Few vacations are more all-American than one that involves riding horses in the great open spaces of the American countryside. 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 horses. 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 Ranch?
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 others that allow guests to connect with the outdoors or to be pampered indoors. 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.
Another place to visit is Guest Ranches of North America, which includes properties in 27 states as well as Mexico and Canada that runs the gamut of activities including panning for gold, archery, river rafting, and more.
The Arizona Dude Ranch Association represents 14 ranches in the state and has an easy to understand chart that compares each ranches amenities and services while clearing explaining the riding policy and philosophy of each ranch.
Also check out DudeRanches.com and DudeRanch.com, both of which list hundreds of guest ranches throughout North America.
Grand County Colorado, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, has been called the Dude Ranch Capital of North America. At one point, Grand County had 17 operating dude ranches, more than any county in the United States. Today, six continue to open their gates to city slickers.
Bandera, Texas, about an hour west of San Antonio, is nicknamed the Cowboy Capital of the World and is home to 14 dude/guest ranches. Twice weekly rodeos are held in town from Memorial Day through Labor Day and a number of the ranches host their own rodeos throughout the year.
Many dude ranches are all-inclusive, providing three meals a day and snacks for the entire family. Some even provide transportation from major air or rail hubs, so no need for a rental car sitting idle all week.
However, if picky eaters and dinner table tantrums are a concern, look for a guest ranch that has kitchen facilities in the accommodations. This could work well for families who like to fish and cook on their own.
The shoulder season and off-season are always good money savers. The Colorado dude ranches offer discounts in the month of June.
Other discounts can be found by asking for non-rider discounts if someone in your family is not able to or would prefer not to ride, and with special "kids stay free" or "grandparents stay free" weeks.
Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson, AZ
Consistently recognized by the Travel Channel as a "Top Ten Family Vacation Spot," Tanque Verde Ranch is one of those dude ranches with a spa and tennis court, mountain biking trails and other activities in addition to horseback riding. The Buckaroos children's program is for kids ages four to six, and the Wranglers are for kids seven to eleven; both include riding lessons and daily trail rides, educational nature programs and more. Parents are welcome to accompany their children for activities or retreat to the resort's Sonoran Spa, play tennis or just relax. Families work together in the "Ride and Seek" scavenger hunt that covers the entire 630-acres of the ranch property. Discounts are given for in-state residents visiting Tanque Verde.
Drowsy Water Ranch, Granby, CO
Just two hours outside of Denver, the Drowsy Water Ranch has been in business since the 1920s. About 100 head of horses, primarily quarter horses and paints, make their home at the Drowsy Water. Nine individual cabins snuggled beside the creek offer lodging for family or the Horse Thief Den Lodge provides the same accommodations for singles or others traveling alone.
The 650-acre Drowsy Water Ranch welcomes children of all ages, even infants. The children's program is unstructured, but comprehensive. Children five and under in the "buckaroos" program are led on smaller horses in a pen. For children six to 13 in the Range Riders program, rides are held twice a day. The kids are allowed to walk, lope and trot according to trail conditions and their comfort level on the horses.
Rocking Horse Ranch, Highland, NY
Far from the west where most dude ranches are located, Rocking Horse Ranch offers families a taste of the country on the east coast. The all-inclusive guest ranch just 90 minutes outside of New York City has all the traditional aspects of a dude ranch, plus so much more. The family-owned business has only 120 guestrooms. Guests can go horseback riding in the morning and can cool off at the indoor water park in the afternoon.
Open year-round, Rocking Horse Ranch offers winter activities, too, such as ice skating, skiing and snow tubing. The resort ranch has specials and promotions for every season, so it is affordable for families. Plus, with almost everything included in the price, this dude ranch makes for a perfect family vacation spot.
For more on Dude Ranches, see our list of the 10 Best Dude Ranches! And if looking for resorts offering horseback riding for the family, be sure to check off "horseback riding" when searching through our Family Resorts.
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This article has been updated as of December 12, 2013.