Horseback Holiday Outfits Rise to the Challenge

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How guest ranches and riding resorts have survived and thrived during the pandemic.

By Shawn Hamilton

It’s been almost a year now since we began dealing with the repercussions of the global pandemic, and we’re not yet anywhere near “business as usual.” No aspect of the horse industry remains untouched. Although some businesses were agile enough to adapt fairly quickly, the livelihood of a guest ranch owner or an outfitter depends on vacationers coming to their location to experience a day or a week in the saddle. Horses cannot simply be parked; they need to be cared for, and wages need to be paid. 

How has the horseback riding vacation industry fared during the pandemic? I talked with a number of guest ranch owners and horseback riding destination companies to see how they are managing during these trying times. I was surprised to discover that those who rose to the challenge, adjusted their protocols, and quickly altered their marketing strategies coped much better than expected. 

John Lovelace, CEO and operating manager of The Flying U Ranch in 70 Mile House, British Columbia hit the ground running, recognizing early that changes had to be made. Flying U spent two months reorganizing. Working through the recommended information from the Federal Government, the regional health authorities, the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, and WorkSafeBC, they instilled a set of operating protocols and physical layout changes to the facilities.

“We called our program the ‘Ranch COVID-19 Safety Plan, covering all aspects of the ranch including hospitality, kitchen procedures, food handling operations, barn and riding protocols, waterfront operations, and restaurant and pub procedures,” explains Lovelace. “In June we were ready to open with 218 operational changes encompassing every operation of the ranch”. 

Among those changes were five stand-alone residences that had been renovated to include their own private bathrooms and eating facilities, for families who wanted to self isolate. 

“These became very popular with families, especially those with elderly grandparents,” commented Lovelace. 

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The Flying U Ranch made a number of changes, including renovating guest residences, installing vehicle charging stations, purchasing horses for beginner riders, and marketing to locals. They had a successful 2020 season, welcoming 1,000 guests to their ranch. Photo: The Flying U Ranch

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The remuda at Flying U Ranch. Photo: The Flying U Ranch

The lodge seating was reduced to 50 percent capacity to allow for the recommended two-metre social distancing, and an additional “under the cover” patio was set up for inclement weather. Breakfasts and dinners were individually plated and served by masked servers, and optional meals were available to take back to private rooms. The most popular change was a new eating area in the front of the lodge, renamed the Century Room, allowing 36 guests to maintain social distancing. The Flying U was granted a temporary liquor license, and guests could sit outside, sip wine or enjoy a cold beer after a ride.

One of the forward-thinking changes was the installation of electrical vehicle charging stations. 

“We changed [the focus of] our marketing strategy from international to more local, targeting the BC Lower Mainland through Facebook advertising,” says Lovelace. “Electrical vehicles have become very popular in this area of BC. So by installing the charging stations guests could get into their car, drive up to the ranch without having to stop anywhere, and plug their vehicle in while enjoying their stay at Flying U. This proved to be an excellent addition to the ranch.”

When some ranches were downsizing their herd, Flying U had to purchase a dozen or so more horses to accommodate the influx of beginner riders. At the end of the season, Flying U had welcomed 1,000 guests to the ranch. The beginner riders are now somewhat experienced, and Lovelace is extremely pleased by the number of guests who have already booked for the 2021 season. This is good news for the riding vacation industry as a whole. 

South of the border, Peter De Cabooter, co-owner with wife Marijn Werquin of The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch in Shell, Wyoming, also recognized early that something needed to be done. They held their first COVID-19 meeting in early March to see how they could reorganize their business to make it work. 

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Marijn Werquin of The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch in Wyoming. While many guest ranches added more non-riding activities, The Hideout increased their focus on horses and riding, offering clinics and helping guests improve their horsemanship. Photo: Clix Photography

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On the trail of the wild horses at The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch. Photo: Clix Photography

The first order of business was the short list of materials to purchase before supplies ran out, such as sanitizing products, outside heaters, and inside air filtration devices. The decision to close the business in the months of April and May gave them time to reorganize. Bookings already made for those months were rebooked or refunded. 

De Cabooter did not want to jeopardize the safety of the guests or take anything away from the customer experience; rather, he decided to invest more in those areas. Reducing the maximum capacity from 25 guests per week to 17 allowed for social distancing during meals and arranging alternative dining areas outside, heated with those recently purchased heaters. Guests are required to rent a vehicle to drive the hour from the Cody airport, and are not allowed to ride in the trucks with staff. The Hideout also arranged rental agreements for Hideout vehicles if necessary. Guests are restricted from the barn, and all workers and guests wear masks when getting on and off their horses. Certain activities that involve close contact between guests and workers, such as archery, 4x4 tours, fly-fishing, and a trip to the Cody Rodeo, have been temporarily suspended. 

“Outside of the fact we are down in revenue of course, partly because we decided to run at lower capacity, this has been one of our best seasons in terms of guests who are very appreciative,” says De Cabooter. “While many guest ranches added more and more non-riding activities, The Hideout become more and more about horses, horsemanship, riding, and working cattle.”

The Hideout has been running horsemanship clinics at The Trapper Creek Ranch led by Farrah Green, founder of The International Horsemanship Association and one of the very first 3 Star Parelli Horsemanship Instructors. In addition, a weekly Wednesday clinic on the ranch with Marijn, who holds a Level 4 Parelli Certification, and Ramon, the full-time trainer and vaquero at The Hideout, has been quite popular.

“Marijn demonstrates and initiates guests in liberty work and Ramon teaches his horsemanship techniques,” explains De Cabooter. “Instruction in the arena and on-the-trail teaching is a huge hit. Guests who are interested can try their hand at liberty playing and even ride one of Marijn’s horses. We are dedicated to keeping more on the equestrian side. With staff from professional equestrian backgrounds and a full-time horse trainer using respectful, quality horsemanship, our horses are better trained within this culture. We want everybody handling horses here to believe, support, and be passionate about this concept. No forcing through things.”

At first, things looked a little uncertain for Bar W Guest Ranch near Whitefish, Montana. Early in the season, the ranch was hit with a number of cancellations. By changing their cancellation policies, 2020 reservations were easily post-dated to 2021, and guests are now allowed to cancel within two weeks prior to their booking in order to make up-to-date decisions. The ranch developed an intense 19-page COVID-19 Operations Plan, which includes additional disinfecting, an aerosolized dispersal sanitization system (fogging machine), a strict mask protocol, and temperature checks of all guests and staff twice daily. Bar W expanded their overall marketing strategy, and by the summer they had an unprecedented increase in phone calls and emails enquiring about staying at their family-focused guest ranch. 

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The Bar W Guest Ranch worked with the State of Montana to have the ranch declared an approved quarantine facility, which allowed guests to travel from out-of-state. Photo: Clix Photography

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The Bar W Guest Ranch in Montana welcomed many visitors who were seeking a domestic vacation with outdoor activities and had not previously considered coming to a guest ranch. Many of them found it to be more fun than a cruise, and plan to return. Photo: Clix Photography

“Many people have been actively seeking out domestic vacation options in more rural locations that place an emphasis on outdoor activities such as horseback riding, which naturally lends itself to social distancing,” explains ranch manager Erin Norris. “Dude ranches are the perfect fit for this!”

Related: Escape to Bar W Guest Ranch

In addition, the ranch was able to work with the State of Montana to have the Bar W Ranch declared an approved quarantine facility. This allowed for guests to travel from out-of-state, even during the earlier travel ban. As the season progressed, Bar W was at full capacity and even had to add several horses to their herd. 

Next year is filling up fast and Norris finds the silver lining: “It has been fun to revive the Old West tradition of wearing bandanas around the corrals! It has also been great to be able to share our corner of Montana, and the special experience of visiting a dude ranch with folks who previously had never seriously considered coming to a ranch or Montana before. There were several folks who were shocked at how much more fun this experience was [compared to] a cruise, and who plan to return in the future.”

Did Bar W Ranch have to eliminate any of their usual activities?  

“The biggest change was that we switched from square dancing to line dancing, which is something that we offer as an evening activity each week,” says Norris. “The line dancing helped reduce some of the additional contact that would normally occur during square dancing. The line dancing has proven to be a really fun option!”

Further south in Mexico, Uschi Jenny, the owner/manager of Rancho Las Cascadas Resort, about an hour’s drive north of the Mexico City International Airport, tells me that their operation has been back up and running since the end of June, when all procedures of the “new normality” were put into place.

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The Rancho Las Cascadas Resort in Mexico reopened at the end of June, 2020 with pandemic protocols in place. A handful of Canadians are spending the entire winter living at the Ranch. Photo: Clix Photography

“It was not that difficult to make the adjustments as we have loads of room for people to social distance, whether it is in the dining room, bar area, breakfast terrace, or poolside,” says Jenny.

Fortunately, Rancho Las Cascadas Resort has not had to downsize the herd because their staff took some of the horses home to care for at their own farms. COVID-19 protocols have been put into place for kitchen safety, room sanitization, and social distancing for meals. Jenny says a handful of Canadians have even decided to spend the entire winter at the Ranch.

Blue Sky Sage Horseback Riding Retreats, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming has ample room to spread out in their remote camping location. When the pandemic arrived, masks were mandatory in camp and strict sanitary protocols were put in place for meals. They were fortunate enough to be able to add an extra ride in September to accommodate returning guests. 

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Bobbi Wade (below) operates Blue Sky Sage Horse Adventures in Wyoming, with a permit encompassing up to a million acres of Bureau of Land Management land. Ranch visitors ride out seeking the bands of wild horses that roam nearby. Photos: Clix Photography

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Blue Sky Sage owner Bobbi Wade explains, “The decision was not IF we were going to operate, but just HOW we were going to make a go of it. I cancelled the first ride of the season in June, and we began on July 1. We ran rides as we always do, and had some exciting and wonderful experiences out looking for wild horses and immersing ourselves in these wide-open spaces that seem even more necessary to the care of the human condition in these challenging times. We received new reservations from people who were highly motivated to get out here and ride. An additional September ride for return clients helped us finish out the season on an absolute high note.”

Anchor D Guiding & Outfitting Ltd. in Black Diamond, Alberta also did not see big changes. Their new protocols to adhere to COVID-19 health regulations included limiting group sizes and sanitizing tack before and after guests. Marketing strategies were changed to target a more local audience, and with their proximity to the major city of Calgary, what they lost in international clients they gained in locals. 

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Anchor D Guiding & Outfitting Ltd. promises “The Cowboy Cure for COVID!” — horseback riding in Alberta’s magnificent Rocky Mountains. They made up for the loss of international visitors by changed the focus of their marketing to appeal to more local clients. Photo:  Anchor D Guiding & Outfitting Ltd. Facebook

The news is not so good with Brewster Adventures in Lake Louise, Alberta, which offers overnight back country pack trips and trail riding in the scenic Alberta Foothills and the Rocky Mountains bordering Banff National Park. Brewster Adventures also has a pony stand in close proximity to the internationally famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

“It was really a slap in the face [because] we and most of the business owners at Lake Louise had no idea how international our clientele was,” explains owner Kevin Stanton. “Lake Louise has not been a popular spot for locals to stop as they feel it is too touristy and there is never anywhere to park.”

But those locals who did stop during the season enjoyed their rides followed by a visit to the teahouse for a sandwich and snacks, and now that they realize what is available to them many have expressed interest in returning.

“The locals who did come were ecstatic about what we had to offer. They had no idea such trips were offered in their backyard,” says Stanton.

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The lack of international tourists impacted Brewster Adventures in Lake Louise, Alberta, but locals who came looking for a vacation close to home were delighted and plan to return for more horseback adventures. Photo: Brewster Adventures Facebook

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Brewster Adventures offers sleigh rides through stunning winter landscapes at Lake Louise. Photo: Brewster Adventures Facebook

During the winter season, Brewster Adventures offers sleigh rides to families and those within their own bubble. It is a wonderful way to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. The policy is to B.Y.O.B. (bring your own blanket), but if you forget they have blankets for sale that you can take home as a souvenir of your sleigh ride adventure. If you have never been on a horse-drawn sleigh on a magical snowy day, I encourage you to tick that one off your bucket list. 

B.Y.O.H. (bring-your-own-horse businesses), such as Meadow Lake Guest Ranch in the South Caribou near Clinton, BC faired very well. 2020 was one of their better seasons because “staycationers” who usually head for the coast chose to stay closer to home. Shelagh Uptigrove, who co-manages the ranch with her husband, Brian, reflected on the season: “We were lucky as many guest ranches in the area did close. The self-contained houses were very popular this year and many people opted to bring their own linens. We left the guest houses to sit empty for 48 hours between guests and I cleaned and sanitized them myself. I greeted clients at the gate and communicated mostly by text and email.”

“Above all else the health and safety of our guests and staff is top priority!” adds Brian.

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Meadow Lake Guest Ranch near Clinton, BC, enjoyed a good season by providing self-contained houses to bring-your-own-horse vacationers, and making sure the health and safety of guests and staff was top priority. Photo: Meadow Lake Facebook

Wild Women Expeditions, an adventure tour agency dedicated to women-only excursions, has implemented the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s COVID-19 Health & Safety Guidelines, and is following the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travel protocols across all of their tours. 

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The author’s pre-pandemic riding holiday in New Zealand featured stunning scenery. The Land of the Long White Cloud Ride is one of the vacations offered by Wild Women Expeditions. Photo: Clix Photography  

Owner Jennifer Haddow explains that Wild Women Expeditions is focused on expanding their horse programs in Canada and the United States, targeting rides in British Columbia, Alberta, Wyoming, and Montana. They have put strict COVID-19 protocols in place, and offer zero risk bookings as well as fully transferable deposits if you change your destination. 

Related: Wild Women Expeditions - The Land of the Long White Cloud Ride

 

For the most part, my research revealed encouraging news for those of us who dream of vacationing on horseback. It is clear that the safety and well-being of guests, staff, and their local communities is a priority for the horseback vacation outfits I interviewed for this article, and that they are doing their best to operate responsibly. Hopefully, as travel restrictions are lifted and you can once again look forward to spending your holidays in the saddle, you now have even more destinations to add to your bucket list. In the meantime, stay healthy, stay safe, wear a helmet — and a mask!

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Shawn Hamilton is a freelance equine photojournalist based in Ontario, Canada. She has operated Clix Photography since 1984, offering a full range of photography services for editorial and commercial use from health to Olympic sports. Her photography can be found on the covers and inside numerous magazines in Canada and the US, including Canadian Horse Journal. Shawn has co-authored four non-fiction children's books published by Scholastic Canada. Her written articles specialize in equestrian travel. www.ClixPhoto.com

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