INTERVIEW BY JENNIFER DENISON
Having spent most of her life on working ranches, as well as managing a guest ranch, Jody Dahl sees the ranching industry from both the practical and vacation perspective. In 2010, the 40-yearold started Top50Ranches, an online service designed to take the guesswork out of finding a ranch vacation.
She has also worked to redefine and promote ranch vacations so they include something for novice and experienced horsemen alike, as well as family members who might not have horseback riding in mind. Most recently, she started producing episodes for a travel series called Discover...Ranches (discoverranches.com) that will air on public television in the fall of 2015.
Dahl lives on a working ranch in Roundup, Montana, with her husband, Toby, and their three children.
How have you been involved with ranching and horses, and what has it taught you?
I am the youngest of seven children and grew up on my family’s cattle ranch and farming operation, DeBruycker Charolais, in Dutton, Montana. As a kid, I spent hours driving tractors and combines, and working cattle.
The ranching and farming lifestyle is about rural culture—not just about horses; it’s about hard work and dedication, and it really teaches a person valuable skills and lessons for the future. e most important thing I learned was to have a strong work ethic. I was also taught to think outside the box and to never be afraid of failure. e only failure is not trying. It’s not always easy, but it was the best way to grow up and to raise my children.
My husband, Toby, and I have lived on a cattle ranch in Roundup, Montana, for the past 15 years. Ten of those years we managed a guest ranch.
How did you get involved in the guest-ranch industry and what inspired you to start Top50 Ranches?
Top50 was inspired by my wish to establish the ultimate compilation of some of the most premier ranch vacations. Feedback from guests and research on hundreds of ranches led me to create top50ranches.com, a resource for travelers worldwide featuring a select collection of ranches that were founded on excellence. Each ranch has met established criteria and embraces our true rural culture.
Toby and I ran a guest ranch and interacted directly with guests. After several years of hosting and entertaining guests, I decided to take my marketing skills and love of guest ranches to the next level and market the entire industry.
The guests we hosted through the years became the inspiration for Top50 Ranches. I listened as guests voiced their concerns over too many options in choosing the right ranch vacation and how di cult it was to know if they were choosing a quality stay.
I wanted to help narrow a guest’s search by locating some of the top ranch vacations in the industry and placing them all on one easy-to-use website. I’m also passionate about delivering accurate information about each ranch stay to ensure guests know exactly what they’re getting before they book.
When you mention “dude ranch” to some people, it conjures images of nose-to-tail trail rides. What is the reality?
I prefer to use the words “ranch vacation” or “ranch-style vacation.” A ranch vacation to us is timeless experiences taking place in the natural beauty of the open landscape. We are trying to change the concept of what a ranch vacation is and the image it conjures in a person’s mind.
Basically, a ranch vacation includes horseback rides, cowboys, authentic cattle drives, and working directly with the ranch owners fixing fence and caring for the cattle and the land. There’s also rich history, unfettered and breathtaking landscapes, colorful personalities, freedom, culture, romance, adventure, conservation, education, family and personal connection, life-changing experiences, locally sourced wine and organic food, and more.
Although a ranch vacation focuses on horseback riding, those who aren’t avid riders can still enjoy it. There are a range of activities anyone will enjoy. A visit to a ranch is much more than an itinerary. It’s a contribution to the sustainability of our land and consequently to our own well-being. By vacationing at a ranch, you contribute to the well-being of future generations, because the profits are often reinvested into taking care of the land and ecosystem, as well as ranchers contributing to the betterment of their local communities and people.
Most ranches are carefully managed to ensure that the most benefit is gained from the land while minimizing the impact on the environment. The essence of any farm or ranch is the idea of sustainability. Many of the ranches offering vacations have taken a hands-on approach to what is now known as eco-tourism—an all-encompassing approach that benefits the environment, local community, guests and the ranch itself.
What types of horseback vacations are available for people with riding and ranching experience, and who want to bring their own horses?
Taking a ranch vacation doesn’t have to mean riding the ranch’s horse for a week. Whether your horse is a budding reiner or a seasoned ranch horse, there are ranches that allow you to vacation with your horse.
Chances are your horse has never set eyes on a bison before. At Colorado’s Zapata Ranch, you can saddle up to ride through the ranch’s resident bison herds. Zapata’s sister ranch, Chico Basin, allows guests to use their own horses to herd cattle over miles of Colorado ranch country.
McGinnis Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch in Montana is another ranch where guests can bring their own horses. The working cattle ranch emphasizes the horsemanship methods of Buck Brannaman and is suitable for beginner to experienced riders. In the summer and winter, you can bring a horse to McGinnis Meadows and learn horsemanship skills from the ground up.
A luxury hotspot is Echo Valley Ranch and Spa in British Columbia, Canada, where you can bring your horse for a very reasonable fee. The ranch offers beautiful surroundings and diverse terrain, with 70,000 acres of land to explore on guided trail rides through forested trails and open country overlooking spectacular canyons.
Latigo Dude Ranch in Colorado emphasizes good horsemanship in its riding program, whether it’s riding in the arena or while taking a fully guided trail ride over more than 200 miles of trails. They offer evening rides, sunrise and sunset rides, and overnight pack trips.
Bar W Guest Ranch in Montana has trail riding, and spring and fall cattle drives. You can also practice sorting cattle with your horse in the indoor and outdoor arenas before competing in the ranch rodeo at the end of the week.
When is the best time to plan a ranch vacation, and what months offer the best deals?
The best time to start planning a ranch vacation is six to 12 months in advance. Ranches book up very far in advance due to their popularity as a destination and the high percentage of return guests. Flights are a big consideration, and the more in advance you book, the better rates you tend to get, especially when traveling as a family.
The months offering the best deals can vary, but booking in the “shoulder” seasons can offer affordable rates. For instance, consider heading to a ranch during the winter. Booking for the following year in November or December can lead to good deals for holiday-season stays, and some ranches offer pre-booking discounts for the following year. So, definitely keep an eye on last-minute booking discounts come November and December.
Keep checking with a ranch on the dates you desire, because sometimes they’ll have an unexpected cancellation or need to fill a few extra spaces for specified weeks. If your dates are flexible and you’re up for spontaneous, last-minute travel, you can sometimes get a good deal, but you’ll often have to pay higher flight fees.
What is the most extravagant horseback vacation you have booked?
One of the most extravagant horseback riding experiences we’ve had has to be at Estancia Ranquilco, a family-owned, 100,000-acre horse and cattle ranch nestled in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina. It’s a true adventure and offers unparalleled remoteness for the avid rider. The only way to get to the estancia is a two-hour horseback ride. It’s amazing.