Equitours runs worldwide: Fox family hosts riding toursWritten by Melissa Hemken
In 1971, Bayard and Mel Fox purchased the Bitterroot Ranch after Bayard’s retirement from the CIA, and they began raising cattle and horses, as well as hosting guests. They started Equitours soon thereafter as a way to diversify their income during Wyoming’s winters.
As Mel grew up on a farm at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and speaks fluent Swahili, Kenya’s Masai Mara was the first place they led a riding tour. The Foxes’ international riding experience and language capabilities (Bayard speaks French, Polish, German, Persian and some Spanish) helps them promote Equitours and maintain relationships with outfitters.
“The international riding world is small, in a way, and you run into a lot of the same people,” says Bayard. “In the beginning, I traveled a lot in the winter to establish contacts. All of our staff have gone on riding tours and we personally visit all of our outfitters.”
Over the years the Fox family has obtained the Shoshone National Forest grazing permit behind their upper ranch and built up their irrigated lower ranch on Missouri Valley Road. Bayard and Mel’s son and daughter-in-law Richard and Hadley oversee their mother cows and 195 head of horses, as well as lead pack trips and provide CHA-certified lessons.
“In the early years, I ran a hunting camp up in the wilderness that helped us extend our season,” says Bayard. “When I turned 70 I decided that raising cattle is a lot easier than packing a 600-pound elk out of the mountains. Since I stopped guiding hunters we have made just about the same amount of income from guests coming in September to help gather the cattle.”
Matching horses and riders
Equitours and Bitterroot Ranch clients are 75 percent repeat customers and mainly hail from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. The Fox family does not offer the typical dude riding experience, therefore they employ an extensive process to evaluate their clients’ riding abilities.
“Frankly, most dude ranches have really tame riding,” says Bayard. “Dude ranches are very different from one another, and there is almost as much variety in the people who run them. Most of them are more resorts than they are riding ranches. Guests go for salads, massages, wearing big cowboy hats and sing-a-longs around the campfire.”
The Bitterroot Ranch hosts about 400 clients a season, and the Foxes keep at least three horses per client to make sure they have a fresh ride. Mel manages their horse program and is careful to have people on the right horse for their skill level and within the correct riding group for their pace.
“We think a lot about safety,” Bayard explains. “I’ve seen many prideful accidents over the years, and have had a few myself. The big secret to avoiding injuries is to put people in the category where they belong and give them the right horse and the ride they can handle safely.
“All our horses are trained a certain way and we can’t retrain them every week. Instead, we train our guests how to handle our horses the way they’re used to being ridden. It makes some of our first-time guests unhappy, but the people who really do want to ride take our instruction fine.”
Bayard also works as an expert witness on riding accident court cases. He feels that, especially in Wyoming, there are no safety standards for dude ranches.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to lead someone on a ride and be careful that they don’t break their necks,” he says. “It’s a risk management balance to do the type of exciting, fast riding that we allow according to riders’ abilities.”
The Fox family has raised the majority of their ranch herd, attesting to their commitment to provide quality horses for clients. About half their herd is Arabians, and the remainder is a mixture of Appaloosas, Percherons and Quarter Horses.
The Fox family has found that raising cattle, hosting guests at their ranch and operating international riding tours create a cohesive business for them. For the future, Bayard would like to lead a riding tour in Mongolia, as there is great fly-fishing.
“The biggest problem is that their seasons run the same as ours and I like to be in Wyoming during the summer. Same thing with Iceland, which is also a great place to ride,” he notes.