We Tried It: Gunstock Ranch
We head out to Lā‘ie for a horseback ride and to discover 8 tips to making the most of this North Shore ranch.
Where: Gunstock Ranch, a 600-acre recreation space on O‘ahu’s North Shore
Who: Two adults and their two children, ages 8 and 9. The minimum age for a horseback ride is 7 years. Younger kids can do pony rides.
When: Saturday, the sunset ride
Length: 90 minutes
“Whoa. That horse is big.” That was the first impression of our 8-year-old’s best buddy, R, who had read every horse book she could get her hands on but had never actually ridden a horse (for the record, she hopped right on). Turns out that Gunstock Ranch is one of the best places on the island for a first trail ride. It’s one of O‘ahu’s highest-rated rides, say many online review sites. We are happy to confirm that rating applies to kids as well as adults.
For newbies, horses are surprisingly big. It’s a learning experience just to be transported on another living thing. After all, your car doesn’t try to roll next to its friend or sneak a few mouthfuls of grass when you’re trying to drive it. And if you don’t do it right, it’s bouncy. By minute 15, you may be wondering if you’ll be able to last the whole way. But the guides are genuinely friendly, offering helpful riding tips, telling stories and answering all questions. They took extra care to engage the girls, who had a grand time. By minute 30, I was feeling like a pro—at riding a walking horse, anyway—and hoping that it wouldn’t be too long before I was back in the saddle again.
The other star of any Gunstock ride is ranch itself, 600 acres of rolling green pasture and scrubland. It’s a working ranch, with herds of wandering cattle and adorable calves, wild pigs trotting by, penned goats, a few strutting peacocks, and plenty of songbirds trilling to each other from high in the kiawe trees. Every so often, you’ll glimpse the far-off Pacific as you wend your way upward to a breathtaking lookout that takes in the whole of the North Shore. If you’ve chosen the dinner ride, the top of the trail is where you’ll stop, have supper, roast marshmallows and sing songs before heading back home. All our horses—Tommy Girl, Rondo, Nelly, and Scarlett—were gentle, responsive, and well-cared for, and the guides were safety-oriented and attentive, making sure that everyone, especially the smallest riders, felt safe and happy.
Gunstock does birthday parties and field trips, swimming lessons in their pool and special events, but the ranch is best known for its horseback rides, which range from beginner to advanced. Here are a few trail tips to make sure you and your kids will say yippee-ki-ay.
1. Choose the right ride. Gunstock offers rides for all levels. We were beginners, so our options were the daytime scenic ride or the sunset ride. We went with sunset and were glad we did; it’s $10 more than a standard trail ride, but the guides can be a little more relaxed about timing, heat isn’t an issue, and the sun is reclining romantically in the west, throwing long golden rays over the green hills. Scenic perfection.
2. Make sure the kids really want to ride a horse. A trail ride isn’t a video game or an amusement park—it’s like a trip to another, slower time, with no flashing lights or scripted experiences. There is so much to learn and to see, but being openminded, prior interest in horses or animals, and an ability to go with the flow, are bonuses. Gunstock Ranch has a network of trails and they vary their routes, so no two rides are exactly the same. Riders may also witness amazing horsey bathroom breaks, which they may then talk about for days.
3. Get there on time. The trail waits for no man, woman, or child—even if the traffic is bad. Google Maps said 1:05 from our house to Gunstock. The drive, in the late afternoon on a Saturday, took more like 1:35. I recommend arriving 30 minutes early or even more—enough time to sign the waivers, get the kids (and the parents, if you like) fitted with helmets, and do a bit of exploring. There’s plenty to see. Bathrooms are clean and close at hand.
4. Visit the website beforehand. It’ll help get you kitted out, and prevent you from bringing too much of what you don’t need, like a big camera (see item 6).
5. Save time for play. Watching the guides tend to the horses after the ride, pushing each other on the tire swing, chasing the chickens, saying hello to the goats and watching the sun go down ranked almost as high with our kids as riding the actual horses.
6. Buy the photos. I don’t usually recommend purchasing event photography, but Gunstock Ranch’s professional photographs are good and very reasonably priced, and it’s almost impossible to take a good picture while mounted on a horse yourself. Trust me on this.
7. For littles, try a pony ride. Gunstock’s horseback rides are for ages 7 and up. If you have one that doesn’t make the age cutoff, like we do, the pony rides for ages 2 to 7 are just the ticket: A few minutes of pony petting and brushing before a short 20-minute ride around the ranch (parents can walk alongside and take pictures).
8. Know that this may be a gateway experience. Our ride was “walking only,” but by the end, the kids were raring to trot, canter, and more. If you have a horse-crazy child and they enjoy themselves, there may be riding lessons or day camps (which the ranch also offers) in your future.
Overall Pros: Experience forces your families to slow down and create memories. Gunstock Ranch is super child-friendly. The business is centered around kids for birthday parties, lessons and more, so they know how to make it a good moment for children.
Overall Cons: It’s costly. Sunset rides are $120, which is not particularly high for a horseback ride, but some may see it a splurge. Kids not interested in horses or ranches may find it less interesting than their video games and being on horseback does take a little getting used to. But that different-ness is what makes it neat.
- 56-250 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku
- (808) 341-3995
- Scenic ride: $97 for one hour, $109 for an-hour-and-a-half. Sunset ride: $120. Pony rides: $65. It’s worth a call to ask about kama‘āina and military discounts.