On the range with a Catalan cowboy

Saddle up with Perpignan’s Western rancher Nick Verges

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If you have ever lusted for the open range, desperately yearned for cowboy boots, and you dream of riding all day and sleeping under the stars, head to the Ranch de Las Caneilles, where modern life slips away, and cowboys’ and cowgirls’ dreams come true.

Once you step inside the ranch, just outside Tautavel near Perpignan, you are in a western movie. Radio Texas plays all day, and the two main occupations are horses and partying. The owner, Nick Verges, rides Western (which uses special reining techniques), his saddles are Western, his style is Western and the long list of prizes he has won and qualifications he holds, are all for Western riding.

He was born in the Camargue, which is full of French cowboys – but they’re different to American ones. The traditions are different, the land is marshy, and the Camargue horses are small and white.

“I always wanted to be a real American cowboy,” he said. “Ever since I can remember, that’s what I wanted,” he says with a seductive drawl.

He learned to ride before he could walk, but he was 25 before he made it to America. “When I landed in New York, I couldn’t speak English. It was bizarre and I understood nothing. A gang tried to mug me but I fought them off, and got the bus to Wyoming, where I had a job lined up with a family of horse breeders.”

He says he learned English on the long coach journey west. “It was quite a story, but I loved discovering the US in that ol’ bus. I met so many people, they got on and off and taught me how different things are in each State.

“The people out there, in Wyoming and Montana, are fabulous. It’s a hard life, it’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer and you work hard, but the people are so friendly and helpful. I never dreamed that’s what I’d find there.”

He learned every cowboy skill going, entered rodeos and started to make a name for himself. “People out there all wanted to help me. You are respected if you work out there, and people are ready to help you and trust you.

“Living in a place where everyone is ready to trust you is extraordinary. It’s not like that in Texas or Mexico.

“It changed me, improved me, made me see things from a different angle. I had to be humble, because America is ahead of France in many ways. It opened my eyes; the American Dream is true. If you work you can get there, but in France it’s difficult to set up a business. Bosses daren’t employ people because there are too many taxes and charges, and you can’t sack anyone.”

He came back to France for love, he says, and set up his ranch near Perpignan. “I came back for my ex-wife and now I stay for my children – otherwise I’d never have come back. I miss the States every day of my life. France is only for holidays and retired people, but now I have my little ranch and that’s a little piece of America right here in France.”

People come to Nick’s ranch to forget the difficulties of everyday life. “They are mostly fans of all things American; they love western riding, line dancing, western films, and country music, American cars and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

“I teach Western riding, and take people out on long rides, we have barbecues, go swimming with the horses, sleep under the stars, and back at the ranch I have a saloon where we have bands, and parties. We live our childhood dreams here and we don’t judge anyone. We’re all cowboys and cowgirls. That’s why people come.”

Nick is genial and relaxed, with nothing to prove. He has top level riding and teaching qualifications from the US, Canada, Spain and France. He has won the European Championship for Western riding, the French championship (three times), was picked to enter the World Championship in Oklahoma, and has written a book on Western riding. He enjoys life, and his enjoyment is infectious.

“For the future, I hope my kids will eventually take over the business. My daughter, 22, is already winning riding prizes, and my son, 21, is a qualified farrier, and I hope they’ll both join the business.”

To learn to ride or rope, or just book a ride, including swimming with the horses, or sleeping under the stars, see www.ecole-equitation-western.com