I grew up in Arizona, with two summers of horseback riding camp (Western style). So the idea of getting my kids on horses is appealing. So is the idea of a dude ranch, where you not only ride horses several times a day, but someone else cooks for you and watches your kids.
Sitting tall in the saddle
Last time I was in Tucson visiting family, I spent a morning at Tanque Verde, a highly regarded dude ranch on the city’s east side. I’d written about dude ranches for magazines, but hadn’t yet actually had the experience. I dragged my seven-year-old daughter Dori with me – she was NOT excited about riding on a horse. I used my motherly charm to convince her to go, saying “they’re giving you a horseback riding lesson and you’re going to take it.”
Nancy, director of kids’ programming, gave her a private lesson, which involved sitting on the horse as he walked around the corral, and then doing an “obstacle course” (things like walking by a mailbox to put something in). Dori was beaming at the end – so proud to be a good rider. I hopped onto a horse and Nancy took us out into Tanque Verde’s 600+ acres.
While we trotted along, we spotted staghorn cholla, saguaro cacti, barrel cacti, jackrabbits and more. Nancy filled us in on all sorts of nature and desert trivia (like a saguaro cactus must be 60-70 years old before it grows an arm, and if the arm is growing downwards, it mean the cactus froze at some point). Dori had fun looking for desert animals and telling me the correct way to sit and hold my reins.
Those staying at the ranch can ride several times a day, including a family ride with the kids, or an early morning breakfast ride. You can also drop off your kids with Tanque Verde kids’ programming (price for the dude ranch is all-inclusive, so kids’ programming is free), which runs through the evening. They accept kids ages 4 to 11, dividing them into similar age groups – and they get lessons before they’re allowed on the horse.
In the program, the kids might ride first thing in morning, and then do arts and crafts. They have lunch together and a lesson (riding, tennis etc.). They can eat dinner with parents or with the counselors, and in the winter, they offer evening programs too. Kids who are old enough (and get parental permission) can come and go from the program as they wish.
Believe it or not, 20 percent of those visiting the dude ranch don’t even ride the horses. I figure if you go to a dude ranch, why wouldn’t you ride? But there’s also tennis, fishing, swimming (in a saddle-shaped pool), yoga, tai chi, spa treatments and mountain biking. There’s no golf at the ranch, but they can arrange it for you elsewhere.
Peace, quiet, and cactus-shaped cookies
For those who want some peace and quiet, know that there are no televisions in the rooms. This may not result in peace and quiet if your kids require TV to be happy. They do have satellite radio, however, for those who need to listen to their sports programs or 80s station.
Meals are served in the communal dining room – which has cactus rib ceilings and really cute cactus-shaped cookies for lunch. Breakfast and lunch are buffets – plenty to eat even for my picky daughter.
Tanque Verde has been around forever – at least 100 years as an actual dude ranch accepting guests. I think my parents went there for a conference many years ago. They’ve been talking about an extended family trip to a dude ranch, so it may not be long before we get the whole family on horses. Dori can then lecture us on how to ride.