University of Vermont AAHS

THE NEW WEST: TRAIL RIDING THEN AND NOW

by
Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Summer 2000 Caution: Horses, Volume 5, No. 2]

 

In the 1930’s and 40’s the romance of the west and the growing glamour of the west coast beckoned folks by the thousands - and not all easterners, either. People from the mid-west fled to the Rocky Mountains to escape the burning summer sun and temperatures frequently over 100 degrees. In the winter, the flood was to Arizona to get away from ice and snow.

The dude ranch experience became a favorite vacation with horseback riding and other ranch activities at the center. This was the beginning of the guided trail ride but it was somewhat different than what we see today.

Three aspects are particularly different than they were 50 or 60 years ago. The horses were different. The staff was different. The customers were different. These differences have forced the modern trail ride to change as well.

Sixty years ago almost everyone who went on a dude ranch vacation had some experience with horses or had a close relative who had some experience. At least they had an idea that horses were dangerous. Today the average customer on a guided trail ride may have no experience and have no idea how dangerous a horse can be at times. The modern population has grown up with Hollywood and TV and have seen the stagecoach careening around the canyon road, tumble over the edge, smash on the valley floor below yet the horses and all the passengers get up and walk away. Okay, so the horses run. The only causality is the driver but he has an arrow through his chest. That was Hollywood.

The horses back then were often actual ranch horses or strings of horses the were privately owned and worked in Arizona in the winter and farther north in the summer. The point is that they were not horses that had been leased for the season with no one knowing exactly what the horses had been doing immediately prior to their current job. At least in some cases today, trail ride strings of horses have been put together at the auction barn right before the season began. Certainly this is not true of all trail rides and dude ranches but it is true of many because many places do not have a way to maintain horses through the off-season. Some businesses simply rent a corral and the horses are hauled out for rides. This doesn’t mean that the lease horse string is bad by definition, only that it is different.

The last difference is in the staff. Most places in most areas are fighting to find summer staff. Gone are the cowboys from those Roy Rogers movies. No longer is the ride lead by the boys who will be playing their guitars and fiddles after dinner, if they ever were. These rides are not lead by the Sons of the Pioneers. They are led by American college kids or some young people who want to spend a summer or winter in the West. That brings up a fourth, unrelated, difference, many trail rides and ranch vacations are not even in the West.

So what does all this mean to the person who provides the trail ride service? It means some careful management.

One can no longer assume any knowledge on the part of the customer. Even if the customer says he or she has experience, it may be all in the arena and even if it is over fences, riding way out in the open is different with different risks. It is recommended to give a strong orientation and a pre-ride skills test to make sure everybody is capable of controlling their horses. 50 years ago many stables and ranches offered the "fast ride" option. But then if some one said, " I can ride." they usually had the requisite experience and if they didn’t, shame on them. Now the wrangler has more responsibility to evaluate each rider’s skills to determine who can really handle their horse at faster gaits out in the open. If the wrangler makes a mistake, some courts will place the liability on him or her. Formerly, the general opinion would have been, "That’s too bad but you shouldn’t have told them you were an expert." Now the ridding public may not know what "expert" means in back-country riding.

There also needs to be a period for checking out the horses and making absolutely certain that they will serve the purpose of recreational trail rides. In the past more horses had a job in the off-season. Now, not only may the wrangler not know what a horse has been doing the past season, but also if the ranch owns the horses, the horses may have been sitting in pasture for eight months and be a bit frisky to the degree that they need to be ridden-in.

When faced with inexperienced staff, ranches need to carefully choose at least one experienced supervisory person or possibly no one will have any trail ride experience. Years of arena riding do not prepare a person to lead a group of novice riders through rough country. Few have ever broken or trained a horse and fewer still have grown up riding dozens of different horses as was the case when the dude ranch wranglers were real cowboys, at least part of the year. Years ago one might see rides of twenty to thirty riders with one or two staff. Those rides are mostly a thing of the past as most insurance companies have developed, through bad experiences, some definite ideas about total numbers and staff ratios.

The changes in these three aspects of trail riding have not made the picture grim for the modern wrangler trying to make it in today’s market, but the job is different.

The skills test is essential. Riding-in the horses is a must. Gone are the days when one could take out a wrangler horse that was a bit fractious on a dude ride because now the worry is that this horse will bother the others and cause an accident. Procedure manuals are imperative and they must be clear, detailed, and accurate since one cannot claim procedures that are not written down somewhere. Staff training in this environment can be a nightmare. Training takes much longer that it used to and there seem to be a wider variety of staff problems to deal with than in the days of the real cowboy wrangler. Now trail ride businesses must deal with problems such as alcohol and drug use which were less of a problem 60 years ago. Now the wrangler job is a first job for many so the attendant problem of teaching staff how to work is an issue. The job is not a high paying job in most cases so there is also the problem of dealing with staff who feel that they are really volunteers and should be treated that way.

Careful selection of seasonal staff followed by professional training is a must. The seasonal personnel will be held to the same standard of care as year-round staff. Their customers have a right to be just as safe as any others. So preparation and training are everything. Absolutely no assumptions can be made about skill or knowledge. A trail ride head wrangler must be able to write a program, prepare a procedure manual that will survive harsh scrutiny, and train possibly inexperienced people. This can be a tall order and is not a job for the faint of heart.

 


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