Picking the Right Ranch

sign-questions“Dude ranches” in the Western U.S. vary tremendously in character. A ranch can be more of a resort or it can be more similar to a riding center. Dude ranches in general have a bad reputation among many of those who are truly interested in riding as equestrians. And it is true that some dude ranches cater to a clientele knowing little about horses or riding which offer a “pseudo” western experience in which square dances, hay rides and cookouts are the main attractions.

Not all ranches are like that and if serious horseback riding on fine horses is your main interest, here are some important points to consider when you choose a dude ranch vacation which will best suit you:

  1. Terrain and Location – Dude ranches vary greatly in the kind of terrain they have for riding. Some are surrounded by flat, uninteresting country. Sometimes the ground is very rocky and there are few places where one can ride safely at any speed. There are superbly beautiful locations in steep mountain valleys which severely limit the possible rides which are on steep and rocky trails or up and down the valley. Some ranches can ride in every direction with a great variety of terrain. Others are very limited by steep mountains, highways and no trespass neighbors.  In some places one can usually ride all day without seeing other people, but in other places the riding trails are crowded with bikers and hikers. It is important to find out how favorable the ground will be for the kind of riding you want to do.
  2. Owner Attitude and Experience – Do the owners or managers ride personally with their guests or do they feel they have more important things to do? If horseback riding is a top priority with them, they will participate often. If they don’t, then riding cannot be all that important in their program. Hired managers can be excellent, but if they are not the owners, the riding program is less likely to have continuity because managers can tend to come and go. In general, family-owned and operated ranches with an established history are generally a better bet than ones which have only been operating for a few years.
  3. The Horses You Ride at the Ranch– Do the saddle horses used at the ranch belong to the ranch itself or are they rented? Many ranches rent horses during the season only and are often unfamiliar with the horses they lease at the start of the season. They have little control over the quality of these animals and rented horses are usually not of top quality. It is certainly the cheapest option for a ranch with a comparatively short season and requires little investment, but it is not likely to produce as good a string as the horses which have been carefully selected over the years or raised and trained on a ranch. If a ranch has its own horses and many or all of them have been raised and trained there, it shows a real commitment to an excellent riding program. It is also a pleasure for many guests to see newly born foals, stallions, brood mares and young horses in training. Some ranches have only one type of horse like a Quarterhorse but if you prefer another breed a ranch which has a broad selection of different breeds will be more likely to find the horse that suits you.
  4. Client-to-Horse Ratio – A vital factor to consider is the client/horse ratio at a dude ranch. If a ranch has only one horse per client, the horses are going to be exhausted long before the end of the season unless they are used very lightly. A hard riding cowboy at a working ranch will need half a dozen horses used in rotation so that they can be fresh enough to work well for months on end. Guests are unlikely to ride that hard, but if they are going to put a horse through its paces and cover some ground in rough country, they will need at least two or better three horses per serious riding client.
  5. Pace of Ranch Rides – Few ranches today allow riders to gallop around freely. Liability issues have become too important and it can be hard on the horses. Many ranches do not want riders to get out of a walk and others go no faster than a trot. Rides can move at a faster pace safely if they are kept small and it is important to find out how big the riding groups will be. Some ranches will take up to twenty people together regardless of their experience. Others will send out six or less riders carefully matched according to ability which allows guests to ride to the top of their ability. Determining ability is vital in putting guests in the most suitable group for them. To do this properly a ranch must not only get the riders own assessment beforehand, but also evaluate them on the spot. In this way a ranch can avoid having skilled riders bored and inexperienced ones terrified. If a ranch has a broad selection of horses, it is of the utmost importance to match the rider to the most suitable mounts. Height and weight are important, but so are the rider’s seat and the sensitivity of their hands. The most spirited and highly trained horses would quickly be ruined by inexperienced riders who would be in jeopardy on their backs.
  6. Horse Tack – It is vitally important that the tack should be in good condition as well as comfortable for both riders and horses. Does the ranch have a broad selection of saddles? Are they careful to select a saddle which will not have uncomfortable pressure points on a horse? A poorly fitting saddle can cause a horse to buck or act strangely and detract greatly from the riding experience. Is care taken to give each horse a bit which suits him and is fitted properly? The best procedure is to have a separate bridle for each horse. Obviously the equipment must be well maintained.
  7. Attitude About Horse Management – Ranches have totally different philosophies toward handling and training horses. Horse training approaches can range from the often brutal, hell-for-leather methods of the old West to the gentle persuasion of the Linda Tellington-Jones TTouch approach. Some ranches have about the same feeling for a horse that they do for a motor bike and others treat their horses like loved members of the family.
  8. Riding & Equestrian Instruction – The horses at each ranch are trained in a particular way which may not be the kind of riding you are used to. For instance, if you are a dressage rider, you will need to adapt to the ranch horses. They cannot be retrained for the week you are there. Most places will give at least some basic orientation as to how they expect you to handle the horses. Some will offer instruction from qualified riding instructors which can be videotaped for your later viewing to get the best results. If you are not familiar with the approved style of riding at the ranch you visit, you will be more comfortable and get more out of the riding with a few hours of instruction. Usually ranch horses will neck rein. Some will respond well to leg pressure. On some ranches the horses are used to having their riders post the trot.
  9. Working Guest vrs. Guest Ranch – Some ranches have their own working cattle operation and others get all their income from paying guests. Working cattle in partnership with a good horse in the traditional Western sense can be an exciting and rewarding experience. In many parts of the West it is still the best way to move cattle from one part of a range to another and to round them up in the fall from national forest leases. Remember that there is a big difference between rounding up cattle over a wide grazing area with varied terrain and driving a herd of cows down a dusty road at a slow pace. Some ranches have authentic chances to work cattle and others stage it purely for the guests. If team penning or team sorting is something you want to try, check to see if the ranch offers this opportunity.
  10. Horse Packtrips – If the ranch is near a national forest, it may offer the opportunity to take a pack trip into the wilderness for an overnight or more. These wilderness trips can be a marvelous experience and provides a chance to bond with the horses who will be your close companions throughout the trip. You will see country which would be difficult to visit in any other way. Keep in mind that this is usually not an opportunity for fast riding as pack horses should usually go at a walk and trails are often steep and rocky.
  11. Horse Safety – If you are enjoying your life, horse safety should be a major consideration. After 65 years of serious riding, at least a hundred falls and seeing and studying many accidents, I have developed some ideas about how to reduce danger. Like most of the world’s exciting sports, horseback riding has inherent risks. They can never be eliminated, but they can be minimized without losing much of the potential thrill and pleasure. Here are some of the ways to reduce risk while horseback riding at a ranch:
    1. Match the horse and the rider carefully.
    2. The pace of the ride should be slow enough for the ability of the least skillful rider in the group.
    3. Each rider should get careful instructions in how to handle this particular horse. A rider who is not in control of his horse can endanger others as well as himself.
    4. All ride leaders should be well qualified, have first aid training and be attentive to all the riders with them.
    5. It is an added safety feature that ride leaders should have quick communications to summon help in case of an accident. Quick help can sometimes save a life and helicopter evacuations are often the best option. Cellular telephones are best if they are operative in the area. Radios may work if there is someone to answer. Having a good plan in place beforehand can save precious time if a rider is injured.
    6. It is important to see that cinches are properly tightened, neither too loose nor too tight. They should be checked before the rider mounts and again after a few minutes of riding.
    7. The ride leader needs to be alerted to and aware of hazards like badger holes, quicksand, down barbed wire and potential scares like wildlife which might spook horses.
    8. As is the case with people, a small percentage of horses cause most of the accidents. A safety conscious ranch will be vigilant in getting rid of potential problems. They cannot do this if they are not familiar with the horses they have. That is one reason why owning, raising and training them on the ranch is best.
    9. Head accidents are probably the worst kind. Wearing a hard hat greatly reduces the danger of them. One has to decide whether a pseudo Western experience with a Marlboro style hat is worth the risk. Most ranches allow riders to ride without hard hats, but some do not.
  12. Wranglers – America has been late in setting up instruction programs for wranglers, but the Certified Horsemen’s Association and American Riding Instructors Association have excellent programs to instruct potential ride leaders. The British Horse Society has had excellent instruction programs for many years and the Federation Francaise d’Equitation has long had stiff requirements for ride leaders in France. A good wrangler needs not only to know how to ride well, but they should be attentive to those behind them and their problems. Sensitivity to riders and horses is the great virtue, not macho strength.