Guest Ranch Horses

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Horses in the guest ranch industry come from varied breeds and backgrounds. Learn more about them.

The scenery may be stunning, the food and staff top-notch, but ultimately, it’s the four-legged workforce that makes for a memorable trip at any dude ranch.

“It takes a special kind of horse to have a different rider every week,” notes Meris Stout, owner of Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch. “A lot of horses don’t have the right temperament to have different riders and be patient.”

Guest ranches and outfitters in different states share what goes into finding and maintaining these equine memory-makers.

Drowsy Water Ranch

A group of horses and out for a ride at a Colorado guest ranch
Photo courtesy Drowsy Water Ranch

Bordering thousands of acres of spectacular backcountry and the Arapahoe National Forest, Drowsy Water Ranch (DWR) near Granby, Colo., has been a guest ranch for 90 years. Since 1977, it’s been owned by the Fosha family.

With a string of about 120 horses and two mules, DWR accommodates riders of all skill levels for six-night, all-inclusive stays. During the season (late May to early September), horses are ridden an average of three to four days a week and are pastured every night. Ideally, the horses work one week and have the next week off.

A herd trots down a dusty path
During the summer season, horses at Drowsy Water Ranch are ridden three to four days a week and pastured every night. Photo courtesy Drowsy Water Ranch

Quarter Horses are the main breed—some registered, some not—but there are also quite a few Paints and about 30 full draft or draft crosses.

“Some of our best horses are draft crosses,” says ranch manager Justin Fosha. “They seem to be good keepers in the mountains, can carry a [heavier rider], and are still very athletic.”

DWR buys from multiple sources, including backyard owners, cattle ranchers, breeders and horse traders. Although price varies greatly, Justin says the average price in their area is $3,000 to $5,000.

About 50 percent of the ranch’s horses are bought locally, while the other 50 percent come from sales and auctions, ranging from the Denver area to Montana.

“We also go to sales specific to drafts or draft crosses,” says Fosha, noting that the only drawback is many draft horses still need to learn to neck rein.

For DWR, the ideal horse is 5 to 15 years old and well-broke with a trustworthy temperament. Good feet are important because of the rocky trails. Most horses are shod all around.

A trail guide at a dude ranch gets two guests situated on their horses
At Drowsy Water Ranch, the ideal horse is well-broke with a trustworthy temperament. Photo courtesy Drowsy Water Ranch

DWR horses only work the summer season and spend the rest of the year pastured on the fields where the ranch raises its own hay, a nutritious mountain grass mix. The whole herd is fed grain while working in the summer and receive daily hay once the snow comes. Shoes are pulled for the winter.

At 1,300 acres total, DWR has enough land to retire a horse to pasture if he becomes unusable due to age or injury.

“We don’t send old horses to auction,” says Fosha. “We’d rather them be humanely put down at the ranch than sent on a truck to Mexico.”

DWR currently has 12 pensioned horses, some of which have been with the ranch for 30-plus years. A few are still used on a limited basis, such as a once-a-week ride for a young guest. This group is kept where they get senior feed daily and have hay in front of them 24/7.

Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch

The Land of Enchantment is home to Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch in southwestern New Mexico. Although the ranch covers just 20 acres, it is surrounded by the 3.3 million-acre Gila National Forest, one of the largest federal land masses in the lower 48 States.

Originally started as a hunting lodge in the 1980s, since 2007, it’s been owned by the Esterly family: Harry, Diana, daughter Meris Esterly Stout, and Meris’s husband Seth.

Their current stable consists of 32 horses, which are mostly Quarter Horses and draft crosses.

“We’re in a very mountainous area, so we’ve found that a bigger horse does better here,” says Meris. “We like 15.2 hands as a minimum, up to about 16.2 hands.” She adds that it’s important for horses to neck rein, as guests want a free hand for taking photos.

Guests at a dude ranch ride their horses through a river canyon
Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch is in a mountainous area, and they find that bigger horses do better there. Photo by Meris Stout

“When we bought the ranch 15 years ago, you could get a good trail horse for $1,500 to $2,000,” she says. “Multiply that by seven now for the same quality horse. Most of that increase seems to have been in past four to five years. Recently, I’ve had good luck getting them at the auction in Billings, Montana. A lot of good quality horses go through there.”

Meris prefers to buy in the 5- to 10-year-old age range.

Off-season is Mid-November through early March. Horses winter at the ranch, which hauls in hay year-round since there aren’t pastures for grazing.

Most horses will have shoes pulled, except for the few that Meris and Seth ride through winter, often helping a neighboring rancher with cattle work. These are typically younger horses whose training benefits from more hours under saddle.

“As the horses get older, we use lighter riders and shorter rides,” she says. “Just like with people, it’s good for the older horses to keep moving.”

A trail guide with a cat on her shoulder pats a pinto that's tacked up and ready for a ride
Horses at Geronimo go on shorter rides with lighter riders as they get older. Most start at the ranch between ages 5 and 10. Photo by Meris Stout

Because the ranch has limited acreage, retiring horses there isn’t usually an option. An exception to that is Casper, the ranch patriarch, who just retired at age 30 in 2022.

“He was here when we bought the ranch; he’s not going anywhere,” says Meris. Their other retiring horses are taken to an equine adoption facility in Colorado that specializes in rehoming former guest ranch mounts through The Annie Project (see below).

“They work hard for us, so when they’re done here, we want them to go to a good home,” she adds. “We’ve taken at least two trips to this rescue because they find good places for them to live out their days.”

Bliss Creek Outfitters

A native of Dubois, Wyo., Rusty Sanderson grew up on a ranch and has been riding since age 5. He’s worked in the outfitting business since 1995, ran his own outfitter’s camp for a decade, and has owned Bliss Creek Outfitters since 2015. Based out of Dubois, he rides and hunts out of the Washakie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest.

“We cover from Dubois to Cody, Wyoming,” says Sanderson, who offers summer pack trips (June to September) and three 20-day guide schools (June 1 to August 31).

A pack trip with Bliss Creek Outfitters
Bliss Creek Outfitters offers pack trips and guide schools, and owns more mules than horses due to their ability to navigate rough trails. Photo courtesy Bloss Creek Outfitters

His current equine string consists of 14 mules and 10 horses, which include draft crosses, Quarter Horses, Morgans and Fox Trotters.

Riding in the rugged wilderness, Sanderson prefers mules.

“They’re smoother, travel at a better pace, and are better at navigating rough trails,” he says, adding that mules also maintain their weight better during the season.

The best mounts are about 15 hands tall, stout, and smooth-traveling. Good feet are essential because of the rocky terrain. Horses are shod all around.

Horses and mules need to be trained to be on a picket and tie on a high line, since both methods are commonly used.

Sanderson bought the majority of his stock at auctions in Wyoming and through friends.

“Prices really increased dramatically since Covid,” he says. “I used to be able to buy a good horse for $1,500, and that won’t touch one now. Good-quality horses and mules range from $7,000 to $20,000.”

For the first year after buying any horse or mule, he doesn’t put clients on them.

“I ride them myself [first],” he says. “If they do well under the guides, they will be used for clients the following year.”

When a horse or mule gets to an age where mountain work becomes too strenuous, Sanderson tries to sell them privately whenever possible.

Some outfitters board their horses or mules at large ranches for the off-season, but these operations typically only feed hay when it snows. Sanderson keeps his stock at home in Dubois, where they’re kept on smaller acreage, can be monitored more closely, and fed hay daily throughout the winter, even though this means going through 100 tons of hay every year.

“I’m picky about taking care of them,” he says. Sanderson notes that horses and mules are truly the backbone of his business.

This article about dude ranch horses appeared in the April 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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