So you've been dreaming of getting away from the daily grind of life in a big city or the blandness of the suburbs. Maybe you fantasize about exploring the wilderness, love caring for horses or just want to work with your hands instead of sitting in a cubicle. You'd love to own your own ranch somewhere out West with a few hundred acres full of cattle, but you could never afford one. What if you could just live on someone else's ranch for a while, handle some maintenance and daily chores, keep the place running and keep the animals healthy and happy? Sure, the wages would be modest, but you'd be living the dream -- your dream.
Ranch caretaking can be a hard but rewarding job. For some people, it's a working vacation that lets them enjoy the outdoors. For others, it's a permanent job and the ranch is a lifelong home. You could work on a ranch for a season or two, or stay there for many years. It takes certain skills and experience to qualify, but ranch caretaking offers an opportunity to experience an entirely different lifestyle than what most of us are used to.
If you're not looking to become the permanent caretaker of a working ranch, you can always find out what ranch life is like by working on a dude ranch. There, you can do ranch work for a few weeks or an entire season. This is a form of agritourism, and there are lots of ranches set up to accommodate "weekend warrior" ranchers. If you're looking for a break from your everyday routine, read on to learn how to become a ranch caretaker.
How to Become a Ranch Caretaker
The method you use to become a ranch caretaker depends on your ultimate goal. If you want to become the permanent caretaker of a working ranch, it could be difficult. There aren't a lot of job openings, and if you don't already know a ranch owner looking for a caretaker, you'll have to start looking through classified ads. There are publications and Web sites that cater to the ranching industry -- they have sections where ranch owners can post job openings, and where potential caretakers can post their qualifications. The Caretaker Gazette is one of the most well-known caretaker publications around.
The more common type of ranch caretaker is someone looking to work at a ranch for a season or two to get a feel for the life of an authentic rancher. You can find open seasonal caretaker positions in much the same way as you'd find a permanent position. However, you could also work at a dude ranch. What's the difference? In the 20th century, an entire industry developed that catered to city dwellers that had developed a romanticized vision of the "Old West" and wanted to experience it first-hand. These easterners traveling west were called "dudes," so ranches that offered them the western frontier vacations they craved became known as dude ranches, or guest ranches.
Today, the dude ranch industry is alive and well. To get a seasonal job, you apply just like any other job. If you're hired, you'll get to live on the ranch for a few weeks or months in return for the work you'll do. Some dude ranches have Web sites that include application information. Travel agents may have contacts with dude ranches, and there's even a dude ranch industry organization that could help you find a ranch to work.
In the next section, we'll find out about the skills that make a good ranch caretaker.
What You Need to Know to Be a Ranch Caretaker
There are many different jobs on a ranch, each of which requires different skills and knowledge. The one thing all ranch jobs have in common is hard work. There's a lot of physical labor involved, whether you're clearing trails or shoveling out the stables. You need to be in decent physical condition to perform most ranch jobs well. You'll also be outdoors most of the time, so hiking and camping experience is crucial.
Many dude ranches offer training as part of their seasonal work programs, but workers with experience in certain areas will have an advantage over other applicants. If you're vying for a permanent caretaker job on a working ranch, you'll definitely need to have the right skills ahead of time.
The most popular ranch jobs are wrangling and cowboy or cowgirl jobs. To qualify for these, you need to be good at horseback riding, and you should know how to feed and take care of healthy and sick horses alike. Some basic maintenance skills are helpful as well, since you might be called on to repair a broken fence or paint a barn. Wranglers often serve as trail guides for other guests, so dudes with teaching and instruction skills are useful, as well as those who can work well with children. In fact, a gregarious personality is a must for a wrangler on a dude ranch. While caring for the horses is a priority, you'll have to interact with other guests and keep them entertained with stories and jokes as you teach them new things or guide them along trails.
If you're not good with horses, there are still plenty of other ranch jobs available. Ranches always need cooks, mechanics, housekeepers and food servers. If the ranch offers a day care center for guests and employees, that opens another possibility for work.
On the next page, we'll explore life as a ranch caretaker.
Life as a Ranch Caretaker
Life on any ranch means getting up early to start work. Whether you're cleaning bathrooms, repairing a tractor or taking a group on a guided trail ride, sleeping in isn't really an option. You won't find many luxuries on a ranch either. There are exceptions to this rule: Some guest ranches are more like vacation resorts that allow guests to experience a taste of ranch life, but a working ranch is a different story. Many guest ranches are essentially working ranches that employ seasonal workers.
Meals on a large ranch are served cafeteria-style in a large dining hall. On overnight trail rides, dinner is cooked over a camp fire. Seasonal workers share cabins or bunk rooms, while permanent caretakers typically have their own modest house on the ranch property.
Daily tasks will usually involve basic things like feeding the horses and maintaining their tack, housekeeping, preparing meals and other basic chores. Ranch caretakers have to be adaptable, though, because new tasks will crop up on a regular basis. You might have to fix a chainsaw that has stopped working, help a mare birth a foal in the middle of the night, or deal with a sudden snowstorm.
Caretakers do get free time -- once all the work is done. They explore the outdoors, hang out with the other caretakers and ranch workers, or pursue a hobby of their own.
Things can be different for permanent caretakers. They treat the ranch as if it's their own. Some ranch owners leave the ranch during the winter months, leaving the caretaker there to manage things in their absence. Caretakers may earn a nominal hourly wage or they might earn equity in the ranch. This allows them to be paid from the ranch's profits, and the arrangement may help caretakers to take ownership of the ranch eventually.
For more information about ranch life, take a look at the links on the next page.
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- Dunn, Gary. "Life as a Caretaker on a Montana Ranch." Countryside & Small Stock Journal, Nov/Dec. 2000.
- Dunn, Thea K. "Make Yourself At Home: Get Local as a Property Caretaker." Gonomad.com, accessed Dec. 3, 2009.
- Caretaker Gazette. "Caretaking: A way of life - Profile of Glen Horton III." accessed Dec. 2, 2009.