Hidden in a sandy corner of South Mountain Park’s northwest side is Ponderosa Stables, home of 46 horses that residents and tourists visiting Phoenix can pay to ride through the preserve.
The herd is cared for by a small group of horse-loving, experienced cowboys and cowgirls that guide visitors on daily horseback rides, and an evening ride to a cookout and to the T-Bone Steakhouse for a truly Western dinner. Business, though it has been slower, is just kicking up with the return of fall weather, Ponderosa Stables guide and wrangler Emily Shy said.
“Horses are just a very peaceful type of experience, so it’s very nice to treat people to that,” manager Kathy Lloyd said. “We’re on the horses every day and it’s just a treat.”
Lloyd, who has been with the stables for almost 19 years, said she has done the corporate office job and returned to a business that defined her passion in life – horses and the Old West. The stables have been under the same name since 1985, she said.
“We are so fortunate we live here,” Lloyd said. “This (South Mountain) is my backyard; we’re pretty proud of it.”
Lloyd, who bathes and maintains the health of all the horses, has been riding for 47 years.
“My mother’s a horse freak,” she said. “She’s the one that got me started. I think it’s just in the blood, you know.”
While visitors arrived around 4:30 Sunday afternoon, Lloyd carefully wrapped the lower leg of a horse she called “Doctor,” while calmly whispering to it and massaging its back. All of the horses are “seasoned,” meaning older, providing visitors with a smooth ride through the Arizona desert, Lloyd said.
“They are easier to ride,” she said. “We never ride them above their ability and we take good care of them.”
Ponderosa Stables is open year-round, offering South Mountain horseback rides, cookout rides, evening rides to the T-Bone Steakhouse and wagon rides, Lloyd said. Sunday night, the horseback ride to the steakhouse, located on 19th Avenue, was sold out.
Jim Palacio and his daughter, Victoria, were among the group of about a dozen visitors riding out for a steak dinner. Palacio was on a business trip from his home in Reno, Nev. Victoria said she had taken horseback riding lessons before, and was looking forward to the evening’s ride.
“Over the years, since I’ve been keeping count, we’ve taken over 25,000 people over there (T-Bone Steakhouse),” Lloyd said.
Kevin Smith, one of the guides and wranglers, led the group out towards the sunset on a sandy wash behind the stables.
“The views are nice. I took people out from Seattle once; they had never seen all of the cacti before, so they really enjoyed it,” said Smith, an Arizona resident who has been riding horses since he was 5.
On average, 75 percent of the visitors aren’t from Arizona, and 80 percent of those haven’t been on a horse before, Lloyd said. All of the staff keeps a close eye on each visitor, helping those who have any trouble.
“We love the kids the most,” Lloyd said. “At first, they’re terrified, but when they get back they want you to put the horse in their car.”
After a satisfying cowboy meal, visitors return on their ride through South Mountain to the stables, amid the night’s wildlife.
“The desert just comes alive at night, and coming back on that ride from the steakhouse is just amazing,” Lloyd said. “The coyotes usually sing to you almost every night.”
Riders also see large great-horned owls with a more than 3-foot wingspans, she said. Other animals Lloyd has come across include a tortoise, Gila monster and roadrunner. The staff has even kept Giant Hairy Scorpions and a tarantula as pets, she said.
“We saved a roadrunner from our water trap, and he brought his family back the next day,” she said.
Daily rides range in price and length of time, from $30 for a one-hour ride all the way up to $125 for eight hours. Rides over two hours require the visitor to have prior horseback riding experience, Lloyd said. Daily rides are on a first come, first serve basis until 3 p.m. Reservations for evening rides can be made by calling (602) 268-1261. The stables open at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. on Sundays. Visit www.arizona-horses.com for more information.
“This is an industry that not a lot of people have the expertise to do,” Lloyd said. “And yet, it’s such a satisfying one, personally. We have pressure, sure, but it’s not like city pressure.”
Mark Crudup is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a senior at Arizona State University.