Saddle Up! Family Dude Ranch Vacations

by Marjorie Osterhaut
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The first time I met Miss Bucky was also the first time I had ever touched a horse. Standing at the dusty corral, breathing the grassy scent of the warm horses, I tried to hide my nerves from my teenage niece, an accomplished equestrian who had grown up around stables, horses, and barns. She ripped a clump of grass from the ground at our feet and showed me how to hold it in my palm, super flat and stretched out. Miss Bucky nibbled the grass and then whickered softly, her breath steamy on my hand. That was the moment I fell in love; with horses, Montana, and ranches.

My niece and I were at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for the week, and had quickly settled into a charming log cabin before exploring the grounds and tucking into what would be the first of several gourmet meals. The cabin was private and quiet, made homey with thoughtful touches like cozy robes, a refrigerator, and books. Meals were served in the large dining room in the ranch's lodge or at picnic tables on the grassy lawn. And while many kids chose to eat with their parents, many more opted to bypass the torture of grown-up food and conversation, eating at separate child-friendly dinners with their friends.

That freedom was evident throughout the week in everything we did. While my niece and I occasionally joined up for riding, sunrise hiking, yoga, or a milkshake by the pool, there were plenty of teen-only activities as well where she could bust free without my worrying about it. As for the younger kids, many of them stayed with their families, fishing, hiking, and riding together. Children too young to ride were happily engaged at Beartown, a childcare program with exuberant staffers who genuinely love kids. Arts and crafts, kid yoga, easy hikes, and pony rides kept them busy while parents were out doing their own thing. It was a perfect balance of family togetherness and rejuvenating alone time for parents.

Without question, the highlight of the week was a dinner ride where kids and grown-ups alike rode (by horse or van) to a western-style barbeque with live music, lawn games, and heaps of beans, burgers, pies, and lemonade.

I watched as my niece exchanged phone numbers and Facebook info with her new friends, while older folks waltzed to fiddle music, and younger kids ran freely through the trees and grassy hills. Families posed together for pictures on split rail fences, the Rocky Mountains rising behind them, while cowboys and wranglers herded the horses together and drove them back, thundering and dusty, toward the ranch.

It was the last time I saw Miss Bucky, and I can't wait to return.

Next page: Finding the Right Ranch Vacation for Your Family

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