1. Size: Consider the needs and goals for your family vacation and determine whether you want a big (80+) capacity), medium (45-80 people), or small (10-45 people) dude ranch. There are all sorts of sizes, and each has a slightly different twist on flexibility and options. Often size determines how close of a relationship you're able to form with the staff, other guests, and owners/managers. If you're looking at a bigger place, find out if the ranch is a corporate or family-run operation. There's a big difference, not necessarily in quality, but in the overall atmosphere. Determine if guests all participate in activities and meals together or if your family will be participating in ranch happenings alone. If you're looking for a slightly more personable, hands-on experience, think about your options with the small to medium size family-run ranches.
2. Location: You have several options regarding location. There are differences in terrain and seclusion depending on the area of the West you're looking. Do you want more mountainous riding, meadows, more trees, big rocks, access to a town, cell phone service, desert, some combination of those, etc.? Do you have plenty of driving time/sightseeing opportunities or do you need to go to a dude ranch within a couple of hours of the airport? Remember that you'll need to consider flights, different airports, shuttle options, rental car services, and the costs associated with each.
3. Non-Riding Activities: Find out what you and your family want from this vacation. Do you want more traditional western activities (hayrides, campfires, cookouts, chuck wagon rides, cattle sorting, western dancing, etc.) or are you interested in adventure activities, such as whitewater rafting, rock climbing, climbing Fourteeners, zip lining, tubing, water skiing, boating, etc.? Every dude ranch is slightly different, so you'll want to determine what you want, and then find a ranch with those things available. And, you'll want to keep in mind the costs for those things to determine if the activities are included or if you'll have to pay individually for them once you arrive.
4. Riding Program: Find a horse program that meets your desires. All ranches have some limitations, and it's unlikely, if not impossible, that you'll find a place that allows you to ride without a wrangler. With that being said, most ranches can offer some flexibility within the horse program. For instance, get an idea of the number of wranglers a ranch has on staff. At a minimum, for every seven to eight guests, there should be one wrangler. So, for a ranch that has a maximum capacity of 45 guests, there should be at least 6-7 wranglers on staff. And, for a ranch with a maximum capacity of 100, there should be at least 13 on staff. Make sure that you find out whether the riding will be mostly nose-to-tail, trotting and loping, instructional, friendly for both advanced and beginner riders, etc.
This is your vacation and your opportunity to reconnect and enjoy the people closest to you. It's also a wonderful opportunity to interact with nature and other people that you may never have met otherwise. Before you choose that perfect place for your vacation, think about your options. Consider your goals and what would make this vacation special. Then, set out and look forward to one of the best weeks of your life. Happy hunting!