How to Choose a Dude Ranch
By Candyce H. Stapen
Dude ranches have gone the way of coffee: plain ride ‘em places—the ranch equivalent of a 7-11 brew—still exist, but more and more ranches lure wannabe wranglers with experiences tailored to their specific tastes. And that’s a good thing, but it makes it hard to choose the right experience for you.
Ranches can be divided into three broad categories: resort ranches, week-long skill programs and wrangler experiences. Certainly, there’s overlap, but most often a ranch fits more under one heading than another.
At a resort ranch, you can hop on a horse for a trail ride or a lesson almost as easily as you can book a massage or a tennis workshop, play golf, go fly fishing or rafting. Forget about creaky log cabins with slanted floors and field mice.
Resort accommodations range from comfortable to luxurious. Also, there’s a real chef in the kitchen instead of a college kid who cooks for his frat during the school year. Some resort ranches include riding in their rates and others use an á la carte system.
Typically, at a resort ranch, group outings are slow-paced walks; no trotting allowed. Most guests don’t come to a resort ranch for a daily diet of hoofing it. Come here if you want scenic horseback outings as well as the indulgences of a good resort—spa treatments, golf and tennis.
Learn-to-ride programs, especially in summer, tend to be week-long. Although a ranch may offer a good spa, hiking guides and fly fishing, horseback riding is the prime focus. Guests go out on guided rides of two-three hours long, twice a day. The focus is to learn and to improve.
Some of these ranches cater to parents and children with separate riding programs for kids and adults as well as family-friendly evening activities such as square dances, movies and hayrides. Often the week ends with an all-day barbecue ride or a guest rodeo.
With a wrangler experience, you sign-on to serve as a hired hand. This is get-your-hands dirty work. You pay for the privilege of performing chores such as moving cattle from one pasture to another, riding the range mending fences, assisting with branding calves or whatever tasks need doing. Accommodations are often no-frills as is the chuck-wagon food.
Here are additional questions to ask:
--Does the ranch own all or the majority of its horses or do they rent them? Since the personality of the horse is crucial, if he belongs to the ranch the wranglers know the animal and can more easily match him to a rider.
--What is the ratio of wranglers to riders on a trail ride? The ratio should be about 1:5 to 1:9.
--What is the background of the wranglers?
--What is the minimum age for trail rides and instruction?
-- Is the terrain diverse? No matter how beautiful, riding through the same forested groves gets boring by the end of the week.
--What exactly are the accommodations like? Shared or private bath?
--Are there non-riding activities for kids and for families?
-- Is there a children’s activity program for kids too young to ride?