Which are the best guest ranches for advanced riders? According to The Hideout's Peter de Cabooter, the answer is not that straighforward. Mel Rutherford asks Peter for his advice on how advanced riders can find the best horseback riding vacations for their level...
What levels of rider do you cater for?
We offer quality riding to different levels of rider - from beginners wanting to learn, to baby boomers who used to ride and want to get back into riding, to serious riders who are looking for a riding vacation.
How would you describe the horseback riding at The Hideout?
We ride elevations between 4,200 –12,000ft. The area offers a unique variety of terrains due to these elevations and the different exposed formations – half desert, craggy canyons, widen open prairies, alpine forests, lakes and streams. We ranch around 300,000 acres and ride across 600,000 acres. Eight heavy-duty truck trailers give us the flexibility to load up horses and start riding wherever our guests would like to ride - they pretty much experience what cowboys do on big working cattle ranches. Every day our guests choose what kind of riding they would like to do and we make it happen. Many ask us, “I would like to go riding in that direction”. Usually it is too far away to saddle up from the barn and ride there, but we load up the horses, drive to that location and just start riding.
How do you cater for so many different levels of rider?
We split up in groups to make sure different levels of riders can do what they like to do in terms of riding. If groups or families likes to ride together, however, we adapt the level to the least experienced rider in the group. We allocate a maximum of six guests per wrangler, mainly so that we can comfortably load in the trucks.
How do you allocate horses to guests?
We have a minimum three horses per rider during our peak season and four to five horses per rider during our shoulder season. Most of the time guests are not limited to riding the same horse every day - especially for intermediate and advanced riders, we have plenty of good horses from our herd, which is made up of Quarter Horses and Mustangs.
Would you describe The Hideout as a dude ranch or working ranch?
I think that the industry should look for a bigger segmentation when it comes to defining guest ranches than the current Dude Ranch, Guest Ranch (most people still don’t know the difference between these), Working Cattle Ranch or Resort Ranch.
I'd describe The Hideout as an upscale working cattle ranch and a riding destination. The Dude or Guest Ranch part comes into play as we offer also good non-riding activities, such as a professional trap shooting, a great fly fishing program, 4x4 tours, dinosaur digs, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, photography, cooking lessons and such like. These are mostly used during the summer season when we get a lot of families with kids and teenagers. Outside of the season it is mostly about riding.
How do you think people perceive the term 'dude ranch' with regards to horseback riding opportunities?
It depends. Especially in North America, a guest or dude ranch vacation is a known term, so people more or less know what to expect. In the international market it is a bit confusing for people who have never taken such vacation. Few of our North American guests are experienced riders, but most overseas guests are horse people and expect a certain level of riding, quality of horses and tack, experienced wranglers and an open mind towards other styles of riding. The feedback from these guests and from the more experienced North American riders is that they are often disappointed in the quality of riding they experience at Guest Ranches. Many are nose to tail, and there are the limitations of riding faster because of liability, etc.
How true do you think these perceptions really are?
It is mostly about expectations and how a ranch positions itself. In the US there is always the liability issue. Many of the international and experienced riders in North America are looking for a quality riding vacation at a great destination. On the other hand, many of the people looking for a Guest or Dude Ranch Vacation are looking for something that is more than just horseback riding – above all, a family vacation. A riding vacation can be a family vacation, but that shouldn't be taken as a given.
A number of ranches offer great riding. A number of ranches offer great riding for 90% of the riders. A number of ranches offer the right riding and the right horses for most groups – from pure amateur, to those wanting to learn, to the expert rider that picks up on every little detail.
How can guests be sure of what they're going to get before they book?
By asking. We get a truckload of critical questions as to what kind of horses we have, do we own our horses, how responsive are they, do we move out during the rides, how many riders per wrangler, what is the background of our wranglers, can they ride English as well as Western, how many horses per guests do we typically have, will the horse be too tired if they visit toward the end of the season, do we fine tune our horses during the winter?
What other questions should people be asking?
Things like, what is your horse philosophy? How do you train your horses? Do you have a horse adapted to each level of rider in the family or group? Can you split up in different groups to accommodate that? That kind of thing.
How do you accurately gauge a level of rider?
We often have beginner riders who have been told that they are really great riders. We are pretty honest about this - and they do not always like it. But we have to be honest, because what is a Level 3 rider on some ranches might not be a Level 3 rider at a riding ranch like The Hideout. That person might ride a Level 1, but might move up to a Level 2 throughout the week, in which case we will switch horses for them.
Some guests want to go on a real cattle drive because they have done one at another guest ranch that took two hours. A real cattle drive is never two hours on a big ranch like ours, more like 6–8 hours. We tell people ahead of time, although lately we have had an extra wrangler go out who can take these people back if it gets too much. But this year, we're starting to offer three levels of cattle work to suit all levels of rider.
How would you describe an advanced rider?
That is a very relative definition. I have seen top level international showjumpers that are nervous for the first two days riding our country. That is simply because they usually ride in an arena on very hot horses and think constantly what would happen if they would ride this terrain on their horse. However, after a couple days they relax and of course they can ride.
Advanced means you have been around different kinds of horses and different kinds of riding, you remain calm, you realize that riding in this country is not like riding in an arena doing reining or dressage, you are open minded and you have no desire to show off your skills. Above all, you have your horse under control in all circumstances, respect your horse and realize he is no truck. You realize that it is not because you paid that you can run that horse into a wreck. You realize that horses are like employees and that they are partners.
We have all our guests score themselves on a scale of 1 to 5, and based on that we prepare a horse and saddle. But we still do a full morning orientation for first time guests to really probe their perception of riding. We often then change horses based on that.
Some people will be pretty optimistic to call themselves advanced. Others will be really advanced and tell us they are intermediate. I have seldom seen a very experienced and advanced rider giving him or herself a maximum score of 5 – they usually score themselves a 3.5 or 4.0. What we have seen more and more are intermediate riders who have been to nose-to-tail guest ranches and score themselves 5.0 because they are afraid that they will get an unresponsive horse. If we give those people one of our more high-end very light and responsive horses, they can’t handle it. We have seen people calling themselves Advanced but then ask us to teach them to lope and trot..!
What specifically do you offer at The Hideout that no other ranch does?
I think there are other ranches that offer a similar riding experience. And depending of what you are looking for, there are other ranches that offer in their field a better riding experience. If you are looking for a reining vacation, or to ride Arabian horse, there are other ranches.
What we offer is a great all-round riding and working cattle experience combined with an upscale boutique like service, great healthy food, genuine and professional staff, and an array of non-riding activities. All this is holistically integrated in a very open-minded and global culture out West, located in the middle of nowhere, riding a seldom-seen vastness of country and variety of terrain. And alongside Quarter Horses, the intermediate and advanced rider can ride one of our Mustangs.
What key words/phrases should a guest look out for when browsing for a ranch vacations with advanced riding?
That is a difficult one to answer. It's more about the industry adding some new segmentation and thinking outside the box on how to add and market that new segmentation. The challenge will be that most ranches will state that they are a riding destination because they have horses and offer horseback riding. A bit like “working cattle ranches” – it is not because you have 50 cows that you are a working cattle destination. And it is not because you are a working cattle ranch that you have a riding program.
How can people read between the lines?
A working cattle ranch has a different feel. Although it can be upscale, it will never have a resort feel to it. A working cattle ranch that is really into guest ranching will usually offer different levels of cattle work. Few people want to do cattle work every day and even fewer want to get up a 4am to do cattle work. Do your homework - see if the ranch really has cattle and farming. Even if the herd is only 150 and the farm is 200 acres, it is important to ask those questions.
How can guests ensure they will get a great working ranch experience?
It is important to ask if less experienced riders can enjoy cattle work. If a working cattle ranch is really in to the guests, they will have a herd in the valley around the barn to practice on and teach the guests how to move cattle. Working cattle ranches also usually have their own horses. People should ask, are these horses safe? Did they get enough groundwork? Ask about the tack - how old is it? What brands of saddles? Do you carry radios during the rides?
In addition, people should ask what kind of wranglers the working ranch is using. Are they real cowboys or do these people have experience with guests? Are they friendly, safe, hospitable and make it all about the riders having a great vacation experience, and not just about being able to do cattle work?
And for guests looking specifically for more challenging riding?
Other questions should include:
1) Do you get a lot of experienced riders?
2) Do you get all levels of riders AND experienced riders?
3) What time of the year is best to come for experienced riders?
4) How do you start your horses?
5) What is the culture of your horse program?
6) What do you think of English riders?
The answer to the last question will unveil how open minded the ranch is – it is not about Western, English or any other discipline, but about the fact that a riding ranch has an open mind, has been around and knows that any style of riding comes back to about 90% the same basics.
For more information on ranch vacations at The Hideout, click here