A Dude Ranch for Junior Surburban Slickers

GRANBY, Colo. -- Six-year-old Melanie had that look-at-me-I'm-terrific grin plastered all over her face as she led her horse around the corral under the wrangler's watchful eye. But the next instant, she was in the dirt and all of that new-found confidence-in-the-saddle was gone. ``I don't want to ride horses anymore,'' she sobbed. I couldn't blame her. The horse had decided to lay down with Melanie still on his back. She landed on her rear, frightened but not hurt.

The kid-smart wranglers at the King Mountain Ranch sprang into action, dusting her off and wiping away her tears. The last thing they wanted was for Melanie to leave the corral crying. They coaxed her back up in the saddle, and Melanie wound up feeling pleased with herself. ``If they fall, it's important to make them get back on. Otherwise, all they'll remember is the bad experience,'' explained Trubert Flowers, the 27-year-old Texan who runs the new children's riding program here. ``But if a child is kicking-and-screaming scared to get on a horse in the first place, it's not worth it to force them. It just reinforces their fear.''

The next afternoon, Melanie was all smiles as she showed off her new skills at the kids' ``showdeo.'' She even managed to ride her horse across the corral without breaking the egg she was balancing on a spoon!

Watching Melanie and the other kids talk to their horses that cloudy July afternoon, I realized that for junior suburban slickers like ours, a visit to a Western ranch offers the potential for a lot more than a vacation (though surrounded by the Arapaho National Forest, it certainly was that).

It's a chance for parents as well as kids to try on a different life, meeting totally different challenges. It's also the ideal getaway for families who want to share a new adventure together, away from their usual haunts and stresses.

Lucie Meikleham, a sixtysomething Massachusetts grandmother vacationing with her grandson, was inspired to ride for the first time in many years. ``On a scale of one to 10, I'd rate this place a 20,'' she said. ``You go to a big hotel, it's so impersonal. By the middle of the week, this felt like family.''

My requirements for a ranch: a low-key, picturesque place offering a solid children's program, fishing and swimming as well as riding, good food and located not too far from Rocky Mountain National Park. I also wanted a place where we could book for less than a week. Where to begin? I called Dave Wiggins, whose Boulder-based company American Wilderness Adventures has been sending cowboy wanna-bes and their kids to ranches for a quarter-century. (Call 800-444-DUDE.)

Before I knew it, we were being welcomed to a sprawling stone-and-log lodge (with room for 68 guests) by the ranch's new young managers, Matt and Jennai Bachus. (Call King Mountain Ranch at 800-476-5464 or visit the Web site at www.kingranchresort.com.) ``The activities are here, but no one has to do anything,'' says 27-year-old Jennai Bachus, who grew up on a guest ranch. ``I don't like anyone telling me what to do on vacation.''

For that reason, the children may join in the Foxes Den camp program or spend time with their parents. We barely saw Melanie, though, she was so busy putting on plays, painting T-shirts, hiking, visiting the 6-week-old filly -- and, of course, riding (kids must be 6 to participate in the riding program). I confess I didn't object when Melanie wanted to eat with her new friends (and counselors who are students at top universities) rather than with us.

The morning-till-night daily program is agreeably small -- fewer than 10 children the week we visited -- and is offered just for those visitors aged 4 and up. However, younger children frequently participate as long as they are accompanied by a parent or sitter (often off-duty ranch staffers).

``I could stay a month,'' sighed Nancy Tart, who had come with her two young daughters and husband from Florida. ``It's unbelievably easy here,'' agreed Dick Mosenthal, a Vermonter, who had stopped with his 8- and 6-year-old sons for a few days before a family reunion.

When we were too stiff to ride, there was plenty else to do -- from walks through the wildflowers, fishing in the small lake, card games, tennis and Ping Pong. Thirteen-year-old Matt and 11-year-old Reggie loved the ranch's tiny bowling alley. My husband liked fishing on the lake. He and Matt tried skeet shooting.

I loved the peacefulness of the place -- mountain vistas from every window, no phone or television in our rooms. Another plus: For three days on vacation, I got a vacation -- I didn't have to cook or entertain anyone.

We rode through fields of purple, yellow and red wildflowers, among whispering Aspen trees. We sat on the porch and watched the sunsets. We played poker. We ate too many blueberry pancakes, generous lunch buffets and four-course dinners. One night we feasted on steaks and baked beans around a campfire. Another day, I joined Melanie and the rest of the Foxes Den for a short lunch ride. When the kids finished their sandwiches, they chased bugs. The best part: Getting caught in the rain on the way back.

Of course, this idyll doesn't come cheap: A week's stay in the summer is $1,200 per adult, $675 for kids 6-12, $500 for those 4-5. Those younger are free and prices go down in the fall until the Oct. 31 closing. But we certainly got our money's worth. Now that she can ride a horse, Melanie announced on the flight home she's finally ready to take those training wheels off her bike. Happy trails to you.

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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