I’ve always been a fan of horses and, like many little girls, hoped I would have my own some day. I was fortunate that my aunt and uncle had a farm and several horses we could ride. Eventually we moved away from the farmland and my horse ownership dreams faded, but I still get giddy when I’m around these beautiful creatures. I really like cows, too, but for completely different reasons. I like their big, deep eyes; they’re curious and clueless, and they seem to have mastered the art of just hanging out, eating and moving at a lazy pace. What human wouldn’t enjoy having more of these cow qualities?

Curious Cows at Seven Devils Lodge.
Curious Cows at Seven Devils Lodge. Credit: Laurie McConnell

My love of horses and my desire to expose my family to something new brought about our first guest ranch vacation. The experience turned out to be much more than we expected. When I first shared the idea with the kids, my youngest was concerned he would be working in the barn all the time, feeding animals and mucking out stalls—and he wanted no part of that. My husband, who’d never ridden a horse before, was also a bit wary, but excited for something new and the chance to relax and have fun with the family. I, too, wanted the fun and relaxation, but I was most excited to see how the kids would react to a completely foreign environment. And, of course, I would get some horse time.

Seven Devils Lodge.
Seven Devils Lodge. Credit: Ken McConnell

We chose Seven Devils Lodge for our trip, a working ranch in the Seven Devils mountain range, complete with horses and cows! With my tranquil, pastoral setting secure, it was on to the fun stuff.

Upon our arrival, the staff—who would quickly become our friends and mentors—got us settled into our lodge rooms. Typically, guest ranches have a limited number of guests, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time with the staff during meals and while riding horses, fishing, hiking, and playing games. Some ranches also offer cabins, perfect for families and those who prefer their own space. We enjoyed relaxing in the lodge great room, the inviting kitchen aromas, and the back-and-forth chatter with new friends.

You'll get to know the horses before you ride them.
You’ll get to know the horse before you ride it. Credit: Ken McConnell

Horses: On our first afternoon, the wranglers took us to the barn to meet the horses. They matched us with horses that best suited us: an older and well-trained horse for the 11-year-old, and a more spirited horse for our fearless 13-year-old. They explained that the horses were trained for real ranch work, so all responded well to a light touch and verbal cues. We received careful instruction before even getting on the horses, like how to approach them, how to get on and off, how to use the reins, and more. This type of training is typical at guest ranches. We felt very confident before climbing into the saddle. (If you happen to have a Boy Scout in your family, a guest ranch stay is a great way to check off the hands-on requirements for the Horsemanship Merit Badge.)

We practiced reigning before heading out for a ride.
We practiced reining before heading out for a ride. Credit: Ken McConnell

Horses have their own personalities. My horse, for example, really liked to be near the front. Whether on a trail or out in the open, he wanted to be the leader, and he determinedly got himself into position. This prompted a few unexpected accelerations for me and quite a few giggles from the other riders. We loved that the animals could be themselves and have fun, and still be responsive and safe. Before we left the ranch, we were comfortable enough to ride for hours through trees, up and down hills and across small streams. We could jump over flowing water and we even moved cattle from one pasture to another using the riding skills we learned. And we did it all without cowboy hats. I was very proud of everyone but, more importantly, my had-never-ridden-a-horse loved ones had the time of their lives and gained confidence where they didn’t know they needed it.

Food: Plenty of it! Our stay was inclusive, so three home-style meals, snacks, and pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres magically appeared each day. We happened to be visiting during raspberry season and were invited to pick and eat as many as we liked. The ranch had a large, organic garden and we enjoyed fresh fruit, veggies and herbs daily. Remember what I said about hanging out and eating? It doesn’t get much better than enjoying a delicious meal somebody else prepared, on a deck surrounded by breathtaking scenery and the sound of lowing cattle in the distance. The hummingbirds buzzing around the colorful flowers and the mountain bluebirds were also quite captivating.

Learning to lasso.
Learning to lasso. Credit Laurie McConnell

Entertainment: Nearly every evening, the staff joined us for entertainment, which consisted of hilarious horseshoe and cornhole competitions. Archery was also popular with our family and, while safety always came first, there were plenty of laughs during our rivalries. The boys and my husband really enjoyed the hot tub in the evenings; I opted for the hammock. The lodge also had a big TV and a seemingly endless supply of old Westerns and books for guests to enjoy.

Beyond horses: Horses don’t have to be the main attraction during your guest ranch stay. Guest ranches usually offer hikes to scenic spots, mountain bike rides, and fishing trips. Sometimes these are guided, sometimes not. I recommend taking advantage of a guide, as they bring a wealth of local lore and knowledge to any trip, and often know the best trails, scenic locations and hidden fishing spots. They also add an element of security and can help in an emergency. If fishing is your thing, bring your own equipment or check with the ranch about fishing licenses and to see what options they offer for casting a line. Swimming, ATV riding and area tours are also common.

A morning hike lead to a dramatic canyon and waterfall.
A morning hike lead to a dramatic canyon and waterfall. Credit: Laurie McConnell

Trapshooting was an optional activity at our guest ranch, so we gave it a try. Our guide gave us a thorough safety briefing and taught us how to check the safety and carry, hold, load, and sight the rifle before a shell was ever inserted. I was impressed with my son’s focus, accuracy and respect for the weapon. Not particularly into the shooting myself, I had fun just being outdoors, celebrating with high-fives and watching yet another new experience unfold. When picking your guest ranch, give some thought to the activities your family enjoys and what they might like to try, and work with the staff to make it a stay to remember.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few guest ranch vacations, all as an adult. I’m glad our boys didn’t have to wait that long. In five short days, they learned how to safely shoot clays, ride horses and ATVS, and not to fear bats and got to know that cows are a little bit smarter than we think, that horses have to go to the dentist, too, and that you don’t need a cowboy hat to be a cowboy. I asked the kids what they liked best about the trip. “Everything” was their answer. Add another guest ranch vacation to our list of future getaways!

Trip Tips

Many rural and wilderness locations won’t have Internet or cell service. Check with the guest ranch if this is important to you.

Cowboy hats and boots aren’t required, but a shoe with some heel is safest for horseback riding so your foot stays in the stirrup. Long-sleeved shirts and pants are recommended to protect you from bushes and branches during hikes or rides.

Drink lots of water. The warm temperatures, clear skies, dry air and extra activity will dehydrate you more quickly than you’d expect—and this especially goes for small children.

If you book an all-inclusive stay, let the ranch know of any special dietary needs prior to your arrival.