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Trust and beauty abound at Lost Mountain Ranch

Amid tall evergreens, the ground at Lost Mountain Ranch is still frozen at

11 a.m. Every ground shrub is encased in brilliant, shining frost. In a tiny microclimate at the very top of Lost Mountain Road, owner John Lewman explains that up here the weather is often 10 degrees cooler than in town. Warm scents of horsehair and straw waft through the air.

Lost Mountain Ranch is an equestrian and event center, holding lessons, camps, clinics and shows. It has a well-developed Western riding program with a focus on reining.

The ranch is distinctively beautiful, tucked into the hills and covered with cedars and firs. Lost Mountain Ranch was created in September 2005 when Lewman began renting the property. Covering 77 acres, it is equipped with an impressive covered arena, 16-stall barn and is home to a dozen cattle, along with the longest mechanical cow device around. Why does Lost Mountain Ranch have a mechanical cow? Because it has Max Salisbury, a reining and cow horse champion in the western United States.

Salisbury is a true cowboy. He was raised in Montana, working on cattle ranches. The skills he teaches riders and develops in horses derive from what he learned there. The majority of his expertise is in reining, which like most equestrian sports, has its roots in functionality. An American legacy of working cattle on horseback has led to the development of this energetic and precise sport.

Salisbury defines reining as eight precise maneuvers that must be performed by the horse under direction from the rider, for working cattle. It is now a competitive event. Salisbury has excelled in event reining, winning championships all over the western half of the U.S.

In the 80-foot by 200-foot covered arena, Salisbury works Spook, a half-quarter horse, half-Arabian gelding. He speaks to the horse steadily and directly. Spook is incredibly well-trained, standing "ground tied" (which means the lead rope is left to dangle from Spook's head to the ground and he stays in place as if restrained) while the cowboy goes to get a new set of reins before his ride. Spook also will follow Salisbury obediently, like a 1,500-pound pup when he makes a small clicking sound.

Salisbury has 27 years of experience working with horses and estimates he has trained 2,600 in his lifetime. He is a driving force in the success of the Lost Mountain Ranch.

The ranch boards 20 horses, owns four and Salisbury personally owns two. He usually rides seven to eight other horses every day that owners have left with him to train. The facility offers various other horse-related activities, some of which are unique.

The ranch is surrounded by land owned by the Department of Natural Resources. Lewman is excited about his property because it is full of old timber roads that he intends to use as trails for riding. "You can go all day out there without ever seeing a car," says Lewman. Right now it is too icy and a little dangerous for trail riding, but he and Salisbury are excited to integrate a "guest ranch" once spring comes around.

"The rides can last from an hour to all day. We can take six people per ride and when we finish on the trail we usually come back to the arena and do some cow work," says Salisbury. This is the only stable in the area offering trail rides.

But while the ground stays frozen, Salisbury is busy working with his students, both human and equine.

"If I could be one-third horse, I would be a better person," says Salisbury. His esteem and respect for horses is tangible. His current mount, Spook, is a horse he rescued from the glue factory. It seemed no one could handle Spook, he was "so lost and afraid," as Salisbury put it. He bought Spook for $350 and sporadically began to train the bronco. After about seven months, Spook became docile, skilled and trusting. As much as he cares for Spook, he shared that he gave the horse to one of his students for Christmas. "She's 10 years old and loves to ride as much as I do. Her horse has an injury that keeps him from being able to perform all the reining moves. So I gave her Spook. He's gonna win for her."

Salisbury explains that trust, communication and respect are the most important aspects of a relationship with a horse, and with anyone, for that matter. "When a horse bites, kicks or strikes, it's not 'cause he's mean," says Salisbury.

His superior understanding of the relationship between horse and rider has helped him become a champion and win some pretty impressive belt buckles. It's also made him highly sought-after to help owners with "problem horses," those animals with behavioral issues that seem dangerous and out of control.

Lewman and Salisbury have big plans for the ranch. Lewman, a retired dean from Golden West College, has aspirations to turn the ranch into a "social enterprise," as he calls it. "This isn't just a dude ranch. I want to use it to teach skills to people that didn't graduate from high school and have a GED program worked into it." Lewman's goals for the ranch have become as lofty as its elevation.

The cedar and fir forest that covers the ranch have become a valuable asset. "We lost over 100 trees so far this winter in wind storms," said Lewman. "But we don't mind because the natural thinning of the forest leaves us with a lot of timber. Our goal is to be eco-neutral."

Lost Mountain Ranch has a special energy. It is certainly beautiful, but it also holds warmth even through the frozen ground. Maybe it is the scents, the horses' skin and breath. Their trust is so endearing.

"Spook doesn't know you, but he knows from how you behave that you will keep him out of harm's way," Salisbury says, petting his trusty steed. "Imagine if humans were so trusting of each other? Wouldn't that be amazing?"

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