A-Circuit to Dude Ranch: How I found my passion for riding again

Photo courtesy of Vyla Carter


Much of my time at my last show on the A-circuit was spent in the feed stall crying. I was burnt out. I was exhausted from the high pressure—the constant tiny mistakes that would cause my whole round to be destroyed. I also felt bored. I had two fantastic horses, a great trainer, and parents that supported me in the sport. I was grateful for the position I was afforded, but I was no longer happy there.

I lost the desire to pursue the sport I had been participating in for the last ten years. In the coming months, I sold one of my horses. The other had to be retired, so I decided it was time to take a step away. I stuck with my college equestrian club team for two more years but eventually dropped that too before my senior year.

And the thing is, I didn’t miss it. I let my Butet and Fabbris collect dust in a back corner of my college house. I pursued other things I felt passionate about and spent time with friends—something I felt like I never got to do while I was showing on the all-time-consuming circuit. I was happy without riding. 

Then, the second semester of my senior year rolled around, and I was freaking out. I wasn’t sure what kind of job I wanted. I didn’t feel ready to jump into a career I wasn’t positive I wanted. All my friends were making plans, getting corporate jobs, and traveling the world. 

My last summer of showing on the A-circuit. Photo © Javan Dalman.

On a whim, I applied to be a wrangler at a dude ranch in Wyoming. I got the job in January and anxiously accepted it a few days later, set to start at the beginning of June. At the end of the school year, I packed away my breeches and show coat that had been left untouched in my closet; I went to the local Boot Barn and bought cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans, and button-downs.

I showed up to the ranch, having ridden three times in the span of the last two years. Within hours of my arrival, I was given a saddle, and a string of four horses and taught how to put on western tack. The next morning, I went on my first wrangle (read A Day in the Life of a Dude Ranch Wrangler to learn what this is) and I was scared. We immediately went full tilt towards the pasture. I stayed in the back of the group so no one could see me clutching onto the saddle horn. 

The first few weeks were a difficult learning curve. Finding my seat in a western saddle was harder than I thought. As much as I hate to admit it, I was terrified galloping through the pastures and being responsible for taking people who had no idea how to ride out on trails. I thought the riding burnout might come back, but it never did

One day something clicked. I was reminded of why I spent so many years riding. It was all for the love of the horse and the freedom you can feel when you just let go and ride. I was able to find that with a change of pace in a more low-key environment. The stakes were low, and I was able to learn new things, while I felt I was plateauing in the English discipline. It was exciting to be able to see real progress. I learned to rope, how to guide a horse through side-passing as I opened a gate, and more. For the first time in a long time, I felt content while riding. I even craved it on my off days.

Catching horses that had gotten away from the herd.

On my last day at the ranch, the other two remaining wranglers and I went on one last ride on our favorite horses in our favorite pastures. It was an overcast mid-September day. We reminisced on our favorite memories from the summer while we walked and ran full speed through the wide-open spaces. 

In our last gallop, a light rain started to fall and the overwhelming joy this summer had provided me made itself present. I rode through fields of sage bush and western plains terrain, surrounded by rocky mountain landscapes that housed vast canyons and flowing rivers. I had gotten the ability to do this all summer and show others the beauty of the west and the beauty of riding a horse. I had guided people through the experience of galloping a horse through this terrain, watching a smile light up even the faces of serious middle-aged corporate men.

I found happiness in the saddle again—just a different one. I felt rewarded for giving other people that experience. I had never lost the passion; I just needed a change of pace. And I found it in the western plains on quarter horses.

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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