It was a dream come true, as I rode my horse through the green pastures of the Sweet Grass Ranch, north of Big Timber, Montana. After living so many years in the US, we were finally experiencing life on a ranch, and we treated ourselves with a weeklong stay of Montana cattle ranching fun. Let’s go horseback riding in Montana!
As a teenager, I had been lucky to have my own horse. Many of the ranches in the US are dude ranches, where guests can enjoy horseback riding with little of the work a working cattle ranch requires. I was looking to get my hands dirty, be close to the horses, and develop a bond with them – as much as one can do within a week. Our stay at the Sweet Grass Ranch did not disappoint, and I still smile when I relive our stay horse riding in Montana.
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A Dream Experience: Horseback riding in Montana
Day 1: Arrival at the Sweet Grass Ranch Montana
After our flight into Billings, our airport transfer organized by the staff at the Sweet Grass Ranch dropped us at the main ranch house for checking.
Immediately I fell charmed by the beautiful scenery around us. Picture red houses and barns nestled in the picturesque Crazy Mountains. Imagine green hills, small lakes, and cold rivers rushing by the cabins. The landscape surrounding Sweet Grass was how we expected the perfect Montana ranch to look like!
We met with the ranch owners Page and Pat, and the ranch staff Emily and Laura in the corral on our first day to discuss riding levels. Once we were allocated with our horses for the week, we went for an afternoon ride, where we spent a couple of hours down the nearby valley. As a horse person who owned her horse, the welfare of the animal was essential. I was delighted to see that all the horses were in top shape and well behaved, responding quickly to our commands.
The ranch does not impose the dreaded nose-to-tail policy, and Bruno and I promptly left the queuing riders walking the trail to guide our horses in the tall grass. I rapidly enjoyed the ride and appreciated that the horses were not pulling to rejoin their teammates like it is often the case in standard horseback riding tours. The afternoon was almost gone when we returned to the ranch. Though I was excited for more hours on the saddle, my unbroken legs and bottom were glad for the break – it had been a long while since I had been on a horse, and I needed to “break” these muscles and toughen-up my skin again! We were In the last mile before the corral when I noted that my horse was slightly limping. Pat decided to let my horse rest for the week and switched my ride to a mare called Gravy. This switch ended up being for the best!
Day 2: Meeting My Girl Gravy
The next day, I went early than our scheduled ride to offer my help to prepare and saddle the horses. Of course, Emily and Laura were initially cautious about my offer, having no idea whether I could do the job or not. To be honest, it had been a while for me, too, so I appreciated when they pulled Gravy apart from the others in the corral. The gear was the most puzzling, and Emily showed me how to correctly put the Western saddle so close, yet so different than the English saddle. And boy, are these saddles heavy! Luckily Gravy was not too tall, and after a few repeats, I managed to gear her up.
From the moment I sat on Gravy, I knew I found my girl. She reminded me of so many levels on my mare Myriam. Well mannered but a temper of her own. Willing to go where you wanted but her own mind when she did not want to. A good pace but not crazy. Docile but no boring.
A horse. A ranch. A cowgirl. The beginning of a dream come true!
That day we explored another part of the ranch and came across our first cows. We followed some of the cows across the river and into bushes, the mood of the horses changed immediately as they become more alert and attentive to their surroundings. Laura and Emily directed us around a few separated cows to push them back towards the rest of the cattle herd.
The horses were a delight, turning in tight space between trees and bushes, wading knee-deep in the water and all business. I have to confess that I was also making sure Gravy and I was closer to the action as I was so thrilled by the moment and the opportunity to “work” with the cattle. I can’t relate these too-short minutes with the hard work of the actual cattlemen during a real cattle drive, but this would probably be the closest I would ever be and wanted to enjoy the time to its fullest.
Speaking about a cattle drive, I haven’t managed to plan this early enough to secure an opening in a sleep-under-the-sky-weeklong-cattle-drive, but I know I will make this happen one day! As we returned to the ranch, I took care of Gravy, which was as nice as the day. I really loved being able to connect with her, brushing her sweat away, and making sure she was alright after a hard day of work. Emily and Laura also let me help with the other horses. I was getting myself familiar with the operational aspects, putting gear away, and settling the horses for the night.
Day 3: Living the Dream of a Cowgirl
The third day started early as I woke at 5:45 am, intending to help to feed the horses. I actually hadn’t realized the horses, besides a couple of them, were fully released for the night across the ranch, and the first item of business was to retrieve them. Emily and Laura were already searching for the horses across the field. Another staff was using a bucket of grains to call out for the feed.
It was eerie to stand in the middle of empty fields, in the night’s total darkness, and calling up for the horses. We could hear their hooves beating the ground, as well as the occasional neigh here and there. Slowly we saw them approaching, and we brought them into the corral. Emily and Laura were also making their way, pushing galloping horses down the slopes of the hills in a cloud of red dust as the sky started to lighten up with the dawn approaching quickly. It was a view worth one of the famous Western movies, and I had to pinch myself to make sure it was truly happening in front of me. I forgot everything at that moment, the cold of the early morning, the lack of sleep due to the early rise, and was simply fascinated by the scene.
After feeding the horses and enjoying our own breakfast, our group headed to the ranch’s sloping side, going over high rocky ridges from which we enjoyed the wide-open views and admired the Crazy Mountains in the background. We crossed vast meadows of tall yellow grass, forests with thick green trees, wood fences, lakes, and rivers that were occasional spots in the landscape. Emily and Laura gave us plenty of opportunities to gallop, and once again, we loved the non-nose-to-tail policy. We felt free to roam the fields, letting the horses go at their full speed, racing with each other, and showing their real character.
Day 4: Moving Cattle
I was ready on Day 4 to accompany the staff and gather the horses. Gravy had been kept in the corral with Emily and Laura’s horses the night before for that express purpose. We got our horses ready under the corral light, trying to keep the noise to a minimum given the earlier hours. Indeed, no one else besides us were awake at 6 am, and it felt surreal to be saddling the horses in the dark. The main herd was held in the valley nearby, and we led our horses in that direction. We quickly found them and started gathering them toward the ranch.
After yet another abundant breakfast, we settled our horses and got to move some cattle. The work is not as easy as it seems, and these cattle have a mind of their own. While most of the cattle still in higher pasturage ground, the herd we were moving was on the small side. Nevertheless, it took us a few hours to move them where we wanted them to go. The river’s flat area was especially challenging, as we chased them through knee-deep water, slippery grounds, and thick bushes cows could sneak around but not us standing tall on our horses.
There is always one or two cows that would give us more troubles. Moving away from the group, stopping longer to snap a few more grass, or simply refusing to get along. Thankfully, the horses knew their jobs, and we could take in the fabulous Montana scenery while listening to the cows’ mooing, the singing of the birds, feeling the sun on our skin, and the wind in our hair. It was paradise!
Day 5: Sunrise and River Ride
Early birds get the worms, or in our case, first cowboys and girls up get the sunrise! We woke up around 4.30 am, getting ready in the dark night. Riding our horses in the dark is a thrilling experience as we moved barely aware through the dark, just the hooves of the horses breaking the silence.
As we reached the top of the hill, we stood there in awe, watching the sun’s red rays warming up the sky. The horses were grazing nearby, and the peaceful moments were truly memorable. And the views we were soaking in confirmed our choice of staying in a ranch in Montana. The most enjoyable blend of meadows and mountains, shaping the landscape for our eyes.
After such an early ride, we left late in the morning for a leisurely ride that took us along the small canyons surrounding a gushing river. Though it was late summer, the water was still plentiful and running strong. We chilled for a while there, enjoying the time by the sound of the nearby Sweet Grass creek.
Day 6: Horse Pack Trip to Campfire Lake
The morning saw us preparing for an overnight camping trip with our horses. Our goal was to reach and camp by the Campfire Lake. We placed the gear on a porter horse, loading the guy with tents, food, and cooking utensils. After checking the heavy load, we headed with Laura up the mountain. The 12-mile (19-km) trail sneaked by the steep cliffs overlooking the river, and we had to be careful that the porter horse was staying on track. During the 6-hour ride, Laura and I switched leading the horse several times. While the horses are well behaved, leading a packhorse requires special attention as you don’t drive one but two animals. At some point, the trail crossed a rock field, and we had to get down our horses for safer crossing. We let the horses drinks at the river crossing, a refreshing break for them under the hot summer sun.
We arrived at the lake mid-afternoon and immediately prepared our camp. The first order was to set the temporary electrical fences where we corraled the horses for the night. Then, once the animals secured, we pitched our tents on the green grass, facing the lake for the best views.
As the night fell, we gathered wood where Laura cooked our meal over the open fire. Listening to the crackling flames, we enjoyed the simple yet tasty dinner, seeping on hot coffee. The traditional tint coffee pot set on the firepit gave us the feeling of pioneers on the migrant trail, recuperating from a long riding day. We watched the moon rise from the top of the mountains surrounding the lake, enjoying the calm night surrounded by the horses and dog.
Turning in for a welcomed night of rest, we settled on the saddle pads turned mattresses, which made us feel like true cowboys. The proper sleeping bags and tent definitely made for a more comfortable night as the temperatures descended towards the low 30 F (13 C) since the weather had chilled quite tremendously that mid-September.
Day 7: Cowgirl Last Yee-Haw
Waking up to nothing but Mother Nature sounds of singing birds and the horses snorting and neighing was paradise. The smell of bacon quickly got us fully awake, the perfect breakfast to get through the day.
Packing the horse was easier since most of the food was gone, but we had to readjust the ropes to ensure the gear was safely attached. Returning by the same trail allowed us to get a different angle of the narrow canyon and cliffs, and we knew where to pay specific attention to the horses. Though the horses understood we were headed back home, they did not try to hurry up their paces. Instead, we continued to enjoy the leisurely pace and dragged it on as much as we could.
Indeed, this ride was the last of our weeklong stay, and though I was sad to leave, it felt like the perfect conclusion to an exciting week. As we reached the barn and unpacked horses, I spent some time lingering on my horse. Spending time with the mare and getting to know her was one of the highlights of the trip. Of course, the bond of a week was just a flick of time, but nonetheless, understanding her, how she reacted depending on the situation reminded me of the deeper connection I had with Myriam.
Day 8: Leaving the Dream, Cowgirl Forever
Too soon on that Sunday morning, we packed out and enjoyed our last breakfast. We had to farewell our hosts too soon and gave a final hug to the horses and dogs. The drive passed by a stack of hays ready for hauling. Horses were grazing the last grass under the late summer sun. The ranch life sets to continue day in, day out.
Even though we were leaving the ranch behind, I knew that the cowgirl in me would always treasure these moments. And I can only wait and hope to live through that experience again.
Our ride back took us to Billings airport, where we boarded our flight back to California.
Sweet Grass Ranch in Montana
Montana is not the only state in the US where to go horseback riding and experience ranch life. Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, California, and most states can offer dude ranch vacations. So what make dude ranches in Montana so special?
For us, the landscape was an essential factor. We love the Alpine scenery, the high-altitude lakes bordered by rugged mountains, the thick forests of tall pine and fir trees. But we also wanted to ride through vast plains and rolling hills where we could gallop. Hence our choice of a Montana horse ranch for our trip, knowing that the backcountry would be our interest.
Why Sweet Grass Ranch?
With so many guest ranches in Montana, it can be hard to pick the perfect Montana dude ranch. So why did we decide for the Sweet Grass Ranch?
The Multi-Generation Family History
The ranch has been part of the Montana cattle industry since the end of 1880. Bill and Shelly Carroccias have open the ranch to guests and shared their family traditions with us. They run cattle operations. It was important for us to be part of one of these real working cattle ranches in Montana, and we got to see some of that at Sweet Grass Ranch, watching cattle grazing. We would love to come back and participate in a cattle drive.
The welcome from the Carroccias family, from Bill and Shelly to their children and grandchildren, was warm and made us felt like home.
What are the Meals like?
The food was cooked fresh daily from hearty Western recipes, and served family-style on the table, with everyone digging in. PLentiful and delicious, there was always enough for second dippings for the hungry stomach.
How are the Accommodations?
We stayed in one of the individual log cabins with private bathrooms available at the ranch, but there are also rooms in the main house. Our cabin was decorated Western-style, comfortable, and warm. We spent several hours just chilling on the front porch, taking in the scenery, or catching up on some well-deserved naps!
What about the Ranch Activities?
One of the reasons we chose Sweet Grass Ranch was the option of getting up and close with moving cattle. Swimming with horses and going on pack trips were also high on our list of interests. We did not get to swim with the horses, but we went on that overnight pack trip and loved it! If you are adventurous, make sure to experience what these horse pack trips Montana should be famous for!
Other activities include hiking in the mountains around the ranch, playing pool at night or card games. Singing along at the sound of the guitar. Or simply chatting about how great the day we just spent riding!
What Types of Horses?
The ranch horses are primarily quarter horses and quarter horse-thoroughbreds. They also have thoroughbreds, morgans, and paints. All the horses were in top conditions, well-fed, and taken care of. Individual personalities and ages were matched to their riders. And during my first ride, my horse was somewhat limping. Quickly, we returned to the ranch, where my horse was put to rest. The health and safety of the four-legged staff were definitely essential.
The best time to visit Montana is from June to mid-September, with temperatures average in low 55°F (13°C) to high 80°F (27°C), with July and August usually the warmer months. In June, wildflowers are in full bloom, and the Big Timber Rodeo is held the last week of June. In July, the cattle drive brings the animals to the mountain pastures. During August, it’s time for a trip to the Alpine lakes full of melted snow. With September, the cattle drive brings the animals back from the pasture while enjoying the Fall colors.
What to Expect on A Ranch Vacation: FAQs
Check some of the frequently asked questions about dude ranch vacations, or at least questions we had ourselves prior to our trip.
How Much is a Dude Ranch?
What defines the dude ranch Montana cost depends on whether you book single or double occupancy, go during the summer months, Spring or Fall, how long you stay (full week or shorter duration), and the activities offered. Most ranches are all-inclusive, but some can have events that cost extra.
As an average, a dude ranch cost starts around US$1,850 for a 5-night stay at double occupancy. Usually, a weeklong visit starts from Sunday to Saturday, but shorter weeks can start on other days. Discounts are habitually available for non-riders and children. So make sure to compare what’ s included or not when comparing the costs.
Dude Ranch vs Guest Ranch?
By the way, you might wonder why we say dude ranch or guest ranch. There are no real differences between the two, which are also sometimes called working ranch, or resort ranch. Resort and dude ranches tend to be bigger operations. Working ranches, as the name say, might have guests be more hands-on. Guest ranches are usually smaller and more family-oriented organizations. Just make sure the ranch features what you are looking for, regardless of the name, whether these are Montana dude ranches or guest ranches.
Why is a Dude Ranch called a “Dude” Ranch?
Many people asked, “Why is it called a dude ranch?”. This is a weird name, after all. You might know “dude” as a friendly “bro” meaning, but it used to mean someone from the city back in the late 1800s. So when ranches started receiving guests around that time, these ranches were called “dude ranches”.
What Do You Wear to a Montana Ranch?
Do you need cowboy boots for riding?
Yes! Tennis shoes and hiking boots are not recommended, and in some ranches, even not allowed. The first can slip through the stirrup, and the second has thick heels that can get stuck. If you are an experienced rider, you might have your own riding boots. Bring them along, or splurge in a nice pair of Cowboy riding boots – it’s part of the Montana experience!
What should I wear to a dude ranch?
- Jeans or thick tight pants. You don’t want loose pants or thin material as they will chap on your skin and chunk around your thighs.
- Long-sleeve shirts to protect against the sun and dust. Also robust material to avoid them getting ripped by branches
- Hiking boots to hike around the ranch
- Riding gloves, preferably leather but I brought my old pair of riding gloves
- Warm jackets as nights can be cold, as well as beanies
- Rain gear but no poncho that fly everywhere – these will scare the horses
- Riding helmet if you want to wear them
- Cowboy hat with a string to hold it
- Sunglasses with string
- Reusable water bottles
- Sleeping bags and tent if you are going to camp, or you can rent from the ranch usually
Who Can Go Horseback Riding?
What if I have little to no horse riding experience?
Many people going to a dude ranch have almost no riding experience, and ranches usually have different horses with different characters suited to all riding levels.
What about experienced riders?
Most of these ranches are working cattle ranches where horses are used to manage the cattle daily. Full of personalities, these horses are perfect for expert riders looking for a more challenging experience.
Any restrictions for riding?
While riding experience (or lack of) is not an issue, not everyone can unfortunately ride. Riders over 200-240 pounds might not be permitted to ride as the weight could be too heavy for the horses to carry, especially in rough terrain. Pregnant women or people with back and neck injuries might not be allowed to ride either given the risk of falling. Usually, children under the age of 6 cannot ride by themselves. Some ranches might offer pony rides.
If you are used to English riding, a Western saddle might get some used to. Longer stirrups, deeper seat, and a different way to ride for sure.
Are we riding “nose-to-tail”?
“Nose-to-tail” means when horse ranch operations are only allowing horses to follow one line and keeping the animals and riders in check. This is probably the “easiest” way of riding as it limits interaction and speed. But that’s also the most annoying way of riding, and in many instances, horses are “brainwashed” and more machines than living creatures. They know they have to trot here and gallop there if any galloping is even allowed. You could be riding a bicycle for the same amount of thrill. So while you sometimes have to ride in a line in the mountainous areas of the high country, because the trail is narrow, or you are passing by a cliff, make sure the ranch you choose allows you to ride side by side and venture away from the line. “Nose-to-tail” is not the way to enjoy the wide-open prairies and meadows of Montana!
How to Get to Montana
If you are flying from outside the US, you will most likely fly into Billings Logan International Airport (BIL). These coming from domestic destinations can book flights to Missoula (MSO), Helena (HLN), Great Falls (GTF), and Kalispell (FCA). Airlines that fly into Montana include Alaska Airlines, United Airlines & Frontier.
Once in Montana, and if you are only spending your time at the guest ranch, you probably don’t need a car. Arrange a transfer from and to the airport with your ranch. But if you are staying longer before or after your trip, renting a car will let you explore the state at your pace.
Have you been to Montana? What was your experience or preferred thing to do in the USA? Share with us your adventures!
If you are looking for more USA trip ideas, USA tours, or outdoor adventures, check out our USA travel blog posts.
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