A Guide to Horseback Riding Vacations while Social Distancing


Cowboys and cowgirls practice social distancing on horseback during a trail ride scenic viewpoint in Napa, California.
Equestrians practice social distancing while horseback riding in Napa. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Bandanas and masks have always been associated with cowboys and spaghetti Western movies. Now, due to COVID-19, the western bandana, mask and social distancing practices will be a way of life for horseback riding vacations. Most of us are chomping at the bit to get back in the saddle. But what does this new frontier look like in the age of novel coronavirus?

Travelers are pivoting from urban holiday locations to outdoor destinations. Polls show that six in 10 Americans are ready to travel soon. Many  people are looking to the great outdoors for their next vacation. Dude ranches are an ideal place to connect with nature while practicing social distancing. Many ranches and horse stables are situated near national parks or located on private property with plenty of acres to spread out and stretch your legs.

Social Distancing During Horseback Riding Vacations



“The U.S. travel community is encouraged that travelers and travel-related businesses embrace proper COVID-19-related health and safety guidance,” according to U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow.

So how will dude ranches and riding stables practice social distancing while horseback riding? Every guest ranch has their own COVID-19 safety procedures. That’s why I  reached out to dude ranches and trail riding operations that I have personally visited to request their input on the topic. I specifically asked how they plan to make guests feel safe during their horse riding holiday.

Here are some questions you can ask prior to booking your horseback riding vacation: 

Ask about the sanitization protocol in the stables


A lone cowgirl approaches elk herd in Bitterroot forest during a trail ride with Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana.
Riding into a herd of elk in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.

I asked Bryce Street, executive director at The Dude Ranchers’ Association how the coronavirus pandemic might impact member dude ranches. She assured me that the DRA is on top of the conversation, ensuring all measures specifically follow sanitization procedures.

There are also several sanitization measures discussed on a state level. Here’s what some of the Montana ranches had to say:

All members of the Montana Dude Ranchers Association are taking safety measures seriously in order to accommodate their guests according to Montana’s restrictions and procedures.”  said Pam Gosink, Executive Director, Montana Dude Ranchers’ Association.

Montana is one state setting to take proper sanitation “on all levels”, according to Gosink. The Montana Dude Ranchers’ Association is doing this by encouraging sanitizing saddles and tack for each rider. They also encourage assigning one wrangler per family.

Many ranches, in California in particular, are asking guests to follow Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines of wearing a mask when close to wranglers. Once on your horse, you may remove your mask or bandana, as social distancing occurs naturally when horseback riding in small groups. The 6 feet spacing rule comes easy to horses as no one likes riding nose to tail out on the trail.

Most ranches and riding stables are offering hand sanitizer stations. I also visited several ranches where they offered soap and water to wash your hands.

Ask about social distancing while on the trail


Melissa & Nancy Fiddler practice social distancing, while wearing bandanas, during a horseback ride at Rollin F. Ranch in Sebastopol, California
Cowgirls practice social distancing at Rollin F Ranch. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

I recently had a chance to ride at Rollin F Ranch in Sonoma County, California. They have several ways they are addressing social distancing while horseback riding. The family owned ranch has adapted by offering private trail rides as opposed to group rides. Guests may ride with their posse; be it family members, couples or solo equestrians.

Alison Lewis, media relations manager at The Resort at Paws Up in Montana said, “we are doing activities privately between guests and family. If they need a guide, the guide will be wearing a mask and stay 6 feet apart. We are not doing any activities where a guide would need to be closer than 6 feet to our guests.”

I would also recommend contacting the ranch or stable in advance and booking your horseback ride during off-peak hours. Of course, if you are staying at a dude ranch for an extended horseback riding vacation, you will typically ride the same horse during your entire holiday.

Learn about their lodging safety measures

Not only is it important to take measures in the stables and on the trail, it’s also important inside the lodge or ranch!

Communications Director Jennifer O’Donohue of Triple Creek Ranch said their Relais & Chateaux property will follow the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s industry accepted Safe Stay cleaning guidelines. Their website notes that social distancing comes naturally to their Montana luxury hideaway in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Rob Farmer General Manager at Red Horse Mountain Ranch in Harrison, Idaho offered specific answers to my safety questions with regard to multi-day ranch vacations.

Farmer said that guest rooms will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, with windows left open until your arrival. The ranch staff will disinfect high touch points in common areas before, during and after meal services.

The Lodge will be closed a portion of each morning and afternoon for deep cleaning. New hand washing stations will be placed around the Ranch.

Practice social distancing while dining


Long wooden table, set for family-dining at Greenhorn Ranch in the chuck house.
Family-style dining. Photo © Nancy D. Brown


Any ranch that has a restaurant is also required to follow social-distancing and sanitization measures.

For example, The Red Horse Lodge also said there will be increased spacing between tables in the dining room, as well as new covered outdoor seating and dining options. Not every restaurant does this, but their team will wear face masks and gloves during meal service and other appropriate times. Instead of buffet style meals at lunch and dinner, the team will plate meals for guests cafeteria style. The servers will take menu orders at breakfast. Additionally, a new food to-go option is available if guests feel more comfortable eating in their room or elsewhere on the ranch.

While each dude ranch will have their own novel coronavirus guidelines and procedures, I imagine most ranches will give guests the option to receive limited housekeeping, replenishing towels and such, or completely opt out of daily maid service.

Pandemic Guidelines for Children’s Programs


Young child places painted hand prints on horse during children's program at Lone Mountain Ranch in Montana.
Young cowgirl places her painted hand prints on a horse during Lone Mountain Ranch children’s program.

Some of my fondest memories around horses have been at camp and participating in the children’s horseback riding programs during a ranch vacation. Bryce Street of the DRA also said the following:

“Children’s programs have been one of the largest areas of concern for dude ranches during these times. Each ranch has adjusted their programs according to their guidelines and procedures and are taking all precautions to ensure children are practicing social distancing and following sanitation practices. DRA ranches are also working closely with their state and local health officials to ensure they are following local, state and national guidelines.”

While my children are now young adults, I realize that many parents have specific questions regarding children’s programs at a dude ranch. I’m told that many ranches will reduce group sizes for each age group. Ranch counselors are following new cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Most kids’ activities take place outside.

Please reach out to the guest ranch directly to ask specific questions about their children’s program. Personally, I recommend investing in a pair of riding gloves for each family member.

Ride local to support your community


Lone horse in corral, looking through rock-shaped heart with mustard flowers on hillside in northern California.
Wondering how to social distance at a dude ranch? Photo © Nancy D. Brown


Like many of you, I’m hesitant to jump on an airplane right now and take a long haul flight. Personally, I plan to road trip my way from California to Oregon, Idaho and Montana for my horseback riding vacations. During this time period where travel is starting to pick back up, many small businesses are struggling to make ends meet. It’s important to support businesses in your own county and state.

Travel with a mask, or two, and wear it if it is required of you (even if that rule is not enforced in your home state.) Pack your patience, be respectful of others and don’t forget to tip your guide or wrangler. It goes without saying that we’re all in this together. Happy trails to you.


This article was written by equestrian travel expert Nancy D. Brown. The author does not claim to be a medical professional on Covid-19 practices. Please refer to the CDC guidelines and individual website for each state.