10 questions for finding the genuine article By Katrina Brown Hunt
So you want to play cowboys and cowgirls? Your first step is to decide what type of dude ranch experience your family wants. Are you looking for a working ranch where guests are expected to pitch in with cattle herding and stable chores? Or were you imagining a resort with a pool, supervised kids’ programs, water sports, tennis, and other activities? Or maybe you were hoping for something in between? At true dyed-in-the-denim dude ranches, horseback riding is the central activity. But at many ranches, riding is just one of many things to do.
What will it cost? Expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500 per person per week. That sounds steep, but most dude ranches are all-inclusive—the price covers lodging, meals, riding, and many other activities. Price can be a good indicator of the overall level of comfort, which can range from quite rustic to extremely luxurious on the high end. If you’re priced out of traditional dude ranches, consider a farmhouse B&B that offers guests horseback riding by the hour.
Not surprisingly, most dude ranches are in the West. One of the most dependable resources is the Wyoming-based Dude Ranchers’ Association, which has over 100 member properties west of the Mississippi River.
Want to make sure you find a dude and not a dud? Here are 10 key questions to ask before you book your vacation:
- What percentage of your guests bring kids? Few ranches will come right out and say that they are not kid-friendly, but you can tell a lot by asking about the make-up of the clientele.
- How old must children be for horseback riding? At most ranches, the minimum age for trail rides is between 6 and 8 years old. Considering the expense of a dude ranch, many parents will postpone this kind of vacation until their youngest child is old enough to ride.
- How much of the day is spent on horseback? Depending on which dude ranch you choose, the amount of time you spend riding can vary a lot. At some ranches, guests are entitled to a single one-hour ride each day. At others, they spend a good chunk of each day on the trail. And at authentic working ranches, guests not only ride, but also pitch in with stable chores, grooming, and cattle round-ups.
- What instruction is available for beginners? How much horsemanship your family will actually pick up will depend entirely on the ranch you choose. At some ranches, first-time riders are offered little to no instruction before their first ride. Other ranches spend a great deal of time teaching their guests basic horse skills. If you or your children have never ridden before, look for a ranch that provides some introductory training. At the very least, there should be a session devoted to the basics of how to control a horse (mounting, walking, turning, stopping, reversing, dismounting) as well as common sense tips about safety and horse behavior.
- Do you offer supervised childcare for younger kids? If any of your kids are too young to ride, you will need a babysitter while adults and older children are out on the trail.
- Is there a minimum length of stay? Many ranches have a minimum stay of three days to one week. Cutting back to fewer days can reduce your bill dramatically.
- Is there a discounted child rate? Ranches that welcome a lot of families often offer a lower daily rate for kids. But be warned: Once kids are old enough for trail rides, they often are classified as adults.
- Are meals included? At many dude ranches, inclusive pricing includes three meals a day. But other ranches offer private cabins with their own kitchen facilities. Fixing some of your own meals is another good way to reduce your final bill.
- Will we get a taste of the Old West? Campfires, cookouts and hayrides are mainstays of dude ranch vacations. Some of the best ranches not only give guests plenty of riding time, but also an opportunity to watch how the pros do it. Find out if the ranch puts on rodeo or riding demonstrations.
- Besides riding, what else is there to do? Many family-friendly ranches offer a swimming pool and optional excursions such as river rafting, fishing, hiking, or mountain biking. Some ranches provide so much to do that you’ll wonder if you’re on a dude ranch or a cruise ship. It’s up to you to decide what kind of experience is right for your family.