all the necessary work around the ranch, from feeding animals to taking reservations for rides, from changing out horseshoes to fixing fences around the pens. Anyone who has been around horses knows taking care of a single horse is a huge responsibility, let alone taking care of 70 of them.
For the past nine years, Marana’s Big Sky Rides has offered people opportunities to jump on the back of a horse and go for a stroll through the desert.
“In Tucson, we do have regular clients, who, anytime someone comes to visit, they come and ride,” Kerr said. “We also do corporate rides when a business brings down 50 or so riders. But most of our clientele are family-type visitors.”
Visitors to the ranch, which stands at the foot of the Tucson Mountains, can take a half-hour ride, or one- or two-hour rides through the desert along any of the numerous trails that surround the ranch.
The ranch occupies about 130 acres of land surrounded by about 3,000 acres of private, but accessible, ranch land and the 25,000-acre Saguaro National Park West.
“A lot of reactions we get, with us being so close to town, is people come out here and feel like they can get away from it all,” Wofford said. “They expect it to be like what you see in the Westerns. Dry, dusty, no mountains, flat and they come out here and they drive up the driveway and they see this beautiful place we have out here and it really blows them away. Then, they get to go ride in it.”
Another opportunity for riders is to jump on the back of a horse and take a 1-1/2-hour ride to watch the sunset. Riders then head back to the ranch to jump on a horse-drawn hayride to dinner, where they’re treated to the nighttime stars and music sung by a cowboy around a campfire.
But getting Big Sky Rides to where it is today didn’t happen overnight.
Kerr, who said she has been around horses her entire life and got her first one when she was 3 years old, started her corporation in the late 1980s with her mom and dad in Montana.
They took visitors on horse-drawn street carriages through the town at night. That led to trail rides, which, in turn, led to cookout rides. Almost every year something new was added to the business, including using her horses at a local kids’ camp.
“One day a guy came in from a dude ranch up there and said ‘I need 10 head of horses for the summer, will you lease me 10?’” Kerr said. “So I did and bought 10 more for us. I had 150 head of horses that I was using just in the summer and feeding them all winter.”
After coming down to Tucson for a couple winter college courses, Kerr realized how much more accommodating the climate was for her line of business — and Tucson ended up working out for her really well.
Kerr was about to retire about two years ago when she and Wofford were offered the opportunity to take over the horse operation at Lazy K Ranch. They did, mainly with the intent to increase revenue and then turn over the reins to Wofford.
The pair has found more and more people who want quiet, free-flowing rides through the desert rather than single-file-line, pack-mule style journeys.
And lately, more people come to Big Sky Rides looking for private sessions, Kerr said.
These clients usually are a little more experienced but would like a lesson or two along the way.
These experiences range from three- to four-hour private rides in the desert to learning how to herd cattle.
For more information about Big Sky Rides, go online to www.lazykbar.com/horsebackriding.htm