Montana is a sweet adventure on a horse named Skittles

Erysse on a horse2

At some point during our stay at Bar W Ranch in Whitefish, Mont. — I’m not sure exactly when — the candy theme hit us like a startled grizzly on a hiking trail. Which is to say, we never saw it coming.

Skittles were everywhere. We found them in our kids’ packed lunch before they headed out for a day of riding. For reasons not entirely clear to us, the multicolored candy popped up everywhere in our log cabin. Coincidentally, Skittles was also the name of our six-year-old daughter’s horse.

Yeah, we get it. Montana is a sweet adventure.

But staying on an authentic dude ranch will leave you with more than a sugar high. These are real horses and cows, not zoo animals or the animatronic props from a theme park ride. (Did you really need us to tell you that?) A dude ranch is an educational experience, rich in history and tradition. And as my Daddy, who always seems to have a half-read Louis L’Amour novel within arm’s reach would say, it’s also a “character building” experience.

Horses in the mist at Bar W

It’s the real deal

On our second morning in Montana, when our kids were invited to rise before dawn to feed the horses, it dawned on us. This is about as authentic as it gets.

For kids who are often pampered and shielded from the realities of life outside the vacation bubble, life on a ranch was a real wake-up call. Sub-freezing temperatures and hungry horses greeted the bleary-eyed children.

Even a handful of Skittles couldn’t shake the young’uns from their daze, but let me tell you, nothing gets your attention like a horse lunging for the hay in your hands.

At a dude ranch, they don’t just let you watch; you participate. After brushing the dried grass off each other and catching their breath, the kids were issued a brush and instructed to groom their horses.

Alas, they missed the most exciting parts — saddling the horses and, um, cleaning up after the horse, if you know what I mean. They were saved by the breakfast bell.

Sherman Lake

Steeped in tradition

Western hospitality and the dude ranch vacation dates back to the late 19th century. During the post-Civil War cattle boom, many easterners headed west to find their fortune. Letters made their way to friends remaining on the east coast about the incredible grandeur of the landscape and wildlife of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana.

The best-known ranch family were the Eatons, whose missives about their Custer Trail Ranch made the evening papers. Soon family and friends were making their way west to escape the rigours of city life and embrace nature for a few weeks.

By 1917, the Eatons they had moved to a larger ranch in Wolf Creek, Wyo. Their blend of ranch chores and riding created a special experience that seemed to improve both the mental and physical condition of their guests. They could handle more than 125 guests across the 7,000 acre ranch, which ran 500 horses and several hundred head of cattle.

In 1926, a group of ranchers, national park officials and railroad executives attended a two-day event that created the Dude Ranchers’ Association. They were concerned with preserving the ranch experience, including the natural resources that made a western vacation so appealing.

That first meeting of the Dude Ranchers’ Association helped identify the best aspects of ranching while allowing each region to tailor its activities to the surrounding natural resources. And ever since then, the organization has been a designator of superlative ranches nationwide and throughout Canada. Even today, there are rigorous qualifications to maintain membership in this elite organization of guest ranches.

Boys on bikes at Bar W

Character counts

The best part about visiting a dude ranch with kids is that it can teach them responsibility, and not just how to take care of a horse. Live animals are everywhere, and if you don’t follow directions, you could end up regretting it. There are the elements too: the merciless cold of a fall morning that commands you to bundle up, and the enormous campfire set on Friday night, when the ranch prepares steaks and a cowboy sings songs.

It’s hard to describe, but after only a few days out in Montana, I think the kids grew up just a little. Despite the ever-present candy, they eventually settled down. Our six-year-old daughter rode a horse on her own for the first time, and she couldn’t stop smiling for three straight hours as we climbed a path deep into the mountains behind Whitefish. Our middle son? He learned a little about responsibility, and specifically, how to control his horse named Schatze.

Our oldest son, who is always worrying about something, learned that when you’re up there on a horse, you run out of things to worry about. I think he might have stopped worrying out there on the trail for the first time in his life. That’s a good feeling.

And while the horses took a break, the kids dashed around from one field to the next on their new second favorite ride, mountain bikes.

Oh, and we also discovered the mystery of the Skittles. The Bar W had a stash of it, apparently for Halloween, but somehow we’d come across a package or two.

And we now know the kids’ favorite flavors: one vote for raspberry and two for wild cherry.