Clearly, one of the most recognizable sounds of Christmas are the “jingle bells” on the harness of a horse-drawn sleigh. Even if you grew up in the city and never seen a horse or sleigh, the timbre and tone of that experience has somehow made it into your consciousness.
Do it in person, and the concert of the snorting of the mighty draft horses, the sing-song “hee-yaw” of the driver, and the crunch of the snow underneath, and you have a visceral holiday experience that will linger long after a sleigh ride is done.
In Angel Fire, most holiday visitors come from the cities of the plains in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. They come to the mountains to get their winter fix, and one favorite pastime is to take a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh.
Nancy Burch’s Roadrunner Tours has been running winter sleigh rides in Angel Fire for decades. Known also for summer trail rides from the stables on U.S. 64, Roadrunner aims to bring the sights and sounds of the mountain lifestyle to those who make Angel Fire their vacation destination.
“Our demographics go from the grandmother to the children to the grandkids,” said Burch during a recent interview. “They all love a sleigh ride.”
Operating out of the Elkhorn Lodge in downtown Angel Fire, Roadrunner keeps busy all winter with as many as three sleighs out at any one time during holiday peak times. Each ride takes less than an hour and runs up a private greenbelt to the east and then onto National Forest land. From there, the vast Moreno Valley spreads out beneath the looming Sangre de Cristo range.
After hot chocolate and cookies, scenic sleigh rides depart from the lodge and return about 5- minutes later. A lunch tour ends back at the lodge with a hamburger or hot dog. An evening dinner tour takes off at 4 p.m. and returns to the lodge for a cowboy dinner of steak or chicken, corn, potatoes, salad and cobbler.
The stars of the show are the “gentle giants” that draw the sleigh, each weighing about one ton each with handmade harnesses and thick coats.
“By nature, they are gentle, strong and stable in order to hold in these conditions,” Burch said. “They are aware when something is going wrong and are driven to overcome obstacles if at all possible.”
Burch buys her draft horses, harnesses and some sleighs at draft horse sales in the Amish country of central Kansas. All geldings, the horses get paired together, often a young one alongside a veteran, and acquire catchy team names, like Smith and Wesson, Tic and Toc or Snip and Snap. They may be related, as with two nephew-uncle pairs in Roadrunner’s eight-steed stable.
“The older one usually has the brains while the younger has the brawn,” she said. “It’s amazing how they match up on their own, and how well the young one learns for its elder.”
All red in color, the sleighs vary in size – from six to 12 occupants – with some that sit higher up from the snow, while a lower version “sports car” skims along close to the frozen surface. The brakes for the sleigh come from the horses and their collars.
Roadrunner’s sleigh rides truly bring people back to a time when horses were the primary mode of transportation, when sleighs carried firewood and supplies in the winter, and when the quiet of the forest was the loudest sound you heard.
“I love the sleigh rides because it’s a clean break from people’s busy lives – a sort of timeout where they can be together and just talk,” Burch said. “We just love giving that to the people who come to up to the mountains of Angel Fire.”