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Riding With Bison At Zapata Ranch

Experience the excitement of being within 10 feet of a bison running at full speed.

Photography: Dave Showalter/Courtesy Zapata Ranch

There’s a distinctly crisp bite to the October air in southern Colorado. We are all thankful when the sun starts to peek over the Sange de Cristos Mountains that rise to the east, bringing with it the promise of warmth to come. Horses stamp their hooves and toss their nose bags as they work to the bottom of their morning ration. Riders warm themselves by the fire as they talk about the day to come. Others finish tacking up their mounts. The day is about to begin.

Bison Crew

Herding wild bison is as close to riding in a stampede as a modern-day cowboy is apt to get – but today, along with my husband, Toby, and Kate Matheson, also of Top50 Ranches, I’m going to do just that. We’ve convened at the Zapata buffalo ranch to gather the 2,000 head of wild bison running over the 100,000-acre Nature Conservancy's holdings that adjoin the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Once a year for as long as it takes, riders of Zapata and its sister ranch, Chico Basin, gather the buffalo for processing and sale. Dry cows and old bulls will be sold off, and the rest of the herd will be turned out again for a year of reverting back to the wild.  

Owned by the Nature Conservancy, Zapata is managed by Duke Phillips. He and his crew of seasoned wranglers have done all this before and seriously know their stuff. The Top50 team might be experienced ranchers and competent riders, but working cows doesn’t compare to working bison. These fast, ferocious beasts are known for their tempers, and with a mature bison bull weighing in at scale-tipping 2,000 pounds, these are animals you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. To prepare us for what is to come, Duke gives a short seminar before dividing us into teams, which we’ll all stick with for the duration of the gather.

Photography: Karen Myers/Courtesy
Zapata Ranch

 So that’s it: We’ve thought about it. We’ve talked about it.  We’ve even dreamt about it. Now we’re actually going to do it. On Duke’s signal we mount up and follow our team leaders out toward the uncertainty of chasing wild bison. Giddy-up... .

Game Plan

Riding out into the unknown, our minds replayed Duke’s briefing as to how the first day would play out. Once inside the huge pasture, the first job would be to find the one of the many bands of bison. It’s a case of riding out and looking. And once we find the bison, it’s a case of observing the herd before developing a game plan, positioning our teams and then riding like hell. Knowing what’s to come, the search feels like the calm before the storm, and the tension in the cool Colorado air is tangible.

I’m thankful to be riding a seasoned mount. This is no place for a colt. This kind of work can put a callous on even a soft-mouth horse, and once the run starts, every pony in the cavvy will lean into its bridle. This kind of riding requires a good set of lungs on a pony who knows where to place his feet.

The terrain at Zapata is just rolling enough to keep you guessing as to what’s out there. Crystal-clear creeks wind their way through the sandy soil, creating grassy meadows starkly contrasted by the overabundance of rabbitbrush-studded sand dunes. Although the herd is scattered within our range of vision in the now glass-clear Colorado air, their actual distance from us is hard to judge. Duke’s got his eye on a nearby herd of 50 or so animals and quietly motions to us that we’ve found our quarry. “Keep quiet,” he instructs, before leading us on a circle big enough to loop us right behind the herd without alerting them.  

Our team is one of three. Mine, led by Duke’s son, fondly known as “Little Duke,” get positioned at the head and off-side of the band.  The goal is to form a barrier that the buffalo will respect as we chase them toward our trap. Hearts are pounding. Excitement is in the air. 

We take our position as the other teams line out. Then we ride toward the herd. A few bison start to pick up a trot. I look to Little Duke for instruction and as he moves his horse into trot, we follow suit. Faster than I could have anticipated, the whole herd begins to trot and the leaders break into a run. Here we go… .

Buffalo vary greatly in the speed at which they can travel and, although a very few can hit a top speed of 40 mph, many will fall into a 25 mph, lope-like run that they continue long after your horse has run himself out. So now is not the time for hanging back or cautious riding, the bison are too fast for that. We don’t just throw caution to the wind. We throw it and start shooting at it. With no way to slow the leaders, the back of the herd has to be pushed as hard as possible to shrink the gap between the head and the tail. And so the riders at the back and flanks of the herd begin their push. Everyone’s in position. So far, so good.

Twists and Turns

Now fully aware of the chase, the herd leaders dig in and move it up a notch. They want out. But the leaders are much faster than the core of the herd and the ground gives way fast as my horse finds another gear. Our team goes with the leaders and we quickly start to outdistance the rest of the herd, the riders at the back of the core shifting to the off-side to fill in the holes as we go barrelling off toward the trap.  

While cattle tend to bend a lot slower in turning, bison can turn 45 degrees while running all out. Suddenly and without warning, three animals start toward our line of riders. Like a choir without a conductor, a chorus of yelling commences and whips begin to crack. In response the herd leaders drift away from our line. Did they just speed up? But there’s no time to relax as more animals start to push on our lines. We're too spread out. Some bison bolt through and it’s a frantic scurry as riders rush to fill in the gaps. However, it’s normally in vain, as it’s next to impossible to bring the escapees back once they’ve broken through the line.

Photography: Courtesy Zapata Ranch


Duke’s briefing earlier this morning raced through my mind clearer than ever. Galloping at breakneck speed it was as if we could read each other’s minds. Ringing out through my head were instruction from Little Duke to “Hold the line!” “Make yourself bigger!” “Fill in the gaps!” Where previously the air had been filled with a tense anticipation, it is now thick with concentration as we make our final effort to get the bison to our goal. Like the waves of an incoming tide, the herd surges toward the line. But the riders are there now. The herd balls up and the ground shakes as animals crash into each other. With warning cries from our team leaders to “get out of the way” and “let ’em go,” we forget the strays as the new leaders take off toward the trap and the herd lines out again.  

Sinking spurs, our team manages to keep up with the fastest animals and we successfully steer the bison herd into the trap. But there’s no time to rest. Quickly, we roll back and form a wing to help funnel the rest of the herd through the gate. A single-minded cow turns back, but we are unable to budge her. She’d gone into that dangerous place that some animals go when pushed too far. We let her go.

The chase over, riders dismount and loosen cinches as the horses are given a well-earned rest. Every horse heaves for its breath, sweat is running down flanks and the smell that tells of a horseman’s work is on all of us. Even the strongest horse can only make two or three of these runs per day. It takes a fresh horse on his game to handle this kind of situation. Pushing the horses for more would be foolish, not only risking losing more buffalo with each gather, but also increasing the likelihood of a horse going down.

Adrenaline still pumping, riders converge, high fives are given, and “good jobs” and laughs over near misses can be heard. Horses that could hardly be restrained a few moments ago are breathing hard and now content now to stand. It might only be day one, but we are already dreaming of coming back next year.

Zapata: The Lowdown

Food Ride hard, eat well. Dinners are prepared by Chef Mike Rosenberg, who was previously chef to the Carnegie family. Mike produces dinners more than worth getting out of the saddle for.
What to bring Layers are paramount, as you’ll want to gradually shed off throughout the day. Mornings always start out cold, but some days temperatures can reach as high as 60 plus degrees. We recommend long johns, chaps, a thermal tee, and leather gloves. Ibuprofen is a must!
People Inherent educators, Zapata’s managers and team of wranglers exude a calm presence. Duke has surrounded himself with an intelligent team of interns, apprentices and staff who all have a desire to teach in a positive environment. Although we were already experienced, competent riders, within three days Duke and his team successfully helped us understand the mechanics of bison herding, to the extent we became real assets to the group.
Highlight Get either of the Dukes to sing and play guitar around the campfire. Little Duke’s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to up-and-coming musician Ryan Bingham.

Cows vs. Bison: What’s The Difference?

“Riding with bison is very different to normal cattle work,” explains Jody Dahl who grew up on the largest purebred Charolais ranch in the United States, DeBruycker Charolais. “There’s nothing slow and steady about bison. It's very much a case of all or nothing. Building up to the chase, everyone stays quiet so the herd doesn't know the size and number of riders they’re up against. The last thing you want to do is alert them with noise, as they can't actually see far. Your thoughts are all across the board as you watch your team leader and the others teams sneak up on the herd and your heart pounds right out of your chest.

The horses really love it too.  Sneaking up as close as you can at a quiet walk, you can feel your horses change beneath you. Their bodies actually starts to shake with excitement,” continues Dahl.

“But there’s nothing quite like the excitement of riding within 10 feet of a bison running at full speed and watching its body language. Reading stock is reading stock no matter the animal or breed, but timing and feel on wild buffalo has to be experienced to be learned. You learn to understand when they ‘want out’ just from seeing their eye. But you’ve got to act quickly and aggressively, ‘jamming’ them back at the group. Moreover, it needs to be instinctual. If it's not, you're too late and the animal will be gone, probably taking a small number with them.”

Did You Know...?

There were an estimated 30 – 60 million American bison in the time of Lewis and Clark. Nowadays, North America is home to barely more than 500,000, the majority of which are on private ranches. Just 30,000 are kept in conservation herds and only half of these are considered truly “wild,” free-ranging within North America without fenced confines.

For more information, visit Top 50 Ranches and Zapata Ranch online.


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