It doesn't matter whether you ride English or western, cattle drives are about as real as it gets on a ranch vacation. To make the transition from City Slicker to real-life cowboy, follow Top50 Ranches’ advice on where to find the best cattle drives, when to go and top tips for working cattle:
Working ranch vacations offer everyday Joes the chance to experience riding as the cowboys do it. Get to grips with driving the herd on real cattle roundups as you move sheep, cows or bison across the open range to fresh pastures. Not only does a cattle drive make you feel like a real cowboy, it gives people from all walks of life the chance to make a real contribution to a working ranch operation.
What to expect
The first rule of a cattle drive is to expect the unexpected. Whether the aim is to move small groups of cattle to an adjacent pasture or drive large herds across several miles of ranch country, the duration of a cattle drive can be somewhat unpredictable. On large ranches especially, finding the herd in the first place can take longer than the cattle drive itself, meaning a ‘quick’ cattle drive can turn into an all-day task should the herd decide to play hide-and-seek.
To learn more about the differences between English Riding and Western Riding, download our FREE guide—English Riding versus Western Riding: An Overview of English and Western Riding Sports and Saddles.
The pace can vary greatly on cattle drives, so consider your confidence and ability when choosing your ranch vacation. Although all of Top50’s ranches will of course match you with a suitable horse, some working ranches require a certain level of riding ability if the pace is likely to take a sudden faster turn. So if you’re not keen – or able – to make a flat-out dash at a moment’s notice, check before you go whether you’ll be able to follow the cattle drive at a slower pace or watch the faster action unfold from the sidelines.
Best ranches for cattle drives: Top50 recommends…
While some guest ranches run small herds of cattle and don’t need to venture out every day, many larger, working ranches with herds of up to 3,000 head of cattle allow you to spend the majority of your ranch vacation riding the range. Working ranches generally offer the best cattle drive opportunities, aimed at advanced riders and those looking to get stuck into real western riding.
If you’re looking for a unique or exciting cattle drive experience, Top50 showcases the best selection of working ranch vacations for you to choose from. Head to Zapata Ranch in Colorado, USA, for the rare opportunity to ride alongside bison. These big, quick, unpredictable beasts make for fast-and-furious cattle drives posing a real element of danger – this is one for experienced and confident riders only!
Burnt Well Guest Ranch in New Mexico, USA, is another working ranch famous for its abundance of cattle work, while Lazy E-L Guest Ranch in Montana, USA, specializes in cattle drive vacations. Or certainly check out The Hideout Guest Ranch in Wyoming, USA - which has been considered the "Gold Standard" of ranch vacations. You'll experience a working ranch stay and authentic cattle work; however also enjoy the softer side of European luxury, fine food and spa services.
For the unique chance to try your hand at sheep mustering, head to Beaumont High Country Experience in Southland, New Zealand. This working cattle and sheep station runs a herd of 9,000 sheep across 18,000 acres of backcountry, making for a horse riding experience like no other.
And it’s not just the working ranches that offer cattle drives – many guest ranches and dude ranches run herds across their land, with some giving guests the opportunity to work cattle in the safety of the arena – ideal for kids wanting to get involved with activities such as team penning and cutting. These types of ranch vacation are also ideal if you want to try your hand at cattle work on a multi-activity, resort-style ranch.
For the ultimate combination of experience, authenticity and luxury, Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, USA, ticks all the boxes. The luxury guest ranch offers cattle roundups, branding and cattle work in the arena, as well as a full-service, luxury spa where you can treat yourself to some pampering. A truly tough choice!
Preparing for a cattle drive
For those not used to spending a long time in the saddle, it can be worth wearing a pair of padded pants or underwear underneath those jeans. Comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing is a must – even if it’s sunny, tie a light waterproof to your saddle as the weather can take a slightly damper turn without warning. Similarly, an overcast day can evolve into a balmy oasis, so layers are ideal. And before you set off, make sure you’re totally happy with your stirrup length – if you want to stop to adjust the length in the middle of a fast-paced cattle drive, you may not be everyone’s favorite person!
Capture those cattle drive memories on a camera small enough to fit in your pocket or saddle bag – a big, clunky camera is the last thing you’ll want swinging around against your saddle. Most important is a canteen of water, as cattle drives can be all-day affairs and often under searing heat. Check with your chosen ranch before you go whether you’ll need to bring your own canteen or if the ranch provides them.
Top tips for your first cattle drive
The ranch’s wranglers will be sure to give you ‘Cattle Drive 101’ before you set out on your first roundup, but here are some main points to remember when working cattle…
- When ‘riding up’ on a cow to get it to move, always ride toward its hip.
- Try to treat each cow as an individual as well as part of the herd. One cow making a run for it can take the whole herd with him, so be on your guard!
- Low stress cattle handling/stockmanship is key. Yelling or shouting at the cattle is discouraged; however, there are times when a "hey" or voice encouragement can be warranted.
- Let the herd travel at its own pace – pushing too much can cause the cattle to panic and run, splitting over a large area. And once they’ve gone, it’s hard to get ‘em back!
If you’re not sure what to do, ask. A wrangler will be on hand to guide and support you through your ranch cattle drive experience, so don’ t be afraid to check you’re doing the right thing – they will be happy to advise and teach you the ropes along the way. If you don’t feel confident enough to ride on your own, just say and a wrangler will stay by your side for the duration of the roundup.
Make sure your horse is responsive to your aids. You may have to suddenly turn, stop or pick up the pace at a moment’s notice, so you need your horse to be listening to you.
Good time to go: Fall roundups
Want to get stuck into all-day cattle drives for the duration of your working ranch vacation? Then book your stay during the week of a ranch’s fall roundup. Fall roundups involve riding out for as long as it takes to gather every last animal in the herd and move the cattle back to the ranch where they’ll be shipped for sale.
On working ranches with large herds – think more 3,000-plus head of cattle – this can involve riding out all day, every day for a whole week! Fall roundups are a great option for the serious rider and those looking for true immersion into western cowboy culture, so remember to include this is your search on Top50Ranches.com.
For more information on all of the ranches offering cattle drives, visit www.top50ranches.com/discover-ranch-vacations/55-cattle-drives.htm.
About them: Top50Ranches.com is a brand dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic and luxurious destinations in the world. Top50Ranches.com strives to be a comprehensive resource for travellers seeking authentic ranch and riding vacations. Each featured property meets established criteria of hospitality, accommodation, activities and riding standards of excellence. Top50 features only those ranches that are the most unique, authentic and offer the finest levels hospitality – putting the guest first.
Top50Ranches.com founder and CEO, Jody Dahl is on a personal mission to promote the spectacular ranching lifestyle to the travel community. Jody grew up on a ranch and currently owns a Montana guest ranch. She is passionate about showcasing authentic ranch and riding vacations and about delivering accurate information. Feedback from guests and research of hundreds of ranches led her to create Top50Ranches. To find your ideal ranch experience or further information visit www.Top50Ranches.com or call Jody at 406-749-9131.