Few vacations are more all-American than one that involves riding horses in the great open spaces of the American West. But if an adult-acquired fear of actually riding a horse compromises your willingness to fulfill your children’s vacation dreams of being a cowboy or cowgirl for a week, do not fear. There’s plenty for mom and dad and the entire family to do at many dude ranches other than ride horse. Think swimming holes or swimming pools, hikes in the woods, fishing, square dances, star gazing, bird watching, or just sitting in a lawn chair reading a good book.
Dude ranches, which are often called guest ranches, are as diverse as the clientele they serve and the individuals who operate them. Many are located in some of the most intriguing parts of the country adjacent to national parks, along historic pioneer trails and near charming little communities where the Old West is not that far in the past.
And while roughing it is an option, with overnight trail rides and cooking over an open fire, a dude ranch vacation can just as easily include a full-service spa, culinary workshops, a round or two of golf and five-star accommodations.
Either way, quality family time and a memorable vacation experience are available without fear of horses on a Dude Ranch Family Vacation.
What is a Dude?
Contrast to more common, everyday slang that may be mumbled from your child’s mouth more frequently than you prefer, “dude” in the context of dude ranching is a term of respect for those experiencing a lifestyle they don’t otherwise know or understand.
There are basically two kinds of dude ranches. The first is a working dude ranch. That’s where you get out there and really get your chaps dirty, working with cattle, sheep and other livestock. You may have the chance to throw a lasso, haul some hay, or scoop some poop.
The second kind of dude ranch is a resort dude ranch. Riding horses is the primary activity, but there are other activities to be pampered and enjoy the outdoors. These are places with hot tubs and hot toddies, maybe a tennis court or fitness center, but certainly an atmosphere of relaxation and tranquility.
However, the horses are the basis of any dude ranch experience and that’s what the kids want. Ask about programs that emphasize riding techniques, that partner the horse and rider for the duration of your stay, and that allow the guest to participate in choosing the horse right for them. It’s a better quality experience for the rider and for the horse as well.
And be sure to ask about riding instruction and guided rides versus free rides, as well as opportunities for Mom and Dad to get away for a few minutes without the kids.
Choosing a Ranch
When searching for a dude ranch, a good place to start is at The Dude Ranchers’ Association of America, a 90-year-old organization representing properties in 14 western states and two Canadian provinces. From its website, you can search for amenities, price ranges, and destinations from more than 100 ranches. Membership in the association is based on many factors, including care and protection of animals. as well as the natural landscape of a region.