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. 

Previous articleAkuta To Miss The New Zealand Cup in 2022
Next articleLittleton Equine Medical Center Acquires Colorado Horse Park