Tara Covell wants you to see Cambria’s extraordinary sights from the back of a Clydesdale horse. Lots of people are taking her up on her offer.
Covell’s growing trail-ride business is being noticed and lauded in various regional and national publications, including Westways magazine and the Los Angeles Times, as well as by supportive local tourism boards, chambers of commerce and individual businesses that are sending customers her way.
And the tourism entrepreneur is only 19 years old.
Covell’s entire life has been spent on the family spread, Covell’s Clydesdale Ranch, which she said encompasses about 2,000 acres of rugged wildland, open pasture and rare, protected Monterey pine forest that encircles the eastern and northeastern edge of urban Cambria.
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Now, the young businesswoman is sharing all that North Coast beauty and rural peace with area residents and visitors. The bonus extra is seeing a herd of monumental-sized draft horses in the wild, on their home turf.
The ranch and the horses are in Covell’s DNA.
She grew up with the gentle giants that are best known for being in Budweiser advertisements.
Those commercials featuring a hitch of Clydesdales were iconic for eight decades, from Prohibition to the Superbowl. And indeed, the latter is where many people got their first look at the breed.
“On the ranch, we have about 60 head of Clydesdales,” Covell said, “but because we are breeders, our numbers are always fluctuating. We also have dogs and cats and beef cattle.”
Riding a Clydesdale
“My father (Ralph Covell) has been breeding Clydesdales for nearly 40 years and shown all across the country … he gave me his passion,” Covell said.
Raising and showing horses that stand 18 hands tall (a hand is about 4 inches) or more at the top of the withers (shoulder area) — or taller than an average man — is one thing. Enticing and/or allowing greenhorns to ride them is something else again.
First, of course, you have to get on the horse.
Watching an expert like Covell mount a Clydesdale makes it look deceptively easy.
“I do mount them from the ground,” she said of the gymnastic move that’s equivalent to a 6-foot high jump that can move out from under you.
“It takes about every ounce of me at times … hoisting up isn’t so bad once you grab some part of that saddle and basically do a pull-up, since your foot is so high in the air and you can’t really push at that point yet,” she said.
Don’t fret, though. Guest riders get on the horses from a ladder.
“Once you’re on the ladder it’s basically like mounting any other horse,” she said.
Sharon Boorstin wrote Feb. 8 for the L.A. Times about her ride on a Covell mare named Christine, “whose back was a dizzying 6 feet off the ground. I gripped the reins as Christine lumbered after the other horses on the trail, but I soon relaxed and urged her into a trot. By the time we reached a meadow with breathtaking ocean views, I agreed with Covell’s description of the bouncy but exhilarating ride: ‘It’s like off-roading on a sofa!’”
Building a business
So, how do you go from ranch kid to tourism entrepreneur?
Covell and her dad share ranch responsibilities, but taking guests on Clydesdale horseback rides was her own brainchild.
It was an operation that “neither of us would’ve ever guessed we’d have been doing, just a few years ago. As my dad says, I dragged him kicking and screaming into the tourism business, but we have both grown to love it.”
“I had heard my father talk about having a trail ride operation at the ranch for years … and how he wanted to maybe contract with an outsider to lead your typical trail ride on our ranch,” she said.
At 15 years old, his daughter was “completely opposed to that idea because I knew I wanted to run our ranch business in the future.”
Eventually, Ralph Covell agreed that, while she was still in school, “together, on weekends we would alternate giving vehicle tours of the ranch,” Tara Covell said. “Slowly but surely, I started riding a couple of our Clydesdales and eventually offering them to the public, taking out maybe two to four riders per week as a trial.
“I pushed through as a sophomore in high school and started the rides” as part of their fledgling tourism business “and it all took off from there. Pretty soon my father and I agreed that, hey, this is pretty cool and no one else does it! Here we are almost four years later with tours and especially trail rides” as the ranch’s main business.
When she says their ranch is “completely family owned and operated, I am not kidding. We do it all, from trimming hooves, to taking guests out, to weed whacking, to splitting our firewood and fixing fence. Being the young’n of the ranch these days, I do most of the physical labor, and all of the trail ride.
“However, my dad is the one who’s taught me, as he’s run his own ranches for years and years. He also gives a lot of our ranch tours and works on a lot of projects around the ranch.”
Ralph Covell taught his daughter “at a young age that we all make a choice each morning,” she said, “to wake up and have a good day, or to wake up and have a bad day.”
Then, in 2014, when Tara Covell was 14 years old, her mother Tracy Covell died at the age of 49. Her teen daughter immersed herself in the ranch even more than before as a way of dealing with her loss and pain.
“Even though this is the hardest thing I’ve gone through, I learned so incredibly much from it, and truly believe it has made me the optimistic and grateful person that I am today,” the young entrepreneur said. “ … I learned that there is no better gift than the gift of waking up each day, and we’d better choose to make each day a great day.”
That’s made easier now because, soon after Ralph Covell bought the property in 1999 and moved to Cambria, he negotiated a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy.
The easement protects the ranch’s forested lands “from development forever,” his daughter said with pride. “We are so excited that his actions will keep this ranch from ever turning into a cement playground. The really cool thing is, no matter how much time passes, the easement can never be ‘undone’ so this ranch will always be a ranch,” a pledge she calls “awesome.”
“I live this life because I love this life,” she said. “ … It isn’t the easiest life to choose but it is the only one I would want. We thrive on the fact that everything we get, we get because we made it happen, and that the hard times only make us so much stronger. We started this business at a very hard time for my family, and have been blessed with so much success over the past few years, I can’t even imagine what things will look like in a few more.”
Of course, there are problems, Covell said. “Things break, horses do dumb stuff, bills come up, customers act crazy … all these minute things at times can add up to seem really terrible … for about a half second. And then I’ll look up and realize how blessed I am and suddenly nothing in the world could ever be bad, because I know how amazing I have it.”