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How to choose a dude ranch vacation

by Larissa on November 17, 2013

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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.

how to choose a dude ranch clydesdale horse (640x534)

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.

how to choose a dude ranch-white stallion cookout (640x522)

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.

How to choose a dude ranch-White Stallion ranch stables (640x469)

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MissElaineous November 17, 2013 at 1:47 pm

We had a memorable and LOVELY ranch vacation in Wyoming almost 20 years ago and it was truly one of my all time favorites. Our ranch accommodated about 20 guests; in addition to riding, there were also hiking trails, visiting cattle and goats in the the barn, fishing, a soak in the hot tub, campfires (Yup-guitars and storytelling), and just enjoying the vastness of space and tranquility. It looked exactly like the “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner” commercial!
We did NOT want a “Beans-and-Weenies-on-a-Stick adventure,”so it is important to ask questions and decide whether you are more comfortable with gourmet meals or cleaning your own fish and throwing it on some coals.
Our log cabins were outfitted with comfy feather beds and designer accessories,versus a tent or a cot in a shelter (which is great if thats your “thang”). If your looking for something stateside and truly “Old West,” do a little research and “just go already!”

Larissa November 17, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Thanks Laine. There’s definitely something for everyone! 🙂

Dan November 17, 2013 at 4:37 pm

You guys sure look like you know what you’re doing on horseback.

Michael November 18, 2013 at 12:41 pm

They are very good at dealing with newbies, particularly a city slicker like me. We started riding the first day and just kept going.

Jackie November 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I can see by your photos you visited The White Stallion Ranch in Tucson. Awesome place!

Michael November 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Yep, we really enjoyed it there.

wanderingeducators November 19, 2013 at 10:43 pm

What great tips – and fun photos!

Mary @ Green Global Travel November 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

I’ve always wanted to have a dude ranch experience. It sound great!

Penny Sadler November 22, 2013 at 11:02 am

You guys are having all the fun!

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