I’m driving my rental car to the White Stallion Ranch, northwest of Tucson, Arizona, trying to make a 3pm check-in. After a long, confusing drive into the hot, flat desert, I mistakenly pull into the employee’s driveway and stop my car for a group of dusty horseback riders queuing to dismount.
Without warning, a young woman falls off her horse, flat on her back, right in front of my car. I already had my doubts about the dude ranch experience and now I just wanted to turn around and forget the whole thing, having had a few bad horseback riding incidents in my past atop runaways.
But as I soon discovered, there’s more to dude ranches than scary horse stories. At first glance, the whole scene looks like a cowboy equivalent of a re-enactors club, complete with lazy farm dogs sniffing around the outdoor patio tables despite the “Please don’t feed the dogs” signs. I feel out of place in a spaghetti-strap sundress and matching flat sandals when everyone is fully decked out in cowboy duds.
But I’m in luck. The friendly staff rustles up a pair of long-abandoned cowboy boots, which fit almost perfectly. And they’re Tony Lama’s. The well-broken in boots feature pointy toes and red leather up to the ankle and a fetching black and brown design all the way to the top.
The boots really are proof that footwear makes the woman. Strutting about in my new old boots with the two-inch heel, I feel more confident in a swaggering sort of way that produces an unintended seductive hip sway. Plus, they go really well with my denim skirt and red and blue floral tights. Pretty soon I’m walking around like I own the place.
Of the many choices of daily group rides at the White Stallion Ranch, the only one that really appeals to me is the Beer and Cheetos ride. It’s a 30-minute slow ride out to a picnic area in the desert with a makeshift bar. The bar break allows the crafty drinker-rider time to down three beers while swapping riding stories with the more horse-savvy group members.
I’m riding sweet-natured, 12-year old Laredo. Because the wranglers can see I’m easily spooked, I’m placed directly behind Devin, a young female wrangler, who unfortunately has been saddled with Margarita, a feisty stubborn mare, who keeps trying to nip Laredo, causing me some anxiety. “I’m going to need a few margaritas after dealing with this project horse all day,” says the talented Sioux wrangler.
Devin is an excellent instructor and assures me that I’m a “natural”. I carefully follow her instructions to keep Laredo in line and prevent him from chewing on the creosote bush flowers. Nothing apparently is good for the horse’s teeth when wearing a bit.
But dude ranching is about more than riding. Cowbells ring to announce the excellent communal meals – which lean towards quality comfort food – awakening tired riders lulled by the soft sounds of New Country from their afternoon naps around the outdoor pool. The office keeps a stash of horse cookies on hand for those who want to practice their horse-whispering skills too.
Evening entertainment includes art classes and a campfire sing-along, with more drinks around the fire for sharing the days’ adventures with new and old friends. There’s an extensive DVD library in the mini theater where I was happy to discover the Billy Crystal movie, City Slickers, but alas, the box was empty.
Guided and individual hikes are another way to enjoy the desert scenery. On my third day, after a long, hot, self-directed walk through the desert, I was so absorbed with taking photos I suddenly realized I had walked a long way without water and had an hour’s walk back.
Fortunately I arrived back just in time for happy hour which features a wet and dry bar where parched cowgirls and cowboys can purchase reasonably-priced beer and wine on the honor system. Some folks show up at the White Stallion Ranch the same time every year to hang out with friends they made in previous years.