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How Dude Ranches Work

A Week at a Dude Ranch
Cowboys wrestle a cow down for branding.
Cowboys wrestle a cow down for branding.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

Now that you've chosen a dude ranch, you'll want to know what to expect when you arrive. The great thing about dude ranches is that they provide enough structured activities to fill your days, but you are also afforded free time to explore on your own.

At most dude ranches, soon after check-in you may be welcomed to a late afternoon campfire. In the evening, you'll have time to settle into your accommodations and explore the ranch.

On day two, you'll attend horse orientation and training. Taking lessons early on will allow you to get the most out of the rest of your stay. Dude ranch professionals will work with each member of your group to make sure that all ability levels are accommodated.

If you're staying at a working dude ranch, your activities will reflect the real-life cowboy tasks. For example, you might be taught how to move cattle to new pastures to prevent overgrazing, calf-roping or even branding. To brand livestock, ranchers rope the animal, tie its legs together, and place a hot branding iron on its body. Some ranchers opt for tattoos or ear tagging as a substitute for livestock identification. A stay at a true-blue working dude ranch definitely isn't for the faint of heart.

After you've learned the basics of riding and familiarized yourself with your horse, the rest of the week is a blank canvas. You'll be free to take advantage of the programming available at the ranch or to just sit back, relax and immerse yourself in the beauty of your surroundings. For example, you might decide to try out your newly acquired horseback riding skills and take a ride with a group from the ranch. Most ranches provide a variety of guided ride lengths, such as two-hour, half-day or full-day rides. On overnight rides, a cook might accompany you to make sure that you're well fed throughout your adventure. During an overnight trip, you and your group might engage in storytelling, sing songs around the campfire and make s'mores -- the camping cliché.

Or, if you're not in a riding mood, you might decide to raft through a river canyon or take a hike through the mountains. You could visit a local national park, go fishing or simply sit in a hammock and read a book. The flexibility of the dude ranch experience allows for all types of people to get the most out of their adventure in the Wild West. On this unique tourist experience you'll get to experience the thrill of life as a cowgirl or cowboy, if only for a few days.