If you’re going on a horseback riding vacation, especially if you’re going out of the country or to the other side of the world, you might have some concerns.
Is the place well run? Is it safe? Is the food going to be any good? Are the horses treated properly?
There are horror stories of people showing up to a vacation to find that the horses are bags of bones being beaten by the wrangler. The easiest way to not be that person is to check reviews (also, once you’ve been on one of these vacations, you’ll get word of mouth recommendations. More of them than years in your life, trust me). Website photos can be faked, but a large gallery is generally a good sign. However, you also may want to get a feel for the place by talking to them. I recommend calling rather than emailing unless it’s really inconvenient, you’re international, or you’re even more afraid of phone calls than I am. (Yes, I’m one of those people).
Questions to Ask of a Dude Ranch, Outfitter or Stable
So, here are some questions you might want to ask them:
- Do you require helmets? Note that if you’re going to Europe, most likely helmets are a legal requirement if you’re riding off the property and pretty much all establishments won’t let guests ride without them. This is not true in the west. A good establishment will generally require helmets for youth. Some do require them for adults. Some don’t require them for a good reason: Concerns about sun protection (If they answer the question with this, then get a helmet brim or helmet “converter” so you can cover both head injuries and sun-related issues. Trust me, those things are amazing). If they have a dress code that disallows helmets, or tell you that a good rider doesn’t need one, be wary. It’s possibly a red flag.
- Where do you get your horses? (Note that in the west “stock” is generally used to refer to all the animals on the property…horses, mules and, yup, cows). Some ranches breed their own stock. Some may have specific breeders they source from, particularly for mules. Some pick up suitable horses wherever they can find them. The red flag you’re looking for here is “rented.” Avoid establishments that don’t own their own horses. In many cases, rented horses are dumped at the end of the season by the contractor providing them. On top of that, these are generally not great horses and it’s hard for the wranglers to make a safe match between horse and rider if they don’t know the horse yet. At a good ranch, new horses are ridden by the wranglers multiple times before they even think of putting a guest on them, and then it’s usually an experienced rider who’s ridden with them before.
- Can I help care for my horse? Sometimes this question is answered on the website. Some ranches expect you to catch your horse in the corral, groom and saddle it. Some expect you to stay out of the way. Most will let you help to some degree. The red flag is if they expect guests to stay completely out of the way while horses are being prepped.
- Where are your horses retired? Most dude ranch horses are worked hard and eventually have to be retired. Good answers include “We keep them on our other ranch” or “We sell them to guests.” (It’s really not uncommon for these establishments to sell a semi-retired horse or mule to a former guest who just wants something to ride on weekends). If they evade this question, then there’s a chance they’re dumping horses.
- Who leads the rides? In Europe, note that it’s very common for shorter rides to be led by working students who can be pretty young. Most ranches hire seasonal workers. As a note, it’s a very good sign if the answer includes the owners.
- How do you assess riding ability? Now, to be fair I’ve ridden with outfitters who didn’t do an orientation in the saddle and it went very well. However, they asked a lot of questions and had a detailed questionnaire. Or, they had remounts and were ready to switch riders out on the trail if needed. The best ranches do an in the saddle orientation and make sure that you’re telling the truth about your experience.
These questions can help you spot red flags and determine if a ranch is for you and your family.