Horse culture still kicking in modern West

Growth changes state but love of horses is forever

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In 1950, metro Denver’s population hovered right around 500,000. Farms and horse properties could still be found throughout the close-in suburbs.

By the mid-1970s, the population had more than doubled and subdivisions had eaten away at sprawling open spaces. But it was still common to see leisure riders on horses, trotting down trails along Morrison Road, Alameda Avenue or Dry Creek Road.

Today, the metro population is closing in on 3 million fast. Development and an explosion in residents have made things feel more like a big city than the cowtown vibes of yesteryear. But if you look closely, you’ll still find horse culture holds a special place in the heart of folks throughout the metro area.

It’s a warm, late September morning as Joe McClellan makes his way toward his first job of the day. With an unbelievable view of the Flatirons as his backdrop, McClellan gets down to business. His dual degrees in architectural and civil engineering will be put to good use at the job site, but not to design or build a house. He’s there to shoe some horses.

McClellan is a certified Natural Balance Farrier. More than a decade ago, he traded in his engineering career for a life working with the animals he loves. He said he was always fascinated by horses and a 2009 Natural Balance Hoof Trimming course set him on the path he’d been looking for. Applying engineering principals to every hoof he shoes, McClellan found a way to combine two things he loves into the freedom to work for himself.

Shoeing horses from Fort Collins to Castle Rock and everywhere in between, and owning two horses of his own, McClellan spends his life immersed in local horse culture.

Karen Richard owns the property with the fantastic view. She moved here in 1984 to be able to keep her horses on her own land. She’s owned horses for close to 50 years. She says in those days she would drive more than 100 miles to work and back each day to make her dream a reality. She didn’t come from a horse-owning family.

“I was just an anomaly, I guess,” she says.

Richard’s horses, Tilly and Summer, are two of McClellan’s three clients at this stop. The other is a 23-year-old palomino Richard boards, named Sweetie. Sweetie’s owner, Bob, says she’s taught him a lot.

“Like how to be a human,” he says.

Bob leased Sweetie, taking care of her for a few years before her previous owner agreed to let him buy her.

“I don’t refer to myself as her owner,” he says. “I refer to myself as her staff.”

Over the years, Richard has done both Western and English riding styles, competing in dressage, a form of horse riding performed in exhibition, with Tilly, a liver-chestnut thoroughbred. Now, Richard is content to just ride on her own property for fun. She says horses have given her more than she can express throughout her life. More than just fulfillment, she says horses have given her the gift of being present in her surroundings. Beyond their beauty, she thinks horses have a special place in this world. McClellan agrees.

“Human beings couldn’t be where they are today without horses supporting us,” he says. “They transported us. They fought battles with us. They farmed with us. They’re amazing animals and we actually don’t deserve them. They deserve for us to treat them better.”

Sixty miles southeast, Heidi Knab is chatting with customers at the Rusty Spur Saddle Shop in Parker. Her business card lists her position as “Head Cowgirl.” She also happens to be the owner of the tack/gear shop she founded after two decades teaching school.

A lifelong rider, Knab says one day she was driving all over town looking for a new saddle. Her inability to find what she was looking for gave her the idea to start the business. Now, more than three years later, she says things are good and her business is continuing to grow.

“The timing was right for me to change careers and open the business,” she says. “We started off with 30 saddles and now we sometimes have up to 200.”

She jumped into a three-year lease with no prior business experience, but says she always knew it was going to work. She also has 1,500 consigners helping her stock merchandise and a deal with Colorado Saddlery to carry their new saddles. The store also has everything a rider could need for English and Western tack, clothing, boots, blankets, trailer supplies, grooming products and more.

According to Knab, Douglas county ranks second in the nation for horse ownership per capita.

“It’s huge, for horses,” she says. “I would have thought it would be Kentucky or something like that, but Douglas county is way up there.”

Despite her parents not being horse people, Knab says she and her sister started doing barrel races at local shows and a ton of trail riding when she was a kid.

“Horses are enchanting animals. I bought my first horse with babysitting money when I was 11 — of course, I also had to take out a loan from my parents,” she says. “My sister got me into it. She was really horse crazy.”

Now, as she gets ready to enter her fourth year as a business owner, Knab says word of mouth is still her primary form of engaging new customers. She also employs staff members who have different expertise in riding styles, to appeal to Douglas county’s broad customer base.

Guidance from other women in the tack industry was invaluable when she started out. But that didn’t surprise her. She thinks horse people she’s met are some of the most loyal, appreciative, kind individuals around.

And that loyalty goes both ways. Relationships and customer service are what she says make the whole thing tick.

Old adages about not mixing business with pleasure notwithstanding, Knab says opening the store actually feeds her passion for riding. She says she’s learned a ton from customers and hopes she’s paying that knowledge forward as well.

Her repertoire includes showings, clinics, an obstacle challenge series and a lot of horse camping.

Carol Perry is a native Texan who’s called Douglas county home since the ‘80s. She’s been a horse person her whole life. But she’s retiring from the hobby and recently she’s been selling off gear through Knab’s store.

Her stable of horses has gone from eight down to one — a Swedish warmblood grand prix dressage horse that is 26 years old.

Perry says retiring from the horse world has been an incredibly difficult decision. At her age, she says she wants to simplify her life, but the challenges that ever-increasing population and development have created for riders have hastened her departure.

She says resources for horse people are becoming more restrictive each year and the people passing legislation aren’t paying enough attention to the billion-dollar equine industry here. But it’s also increasingly difficult to compete for trail space with mountain bikers — even in places like The Pines and Dawson Butte that were created to include horses.

If you’re a lifelong horse person, or just thinking about maybe getting started, Knab says her shop is a nexus — a place people can come to get information and find their people. She holds community events once per quarter and welcomes everyone with a passion for horses to attend.

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