Sweden's first Western ranch

After visiting Montana, Lollo Nilsson decided to set up Sweden's first Western ranch. Thirteen years later, it's a firm favourite with all who mosey on it. Rhiannon Batten checks it out
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The Independent Travel

To the left of me, a man in a stetson jams his thumbs in his belt loops and stamps a beat on the floor. To the right, a woman sings along to a remix of "Saddle up My Pony" as she twists her hips back and forth, cowgirl style. In front, a wagon-load of wheels are stacked up along a wall and, outside, 27 horses are corralled for the night. Welcome to line-dancing night at the Buckin' Barrel saloon. Add a smattering of tumbleweed and a couple of cheroot-puffin', gun-slingin' outlaws and it could be a scene straight from John Prescott's dreams. Except that this isn't Texas. It's Sweden. And the two people dancing next to me are called Stefan and Lotte.

"Jultorp Ranch - only 16 hours from Montana" is the slogan at Sweden's premier Western riding school, and it pretty much sums up the local philosophy. They may, geographically, be an hour outside Gothenburg but owners Lollo and Eva Nilsson have created the closest thing to a traditional American ranch this side of the Atlantic. A herd of animal heads, eagle motifs and sepia-effect photos decorates the walls and, among the guests, cowboy boots and big silver buckles are so ubiquitous you wonder if they're obligatory. Jultorp is so close to the would-be ranch-hand's fantasy, in fact, that it feels more convincing than the real thing - the ranch I visited in Arizona a few months ago didn't have saloon doors, a trumpet wake-up call or "Achy Breaky Heart" playing in the bar, for a start.

There's just one thing missing - cattle. Jultorp is technically a riding school rather than a ranch, although the home-cooked communal meals, two saloons and roping lessons give it the feel of a working farm. This is the place to come if you want to join a fun but intensive three-day Western-style riding course, rather than book a holiday with a bit of riding thrown in. The idea is that you can get a taste of Western riding without going all the way to the States, or come here to gain a few skills before booking a longer American ranch holiday.

To its fans, the consensus is that Western riding is more natural, and kinder to the horses, than the traditional "English" style. Evolving on cattle ranches in the American West, after being introduced by the Spanish vaqueros in Mexico, the obvious difference with Western riding is that the reins are held with one hand - and used much less. Instead, you ride using your legs, weight and, crucially, your mind.

Lessons at Jultorp take place in a large, indoor arena, an outdoor arena and in the bucolic surrounding farmland that Lollo and Eva have landscaped with lakes and a rustic camp. The emphasis is placed firmly on developing a good relationship with the horse. From using different bits to asking your horse to perform with subtle cues and increasing or decreasing your speed using only the position of your body, the idea is that you learn to work sensitively with the horse rather than forcing it to do what you want.

"They're not motorbikes," says Eva, pertinently. "Before we decide who will ride which horse we try to find out a little about their personality and match them up".

Trying out a quick lesson with Lollo the theory certainly seems convincing. As I climb on to Red Cloud, a gorgeous red and white appaloosa, and follow Lollo out into the surrounding fields, I feel unusually calm for someone who has only ridden a handful of times. "You're on one of our fastest horses but he won't go too fast if he feels you aren't an experienced rider," explains Lollo, reassuringly. And he doesn't, even at a gallop. As we ride through high grass, past birch forest and picturesque red-painted farms, Red Cloud doesn't once get stroppy - and nor do I.

"If the horse smiles and the rider smiles, then I smile," says Lollo, with typical enthusiasm. Jultorp is the realisation of his dreams. After spending a night under the stars at a Montana ranch 13 years ago, the freedom of a life where you don't have to wear a tie, polish your shoes or wash your car every week proved too attractive to resist. When he returned home, Lollo and Eva duly jacked in their advertising business, bought the farm and set up Sweden's first proper Western ranch.

Not that Lollo is your typical cowboy. Though he has the requisite weather-beaten face and bandy legs, he also displays a telling preference for low-alcohol beer and spends much of our time out on the trail gently philosophising. "Look at the colours, the browns of the horses against the green of the grass. I love it," he says as we trot through rich summer pasture. On a later ride he muses about the levelling effect of riding on the guests. "You'll see everything from a Porsche to a rusty old VW in the car park but, once their owners are on a horse, everyone's equal."

Eva, who keeps Jultorp running smoothly - and doesn't ride - is a little more pragmatic. "If we'd known before we started what hard work it was going to be, we'd probably just have moved to Montana," she jokes about their regular 17-hour days. Fortunately for the guests who come here each year, they didn't.

Among those staying during my visit, the star rider is a gung-ho 16-year-old. Many (but not all) of the other riders are middle-aged males. One had signed up after his children had left home and wanted to find a constructive way to fill his time. Another had come along so that he would look more like John Wayne than someone out of Carry on Cowboy when he brought his 13-year-old grandson along with him next year.

Joining them for a final ride out on a hot summer day, it makes me wonder why anyone would bother going to the States when you can have the same experience closer to home. After an afternoon's galloping through sun-dappled fields, the highlight of the day is falling into line to ford our way through one of Lollo and Eva's lakes.

Lifting my legs and hoping I'm using my weight to reassure Red Cloud as he nudges into the cool water, I realise there is just one question I haven't had answered. How do you say "yee-ha" in Swedish?

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Jultorp Ranch is around an hour's drive north-east of Gothenburg. The writer travelled to Gothenburg from Newcastle with DFDS Seaways (08705 333 111; www.dfds.co.uk). Prices on this 26-hour route - based on two adults and two children sharing a four-berth, en suite cabin - start from £233 as foot passengers or from £375 with a car. For an upgraded Commodore cabin, which comes with room service and a free minibar, prices start from £298 for two people without a car, or £440 with a car.

Alternatively, you can fly to Gothenburg from London Heathrow with SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.co.uk), from Manchester and Birmingham with City Airline (0870 220 6835; www.cityairline.com), from Stansted with FlyMe (00 46 770 790 790; www.flyme.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) and from Glasgow Prestwick with Ryanair. From Gothenburg, trains run regularly to Vedum, the closest village to the ranch, from where the owners will come and collect you.

STAYING THERE

Three-day Western-style riding courses cost SEK4,750 (£350) per person, including two nights' full-board accommodation, three days of instruction and rental of riding helmets and other equipment (00 46 51 248 111; www.jultorpranch.se). It's worth specifying which room you would like, since prices are the same whether you stay in the new "Stumble Inn" rooms or the older but larger and more characterful saloon rooms. The ranch also does group Christmas parties, with food, line-dancing, a Wild West style show and a ride or two on the bucking bronco thrown in.

FURTHER INFORMATION

An hour or two south of Jultorp, there's a Wild West theme park called High Chaparral (yes, really). Pictured below, it's open from 10am to 7pm daily and entrance costs SEK150 (£11) per person, or is free for children under 1m tall (00 46 37 082 785; www.highchaparral.se).

Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (020-7108 6168; www.visitsweden.com)

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