A Day in the Life of a Dude Ranch Wrangler

Morning wrangle. Photo © Vyla Carter

By Vyla Carter

This summer, I traded in my English saddle and tall boots for western tack and cowboy boots to be a wrangler at a dude ranch in Wyoming. A dude ranch is basically a western-styled resort where guests come to ride horses, fish, shoot, and experience the outdoors. The wranglers are in charge of caring for the horses and taking guests out on trail rides in the mountains. Here’s a play-by-play of my everyday: 

Photo © Vyla Carter

6 A.M. Wake Up and Wrangle

At dawn, six—of the 12—of us head to the corral to saddle up our horses. The horses the wranglers ride are put in a small pasture overnight then one person leaves her horse in the barn. This person is on her horse around six and brings in the wrangler horses. Once all the horses are in and saddled, we head to breakfast and quickly eat a meal that usually consists of toast, hashbrowns and eggs. 

Then, we start the process of wrangling in our herd of about 200 horses. This is when the fun begins, and when the hardships of the job are all worth it. We head down the lane that connects to the pasture, gradually picking up speed until we are loping. Once we make it to the gate of the pasture, we stop and assign everyone an individual route; together these routes will cover the whole pasture, pushing in the horses from the back to the gate. As we head to our route, we often yell “coo wee” and “hey boys.” Once the horses hear and see us, they start moving towards the corral on their own. Eventually, all the horses are pushed into the corral, and we close the gate behind them and get off our horses.

A wrangler ropes the dude horses to be saddled. Photo © Vyla Carter.

8 A.M. Saddling

Right after the morning wrangle, the whole crew starts the process of tacking up the guests’ horses. Two people get on their horses and rope the dude horses (the term “dude” refers to guests. You are a “dude” if you are just a visitor to the west) out of the part of the corral we call the “shark tank.” 

Another person oversees the saddle barn. This person has the list of horses with the guest and saddle number assigned to them. They tell the ropers what horses to catch, pull the saddle for that horse and place it on the rail. 

The roper then brings the horse up to the rail and someone bridles, another curry combs and throws the pad while another throws the saddle over and adjusts the cinch. Once the horse is done being saddled, we tie up their reins, let them go and they walk to the back of the corral. The number of horses we saddle ranges from 60 to 90. Once we are done saddling, we grab our own horses and individually saddle them. When new guests come, we assign them a horse and saddle then add them to the master list.

Wranglers grabbing the saddled horses in the back of the corral. Photo © Vyla Carter

9 A.M. to 12 P.M. Morning rides

Immediately after saddling, guests start to come up for rides. At the dude ranch I work at, we send out family rides, so the group you go riding with is usually members of your family or friends. Once the whole group is up, we write down their horses and all the wranglers go to the back of the corral where the saddled horses are. We grab those horses, tighten the cinch and get the guest on the horse. A sea of 60 plus horses is hard to navigate but eventually you get used to it and start to figure out all the horses’ names. 

Once all the riders in one group are on, a wrangler gets on her horse and leads them on one of our many trails. Some go through red rock canyons; another goes through creeks ending up at a cave and others go up and down mountains in forested areas. The morning rides span anywhere from one to three hours depending on what trail guests decide they want to do. Depending on the skill level of the group, we will trot and lope when the trail allows it. 

When all rides are out, at least one wrangler is left at the corral. This person unsaddles the horses who didn’t go on rides and tidy up the area. They always have a radio on them in case someone out on a trail needs help. As rides come in all the horses are unsaddled and the saddles are placed back inside. Once all the rides are over, we let the horses out into a small pasture for an afternoon break. Two to three wranglers will keep their horses in to quickly wrangle after our break.

12:15 to 4 P.M. Break

When we are done at the corral we go to the kitchen and have lunch together. All meals are prepared by the kitchen staff, so we get there, grab a plate and fill up on whatever is offered. 

Most of the time, I use the break to nap and relax because I’m so exhausted. If I’m not napping, I’m doing laundry, reading outside, working out or going on a small adventure, like hanging out at the creek or lake.

4 to 5:30 P.M. Saddling

After break we start the whole process again. The horses will be wrangled in by four, so the people doing that go to the corral around 3:30. This wrangle only takes 10 to 20 minutes. 

Unlike the morning rides, guests must sign up for evening rides. So, we only saddle the horses who are signed up, making this saddling quicker. Like the morning, new guests will often come, and we assign them a horse and saddle and tack them up so they can ride in the evening. 

5:30 P.M. Dinner and break

When we are done saddling, we head down to the kitchen again. Often, we have a little free time before rides go out. During this time, I sit outside and read or talk to other employees, but sometimes we would work with project horses. These project horses were often younger horses that only the wranglers could ride until we felt they were ready to be duded out to guests.

Evening ride. Photo © Vyla Carter

7 to 9 P.M.  Evening rides

Evening rides are the same set up as morning rides. The only difference is that the rides are shorter, two hours max. It is a strict 9 p.m. cutoff time, as it starts to get dark. 

The evening rides are my favorite as you get to ride around in the beautiful mountains during golden hour, watching the sun set and often seeing animals such as deer, pronghorn and turkeys. 

Like the morning, all horses are unsaddled as rides come in. Once everyone is back, we push out the horses to the big pasture, clean up the corral and head out.

9:15 P.M. Getting ready for bed, hanging out with other ranch employees, etc

And finally, we are done with the long workday. Right after work I shower and either get ready for bed or go hang out with other staff and guests. As exhausted as I am, the evenings are the time when I get to know staff outside of the wranglers. Eventually, I go to bed and get ready to do it all again. 

This is how our day generally goes, but every day is different depending on the circumstances- you never knew what to expect. Sometimes we have to use free time to doctor horses or learn new trails. Other times the wrangle doesn’t go as planned and horses escape, making us have to run around and catch them. It’s hard work, but it is all worth it at the end of the day.

Vyla Carter is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. She is based in Aspen for the winter season, but works as a wrangler at a dude ranch in Wyoming. Her writing and photography have appeared in an array of online and print publications. 

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