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As is the case with all adventure holidays, dude ranching is also filled with inherent risks. The city dwelling visitor to a dude ranch hopes to excitedly step up and climb atop a horse that is wholly unknown to the rider. This ranch horse is a living soul with a personality, a work ethic, and set of trail skills. The horse also has agency to act according to it’s own will in spite of diligent and consistent training. The visiting dude ranch vacationer likely only rides intermittently at best, but hopes to experience a romanticized image of galloping cowboys loping swiftly across a high plateau with wind in the face while fixed firmly on the back of a beautiful stallion. The juxtaposition of an eager but less-skilled rider with the prospect of riding a foreign horse in unfamiliar terrain can paint a visible picture of potential disaster.

Unfortunately this visiting interloper to the wild west might also be carrying the extra body mass and poor physical conditioning that commonly haunts sedentary life styles.   Simultaneously, the desire and intent to ride, and to ride at fast gates is brimming over the top of cherished vacationing anticipations.    The conflict between risk realities and vacation expectations is a primary point of concern and management for those of us in the adventure travel industry. How do we keep the reservation logs full while not overselling an experience at the expense of appropriate risk management? Do we sell our ranching soul because we cannot say “NO” In the realm of adventure sports, the age-old mantra “the customer is always right” is less frequently appropriate when risk management is given first priority or position “prime”. The word “No” can be difficult to utter, but it can also be liberating in it’s effect.

Here at Marble Mountain Ranch, we see this point of conflict manifest in nearly every aspect of our ranch activity management. White water rafters at times will push us to let them bring family members that are too young or too old on inappropriate rivers. We get asked for permission to swim unsafe rapids, and even to swim them without life jackets. We have had visitors that amazingly enough are intent on carrying alcohol to our shooting range. Saying “NO” should be an appropriate response that is voiced with fluid ease and appropriate frequency.

Here are some of our more alarming and then some more mundane but repeating “No” response questions:

Can I ride the trail tandem with my toddler in my saddle? Ah “NO” we care about your toddler, and you.

Can I wear my flip-flops on the horse ride? “NO”

Can we bring our dogs/ cats/ horses/ python/ yellow naped Amazon parrot to the ranch? For us, that is an easy “no”, having seen the disruptions that interloping dogs, misc. pets and horses foreign to the pack or herd can cause.

Beyond risk management issues, the “no” reply can also be liberating when applied to issues of general management. Here are some of the more mundane “no” questions we commonly get.

Can we just pay you when we get there? And the inevitable following question: I have an emergency, can I get a refund for my vacation that starts next week? This is a difficult “no”, but better business practices will encourage us to lead guests to make the equivalent commitment we are making when we hold limited spaces for their party.

“Can we schedule our 200 person wedding / reunion on your ranch?” No, our peak capacity is about 30 guests” and we attempt to build a more personal experience only found in smaller venues.

“Can we come for Christmas?”  No, the weather is not suitable for your vacation here and we need a private life too. Sorry!

“Can we come when there will be no bugs?” No — try Disneyland. They have no bugs there.

Can you accommodate my vegan diet, my son’s lactose and gluten intolerance, my daughter’s restrictions for white-only food, and serve us an hour later so we can match our sleep patterns to the rising lunar landscape? “No yes and no, and then ” .I think we are actually full that week.”

The need to preserve some measure of efficiency in an operation is going to limit the options for affirmatives to the myriad of scheduling questions. The more pressing point though is that we need to maintain safety and risk management as our prime directive, in spite of consumer pressures. The first and most likely response after an accident that follows a forfeiture of policy is “Well, you told me I could do this! Surely you knew of the risks when you said “yes” to me.”

For us at Marble Mountain Ranch, we also see the equivalent need for frequent “Yes, you must” responses.    Here are a few liberating “yes” declarations:

Yes, you must wear your lifejacket on the raft trip.

Yes, you must keep your shoes on during the waterfall hike.

Yes, you must wear your helmet while on horseback.

Yes, you must aim and find your target before you put your finger on the trigger and then pull the trigger.  ahem.

Early in the life course of a business, the need for a full roster of clients and a steady flow of inbound reservations might persuade less tenured entrepreneurs to cave and submit to the whims of a less informed consumer. The risks of trading good risk management, or good business practice for the sake of an empty reservation slot should be obvious. It could ultimately result in the demise of the business.   A business has a birth, a midlife and a maturity, and ultimately a transition of some sort, or a business death. The life of a dude ranch business is subject to risks that can be managed, but never, never fully eliminated. How we manage those risks will directly impact the health and longevity of the business. Those points of business that are in the realm of our circle of influence, we should manage, and manage by best available practices. The art of the “NO” response is going to be a skill set that management should learn and practice diligently, albeit with large measures of diplomacy, caring, compassion, and candor.

The caring heart of a dude rancher will fit nicely alongside the legend hospitality of the ranching industry and it’s accompanying solid management practices. We love and care for our visiting guests, and that love shows in unfettered hospitality and an unfettered energy to manage the risks of the ranch.

This last summer, a septuagenarian guest walked across the center of our ranch, twisting his ankle in the uneven ground common on a ranch. The resultant broken foot was the manifestation of a risk that came by simply being present on the property. No amount of effort will entirely remove every risk that comes from choosing to arrive on our ranch property. We understand this, yet we work in every regard to make the experience both enjoyable, and reasonable in the exposure to risk

Managing the risk exposures and the operational efficiency of a dude ranch will require us to be comfortable and willing to freely respond appropriately to requests in the negative. Knowing how and when to say “No” can be both self preserving and self liberating as we reap the reward of operating within best management practices that circumscribe the dude ranch industry.

Doug Cole

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