Rancho Soñado: Where Dreams Come True

By Linda White

If you were at the 2015 US National Championships midweek, it’s likely you walked through Tulsa Expo Square’s huge River Spirit Building, admiring exhibitors’ inviting, well-appointed stalls and hospitality setups. If you went by Dick and Nan Walden’s Rancho Soñado stalls, we’ll bet you did a double-take at all the loot they had won already: several trophies topped with those familiar, sculptured bronze horses; a bunch of 2015 US Top 10 plaques, and all the ribbons, US Top 10s and higher, festooning the stall drapes. And this was only mid-week!

Rancho Soñado took home three 2015 US National Reserve Championships and eight US Top 10s, with six horses showing. The Waldens and their Rancho Soñado team were even more successful at the 2015 Canadian National Championships. With five horses showing, they won two 2015 Canadian National Championships, one Canadian National Reserve Championships, and 19 Canadian National Top 10s in trail, both Open and AAOTR. All but five were won in trail: Romance V (Maclintock V x Ravvens Skylark) was 2015 Canadian National Top 10 in both Sport Horse In Hand, Open and ATH, both hunter and dressage type. Waldens purchased the black mare at two from Sheila Varian, her breeder.

“The Canadian National trail courses were the hardest I’ve seen in the last five years,” Nan offers, “with many jumps, a trellis, a water hazard, and very tight, complex combinations. It took a lot of heart even to get through them. We were so proud of our brave, Varian-bred horses, and our Half-Arabians, Duns Smokey Lady and Stars and Stripes SF.” Duns Smokey Lady was the 2015 Canadian National Champion in Half-Arabian Trail, Open, with Rancho Soñado’s training consultant, Jill Mitchell; Stars and Stripes SF was right behind her, winning 2015 Canadian National Reserve Champion Half-Arabian Trail, Open, also with Mitchell. Chicago Chaps RS (Jullyen el Jamaal x SC Chipawa Chinks, by Desperado V), a gelding we bred and own, was the 2015 US National Champion purebred Trail Horse, Open, and was a 2015 US Top 10 Sport Horse in Hand.”

A year earlier, seven US and Canadian National Championships and Reserves, and 23 Top 10 titles rolled in, all in the working western and sport horse disciplines. At the 2014 USEF Convention, Stars and Stripes SF was honored as 2014 USEF Working Western Half-Arabian Horse of the Year; and Agracie Girl was 2014 Working Western purebred Arabian Horse of the Year. Nan Walden, who rode both horses, received three 2014 Arabian Horse Association awards: AHA Horseman of Supreme Merit; AHA Handler of Honor; and AHA Rider of Supreme Merit, and in 2015, Nan became a Master Horseman Champion.

“We bought Agracie Girl (Sundance Kid V x Amazing Grace V, by Huckleberry Bey) from Sheila as a 3-year-old,” Nan explains. “She was my first national champion: 2010 US National Champion Trail, AAOTR. That same year she was Reserve US National Champion in Trail, Open. She continued to be a US and/or Canadian National Top 10 in 2011, 2012 and 2013… and in 2014, she and I won the Arabian ‘Triple Crown’: 2014 US, Canadian and Scottsdale Champion Trail Horse, AAOTR. The US title with me was in English Trail, AAOTR. That was the first time English Trail was offered at US. She was 2014 US Reserve National Champion English Trail, Open, with Jill.” Walden shakes her head in disbelief.
“Gracie is my dream horse. She is now in foal to Sheila Varian’s Audacious PS (Fame VF x HAL Flirtatious).”

The word “Soñado” means dreamed-of. The Amado, Arizona ranch is part of an old Spanish land grant of over a million acres in southern Arizona. The second Rancho Soñado is in Santa Ynez, California. They are the fruition of Dick and Nan Walden’s lifelong dreams. The horses, and ranch life, are at the center of their lives. Coincidentally, “amado” in Spanish means beloved. The horses of Rancho Soñado truly are beloved.

Dick Walden is a fifth generation Californian; an ancestor rode a horse from New York to San Francisco in 1842. Dick’s first recollection of being on a horse was sitting on a draft horse; one of a team his father used to move oranges five miles from the Ford Craig Ranch to the packing house in San Fernando, California.

In 1949 his father, Keith Walden, bought 10,000 acres of rich, sunny land that grew cotton in southern Arizona’s Santa Cruz River Valley. Keith replenished the soil with grains and forage, and raised sheep and cattle. “Around 1954, when synthetic fibers came along, Dad was concerned that the new ‘miracle fibers’ would replace cotton,” Dick remembers.

“He worked with the University of Arizona Extension to determine what crop would grow best in this climate. Would he plant wine grapes … or pecans? The pecans won out. Today Green Valley Pecan Company is the largest grower and processor of pecans in the world, and the world’s largest grower of organic pecans. We have 7500 acres under cultivation in Arizona, and 1000 acres in Georgia. [Note: Google www.greenvalleypecan.com, for a delightful gastronomic side trip!]

Dick recalls, “We also had feeder cattle when I was growing up: a 20,000-head capacity feedlot. That’s where I learned to ride, rope and be a ‘cowboy’.” If you go to the Rancho Soñado website www.ranchosonado.com and click on the video, you’ll see that commercial cattle, and the cowboys managing them, are still very much a part of ranch life there; you also will notice that one of the cowboys is Dick Walden, and that those are Arabians and Half-Arabians they’re riding.

The Arabians and Half-Arabians they use to gather, rope, and brand their cattle, are the same horses they win national championships with in various working western divisions: reining, cutting, working cow, and trail, hunter pleasure and equitation. “We tag, brand and doctor the herd four times a year,” Nan Walden explains.

“All of our horses, whether purebred or Half-Arabian, are exposed to cattle and ranch work. Every horse learns to open gates, push cattle, and be ridden in a riverbed. We rope cattle off the majority of them; this gives them confidence, and teaches them to use their feet. We ride them in rough country, so of course they excel as endurance horses on an all-day round-up.”

Why choose Santa Ynez for a second location? “Thirty-five years ago, the Santa Ynez Valley was as much a center for Arabian horses as Scottsdale, Arizona is today,” Dick says. “A more diverse horse industry exists now, encompassing all breeds and disciplines, from reined cow horses to dressage. We are unique, because I ride an Arabian or Half-Arabian with the Rancheros Visitadores.”

“The Rancheros Visitadores is the oldest continuous ride in the United States,” his wife volunteers. “Walt Disney and President Ronald Reagan once participated. The ride is based on tradition. In days of old, ranchers would ride from ranch to ranch, helping neighbors gather, brand and doctor cattle. Then, ‘round the campfire, the neighbor would feed them a nice dinner after a long day’s work.” Riders and horses receive a blessing at the historic Santa Ynez Mission before they head out. “The Rancheros Visitadores have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research,” she adds. “The riders wear pink shirts or armbands to symbolize their support.”

Her husband grew up on a ranch, riding Quarter Horses from the age of three, but Nan Walden, née Nan Stockholm, was a city girl from Chicago. Horses always fascinated her, but her asthma sidelined that dream. “I was allergic to everything,” she says ruefully. “My parents bought me ponies, but I couldn’t handle them, with the allergies. I had a Breyer horse collection. I read all of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, and everything by Marguerite Henry.

“I started college at Cornell, went two years there, and then transferred to Stanford. I received my undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and earned my Juris Doctor degree in law. I worked on Capitol Hill, and after that, in San Francisco. Every spring, my sister and I drove up to George and Geri Dexter’s Nicasio Valley Arabians, in Marin County, to see the mares and foals… never dreaming I would one day own an Arabian horse!

“Dick and I met at a wedding in Chicago, and we hit it off. He had gone to the Pomona Claremont College, and then to Stanford. We were married, and moved to the Arizona ranch, where I rode Dick’s left-over Quarter Horses. There was a Quarter Horse mare I enjoyed riding very much. When she passed away, I went on a search for my own first horse. I was like a kid in a candy store, looking at all the Internet websites for horse farms. When I told Dick I wanted an Arabian, his face just fell. He later admitted he thought at the time, ‘Hot breed, green rider. She’ll probably kill or hurt both of us!’

“I took Dick to a sale at Varian Arabians. Sheila started talking about the Vaquero Tradition, and what it takes to make a bridle horse, and Dick was hooked! He knew several of Sheila’s mentors, Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, and the next thing I knew, he bid on a gorgeous bay Desperado V daughter, Kay Pasa V (x La Kijan). We took her home, and Dick rode her after work (usually in the dark.) She became a Regional Top 5 show hack; she is a fearless trail and working ranch horse. She has had several beautiful foals.

“We bought our next mare, SC Chipawa Chinks (Desperado V x Carnation, by Barbary), from Crystal McNutt. Our daughter, Deb Walden Ralls, had barrel raced at the Judson School in Phoenix. In 2006, our first US Nationals, Deb rode that mare to US National Reserve Champion purebred Working Cow Horse, second only to Kathy Hart!

“We still have the mare.” Nan smiles. “Chinks is as ‘cowy’ as any Quarter Horse that Dick has ridden for ranch work. When Chinks competed, she would stand stock still like a pointer dog, waiting for the gate to open and release a steer. Then she was on that steer like a cat on a mouse. She, too has given us several lovely foals.

“One day, daughter Deb forgot to tighten the cinch on Chinks’ saddle between goes. They were full on the steer, galloping down the line, when I saw the saddle start to slip, and Deb lost a stirrup. The mare felt something was wrong, and gently slid to a stop. The saddle went completely under her belly. Deb was able to slide off safely, and Chinks never bucked or shied. You can call that luck, but we call that generations of good breeding, and the intelligence and commitment of an Arabian to her rider.

“Another time, in an open class, Chinks and the steer collided against the sideboard as she turned him, but she would not back down. The shock momentarily shook up the rider, so Chinks waited until he had righted himself in the saddle, then she proceeded to circle the steer in both directions to complete the ride. That is not just ‘good luck’.”

Waldens’ favorite cross for working western divisions is the Quarter Horse-Arabian or Paint-Arabian. “A reiner should have low hocks, powerful hindquarters, and excellent legs and feet, all of which we stress in our program,” Nan continues. “To be successful, a working western horse has to be confident enough - even brave enough - to tackle obstacles, or to box or cut out a steer. The horse must trust the rider – and vice-versa.

“We have just sent our stallion, MacNificent RS, Romance V’s full brother (Maclintock V x Ravvens Skylark) to join Picante Jullyen V (Jullyen el Jamaal x Precious V) at Gary Ferguson’s in Texas,” she continues. “Gary is thrilled with him. We are huge fans of Gary’s, and so pleased with how well-conditioned and happy ‘PJ’ is there. It was time for ‘Nifty’ to join PJ at ‘college’, where Nifty will choose his own path, be it hunter, western pleasure, trail and/or reining.”

The inside cover of the latest Green Valley Pecans brochure has a color photo of three generations of Waldens, all in western hats, denims and boots, with two young grandsons aboard an Arabian and a Half-Arabian: the multi-titled, USEF Horse of the Year, Stars and Stripes SF, easily recognizable by his bay-and-white tobiano coat. The black mare is Agracie Girl V, the 2014 USEF Reserve Champion Working Western Arabian of the Year. The last paragraph of “Our History in a Nutshell” reads:

“What started out as a small family farm now encompasses operations in three states, with more than 250 employees and three generations of the Walden family, ensuring that each pecan comes fresh from our farm to your table.” With a few changes of nouns and a couple of the numbers, the same can be said of Rancho Soñado, its devoted owners, and its horses, the stars of the show - every show.