If your ideal vacation spot includes beautiful scenery, lively action, and fine horses, consider visiting a guest ranch. In the past, guest—or dude — ranches were known for their sedate trail rides tailored to city slickers in brand-new boots.
Today, however, many ranches are adapting to include rides that will keep savvy riders active and interested.
Here, we’ve put together our pick of riding-vacation destinations where you can ride fast, traverse serious terrain, learn to work cattle, or even participate in a real cattle drive. These ranches, recommended by the Dude Ranchers’ Association and as a result of our editors’ own travel experiences, have horses to match your riding level.
While most ranches don’t allow you to bring your own horse (for their herd’s safety), they work to keep their horses tuned up and ready to do more than simply follow.
Read on to find out where you can do some real horseback riding at guest ranches.
Bonanza Creek Country
This 25,000-acre Martinsdale, Montana, ranch is home to a herd of 1,500 cattle—plus all the horses necessary to take care of them. Eight to 12 guests per week are invited to join in on the family’s ranch work. The Voldseth family has owned the ranch since 1877, and the current owners are direct descendants.
Riding requirements: Because the challenging terrain around the ranch requires riders to have genuine know-how, this ranch accepts only intermediate-level and above riders.
“Good riders like to ride with other good riders,” says owner June Voldseth. She adds that many of the ranch’s guests are horse owners.
Riders must be able to canter outside an arena to help gather and move cattle. Most rides offer some fast-paced riding, but speed can be limited due to the mountainous terrain.
“We always ride in the arena on Monday mornings to check each guest’s riding ability and make sure everyone is well matched to their horse,” says Voldseth. “Then every rider gets to work with the cattle a couple times each week.”
The horses: The ranch continuously purchases new Quarter Horses and Paints from other Montana ranches to make sure the mounts are fresh and agile. The wranglers work with all horses to keep them responsive and mannerly.
The horses are turned out on 360 acres to run or relax as they please. Doing work they love and having the freedom to live naturally makes for happy horses, says Voldseth.
Special events: The ranch offers cowgirl retreats with ride time plus life-coaching sessions. Each scheduled retreat is unique; instructors are varied. Check out bonanzacreekcountry .com/retreats.
Ranch amenities: Each of the four cabins has a view, and though spread out for privacy, they’re all within walking distance of each other, the main lodge, and the stables. Cabins include a refrigerator and coffeepot, though the ranch provides three meals per day.
Get there: Fly into Bozeman; the ranch is almost in the middle of (and two hours from) Bozeman, Billings, and Great Falls. 523 Bonanza Creek Road, Martinsdale, MT 59053; (406) 572-3366; bonanzacreekcountry.com.
Cherokee Park Ranch
Colorado owner Christine Prince says her family’s dedication to natural horsemanship means this ranch’s horses are well trained and ready for any type of ride. The ranch offers team penning and fast rides as well as slower ones for youth or inexperienced family members. The historic ranch was built in the late 1880s as a stagecoach stop between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Laramie, Wyoming. Much of the original wood furniture and antique horse equipment is still on display. The Prince family purchased the ranch in 1996 after vacationing there for four years in a row.
Riding requirements: There’s a horse for every level of rider. Each day, the head wrangler asks each group what kind of ride and speed of travel they desire. The options are morning, afternoon, or all-day ride. Participants are then grouped by ability.
“Our guests are able to ride the same horse all week long and develop that special bond,” Prince says, adding that auxiliary activities like team penning are fun and boost horsemanship.
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