Life on a Dude Ranch

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An absolutely true story.

Life on a Dude Ranch

A poster for Horse Eats Hat.

In the year after we had graduated High School Jim and I started spending every weekend tent camping in north Florida. One weekend we decided to stay at a campground located near the mouth of a major Florida river. After paying our fee for the weekend and setting up our camp, we decided to explore the grounds.

Soon we found a trail riding adventure that was just being established by a pair of former rodeo cowboys. They had about a dozen horses of various training and pedigree. Stables and a tack room had been built, but they were just starting on a proper corral to hold the herd during the day. After a few beers around the campfire we found ourselves signed up as weekend staff, in lieu of salary we would be allowed to claim a horse after a year of service.

The next weekend, we were allowed to camp free, as employees of one of the camp's services, we chose a campsite near the ranch, at the far end of the camp's center. We got into the habit of leaving our tent stakes in the ground and just dropping the loops over them each Friday night and unhooking them on Sunday afternoon.


Caspar was a beautiful pure white gelding. Unfortunately he had been 'hard broken' using a barb wire harness and a barbed bit. Although he could follow commands as well as any good cow pony, his mouth was very sensitive. When an amateur pulled on his reins, like they thought they should, he would rear, buck and try to throw them off his back. Caspar became Jim's horse when we were there.


At 15 1/2 hands to the withers (the high point between a horse's shoulders.) Our bay mare was the tallest horse at the ranch. Although, as I would later learn, she was well trained, she could only be ridden with 'plow reigns'. Most riding horses are trained to 'neck reign', meaning that laying one reign against the side of the neck makes them turn in the opposite direction. In 'plow reigning' you have to physically pull their head in the direction you want the to go. Both because I was tall enough to mount her, and I knew how to 'plow reign' (also I hate to ride with my reigns tied together). Mare became my regular horse whenever I wanted her.

Trail Rides

We would take out three or four trail rides a day. The visitors renting the horses was what paid the bills. We usually had at least two of us on each ride, one guiding and the other at the rear to assist anyone who was having trouble. We would ride them through the campground to a large sand flat, near the river, with several sweet fresh water holes and allowed the horses to drink. Then we would take them out for a couple miles up the dirt road before returning to the camp. The rest of us would remain at the ranch and work on building the new corral, mucking out the stalls and the other routine work of a ranch.

The Donkey

We also had a donkey. This was in 1971 and the story was that this had been George Wallace's campaign donkey (A donkey is the symbol of the Democratic party of the USA.) The donkey had his own little brightly painted cart to take children too small to ride the horses down the road and back again – he did this well.

Idle minds are the Devil's workshop. I think it was one of the former rodeo cowboys who first came up with the 'bucking burro' (burro is just another name for donkey) concept. A cinch strap pulled tightly around an animal's flanks, just in front of their hind legs, will annoy them and make them buck and do anything else they can think of to make it go away.

As the donkey's back was less than three feet from the corral floor we did not risk serious injury and it became a game to pass idle hours.

One day the farrier (a blacksmith who specializes in horseshoes) came by while we were playing with our donkey. As a former rodeo rider himself, he asked if he could take a turn. Sure, why not.

Our corral was almost complete, the only thing we lacked was a proper gate. In the meantime we were making do with a single strand of barbed wire between the top of the posts.

By this time we no longer needed a strap to goad the donkey, if anyone over a hundred pounds mounted his back he would do anything in his power to get them off. He was still content to let little children ride for hours on end.

The farrier mounted our donkey in the middle of the corral. The beast bucked back and forth, twisted right and left, but still the rider was on his back. He stopped still for about for a minute looking around. At last he looked at the barbed wire gate, took off at a full gallop, ducked his head and left the poor farrier doing about three loops around the barbed wire before he dropped to the ground. I think he laughed almost as much as we did, even if he had been hurt, he would not have admitted it.


We also had a Golden Palomino, the same breed as Roy Rodger's famous horse 'Trigger', although she was a mare. Goldie was one of the best trained horses in the stable. Not only could she 'neck reign', you could tie off her reigns and she turned by the pressure of your knees on her shoulders. She also knew to stop instantly if her reigns were dropped to the ground, a vital skill used when roping cattle.

She was a very smart horse, probably a bit too smart for her present occupation ,and she became bored. One weekend, one of the owners came to me and asked me to work with her as she was refusing to behave properly on the trail rides. She would feign a limp on one of her front legs, slow down and fall behind the other horses. He assured me that she had been thoroughly checked by both the vet and farrier and there was no physical reason for this.

Jim was leading the next trail ride, accompanied by one of the regular hands, I had Goldie saddled and ready to go. I told Jim that I was going to follow along, but just to ignore us no matter what happened.

Sure enough, soon after we left Goldie began to limp and fall behind, and I let her. By the time we reached the opening above the water holes, all the rest of the group were stopped enjoying their drink. Her ears went up in expectation of her treat. Expecting her interest, I dug my heels into her flanks and started hitting her butt with my hat. Before she knew what had happened she was at a full gallop! We circled the others and I made her return to the road without stopping for her drink. I then put her on ground reign, dismounted and we waited for the others to rejoin us. For the rest of the ride she behaved perfectly. After that my first duty each weekend was to take a ride on Goldie, because she had learned to respect me as a person who understood her. She would be fine with almost any other rider for the rest of the week.

All of the animals were well treated and we loved them. There was no cruelty intended by anyone, maybe just a little tough love.

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