My first ranching holiday was the ultimate in lucky breaks. Riding out on the range as a rookie cowgirl, I was shown how to inject antibiotics into the flanks of kicking calves while Hip, son of Lloyd Tillett, the TX Ranch patriarch, castrated them with a knife.
That may sound cruel, but that’s the way they do it in Montana. Indeed that’s the way they’ve been doing it, though initially without the drugs, since William Tillett and his wife, Bessie, established their homestead near Lovell, Wyoming, in 1895. Their first cattle, bought in from Amarillo, Texas, had the TX brand that is still used today.
In the 21st century, Lloyd and his wife Abbie keep 1,200 breeding cows and progeny too numerous to count on grasslands straddling the state line. When I was there in July, sleek herds were enjoying lush summer pastures, bright with wild flowers, on the Montana side. Happily I was back in my western saddle at the end of the day’s work when a rattler reared into attack mode under my horse’s hooves. Likewise when a black bear walked purposefully along the edge of a gorge, perhaps 50 yards away, but fortunately on the other side.
Each night, we stretched out under the stars in our sleeping bags sated with Abbie’s magnificent home cooking, only to awake to barking dogs and thrashing hooves as wolves or bears approached the derelict corral. Each morning, Abbie would say: “Darn, them horses jumped out again.” But as Hip preferred the excitement of rounding them up to the grind of fixing the woodwork, that’s how it had to be.
With so much action 24/7, the TX horses are fit for purpose and eager to gallop, whether pursuing errant steers or rounding up young horses at racing pace on the plains of Little Bighorn, scene of Custer’s last stand in 1876.
When the Tillets established their working guest ranch in 1976, they broke new ground in a country that already had plenty of well-established dude ranches. That’s the kind where guests, many of them novices in the saddle, live in luxury and walk out with the due caution required to prevent injury litigation.
Typically, they appeal to multi-generational holidaymakers, with games and petting zoos for the children, art and cookery classes for the sedentary and skeet shooting and archery for the wannabes who need a target to hit.
These are the two extremes of the holiday ranching industry but, as I learned when I visited Lonesome Spur near Bridger, Montana, some ranches are better than others. Owned by the Schwend family since the late 19th century, it was converted into a guest ranch by Lonnie and his then wife, Darlene, in 1993.
Shortly afterwards, author Nick Evans stopped off during his research for The Horse Whisperer and modelled Frank and Dianne Booker, the hero’s brother and sister-in-law, on his hosts.
In real life, Lonnie is as laid back as Frank. A superb rider, he trains his splendid young horses with his own version of the Monty Roberts “horse whisperer” technique, rather than breaking them in with strong bits and spurs as cowboys used to do.
Like the Tilletts, the Schwends offer their guests a “working” ranch experience, but mine was restricted to a very slow cattle drive on a horse so fat that the saddle slipped round at any pace above a walk, a potentially alarming result.
The other days during my stay were given over to shopping, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Museum in Cody, an agenda that found no favour with glamorous French clients who’d come dressed to make it like cowgirls. As they also planned to go to the local bar to pick up cowboys, both “sending home” offences in the Schwend etiquette manual, they’re not likely to be repeat customers.
The moral of this is that picking the right holiday for your ability and ambitions requires research and planning, especially now that ranching has gone global.
Here’s where you can take ranch holidays:
Say ranch and most people would think Texas, the traditional heart of the cattle business and the place where real men shoot down their enemies in dusty streets at high noon. It doesn’t disappoint, particularly in Bandera – nicknamed the Cowboy Capital of the World.
Since Hollywood’s popular comedy, City Slickers, introduced the nation to rookie cowboys on the cattle trail in the 1990s, horse-rich California has diversified into ranch holidays to suit every aspiration.
The Rockies, with their high summer pastures, are perfect for cattle-led holidays. As a rule of thumb, wherever you can ski in winter, you can ride the range in summer. That means Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, but
note that the season is shorter and the weather colder the further north you go. Rodeo festivals maintain the traditions of the Old West, with bucking, roping and barrel-jumping contests, so check out dates near your destination before you book.
From the pizzazz of Las Vegas, a 35-minute helicopter flight takes you straight to the Grand Canyon Ranch Resort on the canyon’s West Rim, where accommodation is in pine cabins or traditional Native American tepees. Activities include guided horse rides, wagon
rides on the historic Mormon Trail, roping demonstrations, cowboy stories and fireside sing-alongs. Horse-back or wagon buffalo safaris have just been introduced.
There’s also a case for looking outside the box. South Dakota, for example, has a proud equestrian tradition, with Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial thrown in for good measure, while Kentucky, Oklahoma and Kansas showcase American diversity in the saddle. Few would associate Hawaii with ranching, but the Big Island, in particular, has an enormous cattle industry with facilities for range riding of all kinds.
You can also join in a cattle drive in several states, helping to move the cattle to or from their summer grazing pastures.
North of the border, Calgary, home to the celebrated Stampede each July, is the focus for ranch holidays in Alberta. Many of the outdoor scenes in the award winning movie, Brokeback Mountain, were filmed among dramatic lakes and waterfalls in Kananaskis Country, an extensive park with lots of great riding country within 30 minutes of the downtown area.
British Columbia, the country’s most westerly and mountainous province, has hidden secrets that deserve to be explored. They include Tsylos Park Lodge, set in a scenic area for trail riding and camping between the Coastal Mountains and the Chilcotin Plateau, and Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, near Tofino on Vancouver Island.
For cowboy, read gaucho, for ranch, read estancia, but the name of the game is the same, with men born in the saddle exhibiting skills the rest of us can only marvel at. Over much of Argentina, the pampas stretch as far as the eye can see, herds that run into thousands mere dots on the horizon. Gauchos wear baggy pants held up with woven cotton sashes and cheeky berets or pork pie hats, a different look to the cowboy’s checked shirts, blue jeans and stetsons. Riding in the foothills of the Andes, especially in northern Patagonia, is more interesting than the flatlands.
In Ecuador, my ride from estancia to estancia, often with formal dinner hosted by the lord of the manor, provided insights into a yesteryear culture that has changed little over the past century.
Australia and New Zealand
For gaucho, read jackeroo, for estancia, read cattle station, but again these are nations of stockmen engaged in raising cattle and sheep in the back of beyond. In the 21st century, Aussie farmers tend to round up their animals on motorbikes, but many stations are still eager to host riding holidays.
The arrival of travelling shearers on a wool-harvesting mission marks the start of a party that lasts for the duration. This is especially true in New Zealand, famously home to just 4.5 million people but 60 million sheep.
Ranch holiday facts
The season is short in Montana so Ranch Rider advise early booking for the TX Ranch summer pastures camps. Day to day action includes dehorning, branding, tagging, wrangling young horses and chasing down stray cattle as well as castrating, though guests can chill if they prefer. Seven nights’ tented accommodation with full board and riding costs from £989 per person including pick up at Billings airport. Flights from £675. Over- 16s only.
In The Saddle offers cutting-edge adventure at Estancia Huechahue near San Martin de Los Andes in Patagonia, Argentina. Variants include camping trips on horseback through monkey puzzle forests among snow-capped volcanic cones, seasonal cattle drives to distant parts of Patagonian Steppe and fishing trips. Seven nights’ accommodation in two lodges with all meals and drinks starts at £1,696, excluding flights. Children over six welcome.
Western and Oriental offers seven nights staying at 923-acre Tiger Mountain Ranch in Oklahoma, a guest ranch which mostly offers scenic Western riding, from £1,665 per person and includes return flights, transfers, taxes, gratuities and full board at the ranch and most ranch activities, with accommodation in a tepee or a lodge room. Wranglers show guests cowboy activities including shooting Old West guns, cattle ranching and learning to live off the land.
American Round-Up features the Lonesome Spur Ranch in Montana. One of the best times to go is late May or early June, when activities include moving cattle into summer grazing and possibly branding. Return flights from London to Billings, a first nights’ hotel and seven nights at the ranch with accommodation, full board, ranch activities, Billings transfers, tax and tips costs from £1,799.
Ranch holiday specialists
American Round Up: 01798 865946, www.americanroundup.com. North American ranch and adventure specialists.
In the Saddle: 01299 272997, www.inthesaddle.com. Dude, guest and working ranches in the US and Canada, plus worldwide riding holidays and explorer trails in Australia and New Zealand.
Ranch Rider: 01509 618811, www.ranchrider.com. US, Canada, Argentina, South Africa & Botswana.
Unicorn Trails: 01767 600606, www.unicorntrails.com. Many countries in Latin America (including Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic).
Western and Oriental: 020 7963 6657, www.wandotravel.com. Tailormade ranch holidays or add-ons to other holidays in North America.
TX Ranch, Montana: www.txranch.com
Lonesome Spur Ranch, Montana: www.lonesomespur.com
Grand Canyon Ranch Resort, Arizona: www.grandcanyonranch.com
Tsylos Park Lodge, British Columbia, Canada: www.tsylos.com
The Dude Ranchers’ Association (www.duderanch.org), founded in 1926, provides a rundown on over 100 dude ranches in the western United States.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you book a ranching holiday.