- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Halfway through an interview with a Business Insider reporter, Brad Ford mentions why he’s a little distracted. He is riding one horse and leading another, trying to calm the animals’ nerves during an expo in Lewiston. That’s Ford’s job. He trains and sells horses - at least, that’s what he does in the offseason. From May to October, he hosts vacationers and the occasional reality-show cast of characters at 4D Longhorn Guest Ranch.

Like other guest ranches in Idaho, 4D relies on tourism to survive. But a tired driver on the interstate wouldn’t see a sign for 4D and pull off for a night’s stay; it’s a dude ranch tucked away in Cascade, 60 miles north of Boise.

A couple driving an RV may not realize their voyage through Northern or Central Idaho takes them near the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in Sandpoint or the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in Stanley. Instead, guest ranches are destinations.

Dozens of guest ranches, or dude ranches, are operating around the state. They offer Western vacations in picturesque small towns - from the quiet cabin stay with scenic day hikes, to the mud-and-sweat ranch-hand experience.

“I do a lot of lesson-type things, or what you would call cowboy schooling,” Ford says. “I like the colored part of cowboy life … that singing, fun-loving cowboy style.”

For these businesses, the economic downturn provided a chance to reinvent themselves, adding services or gussying up the place - and the recovery has been a boon. Loyal customers are back, wedding parties and family-vacation bookings are on the upswing. Some of Idaho’s many newcomers are exploring the state with the eyes of tourists and discovering guest ranches close to home, owners and managers say.

Ford started his ranch 10 years ago. His crew is small: a cook, one or two assistants and a part-time employee who cleans the place.

Business was slower during the downturn, he says.

“When I first started out, people came to stay the night,” he says. “So when the economy went bad, I thought, ‘I gotta start doing something different.’”

That’s when he added day rides on horseback to the ranch’s offerings. And he’s serious about teaching people to ride a horse, not just sit on top of it while it clip-clops along a trail, he says. The other activities at 4D include cattle drives and three meals a day.

Customers who need a place for a wedding or reunion are booking the ranch again, he says. So are European travelers, sent 4D’s way by companies that sell ranch vacations to people in countries like Germany in exchange for a commission.

The ranch even functioned as a set for a German reality show, “Abenteuer Wilder Westen” - Adventure Wild West - that ran for 20 episodes.

“I would say 90 percent of my business (comes from) outside of Idaho. I hear of people in Boise going to Montana - going all over. People don’t even know I’m just … north of Boise,” he says.

And whose fault is that? Ford admits it’s partly his; the horse rancher doesn’t do a lot of marketing. “That’s been my problem - is not having enough knowledge of how to (advertise),” he says.

Western Pleasure Guest Ranch has lodged, fed and entertained more Canadians in recent years, according to Janice Schoonover, who owns the ranch with her husband and lives there year-round. It helps that Sandpoint is less than 70 miles from the Canadian border.

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