Becky Atnip Damman, known as “Bex” to most acquaintances, is not your average 27-year old woman. Recently she turned a life-long love of horses and her dream of living in the Colorado Rockies into reality, becoming the youngest individual in history, male or female, to own a western dude ranch.
Traditionally, there are only a few ways to break into the dude ranching world. Owners typically have either inherited the ranch or bought it after years of financial success in a different part of their lives. Bex’s story is both unique and an indication that traditions are changing.
“Dude ranching has a certain allure that most other types of businesses can’t touch. There’s just something about cowboys, horses, and mountains that sing to your inner soul and attract like-minded people from all over the world,” explains Damman. “But the landscape is changing and much of the conversation regarding the future of dude ranching is now being driven by women.”
Bex walks and talks like a Colorado cowgirl, but Colorado is not where she lived when she began her journey to become the youngest owner ever of a dude ranch. When she was the ripe old age of eight, her parents traveled with her and her sister from Greenfield, TN, to a dude ranch near Gunnison. It was there that she started dreaming of a life on horseback. She persuaded her family to take her dude ranching again, and then, when she was 17, Bex began working every summer as a wrangler, leading trail rides and entertaining guests from all over the world at Powderhorn Guest Ranch and then later at Rainbow Trout Ranch near Alamosa, Colorado.
In her “winter life,” she attended Rhodes College in Memphis for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, received her Master’s in Coaching and Athletic Administration, and spent two years assistant coaching women’s basketball at the collegiate level.
Even while she gained success as an assistant basketball coach, she yearned to get back to the mountains. Then an opportunity arose for Bex to lease and operate a dude ranch for a year in central Colorado and she grabbed it, leaving the world of basketball behind. The chance to run a ranch became her full-time commitment.
Toward the end of that lease, the Elk River Guest Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado came on the market, and, after scraping together every dime and dollar she could, at the age of 26, Bex became the youngest dude ranch owner in history.
“What I didn’t know at eight was that dude ranching is far more than horseback riding in the mountains,” she explains. “In fact, it’s a lifestyle that’s much more about hospitality and people than it is about horses.”
These are exciting times for Bex, now having a full season under her belt. She feels as if she is perched on a precipice of change for the dude ranching industry. “We’re now seeing ranches offer activities that you wouldn’t expect; everything from hot air balloon rides, mountain biking, and spas to rope courses and zip lines. Dude ranch owners are resurrecting themselves and the industry by also becoming competitive in their marketing techniques, often embracing social media as a way to get their message out. And they’re doing all of the new things without sacrificing the reason we exist in the first place: to give guests the western, high country experience.”
Bex Damman feels like she is at the right place at the right time. Her childhood memories motivate her to recreate that same sense of awe among her guests that she knew as a wide-eyed eight-year-old. She wants her guests, both young and old, to love the mountains as much as she does. She hopes that her guests can bond with their horses in ways that enrich and energize their lives. And it is her hope that she can inspire new generations of young women looking to build their dreams in the world of dude ranching.
Elk River Guest Ranch, a short drive north of Steamboat Springs, operates at a lower capacity than many ranches its size (just 15 guests), offering a highly personalized and intimate experience. A typical dude ranch vacation includes a 6 night/7 day all-inclusive stay with activities, local adventures and upscale cuisine starting at $1,850 per person with reduced rates for three or more. Three, four and five-night stays are also available. The season runs from early June to mid-September.