Choosing the right ranch holiday: Guest ranch or working ranch?
A hundred years ago, it was considered common courtesy for ranchers in the Wild West to accommodate travellers in their installations and offer them some western hospitality. To this day, this tradition is still very much alive and different ranch holiday experiences have become very popular.
This little guide will help clarify the main differences between a guest ranch and a working ranch experience so when the time comes for you to pick a ranch for your holiday vacation, you will not have any doubts.
Guest ranches are best known for having an infrastructure capable of accommodating visitors looking for a ranch experience with certain standards (comfortable rooms, food experience, sometimes a pool or fitness centre, etc). On a guest ranch, not all activities are horse-riding related, so this is usually a great choice if you are looking to travel with non-riding friends or family members.
Guest ranches are also sometimes known as Dude ranches. There are some small differences between the two. Dude ranches usually have a higher guest capacity than guest ranches, for instance. Most of our ranches offer a smaller, more intimate experience, and (with some exceptions) they can normally only accommodate up to 30-40 guests at a time (or less!).
Every night or every morning, the ranch team will go through potential activities for the day and you will be able to choose what you would like to do. Riding is the main focus of the day but there can also be other activities on offer. If you have non-riding family members, the White Stallion Ranch in Arizona offers a great variety of non-riding activities such as rock climbing, archery and mountain biking - there is something for everyone!
Riding experience and participation:
If you are not yet an experienced rider, or perhaps a very advanced rider worried about riding with a group of beginners, there is no need to worry. On a guest ranch, you will find that the riding activities are done in groups of similar abilities. Most of these ranches have trail options and enough staff to take out several groups at the same time, making sure everyone has a fun and safe riding experience. Rocking Z Ranch in Montana is a great example of this - rides are taken out in small groups, with none of that "nose-to-tail" business. It is a small, family-run ranch focusing on natural horsemanship and their trail rides are a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with nature. If you are after an authentic experience, Rocking Z might be just what you are looking for.
It is also important for riders to know that tacking is not necessarily required on guest ranches. The team will choose the horse that better fits your abilities and tack him up for you before your ride.
Ranch holidays are a great way to explore the breathtaking landscapes of the United States, as well as spending quality time with your four-legged friends. In most guest ranches you will find multiple horseback riding activities and even though cattle work might be part of some packages, it is not always what guest ranches focus on. Trail riding is the main riding activity, and it is always flexible: you can decide to go out on a short ride or enjoy a full-day ride. Some might offer something different - Bitterroot Ranch, located in a remote valley of Wyoming, is surrounded by the untouched Shoshone National Forest and is not like your usual US ranch. They offer overnight pack trips, special themed weeks (natural horsemanship, yoga & riding...), and experienced riders can even have a go at their cross-country course!
In a nutshell...
A guest ranch should be your top choice if you are looking for flexible riding adventures combined with pleasant western hospitality. These are great for friends and families looking for a comfortable, relaxing holiday and a way to reconnect with nature.
On a working ranch, you are not a mere guest, but rather another member of the team. The activities will depend on the work that needs to be done for the day. It might involve a cattle roundup, a horse drive or even ranch-based activities such as livestock branding and vaccinating, monitoring young heifers, seeking out stray cows and calves, fencing, etc. If your dream is to feel like an authentic cowboy for a few days, then a working ranch is an excellent choice.
You may have to get up early - ranchers are not known to lie in! The team of Wranglers will brief you on the chores that need to be carried out for the day. Priorities can change quickly, so do not expect to have a clear agenda of what you might be doing, and be prepared for that 4-hour ride to turn into an 8-hour adventure! Some ranches are more intensive than others, but there is always something for everyone. For instance, if you are looking for a really immersive experience, and are not afraid of hard work, then you will enjoy what our friends at Chico Basin have to offer.
If you have never been on a ranch holiday before and would like a slightly more casual experience (although equally authentic), Kara Creek Ranch in Wyoming is an excellent option. Kara Creek Ranch has an exceptionally friendly atmosphere: "Come as a guest, leave as a friend" is their motto. It offers comfortable and cosy cabins, delicious hearty food, and you may not have to get up at 04:00 am. But you will still experience the "real thing" every day.
Riding experience and participation:
On a working ranch holiday, you should be comfortable in the saddle at all paces, although more novice riders can be accommodated at some of our ranches. Competent riders will make the most out of this type of ranch holiday because there are high chances you might be involved in cattle or horse drives. A cattle/horse drive is the process of moving a herd of cattle or horses from one area to another, generally to find better grazing pasture, to bring the herd to the market or back to the ranch. In order to do this, riders should be well balanced in the saddle and be able to act quickly. Cattle work is usually carried out at the ranch and involves a variety of activities to include branding, vaccinating, and castrating the young bulls - the most delicate tasks being left to the more experienced wranglers. Everyone pretty much has a job depending on how well they can ride, and what they feel up to. Guests are usually welcome to help wrestle the calves, keep track of their injections, and assist the ranchers in their tasks. The Dryhead ranch is a perfect example of an authentic working ranch. The Dryhead is a family-run ranch located between Montana and Wyoming and offers a wide range of experiences; horse drives, cattle drives and working ranch weeks are all options to choose from, depending on the season.
Wranglers will choose the horse that is the best fit for the day's activities, but you can be in charge of getting them tacked up. If you have never used western tack before, the ranch staff will double check that everything is correctly adjusted. Don't be afraid to ask for help at any point, it is always better to be safe than sorry!
Working Ranches activities are focused on cattle and horses. These animals are the main reason why the typical American Western ranch still exists. On most working ranches you will experience the wranglers daily life making you feel like a part of the team. You will have real responsibilities and jobs for the day. The TX ranch in Wyoming is another great example of a working ranch. Accommodation consists of tents and there is no electricity or running water at Camp. If your aim is to live the West, then this is a truly authentic Cowboy experience.
In a nutshell...
A working ranch holiday is better suited to riders willing to roll up their sleeves and experience life as a Cowboy. This is an authentic ranch experience, where traditions and the heritage of the west are very much kept alive.
What if I want to do both?
Some guest ranches have the main lodge and a separate working ranch. If guests are interested in cattle work, this can easily be organised. This is, for instance, possible at the beautiful Hide Out Ranch, in Wyoming. This ranch is one of our most luxurious options, with very high standards of accommodation and services. At the Hide Out you can do as much or as little riding as you like and it is ideal for groups with non-riders and couples - it is also a fabulous honeymoon destination.
Another interesting option would be Zapata Ranch. Zapata is located in southern Colorado, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and fascinating Sand Dunes reserve. It offers a variety of riding activities that include working and moving cattle, trail rides and working alongside the wranglers. Zapata is also a great choice for anyone interested in conservation schemes, as the staff on the ranch is very involved in sustainable ranch management practices. On your riding holiday, you are very welcome to learn about important land conservation management practices, cattle and bison production, and grazing programmes established at the Ranch. Those looking to relax after their ride will enjoy yoga sessions and massages!
Overall, ranch holidays are undoubtedly a great way to experience the outdoors from the back of a horse. It really does not matter which ranch holiday you choose, beautiful landscapes, hospitality and adventure are a given.
For more information, please visit our ranch holidays on our website: Equus Journeys
You can also contact us directly at email@example.com or give us a call on +44 (0)1905 388 977