At Home On The Range: Dude Horses

While many of our horses do some kind of work for a living, the work usually consists of a couple of hours a day, three to five days a week. Many of our horses are ridden far less than that, and we don't really think of them as "working" for their living as did horses of yesteryear. But there are horses out there which do put in a full day, whether pulling a plow, hauling around the family buggy, taking a police officer on his or her rounds, or carrying strangers for a ride. It is this last segment of our industry that is growing the fastest, and the one at which we will take a closer look.

The mental ability of a horse willing to take totally novice riders safely to see a particular area or learn a particular skill is the biggest concern to stables. These "stable" or "school" horses are chosen more for mental suitability than physical characteristics. They must be patient with unbalanced, untrained riders, sometimes serving several a day. They must be tolerant of unusual behavior (from playing cowboy to clicking, whirring cameras with reins dropped carelessly over saddle horns or necks), display patience with riders who want to "school" them, and not be "hot" or quick in their actions or reactions.

While some would think of these horses as being dead-headed, hard-mouthed, or strong-willed when all of those traits are found in one package, knowledgeable horse people label these tolerant souls as "bomb-proof," and many stable owners think they've struck gold when they find one horse with all of these talents.

"We have horses of all breeds and types," said Jack McPhaul, DVM, who is the attending veterinarian for the 120-plus horses used for the Don Donnelly Horseback Vacations throughout Arizona and in Monument Valley. "We want a horse that is willing to work rather than a good-looking horse."

The Donnelly stable has been in the business of putting people on horses to see the country for nearly 20 years. Shelly Donnelly and her late husband, Don, had operated two "dude" stables in the early 1980s under the D Spur brand, one in Colorado and one in Arizona. At that time they had 160 horses used for various purposes, including hourly rides, day rides, overnight camping trips, pack trips, and three- to seven-day camps.

However, having to pay to pasture that many horses over winter and move back and forth between the two states led to the decision in 1985 to move the whole operation to Arizona. The stable began with hourly rides, cookouts, and hayrides. The Donnellys also worked as stock contractors supplying horses for a pair of brothers who conducted longer rides and camps.

"In about 1990, the brothers quit and we bought their chuck wagon and 800 phone number, and added equipment and rides," said Shelly, the boss of the current outfit.

The string of Donnelly horses today ranges between 100-120. These are divided into the group that stays at the home stable in Gold Canyon, Ariz., and the group that is trucked to various locations for multi-day camp rides.

"The horses for the multi-day rides usually are more middle-aged horses," said McPhaul, who "cowboyed" in North Texas before veterinary school. "They can withstand the rigors of the rides. The hourly or day-use horses might be older ones."

The veterinarian explained that the multi-day ride horses are kept in one herd all the time.

"That way, the pecking order is established and the horses are not biting and kicking all the time," he explained. All horses in the multi-day rides are geldings.

The horses not only have to carry neophyte riders, but must be fit enough for the terrain and the altitudes at which they are working. Riding up and down sand dunes, over sandstone ledges, and across brush-strewn valleys in the high desert requires sound limbs and lungs. While some horse people want to bring their own horses on these multi-day trips, that seldom is allowed.

"We rarely let someone bring their own horse," explained McPhaul, "because when we have, many times we have had to walk them back on foot when they got lame. Most horse people realize pretty quick that their own horses aren't fit enough for some of the places we go."

Because horses with the right mental aptitude and physical ability are hard to come by, when the Donnelly stable finds a good one, he's there to stay.

"We very rarely sell any of these horses," said McPhaul. Many of them come from Arizona or surrounding states. They're all sizes and shapes and colors and breeds. Conformation isn't that important--soundness is."

The veterinarian said particular attention is paid to the nutrition and feet of the horses.

"We pay particular attention to the feet because of the rough country and rocks and cactus," said McPhaul. "But surprisingly, we don't have a lot of hoof problems. We've got a good farrier on staff, and we're all constantly monitoring the health of the legs and feet of these horses."

The head wrangler, Bruce Kinney, also is the camp farrier. He learned his trade part-time while in the Air Force in the 1960s. He owned a few horses and worked for rancher Tom Taylor in the area breaking horses. The rancher asked his farrier, Jack Stubblefield, to train Kinney as a blacksmith "before he crippled his own stock" while trying to shoe as a beginner. A year after the veteran shoer took the Air Force air traffic controller under his wing, Stubblefield took a government job and left the shoeing to Kenney.

McPhaul said he's amazed as how few hoof problems these horses have compared to their peers who live in relative comfort in a full-care facility.

"I've treated hundreds of those stabled, sore-footed horses," said McPhaul. "Because of the use these horses get, that keeps the feet healthy. They've got strong walls and hard soles. None of our horses--even at the main stable--stand in a stall. That means their hooves stay hard. We don't have problems with thrush, and rarely do we have a horse lose a shoe. We check their feet and shoes every day."

All those working with the horses ride--from the camp's French chef who moved to America because of the lure of the West, to the quiet cowboy who earned his scars and wrinkles from a lifetime of working horses and cattle. But Kenney and trail boss Milton Williams (a former guest-turned-cowboy) know each horse's personality and idiosyncrasies, as well as their physical strengths and weaknesses.

There's sunscreen to be applied to the Appaloosa's nose. Ointment to the new bite on Wart's back. Some non-steroidal ointment for the eyes of Williams' mount, the horse with the partial blue eye that seems more sensitive to sun and sand. The extra pad goes on Colonel to protect his high withers. A figure eight cinch is there to avoid pinching the tender skin on Kelly's belly.

Each horse has his own saddle, and most of the saddles are custom-made by G Bar G of Riverton, Wyo. While equipment occasionally is traded for the comfort of the guest, the well- being of the horse is extremely important.

Since the horses often work several weeks in the dry climate of Monument Valley (on the border of northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah on the Navajo Indian reservation), their nutrition and water intake are critical to their health.

"We concentrate on a good nutrition program because these horses work so hard and burn so much energy," McPhaul explained. "This week he might carry a 120-pound experienced rider, and next week 190 pounds of someone who's never ridden before. So the horses have to work hard in that respect, as well as carry those people over the terrain."

The most common health problem in these horses is back soreness, said McPhaul, calling it the "nemesis" of that segment of the industry.

"Riders are the cause," he said. "We pay particular attention to saddle pads, and we watch the backs on our horses carefully and adjust pads as needed. But we go up and down hills, and that is hard on a horse's back. Good management can eliminate some of it, but there's no way around it.

"To help protect the horses' backs we encourage people to get a rock to stand on for mounting, or put the horse in a ditch to get on. We give tips on mounting and dismounting, and cover safety for horse and rider," added McPhaul, whose gives talks on horse health and encourages guests to ask any questions they might have.

The guests said that McPhaul's talks on horsemanship and basic anatomy and physiology of the horse, and the question and answer sessions, are among the things they enjoy most on the trip. Most guests encourage the management to add more of the educational aspects of horses and riding on the multi-day outings.


The horses receive a balanced, concentrated grain ration twice a day in individual feed bags. That ensures every horse gets his fair share. If a horse is a little "easier" or "harder" to keep, then he can be fed accordingly.

In addition, the horses receive alfalfa haylage. This not only supplies nutrients and forage, but because of the high moisture content of the haylage, helps ensure that the horses maintain hydration in the high desert climate.

"This product is bagged and maintains its moisture, and it doesn't lose its nutrient value when hauled," added McPhaul. "It also is easily handled and fed, and the horses love it."

The veterinarian said using the haylage cut feeding time down to a quarter of what it used to be from "wrestling" bales on and off of trucks and trailers and constant feeding. The haylage is fed in the evening, and the horses eat it from troughs all night.

"This is our fourth year feeding haylage, and the moisture is so good that I feel it contributes to us having no colic," said McPhaul. "The forage is the most important part of any horse's diet because of the nutrients and roughage, but the moisture in this haylage helps the horses hold water in their guts. It's a niche market product that suits us perfectly. We don't have any problem with mold or mildew; when we open a bag, we feed it all."

The horses seem to have adapted well to the climate, work, and feed and water schedule. While these management practices wouldn't be suited for horses even in this line of work in another area, they seem to work well for those horses working for a living in the high desert of Monument Valley.

(For more information about Donnelly Stables, see

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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