Life on the wide-open range is much more than the glorified Old Western American dream with cowboys traversing a stunning mountain horizon. There’s a less dignified side to ranch life. And finding the right person to help you handle both the dreamy and the dirty work on the ranch can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Below, we dive into five elements of a valuable worker. We asked for help from an experienced Top Hand who spent many years running a ranch in Wyoming–here he is!

And we’ve broken these five elements down into interview questions that specifically relate to Ranch Hands. (If you’re a Ranch Hand interviewee, make sure to take notes. You’ll soon have a better handle on what’s important to emphasize in your interview.) We’ll share interview tactics that will reveal the authentic character of your candidate. And we’ll help you find the workers who will roll up their sleeves rather than turn up their noses when the hard work needs to be done.

THE WARM-UP: Creating an Environment that Encourages Authenticity

Interviews can be stressful. And the high levels of anxiety around interviewing can sometimes sabotage a really good worker’s chance of landing the job. Making an interview feel more like a conversation and less like a critical evaluation will help your candidate stay calm, lower their guard, drop any false professionalism, and answer more genuinely. This way, you’ll be able to see a bit more of who this person really is day-in and day-out.

So thank them for coming by and taking an interest in working on your property. You can help trigger authentic responses by starting with some friendly questions, like: 

How has your day been so far? 

And 

We’ll talk all about work in a minute, but tell me about your life outside of work. Do you have any hobbies? How do you like to spend your downtime?

After a few follow up questions, you can ask them some of the more common interview openers like:

Tell me about yourself, what’s your story?

And 

What made you interested in this job? 

Showing genuine interest in your candidate will help them relax and, as a result, their answers won’t feel as scripted and rehearsed. This will allow you to make the interview a more pleasant experience for them and have a more accurate gauge of whether they would be a good fit on your ranch. Win, win!

THE INTERVIEW: Working Through the Key Elements of an Ideal Candidate

#1: Experience

An ideal candidate has lots of pertinent experience. While you may have some tertiary information about your candidate’s experience from their resume, it’s important to dig into these details further in your interview. Start by asking:

What experience do you have on a ranch? 

If their answer is short or not very informative, delve further and ask about the specific jobs they’d have to fulfill on your ranch. For example: 

Do you have experience calving, weaning, grafting, herding, and/or branding livestock?

How comfortable are you around horses, and do you know how to ride?

Have you ever grown and cut hay? What experience do you have working with an irrigation system?

And/Or 

How familiar are you with (insert equipment you’d like them to use regularly)?

Your candidate might not have all the experience that would be ideal. But use these questions as an opportunity to figure out whether your candidate is an eager learner. For example, they might say:

“I’ve never grown or cut hay, but I’m willing to learn!” 

The truth is, working on a ranch requires everyone to be able to fix problems and address issues as they come up. You’ll benefit from hiring someone who can learn new skills quickly. So consider a candidate’s eagerness to learn if they don’t have all the experience you were hoping for. 

#2: Skillset

A great Ranch Hand knows how to care for animals, how to handle cattle, build a fence, care for crops, use and fix equipment–the list is varied and long. While an ideal candidate has lots of pertinent experience, some candidates might have indirectly-applicable skills that can still make them a valuable addition to your ranch. 

These indirect experiences are called ‘transferable skills.’ They’re the skills that we can apply to several different contexts. For example, someone may have worked as a car mechanic, and although they’ve never worked on tractors, they can transfer their mechanical skills and apply them to farm equipment.

A good interviewee knows how to identify and emphasize these transferable skills during an interview. But sometimes good workers aren’t the best interviewees (and, as you may have learned the hard way, some great interviewees turn out to be bad workers). So ask your candidates to expound on the previous jobs and experiences they’ve listed on their resume, like this:

You mentioned on your resume that you worked (fill in what experience you think might relate to working on your ranch). Tell me more about your time there and how the skills you built there might transfer over to work here on our ranch. 

#3: Work ethic

A candidate’s level of work ethic affects how they feel about their job, their attitude they bring to work, how well they do their job, and the level of respect they show those around them. 

But resist asking something like “Do you have a strong work ethic?” Everyone will say yes. And most people don’t really know what exactly work ethic means (the belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character). Instead, ask them questions that will help you see how they behave at work, like this: 

What has been your favorite job so far and why?

And

What was the shortest time you’ve spent at a job, and what made it less than ideal for you?

Working on a ranch oftentimes requires long hours. So you’ll also want to see if the candidate is a stable and reliable worker. Ask them:

When was the last time you had to work a long day/overtime, and what made you stay?

Focusing on their answers, you’ll have a chance to see into what motivates this candidate. Look for someone who is dedicated and committed to producing quality work, even if they have to work a little longer occasionally. Their answers should also reveal their levels of loyalty, discipline, integrity, and professionalism, and show whether they’re someone who will stick it out during potential hard months on a ranch.

#4: Character

We’ve all heard the popular U.S. folk song that goes, “Home, home on the range…O give me a home where the buffalo roam,/Where the deer and the antelope play;/Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,/And the skies are not cloudy all day.” 

There you have it, straight from the mouths of cowboys, and said so gracefully. In such a peaceful environment as a ranch, no one wants to listen to discouraging words. In your interview, you’ll want to figure out if your candidate’s attitude is positive and uplifting or negative and discouraging. One way to figure this out is to ask them this question: 

What did you least like about your previous job, what did you like the most, and why?

Notice whether your candidate talks kindly and graciously about his/her previous job situation, coworkers, and higher-ups.

You’ll also want to see whether the candidate is a good team player, and whether they will carry the same positive attitude when they’re herding cattle or fixing a roof leak. Additionally, Dude Ranches in particular value Ranch Hands who have good communication skills and can lead tours with visitors. To help figure out your candidate’s communication and conflict style, ask them:

When was the last time you had a misunderstanding or conflict with a coworker or boss, and how did you handle it?

#5: Value

A good candidate can add value to your team with their expertise, proficiency, training, or education. Ask them:

Do you have any official training or certifications (veterinarian, agricultural, etc.) that would be helpful on our ranch?

You’ll also want to find out if your candidate is a good improviser and problem solver, if they can work under pressure, fix problems in the moment, and adjust to the day-in, day-out changes on the ranch. Try asking:

Tell me about a time when you ran into an unexpected problem at work. What happened? 

And

Do you prefer a routine at work? Does it stress you out if you have to make a sudden change of plans?

You can also gauge the value of a potential hire by presenting them with a problem that has come up on your ranch, for example: 

We’ve recently been having trouble with (fill in your ranch’s specifics). Can you think of any suggestions or solutions?

When asked genuinely, this question can uplift a candidate and make them feel like their thoughts are important and respected.

THE COOLDOWN: Closing Up the Conversation

Walking outside can significantly lower someone’s stress levels. If the interview has gone well, consider taking the candidate for a quick walk around part of the property. What should you ask them during your walk? Consider inviting them to return for a working interview, giving them an opportunity to prove their job skills that you’ve gone over. Having them perform alongside their future supervisor and co-workers provides another opportunity to ensure that they are a great fit for your ranch.