Living Your Dream: Vacationing on a Working Ranch

January 2008
Have you ever fantasized about living back in the Wild West? Riding the range, working cattle, sleeping out under the stars with a saddle for a pillow?
Going back in time isn’t possible, but vacationing on
a working ranch out west is. Whether you’re an
experienced rider or a greenhorn, there are ranches which will cater to your dreams and your ability.

Staying on a working ranch is a vacation of a different sort, and the reasons for going vary widely. Maybe it’s the land that calls you, the mountains or deserts, and you want to know what it’s like to ride where there are no visible fences or dwellings — just you, the cattle, the other riders, the horses, and the overarching sky. No roads or cars, no cell phones or schedules. It’s a way to connect, through horses, to a simpler lifestyle. Some people don’t own their own horses, and so find this a way to experience the closeness of that horse-rider relationship on an extended, more realistic level. Perhaps you ride, but find the riding too artificial, and are searching for a more honest approach where the riding becomes a means to an end, not the end result itself. Maybe you’re just interested in experiencing a different style of riding. Or, perhaps, you’re trying, just for a week or two, to wind up back in that golden era when horsepower had a literal meaning.

Not sure where you want to go or what’s out there? Karen Searle describes herself as a matchmaker, synchronizing guests with just the right Montana ranch. People specify their interests and expectations, and she can point them to the perfect place.

“I take into consideration what time of year they can go, how long they can spend, whether it’s for a single person or a family with children,” says Karen. “I know what’s available, so I can really help someone choose the ideal Montana ranch.”

Karen knows many small working ranches where a limited number of guests actually share the rancher’s home or stay in a remodeled bunk house, sharing the true ranching way of life. Guests can do as much or as little actual work as they’d like, the activities varying with the season.

“Don’t forget,” Karen says. “There are fewer than one million people in all of Montana. The wide-open spaces offer people a sense of solitude and solace. This personal and intimate kind of stay, rich in historical tradition, is a great way to reconnect with family and our planet.”

“I wanted to get involved in hands-on ranch life,” says Alvin Shaw. He traveled from England to spend two weeks at the Lonesome Spur Ranch in Montana. “It was absolutely beautiful, fantastic. We slept in a bunk house, got up at seven every morning, had breakfast at eight, and then we were gone all day into the mountains. We packed along lunch, and then got back in time for supper.

“I helped with cattle roundups, rode the fences, did vet checks, and even helped them geld calves. The horses were brilliant, the best I’ve ever come across, and the scenery was breathtaking. Whether alone or with your family, it’s a super place to be if you enjoy being out in the country with horses.”

The Lonesome Spur isn’t a dude ranch, but a working ranch where guests are invited to participate in the daily activities. In the spring there’s calving and foaling; summer and fall involve starting young stock and moving herds to pasture. Elaine and Lonnie Schwend own and run the ranch. Because they never have more than ten guests at one time, everyone is a part of the team and helps out with whatever work needs doing. They have 25 horses who are bred to handle the tough terrain and the long hours.

“Our guests help with the cattle and the brood mare herd,” Elaine says. “We also teach roping, team penning, and barrel racing. And if you fall off, you have to buy everyone a beer.”

There’s an overnight camping trip overlooking the Bighorn and Pryor Mountains, where you can sit by the campfire and experience real Dutch oven cooking and hear cowboy stories, wake up to coffee and breakfast, then catch your horse and check on the herd of 500 buffalo grazing the open range.

If you dream of being an authentic cowboy, you can try the Colorado Cowboy Company’s 1880s Cattle Drive Re-enactment. This week-long adventure allows guests to ride along and assist in gathering cattle off the range, doctoring sicks, driving cattle, branding calves, checking water and fences—all the normal activity needed to run a ranch.

“We’re a real cattle ranch first, and a guest ranch second,” says owner Penny Persson. “We run about 1,000 head. One of the things which makes us different is that we don’t trailer our cows to the pastures; our ranch, about 7,000 acres, is all deeded land. We can saddle up and ride right out to the pasture.

“There’s only my husband and I and one cowboy to do the work, so we rely on our guests to really help us out. They’re key partners. Even if they’re beginners, we can match them up with the right horse, and their riding ability quickly improves. We never take in more than ten or twelve guests at a time.”

Penny also runs a Cowboy School every afternoon after the cattle work is finished. It’s a safe and comfortable way for guests to improve their riding skills and learn roping, team penning, and other cattle-handling skills which most riders don’t normally encounter. Penny explains that there are a lot of subtleties involved in moving cattle—it’s not a lot of mad galloping this way and that. Learning in the controlled climate of the arena makes it easier to then apply these skills in the real-life pasture.

“Most guests start out on one horse, and then, as their riding skills expand, they move up. By the end of the week they’re riding a horse they never could have handled when they began,” Penny says. “Our horses are very good, very tough. They’re bred to move at any speed over some pretty tough terrain. It amazes a lot of people who are used to babying their horses. We own and breed all of our horses, so we really know them inside and out. We’re pretty good at matching horse to rider, in terms of ability and temperament. Our guests learn to ride both independently and as part of a group, in order to do the necessary work. This isn’t a nose-to-tail dude ranch. We move at the speed of cow, which may be a slow walk or a long run. It depends on the cattle.”

Depending on the work, guests may sleep at the ranch or camp out in tents to stay with the cattle. Normally, they’re up at six to catch and feed the horses, breakfast around eight, then ride out at nine. Lunch is at 1:30, and Cowboy School runs from 2:30-6:00. The Colorado Cattle Company accepts only adults over 21, and they have thirteen private rooms which can house one or two people each.

“Our guests come from all over,” Penny says. “A lot of people from the East coast, a lot of Europeans. They want to get away from their usual life of being a doctor or lawyer. They’re looking for an intense, rugged experience, and this is a great way to find just that.”

The Burnt Well Guest Ranch, located in Roswell, New Mexico, runs both cattle and sheep on 15,000 acres. Patricia Chesser and her husband share their authentic ranching way of life with up to ten guests. Open year-round, they have no staff other than guests, who help out doing everything from branding and doctoring calves to moving the herds to different pastures.

“This is a dream come true for a lot of people. Because we’re so small, we can really tailor the experience to a guest’s desires,” says Patricia. “For example, we won’t schedule single guests at the same time we have a family. This is a great way for people to improve their riding, if they’re beginners. We also get a lot of experienced riders, like polo players, who want to try something completely different. There’s no rhyme or reason to who comes. We’ve had people who are afraid of horses come and learn to cope with that fear. The one thing people have to understand is that staying on a working ranch is not the same as visiting a dude ranch. There are no follow the leader trail rides. Whether beginner or experienced rider, we can match anyone with the right horse, and then we can help them become a better rider while experiencing genuine ranch life.”

Doublerafter Cattle Drives may be the ultimate experience if you truly want to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Located in Wyoming, their authentic 1880s cattle drive is advertised as the “real deal. Compared to us, City Slickers is a pony ride. We don’t schedule phony stampedes, cloudbursts, blizzards, rodeos, wagon wrecks, or brush fires. They happen all on their own!” This family-owned working ranch offers guests an experience which encompasses the entire cowboy way of life.

A week of Cowboy Camp, limited to fifteen guests, brings you the best of both worlds. Chris Ellsworth, who has ridden with Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman, spends each morning teaching riding and equine communication. The afternoons are spent in the field, trailing, gathering, and sorting livestock, and just plain trail riding. There’s also an overnight pack trip late in the week, where guests sleep in tents and cook out over a campfire.

Pack trips allow for a longer outing without having to worry about the dust and noise of 300 crazed yearlings. These last four days and three nights, and are perfect for families and can easily be designed to accommodate young or inexperienced riders, as there are no set distances which must be covered each day.

And then there’s the cattle drive.

“This is the real deal,” says owner Dana Kerns. “My family’s been moving cattle here for 120 years. We move them to the summer grass the same way they did back then. This is definitely a trip for high-adventure individuals, real risk-takers. This is definitely not for everyone.”

The fifty-mile trip takes a week, and the 300 head of cattle cover 8-12 miles a day. There are two trips up in the spring, and two back in the fall.

“We own all our own horses, and they’re not hacks,” Dana says. “We start off with a short horsemanship clinic, so we can match riders with horses, and we can fit anyone with a suitable mount. But people have to understand that this cattle drive is not for sissies. We go rain or shine, wind or snow—whatever Mother Nature throws at us. And there are no modern conveniences out in the middle of nowhere. Everything is packed in. There are no roads. We cook on the trail and sleep in canvas tents. At the end of the week, everyone’s sore, and tired, and filthy, and happy. Very happy.”

Mario DiNitto may work in Boston, but in his imagination, he’s always been a real cowboy. Since he was a kid, he was fascinated by the idea of riding on a real cattle drive. Last September, his dream came true. He rode along on one of the Doublerafter’s cattle drives.

“This was the experience of a lifetime,” Mario enthuses. “It was just incredible. I can’t even begin to describe it. It was the most amazing trip. The sense of adventure and history, the things I saw and experienced, I just don’t have the words to describe it.

“It was hard work, and yet very relaxing. Going from being cooped up in an office, or smelling gas fumes while trapped in traffic, to being in these mountains with a few other people, and the horses, and the cattle. It was awesome, in the real definition of that word.”

Mario says he came back a changed person and spent weeks trying to describe his experience to friends, but was never able to really get across what the essence of the cattle drive was like.

He didn’t know how to ride before he went, so that summer, he took fourteen riding lessons just so he’d have some idea of “how to operate a horse.”

“The food was great, and the tents basically kept the rain and snow off your face,” Mario says. “We ate a variety of stuff, casseroles and salads, steaks and ribs, not just hot dogs and beans. I’d say this would be a great experience for anyone who loves camping out and has a sense of adventure. It’s okay if you’re not that experienced a rider or don’t know anything about cows. Just go with the flow — there’s definitely no counterpart to this anywhere else. It’s a complete mind shift. I can say, without reservation, that I had the best time of my life.”

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