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If you’ve been looking for an authentic Western experience since Mitch met Curly in City Slickers, then HorseWorks is for you. It’s the real deal, and that’s why the Wyoming ranch is on our Where To Travel In 2020 list. But be warned: This vacation isn’t for those wanting simple sun and relaxation. You’ll be working, learning, and having plenty of fun, too.

“Our ranch changes people,” HorseWorks Wyoming founder MaeCile Brown Massie told me, “but it isn’t the people that change the people -- it’s the horses.”

Hearing this, a little something -- that inclination toward wide-open spaces and getting mud on my boots -- perked up inside. I knew what MaeCile was talking about.

For my sister, my cousin, and me, summer camp was a right of passage. Three glorious years in a row, our parents splurged on us big time: footing the bill for a week away -- no grown-ups allowed! And while my memories of swimming in the lake, candlemaking, rock climbing, and drying our swimsuits on clotheslines stretched between our bunk beds never cease to bring a smile to my face, the horseback riding was the thing I lived for all school year long.

Picking “my” horse, petting it, feeding it, bonding with it, and being filled with healthy fear and exhilaration trail ride after trail ride were the pivotal summer camp experiences, at least in my book.

Of course, summer camp, your preteen years, and your true love of horses and the Wild West may seem like distant memories -- until you realize you can get back in the saddle, literally, at HorseWorks Wyoming. Here’s everything you need to know about this unparalleled vacation experience, and why a week at HorseWorks Wyoming belongs on your bucket list.

A guest at the ranch petting the horses.

1. You’ll Get Hands-On With Horses

MaeCile wants prospective visitors to know HorseWorks isn’t a dude ranch. That’s one of the first things she stressed when we sat down to talk about the HorseWorks experience.

While all horse-centric getaways sound good to me, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to just how hands-on (or off) you might be when you head out West.

At HorseWorks -- which is situated in the town of Thermopolis, about an hour south of Cody -- you’re definitely getting hands-on. It’s a rustic working ranch where the focus is on horsemanship and working with animals. “We are not a fancy dude ranch with a lot of staff,” MaeCile told me, and there aren’t a lot of amenities (think dude ranch spas, workout rooms, kids programs, and bars).

Instead, at HorseWorks, you’ll be up before the sun, learning to work with what MaeCile calls your “horse partner,” rotating wranglers, and eventually even saddling your own horse.

Feeding a baby cow at HorseWorks.

2. Cows Are Part Of The Program, Too

Cows are cute. But did you know that a herd of cattle can be essential to horse health? I didn’t either, until MaeCile explained that HorseWorks owns 25 head of cattle, plus their calves, who are used to “work the horses.” And as a rider at HorseWorks, that means you’re going to really learn how to move a cow, but, as MaeCile noted, “not so much that it becomes an endurance contest.”

“People think they want to go on a cattle drive,” MaeCile told me, “but after three hours in the dust behind a herd of cows, they’re not excited about the next four days.”

The HorseWorks difference is that you’ll learn to round up and drive cattle on 650 beautiful acres, but you’ll be sleeping in the same place each night (aside from an optional campout).

Guests can also be involved in calf and foal watch and may get to witness the birth of baby animals, whether they choose to ride or not.

Of course, I had to ask what happens to all those bitty babies. MaeCile explained that HorseWorks weans its calves at 6 months. “Some we sell, and some we keep as replacement heifers to keep the herd size constant.” She said the decision is based on their temperament, and that she sometimes keeps a calf because her mother is getting older.

Her newest favorites were surprise babies; a neighbor’s bull must’ve gotten in with the HorseWorks herd!

A HorseWorks guest riding horses in the wilderness.

3. You’ll Actually Learn How To Ride

“Stick you on a horse and you go -- you don’t really learn how to ride.” That’s MaeCile’s take on the horseback riding experience at your average dude ranch. But MaeCile’s own story may be the best proof that HorseWorks’ guests are going to really learn how to ride (if they want to).

Growing up in Kentucky, her father was a vet and her grandparents had a dairy farm. “The first animal I rode was a dairy cow,” she told me. She got a horse when she was 13 but admits her parents didn’t know much about horses or their proper care. She fell in love with the animal but never really learned how to ride.

Fast forward to adulthood: MaeCile spent time abroad in China, and when she came back to the states, her heart’s desire was to spend time with horses. Over dinner with a senator from Montana, she got some insight that changed her life: “You don’t need to go to Australia or something like that.” A short time later, she headed west and met her first husband, Nate Brown, a rancher and horseman.

They spent over five years regularly tent camping and riding in the mountains. Then the opportunity to buy back a ranch Nate previously owned presented itself. HorseWorks was born, and MaeCile’s understanding of the difference between getting on a horse and knowing how to ride has grown with it.

Guests at HorseWorks riding horses in the wilderness.

4. It’s A Bonding Experience

The working ranch experience isn’t for everyone. It’s not the place for a large family vacation, or a setting for young children. But it can be an excellent bonding experience, whether you arrive solo -- as the majority of HorseWorks’ guests do -- and bond with fellow riders (who could be from as far away as Scandinavia or China!) and your horse partner, or come as a pair. MaeCile’s seen spouses, friends, and parent-and-grown-children pairs thrive during their time at HorseWorks.

Part of the magic behind this is HorseWorks’ small size and MaeCile’s attentiveness to detail. On average, the ranch hosts only 14 guests at a time, and she is more than willing to keep couples together or separate mothers and their teen or adult children if they need independent time.

And what if one guest in a pair is less than interested in horseback riding? Well, they’re welcome and are in for a week of unwinding. MaeCile ensures couples will get to do what they want together (think walking the ranch, bottle feeding calves, and hot coffee and meals), but while you’re out riding, your non-riding partner can kick back with a book, enjoy the beauty of the property, or drive into Thermopolis or Cody.

There’s also bonding with the horses for those who arrive to ride. MaeCile told me, “We match people to horses that are appropriate to their riding ability and goals. If a horse they want to ride is beyond their ability when they arrive, we work with them to try to attain the level to ride that horse before they go.”

“Sometimes at the end of a week, like Friday morning, we’ll schedule time to let people trade horses in the arena so they can experience a variety of horses running barrels, going over obstacles, or working with me in an instruction setting in the round pen.”

HorseWorks’ application and booking forms ask specific questions that help match each rider with the best horse for them, but MaeCile let us in on a little secret: “If they mark ‘Give me your wildest beast,’ or ‘Will try anything!’ we know that odds are they are inexperienced and match them with appropriate horses until proven otherwise.” MaeCile knows best!

Guests at HorseWorks riding horses in the wilderness.

5. You’ll Get Back To Nature (And Press Reset On Old Routines)

Waking up at 5 a.m. to rugged terrain and a long day of riding and caring for animals isn’t everyone’s idea of a vacation, but if it’s yours, HorseWorks is the place.

MaeCile said, “One thing I learned from Nate” -- who passed away in 2016 -- “was good food, good horses, and beautiful scenery.” That’s exactly what you get at HorseWorks, and from the land and communities around it.

On the ranch, expect to bed down in a two- or four-person cabin a short walk from the HorseWorks lodge. The cabins, like the ranch itself, are rustic. Four-person cabins have bunk beds, and a cabin stay means no running water in your room. The lodge, however, is spacious, with men’s and women’s bathrooms (toilets and hot showers included) that are handicapped accessible.

And while off-ranch experiences aren’t included in the HorseWorks price, there’s a free hot springs bathhouse in Thermopolis, the Friday night rodeo in Cody, and an opportunity to venture to Yellowstone (approximately 2 hours by car) Saturday and Sunday with suggestions for beautiful scenery and wildlife sightings from MaeCile and the other ranch staff.

Cooking breakfast over a campfire.

6. Eat Well (Around The Campfire And Elsewhere)

HorseWorks’ lodge, and the kitchen within, are open 24/7 for your snacking (and running water) needs, and meals are typically served family-style. MaeCile’s eager to accommodate guests who are gluten-free, lactose intolerant, or have other special dietary needs or restrictions.

In fact, she invites guests to go shopping with her and her staff. “We pick them up at the airport, and our first stop is the grocery store.”

There is a weekly campout during which more rustic eats will be served, but MaeCile told me those who prefer to get back to their cabins and the comfort of the lodge often ride back in the truck.

Some riders and campers even opt to go back in the truck the next morning, leaving their horses to run alongside or be rounded up by other riders later in the day, which paints a beautiful picture of the sense of family and freedom on the ranch.

HorseWorks guests at the entrance to the ranch.

7. Check Out With The Sense Of A Job Well Done (And Maybe A New Horse)

Whether you’re an experienced rider or totally new to the Wild West world of horseback riding, you’ll leave your week at HorseWorks knowing how to ride and feeling intimately connected to both “your” horse, the cattle, and the land.

You can take your memories and your new routine (rising early and getting outdoors regularly) with you. Some people even buy their horses from the ranch.

“Any time you can find a loving home for a horse, you should let them go,” MaeCile told me. “That’s our goal, for horses to have a loving home and a productive life.”

A guest exploring the beautiful wilderness at HorseWorks.

Bonus: It’s Incredibly Affordable

I was more than surprised to learn that a week at HorseWorks -- rides, campouts, meals, and hot showers in the lodge included -- costs under $2,000. In addition to the rustic accommodations meaning more dedicated horse time, they also mean affordability.

Considering that MaeCile, her cook, her wrangler, and her husband Jim (who’s not a horseman, but is “really supportive”) are the only staff, and they typically host only 7 to 14 guests at a time, you’re in for a bespoke week in the Great American West for a fraction of the cost of most week-long vacations, in the States or abroad.

Riders (and their ranch-bound partners) can fly into the Cody, Wyoming, airport for Sunday pickup. Or, if you have time and are up for a gorgeous drive, MaeCile says you can save by flying into Denver and renting a car for a week or two.

Want more on horses? Check out these eight places to see wild horses around the world, and get ready to ride!

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