My favorite kind of vacation is a trip to the old west. Or rather, as close as we can get to it in today’s world. Dude ranches and similar vacations are an excuse to unplug (they may have internet, but you won’t have much time to use it), relax, and spend time in the company of the best therapists on the planet: Horses.
If you’re considering this type of vacation, be reassured on one thing: There are dude ranch vacations for people who have never so much as been in the presence of a horse. There are dude ranch vacations for people who have barely been in the presence of a horse who have family members who act like they were born with spurs on.
There are several different types of dude ranch vacation, and the one you pick depends on your desires…and your budget.
“Resort” ranches offer a dude ranch vacation alongside other activities. Many of these ranches are spa type vacations in which riding is an important component, but an optional one. Resort ranches generally have high-class amenities such as swimming pools, hotel-style accommodations, gourmet food, etc.
Most resort ranches are all-inclusive, but unlike the other types, it’s not a guarantee and you should always check what’s included and what’s optional. Some activities may be an optional fee. Some resort ranches charge by the hour for riding. They often offer more lessons and horsemanship training.
Resort ranches are ideal for families and groups if only some of you want to ride, but be aware that they are the most expensive. Rates of $4–500 a night are not uncommon, especially if they’re all-inclusive. (No dude ranch vacation is cheap, mind).
Working ranches are actual cattle operations (resort ranches often keep a few cattle around so they can do team penning or sorting, but they don’t breed cattle).
On a working ranch, guests are involved to some degree in the work of the ranch. They focus on cattle work and teach guests how to cut, sort, and even rope cattle. Many working ranches prefer their guests to have at least some riding experience, but they can usually find a place for novices, giving them easier tasks on a quieter horse.
Working ranches tend to offer a somewhat rougher experience, with accommodation in cabins, simple (but plentiful) food, and few or no other activities. However, they often do provide facilities and fun for non-riders. They’re best for people who are interested in the “old west” experience or curious about cattle work. Or just want to say they tried it.
Riding ranches fall between resort ranches and working ranches to some degree. Some, like Bitterroot Ranch in Wyoming straddle the line by offering both trail riding and cattle work. They may be listed as either on dude ranch listings, but are usually easy to identify from the website.
The focus at this kind of ranch is on riding and horsemanship. Riding ranches tend to offer longer and more difficult trail rides to attract more experienced riders, although they generally also cater to beginners. They usually provide lessons and may do other activities such as team penning or barrel racing.
Most riding ranches do take non-riders and may offer a non-rider discount, although they tend to do their best to tempt you into the saddle. Riding ranches are great if everyone wants to ride, but have varied levels of experience. Both horse crazy kids and more relaxed parents can have a good experience.
Moving trips or pack trips tend to be hardcore (with some exceptions; the Grand Canyon two day mule ride is technically a moving trip but it easy enough for beginners). They may last from two days to a couple of weeks, and you spend the entire time on the trail. You generally sleep in tents, and your gear is carried either by pack animals or by wagons from one campsite to another.
A true moving trip is not for the fainthearted and definitely not for beginners. It’s generally advisable to talk to the outfitters before choosing a trip so they can determine whether you have enough experience and fitness and potentially recommend a trip for you. Moving trips can take you into the deep wilderness (in the photo above we were at least a day and a half’s ride from the nearest road) and to places that are hard to see any other way (riding’s hard work, but it’s easier than hiking). The downside is that if you get hurt, you’re riding out unless you have to be medflighted. If you’re saddle sore or fed up or just done? You’re riding out. Mid-trip evacuation is possible on some trips but not others. Some outfitters use mules as well as horses; the experience of riding and working with mules is a little different. (I personally prefer mules for long distance trail riding).
Moving trips are for people who really want to unplug, experience the wilderness, and who have if not riding experience then at least a good level of fitness. Some trips do have a minimum age limit, and some outfitters have specific family trips to whichthey funnel people with kids.
On the other hand, it’s an experience not to be beaten. Some riding or working ranches may include an overnight trip as part of the trip or an optional extra.
Cattle or Horse Drives
The last kind of trip is the cattle or horse drive. Cattle drives are generally offered by working ranches and horse drives may be offered by working ranches or riding ranches. In some cases, a working or riding ranch trip may contain a short cattle drive. Some drives last several days. The famous Sombrero Ranch Great American Horse Drive only lasts two days, but covers over fifty miles in that time and is recommended only for people who know how to ride. However, beginners can still find a cattle or horse drive suited to them.
Cattle drives tend to be easier rides than horse drives. Horses move faster over the terrain and are harder to keep up with. (Note that it’s still a “horse drive” even if half of them are mules).
So, that’s your basic types of dude ranch vacation. You should choose the vacation that suits your desires (and your riding experience). But believe me, there’s nothing quite like “cowboying up” for a week or so.