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How Head Wrangler Chris Maxon Trains Smith Fork Ranch’s Horses to be the Safest in the West

The equestrian experience at Smith Fork Ranch is exciting, fun, and, above all else, safe, regardless of age and ability. Strongly adhering to the gentle art of natural horsemanship, Head Wrangler Chris Maxon and his team work tirelessly with all of SFR’s horses to ensure that guests’ horseback rides are unforgettable – in a good way.


We wanted to know more about Chris’ philosophy and process. Here’s what he told us.

What do you look for in a horse when you bring it to Smith Fork Ranch?

The first thing I look at is how the horse is made – is it going to be physically able to perform in the country we ride in? Next I look at the mind and education of the horse. These usually go hand and hand. I like a gentle-minded, well-educated horse.

What’s the process for training a horse to be ride-ready? How long does it take?

The process of training a horse is very dependent on each individual horse. First, I will ride each new horse for a bit, really to check out it’s education level. Once I feel it has reached a certain level of education I will then pass it on to a wrangler. At any given time, the wranglers will have a couple of new horses that they are bringing along and will keep them in their string until I feel they are guest-ready. I start with experienced guests first, of course, and keep moving the horses along until really anyone could ride them.

I can’t really put a time limit on this – it’s never ending. There is really no limit to a horse’s education … or ours, for that matter. We are always trying to keep our horses as well educated as possible. I’ve been talking about new horses, but it applies to all of them. We often ride the older, more seasoned horses as well, to keep them in tip-top shape for the enjoyment of guests.

What does the Smith Fork equestrian program do differently from other ranches?

This is a tough one. I have seen lots of programs, but I might say our ability to offer flexibility distinguishes us. Being a small place, we are able to offer more intimate experience. Folks are allowed to be involved in the program – from catching their horse, to feeding, brushing, saddling, riding, and then the reverse of that until the horse is turned back out. So a person gets to be part of the process as much as they like, or as little.

When it comes to riding, the ratio is probably one wrangler to four guests on average. We can give folks the kind of riding they like, whether it’s individual families who want to go out as a family, couples, or small groups. We also offer multiple ride times in the AM and PM for folks to choose from. I really like folks to feel like they are part of the ranch, not just staying here, if that makes sense.

How do you match up a guest with the right horse for him or her?

Matching folks with horses is an art in itself, really. First, you have to match the education of the rider to that of the horse. The most experienced riders should always ride the less experienced horses and the less experienced riders should be on the most experienced horses. Next I look at energy levels: a high-energy rider and high-energy horse don’t mix (unless they are both very well educated). The same goes for a very low energy rider and a very low energy horse. I kind of like to have them balance one another so each enjoys the day. The sizes of the rider and the horse are also factors you have to consider in the equation. The good thing about having a lot of horses is the ability to change if you need to. Sometimes you have to try a few matchups to get the one you want, which I’ll do anytime it’s needed.

What’s your favorite thing about being the ranch foreman at Smith Fork?

It would be hard to name any one thing to be my favorite. I guess I’d say sharing this lifestyle with folks who visit the ranch and making them feel like more a part of the SFR family rather than a paying guest.

What’s one thing guests should know about horseback riding at Smith Fork Ranch?

The safety of the rider and the horse are always our first priority. We will never push anyone’s limits on his or her comfort zone. We want all of the riders to have a very fun and enjoyable horseback experience.

Learn more about Smith Fork Ranch’s horseback riding adventures.

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