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What’s the Difference Between a Dude Ranch and a Guest Ranch?

Is there a difference between a dude ranch and a guest ranch? Both offer horse-focused overnight stays, but how big of a difference does that one word make? After visiting Red Horse Mountain Ranch (which calls itself a dude ranch) and Western Pleasure Guest Ranch on a recent trip to Idaho, I decided to find out.

Dude Ranch vs. Guest Ranch: The Official Word

For an official take on the naming difference, I reached out to Colleen Hodson, Executive Director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association (which also lists guest ranches). According to Hodson, the distinction between “dude” and “guest” is mostly a personal preference on the part of each individual ranch.

The real distinction, she says, comes with whether the ranch—be it dude or guest—considers itself a working ranch, a general ranch, or a resort ranch. On working ranches, guests can expect to help out on a working cattle or sheep ranch, doing activities like sorting and herding animals. Resort ranches tend to be larger properties that offer horseback riding alongside an array of other activities and sometimes even amenities like spa treatments. And dude ranches that aren’t working or resort mostly focus on horseback riding and related equine activities.

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How Dude Ranches and Guest Ranches View Their Differences

When I talked to the people at Red Horse Mountain Ranch and Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, they suggested there were some subtle differences between the two. For instance, dude ranches are often structured around a six-day visit, while guest ranches adapt more easily to shorter stays. Dude ranches may also have a higher guest capacity than guest ranches. But overall, neither dude ranch nor guest ranch seemed to attach a huge amount of importance to the difference.

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Dude vs. Guest: An Outsider Perspective

Having never been to a guest ranch or a dude ranch before my trip, I was looking for clues about the experience. The word dude, I learned, was a term that originally meant a city dweller (or person from the East generally) who had come to the West for a ranch vacation. Both “guest” and “dude” put the visitor on the outside, and so I assumed that, upon arrival, I would feel some kind of us-and-them divide.

But that turned out to be far from the truth. I quickly saw that, whether we’re called dudes or guests, we’re at the heart of this experience. We’re not just along for the ride; we’re the lucky people who get to share the joy that the people who work at these ranches bring. We get to bask in the love—of horses, the outdoors, natural beauty, hospitality, and adventure.

Ultimately, what’s important isn’t the name of the ranch; it’s that it’s staffed by the sort of people who will make you feel neither dude nor guest, but right at home.

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Christine Sarkis visited dude ranches and guest ranches courtesy of Idaho Tourism. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

By Christine Sarkis

There's a 95 percent chance Senior Editor Christine Sarkis is thinking about travel right now. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography and Twitter @ChristineSarkis.

Christine Sarkis is an SATW-award-winning journalist and executive editor at SmarterTravel. Her stories have also appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her advice has been featured in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her work has been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. She is currently working on a travel memoir.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: The Trtl Pillow. It's easy to pack and comfortable, and makes it so I can actually sleep on flights.

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Seeing the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of somewhere warm, like a glass igloo or hot spring.

Travel Motto: Curiosity is an amazing compass.

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