By OLIVIA HARLOW The Santa Fe New Mexican
LOS CERRILLOS, N.M. (AP) — Meandering along a dusty trail on the back of a horse, with a vast New Mexico landscape of layered mountains, red rocks and blooming claret cup cactuses spread across the horizon, one can temporarily forget the world is suffering from a pandemic.
Perched on a saddle, moving with a horse’s hooves drumming against the cracked desert dirt, “There really is nothing that feels more like freedom,” said Harrold Grantham, owner of Broken Saddle Riding Company in Cerrillos. “You forget about everything going on for a while for the time that you’re out there.”
As the novel coronavirus pandemic has halted tourism across the state, horseback outfitters like Grantham are facing a severe drop in business. But they’re hopeful that locals will help keep them afloat.
As pent-up New Mexico residents become desperate for new activities to break the monotony of quarantine, wranglers encourage state residents to take advantage of a fun, unique and COVID-safe activity that would be otherwise flooded with out-of-state visitors.
“We’re down about 60 percent. Normally in the morning, we’d have about 10 to 12 riders, and now we’re only having about three to five riders,” said Grantham, who founded Broken Saddle 27 years ago. He said sunset rides have similarly dropped from up to 15 riders to no more than five.
“This is the worst summer, the worst spring we’ve ever had financially,” he said. “It’s what everybody’s dealing with unfortunately.”
At Ghost Ranch, things are just as dire, said Jeff Kennedy, who has led the Abiquiú ranch’s horseback riding program since 2014.
In previous years, “July is our busiest month by far,” Kennedy said, noting this time last year, Ghost Ranch had about 600 monthly riders. This month, however, there have been no more than 100 riders, he said.
This is largely because of a July 1 announcement from the governor, Kennedy said, requiring out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in New Mexico.
After shutting down from March 20 through June 6, the Ghost Ranch’s horseback riding program reopened at 50 percent capacity. Rides through July 1 almost immediately sold out. “So, I thought, ‘OK, we’re going to be fine,’ ” he said.
Then the governor’s announcement came — a whiplash for him and other horseback venues.
Kennedy reached out to all guests booked for the month of July to notify them of the new rule, at which point about 80 percent of customers canceled their reservations.
“We went from zero to half capacity of what we normally do, back to almost zero,” Kennedy said. “It took the wind out of our sails.”
For Kennedy, the downturn in business has made it difficult to cover the cost of liability insurance, pay his staff and care for his 22 horses.
Staff at Ghost Ranch and Broken Saddle estimate that about 80 percent of their clientele are tourists. Many have decided it isn’t worth it to quarantine for two weeks before coming out for a horseback ride, Kennedy said.
But business isn’t at a total standstill, and the people who come seem more appreciative than ever.
“Oh, we loved it,” said Alden McDonald, who lives in Shanghai but has been stranded in Santa Fe with her two sons during the pandemic. The trio have been staying with her mother.
The family has explored the area’s hiking trails, but “We were really too afraid to do much else,” McDonald said. With horseback riding, however, “We felt really safe. Being from a big city like Shanghai, it’s so nice to just enjoy outdoors and have space.”
Before the group started their ride, a wrangler showed iconic Georgia O’Keeffe paintings that reference certain landmarks along the ranch, including a far-off view of Cerro Pedernal and “Lavender Hill.” Then, the wrangler demonstrated how to mount the horses and steer by “neck reining.”
As Kay Grant, McDonald’s mother, mounted her horse, she told one of the staff members, “We are delighted to have something fun to do that’s social distanced.”
She’s not alone.
Most people Grantham has guided this season “are always complaining about sheltering in place, staying in place and not getting outdoors. … (Horseback riding) gets people up and out,” he said. “There are people who have never experienced it before, and I think the pandemic is making them think about getting out and trying it. They’re getting sick of sitting at home all day.”
One of the perks for people who come out is that “you get the whole place to yourself,” Kennedy said, noting his maximum group size is now four people from the same household.
For this reason, he said, he’s hoping more locals take advantage of the opportunity to ride.
“It’s amazing how many people who’ve lived in Santa Fe for years have never been to Ghost Ranch,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know it’s open to the public.”
Staff members at Ghost Ranch are taking the temperature of guests before allowing them to exit their vehicles. They also require visitors to answer questions related to their health and recent travel, as well as show identification.
Horseback riding has always been a socially distanced activity. Since horses tend to stand 10 feet apart, “we’ve been socially distancing for 27 years,” Grantham joked.
“Honestly, I’d feel more comfortable doing this than grocery shopping right now,” Kennedy said.
Both wranglers admit they miss standard introductions. “It used to be that every ride started with a handshake, and now we’re talking to each other through masks, 6 feet apart,” Kennedy said.
Still, once everyone is on a horse, riding through the desert, “it’s a normal horseback ride,” he said.
And when it comes to riding horses in New Mexico, “normal” actually means exceptional.
“It can be life-changing for some people,” Kennedy said. “Even people who’ve been riding forever come out here and have their minds blown.”