Cattle drives are about as real as it gets on a ranch vacation. Working ranch vacations offer the chance to get to grips with real roundups on cattle drives across the ranch, whether it’s moving sheep, cows or bison. Feel like a real cowboy as you drive cattle across the open range to find fresh pastures for them to graze, and make a real contribution to the working ranch operation as you help gather cattle for sale or branding in a spring or fall roundup. From USA working ranches to Australia cattle stations, cattle drives are a sure-fire way to embrace life as a real cowboy.
What to expect
How long you spend in the saddle with depending on the nature of the cattle drive – some can be short rides to move small herds to an adjacent pasture, while those involving driving large groups across several miles of ranch can last all day. That said, the duration of cattle drives can be unpredictable, especially on large ranches where actually finding the herd of cows can take longer than the cattle drive itself - meaning a short cattle drive can turn into an all-day ride if the herd decide to play hide-and-seek.
Depending on the ranch and the number of cattle run over the land, cattle drives can take place every day, offering unbeatable horseback riding opportunities for keen riders and those looking to get stuck into real ranch work. Other ranches may only need to roundup cattle once or twice a week – sometimes less.
The pace can vary greatly on cattle drives, so bear in mind your riding ability and level of confidence before embarking on a cattle drive at your chosen guest ranch. The ranch hosts and wranglers will be happy to advise you and will of course match you with a suitable horse for your ability. So should you want to experience a cattle drive but aren’t so keen on riding flat-out for hours on end, many ranches will ensure you go on the right cattle drive to match your needs. Some working ranches encompassing a Ranching First ethos require a certain standard of riding, so check before you go that you’ll be able to join in on a cattle drive. Either way, most ranches will allow you to follow the cattle drive on horseback but simply watch the action unfold, should you not wish or be able to actually take park in the cattle drive yourself.
Preparing for a cattle drive
For longer cattle drives, if you’re not used to spending many hours in the saddle it can be worth wearing a pair of padded pants or underwear underneath your jeans! Make sure that you’re totally comfortable in your clothing and are dressed appropriately for the weather. Even if it’s sunny, tie a light waterproof to your saddle as the weather can change without warning, and dress in layers should a cold or cloudy day suddenly take a much warmer turn. And before you set off, make sure you’re totally happy with your stirrup length, as you may not get the chance to stop and adjust the length once the cattle drive gets going.
Capture those lasting memories created on cattle drives with a small camera, but make sure it’s small enough to fit in your pocket or saddle bag – when moving faster, a big clunky camera is the last thing you’ll want swinging around. Most important is a canteen of water, as cattle drives can last several hours, often in high temperatures. Check with your chosen ranch before you go whether you’ll need to bring your own or if the ranch will provide them.
Top tips for your first cattle drive
Learn to 'read' cows on your working ranch vacation cattle drive!
Your team leaders and wranglers will give you ‘cattle drive 101’ before you set off, but here are the main points to remember when working cattle…
- When ‘riding up’ on a cow to get him to move, always ride toward its hip.
- Try to treat each cow as an individual as well as part of the herd. One cow making a run for it can take the whole herd with him, so be on your guard!
- Low stress cattle handling/stockmanship is key. Yelling or shouting at the cattle is discouraged;however, there are times when a "hey" or voice encouragement can be warranted.
- Let the herd travel at its own pace – pushing too much can cause the herd to panic and run, splitting over a large area. And once they’ve gone, it’s hard to get ‘em back!
- If you’re not sure what to do – ask! A wrangler will be on hand to guide you through your ranch cattle drive experience, so don’t be afraid to check you’re doing the right thing if you’re unsure – they will be happy to advise and teach you the ropes along the way. If you don’t feel confident enough to ride on your own, just say and a wrangler will make sure to stay with you the whole time.
- Make sure your horse is responsive to your aids, as you may have to suddenly turn, stop or pick up the pace at a moment’s notice, so you need your horse to be listening to you.
Want to get stuck into all-day cattle drives for the duration of your working ranch vacation? Then book your stay during the week of a ranch’s fall roundup. Fall roundups involve riding out for as long as it takes to gather every last cow in the herd and moving cattle back to the ranch where they’ll be shipped for sale. On working ranches with large herds – think up to 2,000 head of cattle – this can take a whole week and involve riding out all day, every day! One for the serious rider and those looking for true immersion into western cowboy culture.
Unique cattle drives
If you’re looking for a unique or exciting cattle drive experience, Top50 has a great selection of working ranch vacations for you to choose. Head to Zapata Ranch in Colorado, USA (pictured above), where you have the unique opportunity to ride with bison. These large, fast and unpredictable beasts make for fast-and-furious cattle drives with a real element of danger – one for experienced and confident riders.
For the unique chance to muster sheep on a cattle drive, head to Beaumont High Country Experience in New Zealand. This working cattle and sheep station runs 9,000 head of sheep on the 18,000-acre ranch, for a backcountry horseback riding experience like no other.
Although some guest ranches and dude ranches don't offer cattle drives, many do offer guests the opportunity to try cattle work in the arena, with lessons and competitions in team penning and cutting. This is ideal if you’re after a more relaxing or luxurious ranch vacation but still want to get stuck into some authentic ranching activities.
For the ultimate combination of experience, authenticity and luxury, we recommend Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, USA. This working ranch runs bison and is also a luxury guest ranch, meaning you can ride out all day on exciting real-life cattle drives as a real cowboy, AND indulge in some pampering in the full-service luxury spa. What more could you wish for?
Burnt Well Guest Ranch in New Mexico is another working ranch famous for its abundance of cattle work, and Lazy E-L Ranch is a Montana working ranch that specialises in cattle drive vacations. If cattle work is your priority on your working ranch vacations, this is the place to go - discover more about their cattle drives here. Or certainly check out The Hideout Guest Ranch in Wyoming, USA - which has been considered the "Gold Standard" of ranch vacations. You'll experience a working ranch stay and authentic cattle work; however also enjoy the softer side of European luxury, fine food and spa services. If you are looking for something truly intimate, give Sue and Eric a shout with Badger Creek Ranch or Duke Phillips a try with Chico Basin Ranch - where they only take YOUR group for the week! Chico Basin runs over 3000 head and focuses on a getaway for the experienced rider - you'll be doing a load of trotting and serious riding(recently featured in the acclaimed BEEF magazine for their ranching and grazing practices). With Badger Creek Ranch, although you'll have a true experience, they have the ability to take it "down a notch" to accommodate less experienced riders.
Go on a cattle drive!
Ranches with cattle drives
Ranches with sheep mustering
Ranches with cattle work in the arena
Ranches with bison
For more information on all of the ranches offering cattle drives, visit Top50Ranches.com