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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dude Ranch Vacation Safety

I have worked on dude ranches in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana since the mid 1980s. My business now is dude ranch consulting. One of the things I do is set up horseback riding programs for new ranches. I am certified by the Dude Ranchers Association as a wrangler instructor. I teach Horse Safety Certification courses. Over the years I have trained countless wranglers and taken thousands of guests on trail rides. Probably 70% of the guests I took out were beginners. My percentage of accidents with injuries is less than 1%.  My number one goal has always been safety.

If you are looking at places to ride/vacation and are concerned about their safety program start by asking a few questions before making a reservation.

1.      Do they allow people to ride on their own without a guide? If they do this could mean a general lack of concern for either riders or their horses.

2.      Are guests allowed to run or gallop the horses? If they do offer loping/cantering how is that conducted? Does the leader of the ride just start running in big open fields when he feels like it or does he stop the ride before starting and give instructions about the rules, how far you will go, and when you will stop.

3.      How many riders are allowed on each ride? What is the guest to guide ratio? It should be about 4 to 1.

4.      Is any thought given to the order of the horses on the ride?

5.      How often do they check cinches during the ride. Loose chinches are the number one reason people come off horses.  

6.      Do they allow double riding or allow a parent to have a small child ride with them? These are big no no’s and a safe operation would know better.

7.      Do they have a written orientation speech or if not what does the orientation consist of?

8.      What kind of experience do the wranglers/guides have? Are they nonchalant about moving around the horses and mounting people or are they all business. DO THEY HAVE FIRST AID/CPR?

9.      What do the horses and equipment look like? Are the horses well cared for or are the skinny and not groomed? A horse that is not in good shape is more likely to have problems on a ride. If the tack is in poor condition it could lead to accidents.

These are just a few things to think about when looking at trail riding operations. Most dude ranch operations will have comments on trip advisor. About half of the ranches that are member of the dude ranchers association are horse safety certified. If it is not a dude ranch but just a trail riding operation I would ask if they have any kind of safety accreditation. I hope you find this helpful to this discussion. Anyone who would like to discuss this with me is welcome to contact me directly.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


In reading up on the history of dude ranching, I came accross this excellent piece on Dude Ranchers Association Educational Trust site. The purpose of the Dude Ranchers' Educational Trust is to protect and preserve the history of Dude Ranching by maintaining a museum and archives for educating the public on the historical nature of the dude ranching industry.

In the post Civil War cattle boom of the 1880’s, Howard Eaton started the Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands. He was soon joined by his brothers Alden and Willis and a friend from Pennsylvania, A.C. Huidekoper. Thrilled with their new lifestyle and potential success, the Eatons' wrote enthusiastic letters to friends back East.

One such letter, published in a New York newspaper, caught the attention of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt quickly made his way out to the Badlands and spent his time hunting, fishing and riding. He bought the Maltese Cross Ranch near the Custer Trail Ranch and struck up a friendship with the Eatons'. Stories of ranch life and exceptional hunting spread like wildfire, and soon the Eatons' found themselves hosting Eastern visitors.

It wasn’t long before their generosity and hospitality lead to overwhelming costs. Many visitors recognized the financial burden they were creating and offered to pay for room and board. While the concept flew directly in the face of western hospitality, the Eatons' had to consider the opportunity. The first recorded paying guest was Bert Rumsey, of Buffalo, NY and with the purchase of a guest book, the ranch officially began accepting “dudes.”

A devastating wildfire and the unusually harsh winter of 1886 revealed a spring stock count equal to that of their first year on the Custer Trail Ranch. A quick look at the books revealed 2,200 free meals provided in the previous year. The Eaton brothers estimated they would have to charge $10 a week for each guest. Capitalizing on the grandeur and serenity that surrounded them, they tailored a unique experience designed to improve the mental and physical condition of their guests, through ranch chores and riding. Before long, the Eatons' focus on the well-being and enjoyment of their guests became a trademark. Ultimately, their unique style of hospitality became the benchmark for all dude ranches.

The harsh winter of 1886 and the Panic of 1893 affected ranchers across the country. With the railroad pushing west and cattle prices dropping, Montana ranchers tried their hand at the “guest business.” Many new travelers were anxious to get into Yellowstone and the Big Horn Mountains by horseback. By 1903, as rangeland was fast disappearing in the Badlands, the Eatons sold Custer Trail Ranch and moved their operation to Wolf Creek, WY. By 1917, Eatons' Ranch covered 7,000 acres, ran 500 horses and several hundred head of cattle. Their guest capacity reached 125 - the largest dude ranch in the country.

As the railroad expanded in the 1920’s, dude ranches spread across the west and as far south as Arizona. The cattle industry was struggling and many ranchers were faced with financial hardship. Ernest Miller of Elkhorn Ranch in Montana convinced Max Goodsill of the Northern Pacific Railway that there was an opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship. Goodsill passed the idea along to A.B. Smith, passenger traffic manager for Northern Pacific, who arranged a meeting at the Bozeman Hotel. This became the first official meeting of the Dude Ranchers’ Association on September 27 and 28, 1926. Ranchers, railroad officials and national park officials attended the two-day event to discuss the five objectives set forth:1) Establish cooperation among ranchers and railroad officials 2) Discuss the transportation and proper care of guests 3) Create advertising and publicity for the association 4) Standardize practices 5) Create an efficient sales organization. Having agreed to all five objectives, the ranchers added a sixth - the organized protection of fish and game.

Larry Larom of Valley Ranch, instrumental in starting the organization, became the first president. A.H. Croonquist of Camp Senia at Red Lodge was named vice president and Ernest Miller of Elkhorn Ranch was named secretary-treasurer. Seven directors were appointed: Paul Van Cleve Jr. of Lazy K Bar Ranch; Dick Randall of OTO Ranch; W.A. Binko of Missoula; Mrs. Walter Shaw of Shaw’s Camp; Ed Wyman of Trappers Lodge; William Eaton of Eatons’ Ranch; and Dr. Horace Carncross of Bar B C Ranch.Twenty-six ranches signed up as charter members the first year and the number grew to forty seven the second year. In 1928 Larry Larom and Max Goodsill persuaded T. Joe Cahill to become the executive secretary. Northern Pacific gave Cahill passes for all his travel and helped with expenses while the DRA paid his salary and the remainder of his expenses. Cahill was a dynamic man who tracked and published important ranch and travel statistics while generating newspaper and magazine publicity. He was credited with getting the young organization off to healthy start.

Ultimately, the railroad would benefit by increasing passengers while promoting dude ranches as new destinations. The ranches would receive much needed marketing and increased number of guests. Visitors from the East Coast and Midwest could escape the crowds of their urban and suburban lives to experience the unique rejuvenation of spirit that ranches had become known for. Ranches quickly became a “home away from home” as returning guests became lifelong friends with the staff and guests. The remote location often lead to creative socializing; costume parties, games, romances, contests and practical jokes. This social interaction became just as important as the riding. It’s a quality that exists today, as ranch vacations continue to provide that special brand of western hospitality that nourishes body and soul.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What makes a dude ranch for owners or managers is having a place to live and work unlike any other. Each of us wakes up everyday with a wide range of emotions, starting with ‘I would not want to live or work anywhere else,’ followed by ‘oh god there is no way I am going to get everything done today,’ followed by, ‘I wish I could live anywhere else.’

During my career I have had several moments where I truly understood why I do what I do. During the 1990’s I had a young guy work for me for 2 years, as a wrangler. At the end of the 2nd year his father came to me and told me that he had given his son the choice of going to college or working on the ranch. He chose working on the ranch. His father then said that he considered his son working for me for the last 2 years the same as going to college. “Thank you for educating my son.”

My point in telling this is that every dude ranch has the ability to profoundly affect the lives of the people who come as employees or guests in ways that are not possible in any other place.

What makes a dude ranch for our guests is a vacation where you are not a client or customer but truly a guest of the ranch. Once people come though our gates they are all equal. From corporate CEOs to grocery store clerks, everyone is treated as one of the family. Every week we all invite a new set of guests into our home, and by Wednesday they are all dancing together, and by the end of the week they have become life long friends. For some guests it is a chance to experience a horseback riding adventure they have always dreamed of and for others simply a beautiful setting where they can relax from the daily grind back home. Over the years I have found that dude ranching is about great scenery, good friends, sure footed horses, wonderful food and above all more fun than you can have anywhere else.

What makes a dude ranch for our staff is a chance to spend their summer working harder than they have ever worked and having more fun than they have ever had before. At the age of 17, I thought riding through the Shoshone River with the water belly deep on my horse chasing 80 horses in from the pasture was what dude ranching was all about. For a lot of the younger staff it still is. But more than that each employee fortunate enough to work on a well run dude ranch for a summer has the opportunity to learn more about responsibility, interacting with people, and to take with them a work ethic that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Question: What are the different kinds of ranches?

Working Dude RanchThese are working cattle ranches. Most of these ranches were cattle ranches before they became dude ranches. Historically ranchers who needed to make more money started accepting boarders to help pay for their ranch operations. Guests get to participate in the work related to the horses and cattle. If you are looking to really experience what cowboy life is then this the kind of ranch for you.
Dude or Guest RanchMany dude ranches started as working ranches but moved their business to taking guests which became their main focus. Some still have cattle and guest are encouraged to help work them. Horseback riding is their main focus but most offer a variety of other activities including, kids programs, fishing, skeet shooting, evening activities and pack trips. In my career I have heard countless guests at the end of their stay say that this was the best vacation they had ever been on.
Resort Dude RanchThese ranches are more luxurious and offer fancier accommodations, dining, and amenities. Tennis, golf, fine wines, spa and shopping are typical. They of course still have great horse backriding. Resort ranches tend to have larger guest capacity and can handle large groups, weddings and corporate events.

Friday, May 20, 2011


My first experience on a dude ranch was Valley Ranch in Cody, Wyoming, in the early 1980s, and the first person I met was Irma Larom. She and her husband Larry started Valley Ranch in the 1920's with one of the Brooks brothers. She loved to chat with all the wranglers and tell stories of going to New York City in the 1920’s, staying at the Waldorf Hotel to talk their friends into coming out to Wyoming for the summer. At one point Irma said to me that dude ranching was hospitality at its very finest. At that time I was 17 years old and being on a dude ranch was all about riding horses every day. Her statement meant little to me then. Since that time I have come to deeply appreciate Irma's words. Horse are important, but first rate hospitality makes a dude ranch experience unforgetable.
Historically dude ranches were part of year round horse or cattle operation. Having paying and working guests provided further income and labor for the ranches, and an opportunity for the "dudes" to "experience the west" after western expansion had largely drawn to a close. Nowadays ranches may be working cattle ranches or ranches strictly catering to guests. As they did in the past, they still provide a great opportunity to see the west and experience western lifestyle. And every ranch has the ability to affect people in profound ways.

A couple of years ago I had a woman from Scotland as a guest. When she made her reservation she sent me a hand written letter about why she wanted to take this vacation. Several years earlier she had a bad accident with a horse and broke her back. She had not been on a horse since, and on this trip she was hoping to get her confidence back. By the end of the week I had her on loping rides and she was talking about buying another horse when she got home. When it was time to check out she came to me in tears saying that she couldn’t thank us enough for giving her back her confidence and her true love for horses.
Yes, a well run dude ranch is “Hospitality at its very finest,” and this means everyone working on a well run ranch goes that extra mile to take 7 year old Sally out to the corral one last time to say goodbye to her horse; the cooks saying, “No problem…we are happy to take care of special requests"; and people leaving feeling well-cared for, relaxed, more connected to what matters to them, and wanting to come back.