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The Changing Life on the Ranch

Ah, the Wild West -- cowboys, horses and working on the land. It is the picture of a simpler time, and dude ranches are where those old snapshots come back to life.

Dude ranches (also known as guest ranches) are a type of ranch where guests get to live the cowboy lifestyle during their stay. They ride horses, enjoy the quiet solitude of nature and get to be involved in tons of outdoor activities.

On a "working ranch," guests have their work cut out for them. These ranches often raise and breed their own horses and cattle, and people who stay on them get the chance to be involved in all areas of the working ranch life.

But times change, even on dude ranches.

Kathleen Yost co-owns a dude ranch in Colorado. She says dude ranches aren't entirely what they used to be.

"The industry is changing in that many owners are selling to lucrative land buyers and they are being encroached upon by highways, subdivisions, etc." she says. "The economy has made running a ranch very hard."

Yost says demand for dude ranches depends on people's economic ability to spend money on the dude ranch experience. She says that right now demand is falling, but in good years demand rises.

Terri Mason, the editor of a magazine about cowboy life, disagrees. She says the dude ranch business seems to be growing right now, and the reason is our ever-expanding cities.

She explains that back in the older days, there were tiny pockets of civilization surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness. "Today, we live in sprawling cities and are searching for tiny pockets of wilderness. Guest ranches are one of those tiny pockets."

Mason says one way dude ranches are changing these days is the quality of the horses. While in the past, dude ranches' horses often had a bad reputation, that's changed and now good dude ranches take pride in their horses, says Mason.

"Also, each generation is one step farther away from the ranch and guests themselves often have had no exposure to large animals at all," she says. "Add in the exorbitant cost of insurance and you can see why so much care is taken with the horses."

Peter Askew is the founder of a website all about dude ranches. He says dude ranches have changed over time and continue to do so.

"Certain ranches have definitely evolved over the years to provide additional activities for their visitors, such as tennis, swimming, fly fishing and mountain bike riding," he says. "Those aspects merely expand the dude ranch experience for groups interested in a little more variety during their vacation. But understand, there remain several ranches who concentrate on the riding experience, and the working ranch moniker."

Askew says one thing that helps determine if it's going to be a busy season at the dude ranch is, surprisingly, what movies and television shows are popular at the time.

"Movie and TV shows have definitely made their impact on dude ranches," he says. "Classics like City Slickers and other westerns such as the True Grit remake affect both visitor attendance and employee demand."

So who are the employees? Well, there are many different positions at a dude ranch. There are people in administrative positions, housekeeping staff, kitchen staff, management and outdoor guides.

But when people think of working on a dude ranch, they are probably thinking of the job of the wrangler.

Wranglers work on dude ranches dealing with both the guests and the horses. Mason says wranglers have perhaps the most important job of anyone on today's guest ranches, and there is more to the job than people might expect.

"The wrangler is often the face of the ranch, the one person the guests depend on to not only show them the scenery but to see it safely," she says.

"Good wranglers are front-line public relations experts. When you think about it, there are people that spend years in university studying PR and psychology and they never get a handle on it; good wranglers are a natural."

Wranglers also look after horses and know how to match a guest with an appropriate horse to ride -- a big part of the dude ranch experience. They also need to be able to fix many things, have a lot of knowledge about local flora and fauna and be able to react in case of emergency.

"They should be skilled enough to give encouraging riding lessons to the most timid of riders so they too enjoy their vacation," says Mason. "Most of all, good wranglers are natural-born leaders."

Mason says that most wranglers get into the job for the perceived freedom. But she says that is ironic, as there is a lot of responsibility in this line of work.

"Whether they work on a guest ranch or are taking guests out on a pack trip, the wrangler is in the saddle for most of the day and doing what they love -- riding," she says.

"Why I say this is ironic is because they are anything but free; they are in charge of the lives and comfort of probably 10 riders, 10 horses and themselves. However, it's been said that if you get a job doing what you love, you'll never work another day in your life."

One other thing to remember about the life of a wrangler is that the work is often seasonal due to weather, says Mason. This, combined with low pay, could make it an unappealing job to people who don't truly love the lifestyle.

"Wranglers are often not paid very well so tipping a wrangler is a classy thing to do," she says. "Oftentimes a wrangler will go pen riding at a feedlot or a similar job that will keep them in the saddle."

Mason says the dude ranch business is growing, with associations being formed to pool resources for marketing and advertising.

"This is a boon for the guests as most guest ranch association websites are one-stop shopping," she says.

"The guest can decide they want to ride in the Rockies or on the plains and with one click they can find their perfect vacation ranch. By making it easier for the guests to book a vacation by providing online resources, toll-free phone numbers, etc., the guest ranch business is looking pretty good. Plus, it's not just about horses anymore; they offer extras, from spa packages to unique shopping trips."

And, according to Askew, the more our society becomes fascinated with all things technological, the more demand for dude ranches will rise. Seems like it doesn't make sense, but, as Askew explains, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.

"The more digital and Internet-focused our world becomes, it seems the more demand and interest there is for vacations that take folks away to recharge offline," he says. "And that's exactly what a dude ranch offers."

The place to go to find a dude ranch to go to or to look for jobs on a ranch

Dude Ranch Jobs 411
A guide to seasonal dude ranch employment

Marble Mountain Ranch
An example of a dude ranch, this one in California

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