Trail Riding & Guiding for a Living
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Young people know fun, at least what fun is for them. Most of us spent our youth listening to parents, teachers, and news reports telling us what is important, when what was truly important to us at the time was hanging out with friends, sports, parties, and whatever else we dreamed up. Education and equine careers know a similar dichotomy. We know that serious horse related careers do exist, such as those of an equine veterinarian, farrier, jockey, or manager of a stable or training centre. Yet most of us originally got into horses for the fun of it. We loved the nobility of the horse, the romance, and the feeling of animal power beneath us. We cherished the pure joy of riding, driving, or performing. We were moved by the connection with the great outdoors, adventure, and freedom.
For the record, should you be planning to sell your house and squander your inheritance to start a trail riding outfit or head off to become a guide, first understand in the realm of trail riding, guiding, and outfitting, most people do it because they enjoy it. It is about conviction, not material gain. The aesthetic side far outweighs the practical side. Sure, there are some who have enjoyed long careers in these fields, but for many it is the time of our youth, for quenching our thirst for adventure and freedom, and later usually usurped with time, age, raising a family, and paying bills.
In general, those who own, care for, and train horses, and expect their horses to earn them a living certainly have their challenges laid out for them. Some might say that a horse is a hole in the ground that you throw money into. But for thousands of us who have taken the adventurous route it’s worth it, and many of us just don’t know what else we would do.
Before diving into this conversation you may want some credentials. I have been on both sides of the fence, the serious side and the “I do it because I like it” side. I have been a biologist, teacher, class “A” guide, class “T” outfitter in Alberta, writer, and filmmaker. I have raised and trained well over 50 head of Morgan, Percheron, and Fjord horses which were raised on my property. I’ve traveled literally thousands of wilderness miles over 30 years, authored the book Blue Creek’s Trail Riding, Packing & Training, and taught on the subject for several years.
Working as a wrangler or a guide is often more about counting memories than counting money. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Even so, for this article I still needed to do several interviews in order to deliver the straight goods. I talked with managers of the BC Guest Ranchers Association, Olds College, Brewster Adventures, the Flying U Guest ranch, guides who have worked with several different outfitters, outfitters who have seen the workings of several outfits, and insurance agents for horse related activities.
Career opportunities exist for horse guides, wranglers, and owner-operators through guest ranches, hourly trail rides, pack trip holidays, hunting guides, and outfitting. The job descriptions vary with the type of operation and so do the qualifications that these businesses look for in their staff. Everyone agreed that individuals who succeed in the areas of horse wrangling and guiding are self-motivated. Getting up early, collecting and caring for horses, and guiding and wrangling in general require long days, a positive, hands-on attitude, and flexibility with a variety of tasks at hand.
There are more than 60 guest ranches that hire staff in British Columbia alone, varying from full scale, year-round accommodations with activities, to small, seasonal, “Ma and Pa” operations. Many of these operations hire from two to six horse-related employees per season which means that more than 200 horse people find work of this type each season in BC. Many guest ranches entertain regular guests from Europe and it is not uncommon to find European staff working with horses and guests. Guest ranches appear to be more willing to hire staff with limited horse experience because they are equally concerned about a staff member’s people skills and willingness to do a variety of jobs related to keeping the guest ranch operating. One manager said the two most important people on the ranch are the head chef and the head wrangler/guide. Because guest ranches often hire from afar they put a great emphasis on good references. And although we often associate trail rides and Western riding with the far west, there are more than 100 guest ranches and trail riding outfits in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario combined.
Guest ranches have not been immune to the downturn in the economy but because they serve a variety of clients, from Europeans to families to business retreats, they have not been hit as hard as hunting outfitters. Typically, many ranches have other incomes such as cattle or farm produce, or their owners work elsewhere in the off season. One rancher made it clear that it is the guests that supplement poor cattle prices, similar to the first guest ranch ever in Montana in 1917, where, apparently, the guests kept the ranch afloat through the lean years.
Summer trail rides, both hourly and backcountry pack trips, have been a mainstay of the horse industry since the first World War, but things have settled down somewhat. In the 1960s and into the 70s there were as many as a dozen outfits leading guests through Jasper National Park, while there are only a few who try to survive today. Similarly, the number of private horse parties in the national parks is a fraction of what it used to be. What’s to blame? Maybe it’s the expenses compared to the income, or government policies and red tape that make survival more difficult, or maybe people these days are just programmed along different lines to pursue different activities with their tight schedules and limited funds. Likely, all are factors.
There is nothing more valuable than learning from a seasoned trail boss, then practicing your skills on the trail. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Established trail riding operations take hiring of staff very seriously. A horse is a horse, but a horse is also a recipe for trouble if the guides do not have good horse skills and good control. Janet Brewster-Stanton, who hires staff in the Alberta Rockies, does not leave skill to chance. References and background are fine but potential staff must prove themselves around horses. Prospective wranglers are asked to perform tasks with horses — a test of sorts — in order to understand the wranglers’ level of confidence, skill, and experience.
Horse hunting outfitters have needs that run deeper than an hourly trail ride. Their staff need a woodsman’s skill in order to safely navigate remote trails, set up comfortable camps, wrangle horses in the wilderness, and guide hunters to game. To many hunting outfitters the “right person” is more valuable than their cowboy skills or the number of hours they have spent on horseback. Staff can always learn the way a particular outfitter saddles and hobbles their horses or throws a diamond hitch, but how do you teach someone to handle remote wilderness, dawn-to-dusk bush work, and the fatigue that comes with it? How do you teach someone to eagerly push up mountains, day in and day out, wet and cold, without complaint?
Typically many farm, ranch, and logging families have sent their youth off to the outfitters’ camps for their early employment, and often these people have provided the fortitude needed. Some outfitters hire only guides who have hunting experience and even then they need to work as a wrangler for a season or so before they earn the title of guide. In some provinces, government tests must be written by both guides and outfitters before they are given a license. There are more than 250 outfitters in BC, Alberta, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories combined. Many of them hire several guides and wranglers each season, so the employment opportunity is significant.
Training and Experience
Where does this leave a person who would like to work in one of these areas? If you are waiting for me to tell you which school or program to take to get you that guiding job, you’ll be waiting a long time. Without exception, every person I interviewed made it clear that they are hiring individuals, not the program that produced them. Is there a value in taking the courses offered by institutions such as Olds College, riding and packing programs, or horse training clinics? Absolutely. These programs provide valuable experience in a safe environment, and with experience you gain knowledge, skill, and confidence, which is exactly what these employers are looking for.
Working as a trail guide or wrangler means being able to handle the remote wilderness and long days of hard work.
By and large a person has to be self motivated to get the education, go out and spend time with horses, and then sell themself in the field where they are best suited. This means gathering good references and a good resume, and getting it out there. Over the years I taught students who were exceptional examples and made a point of trying to find employment for them.
Whether it is time well spent with a neighbour’s horse, your own horse, or volunteering at the local stable, the “horse god” helps those who help themselves.
There is no gender monopoly here. I would say that more females have come through our program well suited to working at guest ranches and the day ride business than males, possibly due to an innate desire and patience to work with a variety of individuals and a variety of tasks. And likely more males than females show the rugged bush sense that an outfitter would feel comfortable with, but there are many notable exceptions.
If you have no experience whatsoever and would like to take a serious stab at being a horse guide or wrangler, or at starting your own operation, then taking horse courses will give you a valuable sense of whether this really is something you want to do, rather than a whim based on romantic notions. Getting up in a frozen tent, starting a fire in a wood stove, walking a mile in a fresh snow over a bog trail, removing frozen hobbles with bare hands, and trudging back with a handful of cayuses through a deadfall forest can kick the romance out of you in a hurry.
Pay and Paperwork
Many outfitters complain that they cannot find good staff (and many paying guests will attest to this) so there is a real demand for good guides and wranglers. But guides and outfitters will also tell you that not all outfitters treat staff equitably or are on a level playing field when it comes to quality of horses, gear, food, and the terrain and wildlife in their area. It is not uncommon for guides to drift from one outfitter to another until a suitable home, of sorts, is found.
Pay varies considerably in the world of wranglers, guides, and outfitters. Guest ranch pay can vary from $3000 a month for a head wrangler or guide to room and board only, such as when a European worker has come to Canada for the experience. Minimum wage is common in the guest ranch and hourly ride business and in many cases, but not all, room and board is provided. Hunting outfitters generally pay better, often $120 to $200 a day for guides and $80 to $120 a day for wranglers. That can be good money when you are being paid 30 days a month, with room and board is covered, and tips from the hunters thrown in.
If you go into a room full of wranglers, guides, and outfitters, you’ll discover this lot has lived a life wrought with ups and downs. Being gone from July until November can be rough on family and loved ones. Because of seasonal employment, that hard earned dough can disappear in a hurry, which is why many guides punch cows, log, guide for spring bear, or find other employment in the off season.
But just like the sea gets into a fisherman’s blood, the wilderness, the horses, the camaraderie, the freedom, and the adventure creeps into a guide’s bones, right from their Zeiss binoculars down to their old Meindl boots. Time and again I have witnessed old guides, after spending a lifetime belonging in their wilderness home, come out to civilization and, in time, find it difficult to fit into the “real” world, sometimes literally getting lost as street people. You will have a hard time convincing them, or me, that being out in the wilderness is not the natural, honest, and “real” world.
It may take years of experience before you can earn a job with a good outfitter and the better money that goes with it. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
To begin your own trail riding, outfitting, or guest ranch operation takes considerable capital, literally in the millions for a large ranch setup or an outfitting area with lodge, airplane, a string of horses, gear, and valuable allocations such as the right to have non-resident clients on hunts for desirable species like mountain sheep. The value of outfitting areas does vary, with some basic moose, deer, and bear areas selling for under $100,000.
If you are interested in supplementing your income with a small Ma and Pa trail riding operation from your property, to ride on crown land for day rides, or to pack people in overnight, you need to check government regulations. There is paperwork to be completed in all provinces before you get the go-ahead to guide or outfit on crown land. In some provinces these applications are manageable and in others it is so improbable that you will leave the situation convinced that the government branches in charge truly do not want the average guy toddling around the woods.
There are some huge operations in the USA such as Sombrero Ranches, and several opportunities in most provinces to rent horses for personal trips, which shed a different light on paperwork. That brings us to insurance coverage.
How much a riding operation will pay for yearly insurance coverage can vary considerably but many riding operations pay “a few thousand” a year for the privilege of being covered. This may, in itself, prevent someone from offering part-time, hourly rides from their home base. Regardless of what you hear, you need a good waiver, which will not necessarily stop someone from suing but can have a major bearing on the case.
I deeply miss the old days when life was simple. We did not carry around the worry or the burden of multiple insurances, the baggage of excessive regulation, and the compulsive drive for material possessions. We just went outside, saddled a horse, rode though the great outdoors as long as we felt like it, rode back home, and had a bowl of soup. If you feel this way too, it can be your goal to reduce that material drive, simplify your life, and enjoy the little things in life. I am, and I’ve got two boats, an old quad, and some old saddles for sale to prove it.
Any and all information you desire including guest ranches, outfitter lists, government policy, and insurance possibilities is readily available on the internet. Very few people have regretted the horse miles they have traveled in life. For many, the miles are a string of precious memories. There are worse sentences in life than a few months in the great outdoors with a trusty horse and the company of good people. So, shine that saddle, brush out the burrs, stay healthy, and good luck!
Main article photo: It is experience that really counts and there’s nothing like wilderness trips to give you that experience. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.