There is horseback riding, Midwest style. And then there is horseback riding, dude ranch style.
In the Midwest, horseback riding generally consists of climbing on a horse, getting a few minutes' instruction in how to make the horse go, stop and turn. Experienced riders know it doesn't matter; the horses are in charge. They'll be walking the same path they have walked hundreds of times, following the horse in front, nose to tail.
Dude ranch riding is different. Here, lessons are more involved and more important. That's because you could end up cantering through a field or climbing a hill and you'll want to be able to do more than just hang on.
Fortunately, dude ranches are all about learning to ride. They cater to everyone from rookies (me) to more experienced riders (my daughter, Tess, then 10) to seriously accomplished riders.
Like many girls, Tess is a horse lover. So we headed to Grand County, Colo., last summer to check out two dude ranches, Drowsy Water Ranch and Aspen Canyon Ranch. I hoped the trip would give me a chance to get in touch with my inner cowgirl. It did.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon at the Drowsy Water Ranch, a rustic spot nestled in a valley alongside the Arapahoe National Forest. From the moment owner Randy Sue Fosha, decked out in gingham skirt and cowboy boots, greeted us with "Howdy," we felt at home.
Teaching is key
Jeans and boots are the wardrobe of choice at any dude ranch. It's great for kids-no TV, lots of fresh air and outdoor activity, plenty of other kids to play with and, of course, horses to groom, saddle, feed and ride.
The week starts in the corral, with a wrangler who pairs riders and horses and doesn't let anyone out of the gate until the rider, regardless of age, can demonstrate an ability to control the horse.
We spent two days at Drowsy Water and two more at Aspen Canyon, a less rustic ranch. Both ranches offered the expert riding lessons and down-home hospitality I had expected from a dude ranch. Our only disappointment was the lack of a pool at Aspen Canyon.
Weekly rates at Aspen Canyon are $1,600 for adults; $1,100 ages 7-16; $850 ages 3-6 and free for 2 and under. Weekly rates at Drowsy Water are $1,655 adults; $1,470 ages 14-17; $1,290 ages 6-13 and $605 ages 5 and under. Youngest children get pony rides around the ranch, no trail rides. Most of the ranches offer other activities, too. We loved the Colorado River white water rafting trip run by Mad Adventures.
We flew Frontier Airlines from Midway into Denver, our first flight with Frontier. It was one of the best flying experiences we have had, and at the best price to boot. The flight took off on time, landed early and the plane offered individual television screens with some free programming and pay-per-view movies (including family films) at $8 a pop, payable by swiping your credit card.
From Denver, we hopped on the Home James shuttle to Granby, Colo. Both Drowsy Water and Aspen Canyon will send a driver to pick you up from there for free. However, round-trip shuttle charges are $108, ages 12 and up, $68, 11 and under, so it might be cheaper to rent a car.
• Drowsy Water Ranch
• Aspen Canyon Ranch
• Mad Adventures
• Home James Shuttle
Choosing the right ranch
Plug "dude ranch" into Google and you get 1.22 million results for ranches from Arizona to Montana, California to Georgia. So how do you know which is right for your family?
Barry and Elena Lessin of Chicago have been going to dude ranches for more than 15 years, since before they had kids and now with Jakob, 8, Ava, 6, and the baby, Milly. They've learned a few things along the way and offered these tips:
• Start by choosing the state you want to visit.
• Decide how much family togetherness you crave. Some ranches have programs that keep kids occupied all day. Others ensure plenty of family togetherness.
• Think about the food. Do you want gourmet dinners? Or cookouts around the campfire?
• Decide whether your kids will be able to live without a pool.
• Check out the kids' programs. Does the ranch have an age limit? What happens to kids too young to ride the trails?
Cindy Richards is the travel editor of Chicago Parent and the mom of Evan and Tess.