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Naturalist Vincent Pinto on Spring at the Ranch

 

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Circle Z Blog – Spring
Although spring officially begins later in March, it has arrived at Circle Z – owing to the warmer climes of southeast Arizona’s Sky Islands. Despite winter rains being down a bit, many hues of green are descending upon the ranch as various native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers send out foliage. Mexican Elderberry trees are fully leafed out and poised to proffer fragrant flowers soon. A nice variety of wildflowers are in bloom along Sonoita Creek and in the surrounding grasslands and desert scrub, adding color to Circle Z’s seemingly endless, wild expanses.

Perhaps most notable among the flowering plants is a medium-sized yellow shrub, sometimes called Willow-leafed Ragwort. You’ll know it when you encounter this stream-side shrub, as it has a veritable explosion of blooms that are often covered in beautiful butterflies, as well as other native pollinators. Rich Bailowitz, who coauthored the book Finding Butterflies in Arizona, recommends Sonoita Creek as the key location for finding them in February in all of the state! Look for Texan Crescents, Pipevine Swallowtails, Fatal Metalmarks, Tiny Checkerspots, and others at this fragrant shrub in the Aster family.

Meanwhile, 2 good years of rain have allowed wildlife populations to rebound nicely in and around the ranch. Guests this season have reported countless sightings of a wide range of species. White-nosed coatis are certainly on the prowl, searching for Netleaf Hackberries and other fruits as well as for any hapless invertebrate or small vertebrate. These fascinating tropical members of the Raccoon family have their main distribution in Latin America, but infiltrate our region as one of our so-called “Mexican specialties” – species who barely infiltrate into the U.S. Adult female and young male Coatis travel in groups, while adults males – the so-called Coatimundis – go it alone, save in breeding season. Sighting Coatis and other mostly tropical wildlife is truly a thrill. In fact, staying at circle Z is akin to traveling into Mexico without crossing the border – something special and exotic to be savored! Most guests come back repeatedly and the natural environments at the ranch are certainly a key reason for this.

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Gould’s Wild Turkeys – the largest subspecies – have made a remarkable recovery at Circle Z from the days when they were over-hunted in Arizona. Flocks of up to 30 birds have been seen this winter as close as the horse corrals. Mike, who helps run the ranch, even spied one in the jaws of a hungry Mountain Lion! Speaking of whom….. Ranch owner Diana Nash took several stunning photos of Cougars this winter from the ranch. One was of a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree, while a second (from a remote wildlife camera) shows a Cougar leaping spectacularly across Sonoita Creek! Seeing wildlife at the ranch is not just hypothetical, it’s a real possibility.

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Birders at the ranch have a treat waiting for them this spring as resident birds are joined by both returning neo-tropical migrants, as well as lingering wintering birds. My recent bird tours have unveiled an average of 40 – 50 species over the course of half a day. These including some Mexican specialties, including Hepatic Tanager, Painted Redstart, Montezuma Quail, Gray Hawks, and others All of these and other birds find safe haven on the extensive conservation easements at Circle Z.

Whether you are a non-birder, beginner, or advanced birder, know that when you come to the ranch and Sonoita Creek you’ll be at one North America’s birding Meccas! When you’re at the Ranch look for free the free, weekly Nature Walk by Naturalist and Wildlife Biologist Vincent Pinto – usually on Wednesday morning prior to your ride. He’ll introduce you to the flora, fauna, and geology of the region and help you to find local wildlife. Vincent is also an expert Wilderness Survival Instructor and will share some intriguing tips during the walk. Each week he also offers either an Astronomy Program or a Full Moon Walk, depending upon the Moon’s cycle. If you would like to go beyond your rides and these free programs, then he also can be hired as your private Nature Guide for exploring the region at large.

I can honestly say that despite traveling the world in search of wildlife and adventure (Africa, Asia, Europe, South America….) my favorite places to immerse in Nature are in southeast Arizona!

Written by Vincent Pinto, naturalist at Circle Z Ranch

By |March 14th, 2016|Nature|0 Comments

Training colts with Wranglers Val and Johnny

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We take great pride in breeding and training many of our horses right here on the ranch. Getting each one to the point of being a good guest horse takes time, consistency, and patience. We rely upon our wranglers, who are expert equestrians, to work with the young horses. Two of our wranglers, Val and Johnny, are doing an exceptional job with their three-year olds: Athena, a beautiful sorrel filly, and Charles, a handsome paint gelding.

Consistency is the key when training young horses, with the majority of their early learning taking place from the ground. The trainer uses lead ropes and training halters to teach them to walk, trot, and lope on cue. Backing up, yielding the fore and hind legs, and flexing are important to teach as well. Moving their feet from the ground makes the process smoother when they are under saddle, and each horse requires a different amount of time and energy to make this happen.

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For both Val and Johnny, their horses had already been through basic ground work when they started working with them in October. Val shared her thoughts on her early days with Athena “We struggled a lot in the beginning. I had the same experience with her that I had with a lot of mares, it takes a long time to gain their respect and trust. You really have to prove yourself, and once you get it, they will give you the world. They try real hard and never give up”. At first Val’s time spent with Athena was short, often only 10 minutes, and when Athena got something right the lesson would end. The key to successful training is in building the trust and respect, so the horse knows they won’t be put in danger. “Now we get along great. She understands the cues, and what I want her to do.”

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Charles and Johnny have a trusting relationship, and Charles is often seen searching over the fence for Johnny from the day pasture. “He is super good, really calm and patient with me because this is a learning process for me too.” Johnny does not profess to be a horse trainer, yet his laid back personality and ability to be consistent is making the work with Charles go smoothly. Not much bothers Charles, and it did not take long for Johnny to have him under saddle. “Laying over him and hanging out there on his back, petting him on his butt and shoulder while laying on him. Then it was super easy to swing up and start sitting on him. We worked on flexing to each side, then started getting forward movement in there. He’s a little like me in that any work to the left is a bigger hurdle.”

It takes time for the young horses to figure out how to balance with a load on their backs, so starting them with easy walking, trotting, and working in circles helps them figure out how to move under saddle. They are also still growing and are susceptible to injury if pushed too hard. “I am a big guy, so I will probably have someone smaller lope Charles when he is ready,” Johnny said.

Val has come a long way with Athena, and she is frequently seen riding her in the large round pen. They practice working on leads, steering while in a lope, and side passing on cue. Together, she and Johnny took the two horses out on their first trail ride down the polo field, across the creek, and back to the corrals via the railroad bed. Charles spooked a little at the sound of a tree branch scraping Johnny’s hat, and Athena didn’t like the shadows of the cottonwood trees, but they’ll get used to it. With consistency and lots of miles under saddle, they will make fine trail horses for our guests.

By |March 2nd, 2016|Horse Talk|0 Comments

A guests guide to birding and horseback riding at the Circle Z

Yes, I was the kid who always hoped for a pony under the Christmas tree. But if one wasn’t going to be forthcoming (and it wasn’t), another good choice for Santa would be a new field guide or better binoculars for my other outdoor hobby: birdwatching. I’ve continued to pursue both hobbies pretty well life long and love finding vacation spots where both are readily available.

Enter the Circle Z.

Southern Arizona is widely known by birders across North America as being an exceptional place to find birds that are difficult, and even impossible, to discover elsewhere on the continent, as many here are at the extreme northern limits of their ranges. This is true even in the depths of winter, which is when I visit the ranch.

The ranch’s location is ideal for birding in southeastern Arizona, as they are bordered on the east by Patagonia Lake State Park and on the west by the Patagonia-Sonoita Nature Preserve. Just across Highway 82 is the famed Roadside Rest, known for turning up rare birds year after year.
From the other side, any reader of guest ranch guide books knows that the Circle Z has been famous for its great horseback riding program for 90 years.

There are numerous ways of combining the two hobbies at the ranch. One of my favorites is merely watching for the frequently-amazing bird life while you are out on horseback, exploring the canyons, desert washes and mountain foothills nearby. I have found that many birds are less shy of humans when those humans are mounted on horseback than when on foot. As well, birds that prefer the more remote settings are much more easily found on a ride than when it would involve a trek of several miles over frequently-rocky and uneven trails on foot. During my week here in January 2016, I have seen flights of 20 or more Mexican (Gray-breasted) Jays fluttering iridescent blue in Flux Canyon, have been surrounded by flocks of Black-Throated Sparrows in the mesquite scrub, and have seen Montezuma Quail, that secretive skulker, scurry away up the hillsides.

Several wranglers who lead the rides (ranch manager Jenny, and wranglers Alice and Johnny) are all good birders in their own right, and are always keen to help identify a bird or to take a ride to the spot where a specific species has recently been seen. On many days it is also possible to ride for half of the day and then go birding for the other half. Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary is only a 10 minute drive from the ranch, and other well-known hotspots such as Kino Springs (one of my favorites) and San Pedro Nature Preserve can be easily covered in a half day. If you can spare a whole day from riding (a difficult decision to be sure!), Madera Canyon and Whitewater Draw would easily welcome you.

Some special birds are also big draws to the ranch area. It is one of the few spots where the Elegant Trogon can be seen reasonably regularly, and the nearby nature preserve was the site of the first sighting ever of Sinaloa Wren in the US. And this is all just during the mid-winter season. Come spring, hosts of hummingbirds, flycatchers and other species that prefer warmer weather, or are on their migratory route, begin to appear within easy viewing, often at the feeders on the ranch grounds.
Come to think of it, I might just have to try a Spring trip ….
Written by Barb Mclintock, long time Circle Z Ranch guest

By |January 22nd, 2016|Nature|0 Comments

A Day in Tombstone

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If you’re staying over a Sunday at the Circle Z Ranch, there is always the question of how best to spend this unplanned day when horses and wranglers have their day off. There are plenty of options – drive to the historic mining town of Bisbee, tour the Karchner Caverns, head back to Tucson for a little big-city life and shopping, or just enjoy a peaceful day on the ranch, maybe doing your laundry in the new guest laundry, hiking or just kicking back.
This year, however, our group of three decided to spend the day in Tombstone, “the town too tough to die” located little more than an hour’s drive from the ranch on Highway 80 just south of Highway 82. (An added bonus of the trip is some spectacular scenery quite different from that of the ranch as you cross the grasslands on the way east.)
Tombstone has a bit of a reputation as a tourist trap. And there’s surely enough kitsch around to make it a tourist trap if that’s what you’re looking for. You can find remarkable numbers of tacky souvenirs, tours by horse-drawn US mail wagons, and so many “genuine authentic” re-enactments of the Gunfight at the OK Corral that I quite lost count. On arrival in Tombstone, it is both amusing and kitschy to be greeted by numerous re-enactors in the dress of the 1880s walking down the Tombstone streets (and sometimes trying to sell you the virtues of their particular “Tombstone experience”).
But Tombstone can also be a great deal more than that. It was truly the center of life in the Arizona territory for much of the late 19th century, and in a few hours, you can get a wonderful glimpse of the life and history of those times.
We had decided it would be fun to see one OK Corral re-enactment, and (thanks to the reviews on Trip Advisor), we chose the one entitled simply OK Corral Museums, located the closest to the site of the actual 1881 gunfight. The re-enactment was indeed quite entertaining with some reasonably good actors involved, but even more interesting were some of the museum exhibits. I was most intrigued by the replica of a prostitute’s “crib” and the discussion of the lives of these women in days when prostitution was entirely legal.
Best of all, however, was the museum in the old Tombstone courthouse which is now considered a state park. There you can learn about life among the Apaches, the final surrender of Geronimo to end the Indian wars, life in the mining communities, and the justice system of the day, just to name a few topics.
The exhibits are nearly all wonderfully illustrated, mostly by the photographs of C.S. Fly, who with his wife Mollie, was considered one of the first photo-journalists in North American history and the only white person to gain photos of the Apaches during their last battles and final surrender. The black-and-white photos, suitably enlarged, really give a feel of life in those times, all the more remarkable when one considers the huge amounts of equipment required for photography in that era.
If you want to continue learning about the history of the area, instead of buying regular souvenirs, several stores sell accurate and fascinating books describing various aspects of life then.
We all voted it to have been a well worthwhile day, and would recommend it to other Circle Z visitors who would like both a pleasant and an educational Sunday.

Written by Barb Mclintock, long time Circle Z Ranch guest

By |January 22nd, 2016|Day Trips|0 Comments

Arizona’s Spectacular Sky Islands

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Southeast Arizona is extraordinarily endowed with surprisingly high levels of species diversity or biodiversity. Although the stereotype that most people harbor of Arizona before they ever set foot here is often one of expansive deserts, these are merely the the lowest of landforms above which loom a surprising array of habitats. Driving or, better yet, walking from the base of one of our loftier mountain ranges to its highest peak constitutes a virtual trip (in terms of habitats) from Mexico to Canada. From Desert to Spruce-Fir forest in a mere few hours! All things considered we may well be the most biologically diverse area in North America north of Mexico! For within Santa Cruz and a few surrounding counties we have bragging rights to an astonishing variety of taxa. All these figures are for North America north of Mexico:

• About 500 Bird species recorded – representing about 50% of all the birds recorded in North America – including the most Hummingbird and Sparrow species in this area

• More Mammals than any comparable area in N. America – over 100 species

• The most Reptile species, including the most Lizards, in North America • High levels of Ant and Bee biodiversity

• More than 2000 native Plant species

Why, then, do we possess such unexpected biological treasures? In a word – Geology. Landforms and their arrangement as well as elevation changes help in part account for our high levels of biodiversity. Here lofty mountains rise precipitously from normally very flat valleys in a Basin and Range topography so typical of much of the western U.S. and which stretches from Oregon well into Mexico. Nothing too unique in that then. However, our tall isolated mountains lie strategically positioned at a sort of biological meeting grounds or crossroads given our exact latitudes and longitudes. They trend North-South, connecting the temperate and tropical realms, allowing many southern species to reach the northern terminus of their ranges, while many Northern species barely make it into Northern Mexico.

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Looking at a map of the major local biomes or bioregions in the Southwest quickly confirms that a number of such key areas converge right here with Circle Z right in the thick of things. The Rocky Mountains sweep in from the North, lending us their Spruce-Fir Forests and a number of species more characteristic of higher latitudes. The Great Plains and the relatively high and cool Chihuahuan Desert trickle across from the East, providing such species as Scaled Quail, Ornate Box Turtles, and Lark Buntings. To the West we are dominated by the lower and warmer, and hence more diverse, Sonoran Desert. Finally, and bearing an inordinate level of importance, the Neotropical and Madrean (think Mexicoʼs Sierra Madre Mountains) provinces allow otherwise subtropical and tropical species to infiltrate our area. Many people are rightly awed by the presence of Jaguars, Ocelots, White-nosed Coati, and other “Mexican Specialties” in our Sky Islands – species whose ranges are mainly south of the U.S. border. We even used to periodically host Thick-billed Parrots before they were persecuted into their present rarity in Mexico and Mexican Grizzly Bears until they were pushed to extinction.

Add a great range of elevations to this every-which-way directional mixing of species and you have the perfect palette upon which Nature has painted its masterpiece of temperate biodiversity. Traveling from lower elevations into higher ones, an idealized view of our vertically-stacked habitats goes something like this: Desert (either one), Grassland, Chaparral, Great Basin Conifer Woodland, Madrean Evergreen Woodland, Pine Forests, and topping out with Spruce-Fir Forests and Montane Meadows eerily reminiscent of Canada. The very fact that the heavily wooded habitats within this retinue are perched above the relatively open and timber-free ones creates our famous moniker: Arizonaʼs Sky Islands. Islands of isolated forested habitats loom above virtual seas of deserts and grasslands.

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Circle Zʼs large slice of protected Sky islands habitats include their own high levels of biodiversity. The biological centerpiece of the ranch is Sonoita Creek, which artfully meanders through protected conservation easements. Along its banks youʼll find a Riparian Forest, rich in towering tree species. In the surrounding uplands you will variously see Grasslands, Desert Scrub, and hints of Oak Woodland. Each of these beautiful and unique habitats contain their own distinct, yet overlapping, complement of flora and fauna – all here for you to enjoy at Circle Z.

Come on one of my free Nature Walks on Wednesday after breakfast (no, you wonʼt miss your horse riding!) or schedule a private Naturalist Saunter with me to discover things at you own pace and length. Either way, keep a keen eye open and you never know what might show up. Maybe youʼll be the one to see a Mountain Lion, a Gila Monster, an Elegant Trogon, White-nosed Coati, Gila Woodpecker, Clarkʼs Spiny Lizard, Gray Hawk, Gila Topminnow ………

By |October 31st, 2015|Nature|0 Comments

Shoeing the Circle Z horses

When October rolls around countless tasks need to be completed before guests arrive for their ranch vacations. Shoeing our horses is one of the most time consuming; it demands skill, precision and strength. I visited with Miko, our corral manager and head farrier, along with Tavo from the corral staff for more insight on how this is accomplished.

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The Circle Z Philosophy

Circle Z horses run barefoot for the summer. Climbing over the rocky terrain helps to strengthen their hooves and allows their hooves to breathe and grow naturally. When they come back to the corrals in the fall, their hooves are trimmed from the terrain, making that first shoeing much easier.

During our guest season, we use over 1000 horse shoes, shoeing over 330 horses over the 6 month period. Our philosophy and practice is to have our horses shod when needed, as opposed to a strict schedule. For some horses, this means every 4 weeks; others may keep their shoes for 6 weeks.

Having our own farriers on staff as wranglers—as opposed to hiring farriers to come in—makes the process much less stressful for the horse as they are at ease with our wranglers. Miko and Tavo also know the tendencies of each horse and any issues they may have, making our instances of injury very low. All of our wranglers closely monitor the condition of each horse’s hooves, as well as their performance on the trails, to help determine when a new set is needed.

Each horse takes approximately 1 hour to shoe. Between Miko and Tavo they can shoe 12 horses in a day. Some colts are new to the routine and take longer, or may need a little something to calm them. And there are a few who just don’t like it. For the most part however, our horses are cooperative during the shoeing, accepting it as part of their jobs.

We use a cold shoeing method, while some of the ranches in the colder climates may use a hot method. Over the years, our corral manager has developed a hoof stand that makes it easier for both the farrier and the horse during the shoeing process. The horse is able to support his foot and to balance his weight on the opposite leg, rather than leaning in on the farrier.

The Shoeing Process

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The first thing to determine when shoeing a horse is the size of the shoe relative to the size of the horse’s hoof. We have a large farrier’s closet with shoes ranging in size from OO for the smaller horses to size 2 for the larger horses.

Next comes the meticulous rasping, or shaping, of the hoof. Farriers use a rasp to make the surface smooth and even, being careful not to file too much into the hoof. With a trained eye for detail, they determine the shape the horse shoe needs to take, and return to the anvil to pound the hard, yet pliable steel shoe into the correct shape. It can take several trips from the horse to the anvil to get the shape right.

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Placing the shoe requires precision, making sure it lines up evenly and is centered with the frog. The process of nailing the shoe has a specific sequence to ensure the shoe fits perfectly. The nails must have enough bite on the hoof, and protrude through the hoof evenly. Doing this incorrectly can cause a horse to go lame.

Some of our horses need to have their front hooves blocked; these are the horses that have a tendency to trip. Blocking involves placing a slight upward bend in the shoe on the front feet, allowing the horse’s hooves to glide more freely over the terrain.

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Shoeing horses in an art. It requires not only precision but an intimate knowledge of the horse and is very important for preventing injuries. Correct shoeing is imperative to keeping our herd healthy under a demanding riding schedule. Our ferries are masters of their art, and we are most grateful for the good care they give to our horses.

By |October 31st, 2015|Horse Talk|0 Comments

A Conversation with Kelly, Circle Z Ranch Horse Trainer

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Many of you have seen Kelly working with the young horses at the corrals, marveling at her patience and ease with these horses, as though they are talking the same language, which is her objective. Here is some background on Kelly, and her thoughts on Natural Horsemanship.

Kelly has attended numerous horse clinics over the years, from Tom Lynch to Chris Cox. She “lived horse” for twenty years, working with colts at the racetrack. By practicing with young colts everyday she developed her own style, one she uses with the “babies” at the Circle Z.

“I teach the colts how to get along, and to make things easier on themselves. Horses are reactive by instinct. The reactive side of their brain is huge while the thinking side is small. I teach them to use more of their thinking side, to figure out that they can trust me to help them make the decisions. It’s important for them to make good decisions for themselves, as opposed to simply reacting to every situation.”

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This is where the partnering is key, and when communicating on the horse level—as opposed to the human level—is so imperative. “I always look for the “try” from the colt when I ask them to do something. These can be the smallest of indications, like a slight lowering of the head, or are they looking at me instead of through me, even a flicking of their ears. After a lot of repetition, and consistency, they begin to learn that it is easier to give the “try” than to give the attitude.”

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When not leading guests out on rides, Kelly is with her babies in the corrals. “I love to teach. I love to see the light go on. With some, it just takes more time, more patience, but with a positive approach and giving lots of rewards, it really pays off in the end. I am only 100 pounds, I can’t compete with 1000 pounds of attitude. Giving respect, looking for the smallest of tries, and always starting with the simplest first. It makes all of our lives easier.”

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We will see the results of these “tries” this fall as our wranglers take the training to the next level. The babies Kelly has been working with since she started at the ranch are now 3 years old, and it is time for them to be ridden out on the trails, and to learn how to get along outside of the corrals. They will spend another three to four years before they are completely ready to be ridden by guests. But these early steps are critical ones. These young horses are so fortunate to have had Kelly as their leader, which makes us confident that they will ultimately be amazing horses for our guests.

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By |September 18th, 2015|Horse Talk|0 Comments

The Story of El Sultan, a Carthusian Stallion

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Since our inception in 1926 we have been known for our fine breeds of horses. Circle Z Ranch’s first and most notable stallion was a Carthusian Stallion named El Sultan, and this is his story.

Heavy in foal, a Spanish mare from the Spanish royal stables of Marquis de Domecq of Jerez de la Frontera was gifted to a stable in Havana, Cuba. Arriving in Cuba in 1931, she soon foaled El Sultan, who would become the stallion for the Circle Z Ranch by the age of five.

A Carthusian Horse, El Sultan’s bloodlines dated back to the late twelve hundreds. After the Moors left Spain, the Carthusian monks in Andalusia bred this larger Moorish Arabian stallion with a larger type of mare from central Europe. This original stallion was named Esclavo. The mare’s bloodlines went so far back into antiquity that her exact breed was unknown.

After 300 years of breeding and meticulous record keeping, the Carthusian monks considered their breed firmly established. Taking the purity of the bloodlines seriously, it is said they even refused royal orders to mix their stallions with other breeds. When the monks disbanded in the 1800’s, the horses were taken in by Juan Jose Zapata, who diligently continued the purity of the bloodline. Called the Saintly Horse because of its extremely gentle disposition, these pure bloods were jealously guarded by the Government and the Spanish remount system as they were excellent cavalry horses.

The Carthusian horses are known for their proud and lofty actions, a showy and rhythmical walk, and a high stepping trot. Their canters are rocking in nature, with natural balance, agility and fire. Today Carthusian horses are raised around Cordoba, Jerez de la Frontera, and Badajoz, Spain on state-owned farms. Nearly all of the modern pure Carthusian horses are descendants of Esclavo.


In 1934 El Sultan was the first Carthusian to live in the United States, and at the time only the sixth to be let out of Spain. Given as a gift from the Cuban Stables to a family in New York, he ultimately ended up in the hands of Mr. R. A. Weaver of Cleveland Ohio. Mr. Weaver was a sponsor of the Kenyon College polo team and a frequent guest at the Circle Z Ranch. Not interested in breeding, he decided that the ideal place for El Sultan would be the Circle Z Ranch, where breeding him with the smaller Mexican range horse would make an ideal guest horse. And he was right.

El Sultan not only sired countless foals for our guest ranch, his gentle disposition led him to serve many functions. Taking well to stock work, he was used for roping at the fall, ranch sponsored rodeos. He also was a frequent show horse at the Tucson parades, winning numerous awards for first of show. Standing over 16 hands, he was said to have been able to jump 6 foot high fences. He was also used during the polo matches at the ranch, which Mr. Weaver helped to establish. He was so gentle that guests rode him as well.


El Sultan was much beloved by the ZInsmeister family, so much so that he had his own stable and corral, and was insured for $10,000. When the Zinsmeisters sold the ranch in 1948, El Sultan stayed with the Zinsmeister family, and was exercised every day until his death on January 2, 1953. In the words of Helen Zinsmeister, “He was more than anyone could expect, and a natural performer and jumper.” His stunning profile still adorns our ranch walls, where El Sultan will forever be remembered as the Circle Z Stallion.

 

By |September 18th, 2015|History, Horse Talk|0 Comments

Visiting the Sonoita Wineries

Flying Leaf Vineyard

Photo courtesy of Flying Leaf Vineyard

 

Visitors to the Circle Z know what a delight it is to ascend from the arid desert surrounding Tuscon and into the refreshing mountains around Patagonia. In addition to the magnificent scenery and prime land for grazing livestock, this terrain is also proving ideal for vineyards.

Credit for this discovery goes to Gordon Dutt, a PhD with expertise in soil science from the University of Arizona. Dr. Dutt discovered that the red clay soil of the area (think Red Mountain) was very similar to that of Burgundy, France. In 1973 he purchased land near the tiny town of Elgin, just southeast of Sonoita and planted the region’s first vineyard.

Award Winning Sonoita Vineyard Wines

The success of Sonoita Vineyards started a trend, and soon other would-be winemakers began arriving in the area. Today the grasslands nestled between the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Whetstone mountains are a designated AVA (American Viticultural Area), a federally recognized wine-growing region.

Over forty years later, the Sonoita AVA is thriving. Today there are thirteen wineries in the region, many producing award-winning wines. Several have even been served at the White House. Varieties differ somewhat from one winery to the next, however most focus on grapes that like hot, dry days and cool nights, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc.

 

 

Wilhelm Wineyards, Cab Sauv

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes bask in the Arizona sun at Wilhelm Vineyards, photo by Wilhelm Vineyards

 

Visitors are welcome. The Arizona Wine Growers Association has created a Sonoita Wine Growers Trail, with a map highlighting the wineries’ locations in and around Sonoita and Elgin. A tour of the wineries makes a nice half day trip from the Ranch; most are open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In addition to wine tastings, many wineries also offer light meals and snacks. Be sure to appoint a designated driver, or ask the ranch for help in arranging transportation—there are several local companies that specialize in wine country tours.

Upon returning from a day of Sonoita wine tasting, take a look at Red Mountain and see if there’s any resemblance to Burgundy, France.

Click for a printable map of the Sonoita Wine Trail, with wineries and opening hours.

Sonoita Winery Picnic

Enjoy a picnic at Sonoita Winery, photo by Sonoita Winery

 

By |August 15th, 2015|Community, Day Trips|0 Comments

Camels of the Southwest Desert

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Artwork from Smithsonian Magazine

The colorful history of Arizona draws many visitors to her borders. The true spirit of the West lives here, with memories of Apache raiders and brave settlers, mining giants and cattle barons. And into this mix is thrown an anomaly that perhaps makes sense to those who know the Southwest: camels. Yes, the U.S. Camel Cavalry, a brief but memorable experiment with this non-indigenous breed, sporting indigenous traits. The year was 1855.

With the transcontinental railroad decades away, the expansion into the West and Southwest seemed a daunting, yet much desired, venture. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had an epiphany. Why not use camels to help move supplies between military outposts, and to help in the settlement of the West?

By nature and design, camels seemed a perfect fit for desert life, much more so than the mules being used by the military. Able to travel long distances with no water, our arid climate was a breeze for camels. They also thrived on desert flora, making the thorny, dried, and basically unpalatable forage a meal worthy of consumption. Adding in their ability to carry up to 1000 pounds over 30 miles, the westward push seemed less daunting.

Jefferson Davis was able to convince Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the procurement of camels for military purposes, a fortune in that time period. Over the course of the next two years, 75 camels were imported from the Eastern Mediterranean for this camel experiment. Expert handlers who knew the camel’s quirks were soon to follow. Their job would be to assist the hump-backed creatures in their assimilation to life abroad.

Soon after landing in the states, the camels were sent to military forts in Texas and California. They were mostly employed as pack strings to move supplies between the outposts. The camels were also used for expeditions in search of supply routes along the U.S./ Mexican borders.

But these hard working camels were not popular. In Washington the mule lobbyists opposed further camel purchases, and petitioned to protect the mules’ foothold in the Government packing contracts. And in the military forts the reputation of the camels were tainted: horses were annoyed by them, the soldiers found them to be contemptible, and they had the inconvenient tendency to wonder off at night.

The outbreak of the Civil War put an end to the official Camel Cavalry experiment, and after only six years, the Government wanted out of the camel business. But what do you do with unwanted and out of vogue camels? The U.S. Government ordered the camels to be put up for auction. Some were sold off to the salt and copper mines. Others were sold to zoos and traveling circuses. The railroads in Arizona took on some to help in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The Confederate Post Office Department even employed camels for mail delivery. And others were simply turned loose to graze in the desert, finding their way into Mexico and the grasslands of Arizona. They roamed the desert, along with commercially imported camels that had been turned loose by owners who had also lost interest.

And so the camels became feral, surviving for a few years in the desert. But there numbers were not enough to support a thriving population, so they quickly and quietly diminished. In the early parts of the 19th Century, reports of the feral camels were made by crews surveying the international boundary between Mexico and the U.S. Passengers on the Pacific Railway would also see the occasional camel out their windows as they traveled the long routes. By the 1920’s the camel sightings came to an end.

These Army camels, which had once been destined for greatness in the settling of the west, are now a blip on our historic radar. Imagine what our Sky Islands of the Southwest would be like if the camels had taken hold and survived in the wild. Or perhaps it is best that we do not know.

By |August 14th, 2015|History|0 Comments