I once read that when it comes to the West, people make the place. The statement struck a chord as I considered my hometown, and the subject of this story. On the surface, Loveland is just another foothills town, undergoing immense development to accommodate the rapid growth occurring up and down Colorado’s Front Range. It has box stores and suburban neighborhoods and a mega movie complex. But as I explore this town I’ve chosen to call home, I find a gem of a Western community, with its people at the heart of it.
If Loveland had a herd, you can bet it would be branded with a heart. In addition to the numerous heart sculptures that are found throughout Loveland, it is also recognized as the Sweetheart City, which it fully embraces each Valentine’s Day with a festival, wooden heart-shaped signs hung from lampposts, and even a Valentine’s Day coffee blend, as well as a specially crafted beer from one of the many local breweries. A 70-year-old re-mailing program attracts valentine cards from around the world so they may be stamped with a post from Loveland. So when the Jessup family moved to the Sylvan Dale Ranch in March of 1946—also 70 years ago—it’s fitting that they would eventually register the Heart–J as their brand.
Susan Jessup was two years old when her parents, Mayme and Maurice, purchased the ranch. Though they planned to run an established camp, a Polio epidemic resulted in a summer-long cancellation that first year, so Maurice made a sign that said “Guest Ranch,” and that’s what it has been ever since. Located on the West side of Loveland, on U.S. Route 34, the ranch’s 3,200 acres are tucked inside the beginnings of the Big Thompson Canyon, on the banks of the river by the same name. Though I’ve driven by the entrance to the ranch on countless occasions, I never imagined that kind of acreage could exist in the canyon. But as Jessup takes me up the hill behind the cabins and lodge to show me the numerous horse, hay, and cattle pastures, the land opens up stretching north, and though I am there on a snow-covered day in January, I know this mountain valley will be lush come spring.
Looking at an aerial map of Loveland, you can easily point to where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. And if you’ve ever driven West across those plains, you’ve anxiously awaited reaching the mountains since they first presented themselves to you across a vast eastern Colorado horizon. Then, having finally arrived in Loveland, at their foothills, they do not disappoint. Ridges of red rock crest the very first hills, beyond which grow alpine forests, cut by valleys and canyons and drainages formed by the runoff of some of the Rockies’ highest mountains. Which is why I’m not surprised when Jessup tells me the heart in the Heart-J brand is a symbol of the Jessups’ love of the land.
On this land, the Jessup family has welcomed thousands of guests into their daily operations. Currently set up to accommodate 35 guests at a time, visitors have year-round access to the ranch’s closed herd of registered Quarter Horses with lines to Foundation mares and the iconic Three Bars. Throughout their stay, guests are assigned their own horse, receive lessons, ride mountain trails, go on an overnight pack trip, and may even participate in the cow-work involved in maintaining their Red Angus and Lowline herd of cattle. The ranch runs about 65 cow-calf pairs, and keeps their steers on pasture to offer their grass-fed-and-finished Heart-J Beef.
More than the activities you can participate in, though, time spent on the Sylvan Dale Ranch will leave you feeling as though you’ve been a part of something bigger. The heritage of this historic Loveland ranch draws its visitors in with tales of the Arapaho artifacts found in one of its caves and the marks on the earth left by teepee rings. And as you ride the pack-trail to cow-camp, you can’t help but fascinate that the English lady, Isabella Bird, rode this very same trail nearly 150 years ago, as was published in the book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Even sitting in front of the hearth in the lodge, with a photo from the Jessups’ early years hanging above the mantle, it takes a mere moment to understand that Sylvan Dale is far more than a business.
“We’re 70 years in the saddle here,” says Jessup. “That’s a good long ride. We’re gonna celebrate all year.”
Southeast of Sylvan Dale, I meet with Jan Pollema, who heads up another equine operation that Loveland and the greater Northern Colorado community rally behind. Hearts & Horses is a therapeutic riding center that offers riding instruction to people with various disadvantages, from at-risk youth and sexual assault victims to people suffering from memory loss and those with developmental challenges.
In this program, the needs of the participant dictate the best equipment. For instance, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s may require a Western saddle for better stability, while others, like the woman with Spina bifida I watched in a clinic, may ride on nothing more than a bareback pad to improve their balance and core strength.
Tamara Merritt, Director of Special Programs, gives me a tour of the facilities. The operation runs on the devout commitment of a small team of full-time employees and more than 200 volunteers from the area. Together, they and the 25 horses they have, offer services to 160 program participants per week.
“They come out in droves,” Merritt tells me of the support Hearts & Horses receives from the community.
During my visit, construction of a second indoor arena is wrapping up. The ability to build that structure started with a single grant for $175,000. Out of that, came a state-of-the-art facility worth $850,000, thanks to grants and in-kind donations from area businesses, contractors and manufacturers.
“Even our truck was a donation,” Merritt exclaims as we walk by a new red pickup adorned with the Hearts & Horses logo. “All those years before and we never even had a truck. Now, thanks to Loveland Ford, we have a truck!”
Not that the inconvenience of being without a company truck stood in the way of anything before. When I ask Merritt how far a rider can advance with the program, she tells me the sky is the limit and shares the story of Cliff Uber, a program participant who, despite needing crutches to walk, became the PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Adult Equestrian of the Year in 2012.
“We went to Seattle to receive his award,” explains Merritt, “and Cliff told me he was going to have to come up with a new bucket list, because he’d achieved everything he set out to do. And so we set our sights on the Paralympics.”
Uber passed away unexpectedly after that trip to Seattle, but his story is an exemplary demonstration of what Hearts & Horses can (and does) do for this Colorado community.
While I’m at the Hearts & Horses complex, Pollema asks me if I’ve gotten in touch with Rusty May. This summer will mark the 35th year that May has been making saddles on the banks of the Big Thompson River—though temporarily, May, with his wife, Jo Ann, and their horses, lived on the Hearts & Horses property.
“I tell you,” May says, rolling into another captivating tale from his cowboy life, “Hearts & Horses saved my butt.”
When it comes to Loveland, and especially living along the Big Thompson River, it’s hard to tell your story without talking about the floods that wreaked $2 billion worth of havoc on Northern Colorado in 2013.
“They came over at 9:00 that morning of Sept. 12, and asked me if I knew anything about that flood coming, and I didn’t. I had no idea. I went out to feed that morning and let the horses out, and I said, ‘The river’s a little high, but that’s no big deal.’ They said, ‘Nobody’s contacted you? You get your butt in gear and get these horses out of here. Get ’em up to us and we’ll take care of them. There’s a 20-foot wall of water coming down this canyon.’”
He walks over to the wall of his shop, which survived the raging waters (though three of his trailers were swept downriver) and shows me where the wood paneling changes well above my head, indicating how much of the original walls have been torn out and replaced. The water was nearly as high.
“This river was a mile-wide that day. Right here, in this valley. We stood on the other side of that highway to watch,” May says of he and Jo Ann, “and I think a little bit of both of us died that day.”
Despite losing valuable materials, tools, and finished saddles, May remains a man in good spirits. He hails from Deming, N.M., where, when they were both just three years old, he met the girl he’d marry. They’ll celebrate their 59th anniversary this July.
“And we still like each other,” May proclaims. “Still in love. She’s still my bride.”
Between cowboying, the military, raising five sons, and traveling the country as a director for New Mexico’s Little Britches Rodeo Association, May spent some 30 years as a farrier and estimates he’s been under no less than 100,000 horses in his lifetime. Those 100,000 horses are the reason he became a master craftsman with a saddle shop.
“I had a chance to apprentice under my uncle, Jack Neely. I didn’t want to be another beat up old horseshoer, and that’s exactly what I’d have been. So I apprenticed with him for three years back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and for the next 10 or 12 or so years in Albuquerque, this was my part-time thing.”
Since those years in Albuquerque and the decades here in Loveland, to say that May has honed his craft would be an understatement. His saddles—some made for entrepreneurial billionaires and others for working cowboys—are pure art. His materials are American, save for the New Zealand fleece, and the silver for his saddles is from “Butch” Cornell, just down the road at R&R Buckles in Longmont. His tools number in the hundreds, if not thousands. He puts a hand-crafted hammer in my palm, the wood handle fitting snug in my grip as if it had been made just for my hand, years before I ever took my first breath. Even it is a work of art. May believes in quality gear and he knows cowboys do, too.
“You ride pasture—I’m talking about 10,000-acre pastures—and you’re in that saddle for eight to 10 hours each day. And you’re out there by yourself and you have to have the horse and the equipment and the know-how to do your job and take care of these cattle.”
That’s what May’s saddles are built to handle, and they’ve earned him a widespread reputation. Eighty percent of his contracted work is shipped out-of-state, while five percent is shipped out of the country.
Product and services aside, it is Rusty and Jo Ann May who are the treasures in this community, as is the Sylvan Dale family, and the folks at Hearts & Horses. Through them, the Loveland community has roots that keep it going strong, as they say, come hell or high water.
“It has been very difficult since 2000,” Susan Jessup admits. “There was 9/11, and there were the fires in Colorado, and the economic downturn, and then there was the flood, and it’s just been an uphill climb since 2000. But we’re still climbing.”
And as they climb, Loveland will continue to grow, and houses develop, and supermarkets be built. But more importantly, our Western community will thrive as Sylvan Dale continues to share its ranching heritage with guests new and old, and Hearts & Horses continues to change lives through horsemanship, and Rusty May continues to create his custom cowboy craft. Because at the heart of Loveland is its people.
Colorado Cherry Company
1024 U.S. 34
Just a shot West up the canyon from Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is a specialty grocery store that carries everything cherry. If there’s a homemade pie in the case, get it.
Hearts & Horses
Therapeutic Riding Center
163 N. County Rd. 29
In addition to their riding programs, Hearts & Horses operates a tack shop full of gently used gear from every discipline. Call for hours if you’re looking for a deal or want to donate your old saddle to a good cause.
Rusty May Saddle Shop
6239 U.S. 34
Starting at $5,000 May can craft a rig designed to fit your needs and desires: “Any kind of tree, rigging, horn, cantle binding, stirrups, you name it.”
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch and Heart-J Beef
2939 N. County Rd. 31D
Vacation packages are flexible. Accommodations and horseback riding are year-round. And the beef is delicious.
116 S. Lincoln Ave.
Authentic Mexican fare. ’Nuff said.
Doug’s Day Diner
532 N. Lincoln Ave.
The breakfast place in Loveland.
Loveland Museum Gallery
503 N. Lincoln Ave.
Engage in historic Loveland as you visit the life-sized cabin of local mountain man, Mariano Medina, or stop by the blacksmith’s shed to watch a video of our own Rusty May shoeing a horse. Free admission.
Sports Station American Grill
409 N. Railroad Ave.
Located in the historic 1902 Loveland Train Station, grab a burger and a Bloody Mary while catching the game at this family-friendly establishment.
The Black Steer
436 N. Lincoln Ave.
Voted the best steaks in town for the past dozen years, this local favorite serves up house-cut-and-aged Certified Angus Beef.
The Rialto Theater
228 E. 4th St.
Featuring Zane Grey’s Desert of Wheat at its 1920 grand opening, this theater is now a fully restored, performing arts venue. Past performances include the likes of Riders in the Sky and Don Edwards.
The Ranch Events Complex
5280 Arena Circle
If there’s a Western event in Loveland, chances are good it’s happening at The Ranch. Annual favorites include:
- Larimer County Fair and Rodeo larimercountyfair.org
- Rock’n Western Rendezvous rocknwr.com
- Women’s Ranch Rodeo Finals womensranchrodeo.org
- Rocky Mountain Classic Horse Sale
The Loveland Visitors Center
5400 Stone Creek Circle
The first stop for area information, history, merchandise, and recommendations for dining and accommodations.
The Boot Grill
4164 Clydesdale Pkwy.
Offering good food and live entertainment, fun times are guaranteed whether you’re relaxing by the fire pit on the patio, or creating your own heat on the dance floor.