If you love looking at a horse, imagine the feeling you would get looking at hundreds. If you will never get a chance to visit Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vermont, you must at least follow them on Facebook. I grew up just miles from this wonderful place and many of my first beloved horses came from there, as did almost everyone else’s I knew at the time.
But I didn’t really understand how astonishingly magical a place it was until I reconnected with Pond Hill Ranch through social media years later. The posted images of huge herds of beautiful horses surrounded by the incredibly breathtaking views of the Green Mountains are the material of calendars and art photography.
The generation of the O’Rourke family I grew up with have now taken over the operation of Pond Hill Ranch and what a job they have done. So often when you revisit places of your youth, it is disappointing to find it wasn’t as special or perfect as you remember. I had the exact opposite reaction when I returned to Pond Hill Ranch more than twenty five years later.
It just couldn’t get any better than it was. I was leaning on a wooden gate and watching a massive herd of healthy, happy horses come loping down from a slightly wooded area across an open green slope. Some tossed their heads, but few bucked or scooted. The overall personality of the herd was that of kind sensibility. It was a little like watching relaxed kids at recess.
These were the camp lease horses returned home for the winter. They had just been picked up from 70 camps all over the northeast and from as far west and south as Ohio and Virginia. Their work for the season was mostly done, except for the approximately 175 head that will go out to colleges and interscholastic programs. The rest will spend the winter atop a mountain with incredible views in every direction, being carefully sorted and tended to by the O’Rourke family of Pond Hill Ranch.
In the idyllic New England college town of Castleton, Vt. a small sign on Main Street points toward Pond Hill Ranch. The unassuming sign doesn’t prepare you for the horse super store you are about to encounter.
Driving three miles uphill on a wooded, but well groomed dirt road pulls you gently into the delight of finding a legitimate ranch…as real as what you would expect to find in Texas or Wyoming. The sight in the first clearing jolts you to attention, a hillside pasture of great majestic bulls. They are part of the well-respected home bred rodeo stock that has become part of the growing industry that is Pond Hill Ranch.
Eventually, you emerge up from the woods into the bright airy light of cleared fields, dotted with an array of horses on both sides of the road, as well as two large barns, an indoor arena, a tack shop, a large rodeo arena, and a neat ranch style home. This is the center of the 2000 connected acres that make up the original Pond Hill Ranch. As the business and the family grew, so did the real estate holdings. There are now an additional four separate farms in the area that are owned and inhabited by members of the O’Rourke family.
I was grateful that Harry O’Rourke had agreed to meet with me and explain about the camp horse lease business that he and his family have built up to be the largest in the country. The entire O’Rourke family all are very involved in the business and, even as I arrived, Harry was in the middle of a pen of horses that had just returned from a camp on Cape Cod. He was reading numbers off tagged collars and jotting them down in a large notebook. He showed me sheets with pictures of each horse and comments the riding director from the camp had sent.
“Some of these horses will return to the same camp year after year.” He explained,“A few may get comments that they didn’t work out as well and those will be sold. Each camp seems to have its own style or type of horse they like. Although sometimes that changes when the riding director or head instructor at that camp changes.”
So much of what Harry talked about with me seemed to be about keeping his clients happy. There is no question that this guy is a true horseman whose expertise would astound the instructors he’s dealing with, should they ask. Instead, he quietly listens to all their concerns and requests and then does everything he can to accommodate them.
Harry continued, “Each spring, when the season starts, we ride every horse to the extent they need, shoe them and clip them. Then each instructor from each camp comes and rides the horses that are scheduled to go to their camp.” I have to admit the enormity of that task boggled my mind and I was just staring at about 150 of the 600 horses that will go out.
The number of horses a camp may lease ranges from 70, their largest, to as few as 2. A horse is shipped with a halter and lead, but Pond Hill Ranch will also provide the tack if needed. The lease pricing is tied to the number of horses, distance for delivery and pick up and equipment needs. Insurance and liability concerns are addressed in an eight-page contract.
Harry said the majority of their business is done by word of mouth. He described the camp community as tight knit and most of their client camps have been doing business with Pond Hill for years.
Pond Hill Ranch does have a presence at some of the camp conventions sponsored by the American Camp Association that are held around the country. “That is a good time for us to have some interaction with the Camp Directors and make sure all is well. Around the first of January, we start to call and check in on our camps, see what their needs will be and start the process of getting them set up.” Harry understands that for these camps, horses are the highest priced and highest risk activity. It would be easy for camps to want to eliminate the riding programs. The staff at Pond Hill must work tirelessly to make sure things go well for these camps that are still providing the equine experience for their attendees. Luckily, as anyone involved in this business knows, a chance to ride a horse is still the biggest draw to camp for a lot of these children.
If a horse isn’t working out, there is a provision in the contract wherein Pond Hill Ranch will replace it. But the more I listened to Harry, the more convinced I was that this business has lasted and grown as it has because of the expertise with which these horse are purchased and placed.
The buying is a science in itself. Pond Hill Ranch is always looking for nice horses to replace and replenish the stock. I overheard a phone call while I was there from a person looking to sell a horse. After a few direct questions about the horse’s temperament and ability, Harry was very straight forward with the seller about the fact that he may do better selling the horse outright on his own, but if he needed to sell now, or was interested in trading the horse in, Harry would be willing to come see the horse and make an offer. Then I heard the best horse trader quote ever. “You have to understand your horse is worth more to you than it is to me. “
Pond Hill Ranch also makes trips to big sales, mostly west of the Mississippi. The advantage of the expert’s eye takes the guesswork out of what a sale could be to the average buyer.
Having experienced Vermont winters, I was very curious about how they managed wintering and feeding the vast numbers. “We make money on how we buy horses and how we feed horses.” Harry told me. “If you look through this herd you see a lot of a squarely built, stock type horses. That’s because they feed and keep easily. You won’t find many Thoroughbred type horses in the bunch, not because there aren’t some that make nice horses, but because it takes too much to keep them up and fat.”
Harry told me they go through 30 round bales of hay a day during the winter. “We also feed corn that we grow here. We are constantly separating and sorting horses into how they need to be fed, some on hay, some on limited corn and hay and some that need it, get brought in and are put on grain. We all still saddle a horse almost every day. This is ranching as real as it gets anywhere in the country.”
I was lucky enough to take in one of the Pond Hill Ranch Saturday night rodeos while I was in the area. If it weren’t for the stunning views of gorgeous rolling mountains covered in beautiful forests in all directions, you could easily be in any western state where ranching and rodeos are prevalent. The stock and the participants were that good. Make no mistake, this is a REAL ranch and I was talking to a REAL cowboy… in the middle of New England.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the sweet gentle herd that crowded the fence in front of me. I knew it would be impossible with just words to correctly describe the equine utopia I was witnessing. And as my camera was clicking away I kept wondering, hoping actually, that just maybe, some kid sitting in front of their computer will recognize that special horse in this group of many, as the one they fell in love with this summer, at what they thought was the BEST HORSE CAMP.