Horseback Riding

Dude Ranch Vacations

February 20, 2012

Dude ranches make the perfect vacation for horse lovers.

Dude Ranch

Parents can relax on their own trail rides.Journal photo.

By Holly Clanahan for America’s Horse

I admit it. I’m a dude.

Not in the cool sense of the teenage vernacular. Nope, we’re talking old-fashioned dude here. As in dude ranch. And it’s a good thing.

Randy Sue Fosha, Dude Ranchers’ Association member and owner of Drowsy Water Ranch with her husband, Ken, invited me and my husband, Chad Hendrix, out to see what dude ranching is all about.

When we arrive, Ken promises us a couple of things. First, he says, the guests will come from a variety of backgrounds, but “everybody here’s going to be just one thing this week, and that’s a cowboy – or a cowgirl.” And second, he predicts that lasting friendships will be made. Some people who have met at the ranch plan joint vacations there the following year, so “it’s just like a big old family reunion.”

Ken and Randy Sue have owned Drowsy Water, located just outside Granby, Colorado, for 35 years. The ranch is 8,300 feet above sea level, and it has been a dude ranch since the 1920s. The original owner promoted dude ranching so heavily, in fact, that he got a train station built there, established a bus stop and officially renamed the creek running through the ranch Drowsy Water Creek.

It’s easy to see why dudes have been coming here for 80 years or so. The sounds of the Colorado mountains are blissful. The creek engages in quiet conversation with blue grouse and assorted songbirds as it washes over polished rocks; aspens dance in the wind, whispering as they go; and in between is silence, peaceful and still, like city folk aren’t used to hearing.

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The people are also a draw. The ranch accommodates about 55 people, and most of them plan a weeklong stay. Meals are served family-style in the dining hall, and “So, where are you from?” is a standard opening line. Guests go to Drowsy Water expecting to make new friends, and just like Ken said, it usually happens.

A Horse Vacation for Horse People

Drowsy Water provides horses for beginners through advanced riders.

“I want something that’s not just an old plug,” says Becca Raddant, from Shawano, Wisconsin, who is visiting the ranch with her sister Alicia and aunt and uncle, Colleen and Randy Olick.

And the ranch delivers. “It’s like I never left home; I just got a brand-new horse,” Alicia says. “When we’re cantering, it’s like ‘I’m alive!’ It’s not like, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years.’ ”

I agree with them. My assigned mount, a Quarter Horse named Bo C Five, is energetic enough to keep things interesting but still responsive and controllable.

The sisters are also pleased by the range of activities. One day, they take a raft trip down the Colorado River. Other days, they live it up at scheduled evening activities. The fun includes a country barn dance, where guests learn everything from the electric slide to square dancing, and the Drowsy Water carnival, with diversions such as pin the tail on the horse and horse roulette, which features a wheel with horse names instead of numbers. There also was a jail (this is the Old West, remember?) that required a bail bond of five kisses. Lots of cute kids got arrested, and it didn’t take them long to collect their required number of smooches.

Growing Up to be a Cowboy

For children visiting with their families, the Range Riders program for kids ages 6-13 give the children a little more help horseback riding, plus there are hayrides and campfire cookouts. Children 5 and younger are “Buckaroos” for a week, and they are cared for during the day by counselors so their parents can relax on their own trail rides. Buckaroos take part in closely supervised horseback rides and other planned activities.

Across the Pond

Brian and Janet Jenner, from Grays Essex, England, wanted something really special to mark their 30th anniversary. They found it at Drowsy Water, where they signed up for a two-week stay.

Janet, a novice rider, is intimidated at first by her horse, but wranglers quickly switch her to a smaller, more docile mount, and she settles in just fine, although “I’m a bit sore,” she says. It is the couple’s first trip to the States, and it’s everything they expected and more.

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“It’s kind of like it says on the breakfast menu: ‘If you leave here hungry, it’s your own fault.’ If you don’t have fun here, it’s your own fault,” Brian says. “I always said I was a cowboy in my first life!”

Four Germans complete the European contingent for the week. Petra Milewski and Reinhard Cremer of Aldenhoven, Germany, are vacationing with two German friends stationed temporarily in Boston.

Petra and Reinhard rode western-style in Tuscany, Italy, once, but “this is something we would like to do in America because it came from America,” Petra says. They were drawn to Drowsy Water because of the emphasis placed on horseback riding. Beginners are given lessons so they learn how to ride, instead of just sitting up there.

“This is a special experience,” Petra says. “It’s not a normal holiday. You can forget everything because you concentrate on your horse. You can step out of your life.”

Find the One That’s Just Right

The Dude Ranchers’ Association has more than 100 member ranches scattered across 12 western states and one Canadian provinces. But “dude ranch” doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. Accommodations can range from luxury log cabins to keep-it-simple lodge rooms, and prices vary accordingly. You’ll have to make a decision about activities, too. Do you want to focus on horseback riding or would you rather have other diversions?

Timing poses another choice. Some ranches are only open summer through fall, while others operate year round.

The Dude Ranchers’ Association can provide information to help you find just the right ranch. Visit the association’s website or call (866) 399 2339.

The association is an AQHA Alliance Partner, which means that the two groups enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, working together to promote the western lifestyle.