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For years I’ve dreamed of a vacation out west, but I had no idea how to choose a dude ranch. I’ve always loved the beauty and romance of the wide open spaces. As a kid I avidly watched John Wayne movies; my secret fantasy was that I’d be the only girl ropin’ and ridin’ in the movie The Cowboys.
The reality is I grew up in the suburbs back east. Ropin’ and ridin’ weren’t everyday activities—shucks, ma’am, they weren’t activities at all. My experience with horses was limited to a few tame pony rides and a 30-minute lesson in a cramped paddock. I wanted a place where I could get some good riding experience while satisfying my “old west” craving.
I didn’t know how to choose a dude ranch that fit the bill. Plenty of hotels and resorts out west call themselves “ranches,” offering horseback riding as one of the amenities. But the idea of a few horses stabled out behind the golf course and tennis courts didn’t provide that “authentic” experience I was seeking.
Fortunately I discovered the Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting dude ranch vacations while preserving western heritage. The association was formed in 1926 and has over 100 member ranches in the western US and Canada. All ranches must go through a rigorous 2-year qualification process to ensure they meet the criteria of the association, including horsemanship and hospitality.
The association’s website is a treasure trove of information to assist with planning the perfect dude ranch vacation for you. There are so many options; the site has checklists to help you narrow down your choices. Although all offer excellent riding programs for every level of rider (including ultra-beginners such as Michael and me), there are plenty of other options. Some points to consider:
- Time of year: Most ranches are open during their mildest weather season; ranches up north are active in the summer months, southern ranches are open during the winter and spring.
- Families vs. couples or adults-only: Many guest ranches cater to both, with extra family programs during school holiday periods.
- Non-riding activities: If you don’t want to spend all your time in a saddle, ranches offer all sorts of alternatives, from cooking classes to skeet shooting, photography seminars, pools and even spas for tired muscles. Each ranch is different; the DRA site will help you select based on your preference.
- Scenery and riding environment: Depending on location, ranches will offer riding on mountain trails, open meadows, southwestern desert or combinations of all three.
- Number of guests: Some ranches cater to only 10-12 guests, while others accommodate 80-100. Choose a size that will provide you the social life (or solitude) you crave.
- Distance from the nearest town or airport: Some guest ranches offer shuttle services, eliminating the need for a rental car. In other cases you might want the freedom to go exploring.
The DRA website has detailed descriptions of each of its member ranches, helpful maps, pricing guidelines and photos along with links to each ranch’s direct website. Once Michael and I decided to visit a ranch in the southwestern US, we spent many happy hours perusing the DRA’s website to make our selection.
We promise we’ll report soon on our ropin’ and ridin’ experience, think “Sun and Saddles.”
The photo of us on horseback at the top of this page was taken at Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona and the remainder (including those delicious steaks) were taken at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona.