TUCSON, Ariz. -- They arrive at the corral each morning wearing boots, hats, sometimes chaps and leather gloves. In the evening, they change into dressy denim vests, fringed jackets and shirts that close with pearly snaps -- creating a Western wear fashion show during cocktail hour in the Dog House Saloon.
For the most part, these guests are European -- with a preponderance of Brits -- and they enthusiastically embrace the cowboy culture at Tanque Verde Ranch.
"At home, horse riding is for the aristocracy, the royalists," Diane McMiwan of Rotherm, England, said one night
The Europeans' interest illustrates the broad appeal of the dude ranch in the Southwest. It has long been popular with American families, since most ranches tailor the riding experiences to appeal to a wide range of abilities.
Tanque Verde, which lies on the northeast outskirts of Tucson, expands the concept even further. "We made the decision long ago that in a given family, not everyone wanted to ride four to five hours a day," said proprietor Bob Cote, whose family has operated this ranch for more than half a century.
"If we wanted to attract that family, we had to appeal to all members, not just those who ride. Some might not want to ride at all. Some might want just an hour a day. So we have tennis, hiking, mountain biking, fishing" (most of which are offered with either instructors or guides).
Tanque Verde is at the upper end of the dude-ranch spectrum, a sprawling, 74-room spread that has rustic-chic rooms with fireplaces, a swimming pool, a hot whirlpool and even a spa.
But the Arizona Dude Ranch
Tanque Verde might have the most enviable location of the bunch. It sits in the 90-degree angle formed by Saguaro National Park (on the south) and Coronado National Forest (on the east). The Rincon Mountains rise on one side, the Tortilla
So, when you go on an all-day ride at this ranch, you're assured of traversing some wide-open, stunningly beautiful country. The ranch is also on a slope that looks over a dense forest of saguaro cactuses in the national park, and the candelabra-like sentinels are stunning when they catch the slanting rays of the setting sun.
While Tanque Verde's alternative offerings are admirable, the great majority of guests are here precisely because they want to immerse themselves in the cowboy life -- which means spending a lot of time in the saddle.
There is certainly that opportunity. A daily printed program routinely lists three hour-long walking rides, three loping rides for more accomplished riders,
One day the program promised that the late-morning rides would end at Cottonwood Grove for a picnic cookout, so I opted for one of these. But instead we returned to the corral and dismounted. The wranglers said that the rides to the picnic ground had been discontinued. It was probably just as well, because the grove isn't off in some distant canyon but is just a few steps from the ranch office. (Similarly, the breakfast ride wanders around a bit but ends up within a stone's throw of some ranch accommodations.)
The kids' program at Tanque Verde is one of its real strengths. Instructors urge kids through a succession of skills, and it is astounding to watch a 60-pound wisp of a girl astride a 1,000-pound beast, using neck-rein technique, a couple of kicks and some squeaky-voiced commands to get her mount to do her exact bidding.
Another offering is something you don't find everywhere: cow cutting and penning. The cowboys gave a demonstration of it one day, then turned guests loose the next day in a team-penning competition.
"What they do in rodeo isn't what we do on the ranch," said Tom Chambers, who led the activity. "Why would you want to ride along next to a steer and jump off your horse onto something that's bigger than you?
"Cow penning is something we do on the ranch, and we don't do it in a hurry, so you don't have to be an expert horseman to do this. In fact, it's better to do it at a walk."
At a working ranch, calves might be cut away from their mothers to be vaccinated or branded. Since we were doing this just for fun, seven calves where placed in an arena, each with a number sheared into its flank with electric clippers.
"Go bring out Nos. 3, 4 and 6!" one of the cowboys would holler. And off we'd ride. Because these critters represented a textbook example of the herd mentality, it wasn't always easy to get one to move without three or four others wanting to tag along.
I was on a team with three Brits, and we did a lot of riding, a lot of yelling and got really dusty, but we were slapping high-fives from the saddle (a risky proposition in its own right) whenever we'd get the cattle with the prescribed numbers into the designated pens before the clock ran out on us. And it certainly gave us something to laugh about over a bottle of local Nimbus Blonde beer in the saloon that evening.
Cote said that most guests used to come and stay for a week, but with the premium on vacation time -- at least among American workers -- many of the stays have gotten shorter in recent years. Accordingly, the ranch's various activities are offered on a four-day cycle. So, during a stay of that duration, you'll have a good shot at everything: the cow penning, a breakfast ride, a dinner cookout.
Still, tough decisions must be made. An all-day ride into the beautiful desert landscape east of Tucson was scheduled on the same day as the cow penning, and a couple of us were disappointed we had to choose one over the other.
At least the evening program is something everyone can get to. It might be Western music, two-step dancing lessons or a lecture about the natural world that lies just beyond the ranch's fences.
We were treated to a demonstration by Chambers of his "Harmony With Horses" program (he's not partial to the term horse whisperer).
"When I was 11 years old," he said, "I watched two cowboys brutalize a colt trying to break it. I stood there crying watching it. I wanted to find another way to have a horse do what you want it to do without using pain, fear and terror."
He selected a horse at random from the ranch herd and got into a small, circular pen with it. The horse immediately began to exhibit hostile behavior, snorting, laying back its ears and putting its rump toward him, preparatory to a kick.
"I need to establish who's in control," Chambers said as he put a plastic grocery bag on the end of a long stick and waved it in the air, creating a crackling noise that annoyed the horse. Then, using body language, looks and simple gestures, he got the horse to trot around the perimeter, reverse direction, slow to a walk, stop and approach him for some gentle nuzzling.
Lest anyone thought it was all pre-staged, Chambers selected a guest at random, put the fellow alone in the pen with the horse, and softly spoke directions to the guest from the shadows. The results were pretty much the same. Remarkable.
On another night, the evening's entertainment was a bit more frivolous but every bit as pleasing to the crowd, as "Loop" Rawlins twirled ropes, cracked bullwhips loudly and spun six-guns on his fingers.
The next day at the pool, Peter Mueller of Munich, Germany, remarked that he was enjoying everything -- that very day he'd had someone from the front desk run him into Tucson so he could buy some boots.
(Many of Arizona's dude ranches close during the searing heat of summer, but Tanque Verde is one that stays open year-round -- because of the number of Germans and other Europeans who want to experience the American Wild West in its harshest form, said Cote.)
What drew Mueller to this place? "It was very simple," he said. "I wanted to experience the American way of life, not in the cities, but (I wanted to) get into the countryside, into the cowboy life.
"Whether it's real or for tourists, in the end you don't care."
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Tanque Verde Ranch is at the terminus of Speedway Boulevard on the northeast outskirts of Tucson.
RATES: Like most dude ranches in Arizona, Tanque Verde operates on the full American plan, meaning everything but alcohol is included: lodging, three meals a day, all horseback riding and lessons, guided hikes, nature activities and evening programs. From now through Sept. 30, a double is priced from $295 per day (that's not per person; that's the total cost for two people). Rates in the fall from $375 for a double, in the winter from $450. Single rates available (from $225 currently).
RIDES: Guests customarily sign up for rides and activities the night before, so that the wranglers will know how many horses they need to have saddled at a particular time. Anyone is welcome on the walking rides, but to participate in a loping ride a guest must first pass a "lope check," basically an evaluation by one of the wranglers to make sure you're not bouncing out of the saddle, losing a stirrup or hanging onto the saddle horn for dear life. On a stay of several days, many novices work up to this by taking a progression of lessons.
INFORMATION: www.tvgr.com; (800) 234-3833.
OTHER RANCHES: The Arizona Dude Ranch Association www.azdra.com) is a marketing arm of 11 ranches. They range from Wickenburg northwest of Phoenix to the White Mountains in the east, and south to Tucson and vicinity. Click on "Ranch Comparison" for a grid that shows what each offers. The site has links to each ranch's Web site.