How to Pick a Family Dude Ranch

A guide to choosing the perfect dude ranch for your family—and making it the best experience of your kids' lives!
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Whether you prefer trotting along a woodsy path listening to the crackle of horses' hooves on fallen pine needles or loping across a high mountain meadow dotted with wildflowers, a dude ranch offers cherished family fun both in and out of the saddle. Along with enjoying the scenery, you and the kids will share the challenge and rewards that coincide with improving your skills. In the evening, most ranches continue the camaraderie with square dances, sing-alongs, and skits. For the saddle sore, many ranches also offer hikes, fishing, and even massages.

From first-time riders to budding cowboy clones, it's critical to find the right ranch to suit skill levels, as not all ranches offer the same quality of riding. For example, great rooms do not necessarily make for great rides and instruction. So to help you navigate the profusion of choices with confidence, here's our cheat sheet to help make your riding vacation an unqualified success.

How to Pick a Family Ranch

  1. Ask about the minimum ages for trail rides and instruction, as well as for the non-riding kids' programs.
  2. Be certain that the children's programs operate at times that allow the adults in your group to also get out on the range.
  3. Find out about the wranglers' qualifications. How old are the wranglers and how much teaching experience do they have? Are these instructors certified?
  4. Determine the ratio of wranglers to riders on a trail ride. Depending on the type of ride and the age of the children, a good ratio would be one instructor to between five and nine riders.
  5. Be sure there are non-riding activities that you and your children can enjoy together—and separately.
  6. Ask about evening activities. Many ranches offer family square dances, roping games, and other fun activities.
  7. Find out what exactly is included in the price—how many rides per day, what type of instruction, and what kinds of children's activities?
  8. Get a good description of accommodations. Cabins often vary. Ask about distance to the main facilities, stairs, and just what is meant by "rustic."
  9. Ask if the ranch owns all or the majority of its horses, or if the ranch rents them. The personality of the horse is crucial, and if he belongs to the ranch, the wranglers tend to know the animal better and can more easily match him to a rider.
  10. Ask if the ranch supplies child-sized riding helmets and if the ranch requires children to wear them. (Bicycle helmets aren't sturdy enough.)'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 31 Jul 2006 | Last Updated: 20 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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