No.104 Alisal, Yippee Ki-yay

Stories of cowboys and cowgirls drift through our imaginations from the time of our earliest daydreams. Youngsters in America hear tales of the Wild West early on, reinforced by a steady stream of Hollywood movies and TV shows. I was a youngster in Europe, but there too, German author Karl May regaled us with stories of the American West and the adventures of the fictional Native American hero Winnetou and his pal Old Shatterhand. The drama of exploring unknown territory with a trusted companion, fending off foes, wild animals, and the elements is universally fascinating.

With my single source of Wild West literature, I mistakenly believed that cowboys were a distinctly American phenomenon. But through my travels I’ve come across “cowboy” types in many parts of the world. As a practical matter, the job of keeping cattle demands a particular uniform: leather chaps, wide-brim hats, bandannas, and duster jackets where it’s cold. All over the world, “cowboys” appear very much the same. And curiously, enjoy the same music, which is a bit harder to explain considering the disparate cultures represented. But the appeal of a sad story put to music is as universal as one in print. Cowboys and a fascination with their lore seems universal.

Riding a horse along narrow trails early on a fresh, sunny California morning at Alisal Ranch, the memories of my youthful imaginations come flooding back. The experience seems so familiar, but I can scarcely think of another time I have been on a horse. It must be a ride Winnetou took that I’m recalling.

The Santa Ynez Valley

Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, bound by the valley’s namesake river in the northeast and Central California’s coastal mountains to the southwest, Alisal is shielded from the breezes from the nearby coast, producing warm days and cold nights. Steelhead trout flourish in the rivers and seasonal streams that cross the property. And the rolling hills are dotted with sycamore and oak trees old enough to have started growing when this land was Mexico.

The original inhabitants, the Chumash Indians, hunted and gathered here, calling the area “Nojoqui,” which means “honeymoon” and refers to a girl-meets-boy-from-the-wrong-tribe story that all went terribly wrong in the end. When the Spanish came, they called it “Alisal,” meaning a grove of sycamores.

Since 1843, Alisal has been a working ranch, overseen by five successive families. The current owners, the Jacksons, purchased the ranch in 1943 and decided to take advantage of California’s burgeoning tourism industry, by turning the cattlemen’s quarters into guest rooms. The switch proved a success, attracting high profile guests from nearby Hollywood, with Doris Day being a regular visitor, and Clark Gable choosing Alisal’s old library for his nuptials to Lady Sylvia Ashley.

Early Morning Ride

With my limited horsemanship experience, I arrived at Alisal a bit nervous about whether I was up to the challenge of living the ranch lifestyle. At booking, I confirmed my absolute novice experience level, wondering what that designation would mean for the next few days’ activities.

The dinner bell rings just as we get settled into our room, so we wine-and-dine with our fellow guests before tucking in for the night.

Early the next morning, with the sun barely showing over the horizon, we are off to the stable to test our mettle on horseback. The Alisal team had already sized us up based on our booking interview, dividing the sleepy group of guests, not quite used to early morning ranch hours, based on experience levels. Each guest was matched up with a horse to suit their personality.

With a bit of instruction—we in the beginner’s group needed it—off we went to survey the property. Forming us into a line, the wranglers bring order to the ride by keeping all the horses in good spirits, knowing which horses get along and which don’t.

Our horses are gentle, patient giants, trotting their way over hill and valley, allowing us to enjoy the sweeping views of Santa Ynez Valley. All the horses, but especially the ones selected for us beginners, are well behaved and know the daily routine.

But it’s spring, and for my horse, at least, the juicy grass shoots prove too much of a temptation. He takes every opportunity to munch along the trail. I am told I need to be more assertive (I’m holding up the line now). Lacking assertiveness is not something I’m typically accused of. But the method of applying control, a firm upward yank on the reins, is a technique I AM unfamiliar with!

After about an hour’s ride, we arrive at Alisal’s outpost, a remote cabin. The wranglers help us dismount, taking care of the horses as they send us off to a hearty outdoors ranch-style breakfast, accompanied by singing cowboys.

The morning ride is a great experience, and in my opinion, the highlight of visiting Alisal. You really get a feel for what living on a ranch must be like—minus all of the hard work, of course.

Recognizing that riding is not for everyone, Alisal makes sure the morning trip is accessible to all. If you prefer, hop on board the hay wagon and make your way to breakfast that way. The hayride has a charm all its own.

For serious cowboy aficionados, you can dive even deeper into the Wild West lifestyle. Alisal offers plenty of custom experiences that you can book as a group or individually. Some of their popular activities include boot branding: bring your boots, and you get an exclusive Alisal brand on it; and Manes and Tails: learn from the pros how to groom and beautify a horse. Or how about roping: Improve your rope skills under the watchful skilled eye of Alisal’s wranglers. Or, if you time your visit right, you can take part in the yearly BBQ workshop, a three-day learn-all-about-meat-and-barbecue extravaganza.

Of course, if you would rather chill out and relax, head to the spa or hang out at the pool. Or, send the kids off to ride while you golf, explore the nearby wine country, play tennis, or take a paddleboat out on the lake.

On our way back to the room, we see a family exchanging their four-legged ride for mountain bikes and heading up into the nearby hills. Alisal has something for everyone no matter your interest.

For me, it’s the horses that are the thing, so I’m saddling up for another ride. I haven’t been this happy since riding the Wild West of my imagination with my pals Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Yippee Ki-yay!


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Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a trip to Alisal Ranch? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.