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What Dude Ranching is All About

My first experience on a guest ranch was at Valley Ranch in Cody Wyoming in the early 1980s, and the first person I met was Irma Larom. She and her husband Larry started Valley Ranch in the 1920's with one of the Brooks brothers as their financial backer. She used to flirt with all the wranglers and tell stories of going to New York City in the 1920’s and staying at the Waldorf  Hotel to talk their friends into coming out to Wyoming for the summer. At one point Irma said to me that dude ranching is hospitality at its very finest. At that time her statement meant little to me. At 17 years old being on a dude ranch was all about riding horses every day. Since that time I have come to believe that dude ranching is about taking care of people on a horse related vacation.

During my career I have had several moments where I truly understood why dude ranching is so special. A couple of years ago  a woman from Scotland was a guest on the ranch. When she made her reservation she sent me a handwritten letter telling me why she wanted to take this vacation. Several years earlier she had a bad accident with a horse and broke her back. She had not been on a horse since, and on this trip she was hoping to get her confidence back. By the end of the week I had her on loping rides and she was talking about buying another horse when she got home. When it was time to check out she came to me in tears saying that she couldn’t thank us enough for giving her back her confidence and her true love for horses.

During the 1990’s I had a young guy work for me for 2 years, as a wrangler. At the end of the second year his father came to me and told me that he had given his son the choice of going to college or working on the ranch. He chose working on the ranch. His father then said that he considered his son working for me for the last 2 years the same as going to college, and he thanked me for educating his son.

My point in telling these stories is that every dude ranch has the ability to profoundly affect the lives of the people who come as employees or guests in ways that are not possible in any other place.

What makes a dude ranch for our guests is a vacation where you are not a client or customer but truly a guest of the ranch. Once people come through the gates they are all equal. From corporate CEOs to grocery store clerks, everyone is treated as one of the family. Every week dude ranchers invite a new set of guests into their homes, and by Wednesday they are all dancing together, and by the end of the week they have become lifelong friends. For some guests it is a chance to experience a horseback riding adventure they have always dreamed of and for others, simply a beautiful setting where they can relax from the daily grind back home. Over the years I have found that dude ranching is about great scenery, good friends, sure footed horses, wonderful food and above all, more fun than you can have anywhere else.

What makes a dude ranch for people lucky enough to work on a dude ranch is a chance to spend their summer working harder than they have ever worked and having more fun than they have ever had before. At the age of 17, I thought riding through the Shoshone River with the water belly deep on my horse chasing 80 horses in from the pasture was what dude ranching was all about. For a lot of the younger staff it still is. But more than that each employee fortunate enough to work on a well run dude ranch for a summer has the opportunity to learn more about responsibility, interacting with people, and to take with them a work ethic that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

Yes, a well-run dude ranch is “Hospitality at its very finest,” and this means everyone who works on a well-run ranch goes that extra mile to take 7 year-old Sally out to the corral one last time to say goodbye to her horse Lucky; the cooks saying, “No problem…we are happy to take care of special requests, and the staff  knowing all the guests names and making them feel as though they have gone on vacation with best friends they just met – to me this is what makes a dude ranch.