When Debbe Dunning was asked to come up with a concept for a new show by Patrick Gottsch, owner of RFD-TV and The Cowboy Channel, during a chance meeting at a golf tournament, the idea was almost instant.
A fan of dude ranch vacations with recent week-long visits to Arizona’s White Stallion Ranch and Wyoming’s UXU Ranch, the actress most notably known for her role as Heidi the Tool Time girl from television’s Home Improvement had a strong inkling the concept was perfect for RFD-TV.
“The idea for the show came about for my love of dude ranching,” says the vivacious television veteran who sat with COWGIRL during the filming of an episode at RFD-TV Ranch in New Mexico. “There are so many incredible ranches across America that a lot of people don’t know about and I wanted to share my passion for these wonderful treasures.”
It didn’t take long to discover that America’s dude ranch traditions were alive and well all across the West and Dunning set her sights on visiting them all after receiving an enthusiastic go-ahead for the new rural television series, Debbe Dunning’s Dude Ranch Roundup.
“I approach each dude ranch or guest ranch individually and I have to pretty much sell my product,” says Debbe. “My strategy is to tell the correct story, to do it authentically, to capture moments that are not set up, like when a father and a daughter get up and do karaoke.”
And what’s not to love?
“The hospitality that you walk into at these ranches is like you’re walking into your grandma’s living room,” Dunning reflects. “First you’re uncomfortable. Then you’re at home, and then you cry when you leave.”
Throughout each episode, Dunning delves into the history of each location, revealing the nuances of the region and the geographic uniqueness of each property. She shares with her viewers the backgrounds of the owners as well as the dedicated staff of cooks, wranglers, and adventure planners while painting a picture of what is so special about each individual ranch.
A lifelong horse lover, rider, and adventurer, Dunning also participates hands-on in everything each ranch has to offer, from horseback riding and cattle drives to river rafting, fly fishing, mountain and rock climbing.
When asked about one of her most outstanding adventures, Dunning was quick to respond.
“One that comes to mind was at Arkansas’ Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. I was told we were going to go on a little hike, so I threw on some tennis shoes and my little workout outfit. I started getting harnessed in, and I’m like, ‘what kind of hike is this?’ I was literally scaling a flat span of rock, super high up on the mountain. I was clipped in, looking down, and thinking, ‘oh my gosh.’ I remember rappelling, traversing, and holding on for dear life, glancing down, saying, ‘You can do this.’”
“When I got back to my room, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that.’ When I laid in bed, it was ‘Oh my gosh, I did it.’”
Of course, she doesn’t do it alone.
“There are four of us—a small, extremely talented crew,” she says. “I’m the executive producer and host. I have a makeup artist, two men, Matthew Avant and Jonathan Wesenberg, who are unbelievable cinematographers, cameramen, and writers. The four of us—we travel all together, we have all slept in the same room, we’ve all done cattle drives together, slept out on the prairie—we do it all.”
In fact, seeing Debbe at the WNFR in Las Vegas in December, she excitedly shared that she and her team completed filming 14 new episodes for her third season at ranches scattered across the West. In almost back-to-back-weeks, the crew filmed episodes at Stagecoach Trails in Arizona, Vista Verde Ranch in Colorado, Blacktail Ranch in Montana, Greenhorn Ranch in California, RFD-TV Ranch in New Mexico, Quinlan Ranch in New Mexico, Goosewing Ranch in Wyoming, Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in Idaho, Bar W Ranch in Montana, Sprucedale Ranch in New Mexico, C Lazy U in Colorado, Monster Lake Ranch in Wyoming, and Hunewill Ranch in California.
When asked about how her experience as a television series actress for more than 7 years on Home Improvement may have had on this new experience, the 53 year-old mother of three says she looked back on the toughness and confidence she learned as a series regular.
“I think the toughness is what I learned from Hollywood. There are a lot of things about oneself and believing in yourself. If you come in kind of, ‘I don’t know, what do you guys think?’ Do you think this is good idea? I don’t think you’re going to do it. I think if you are open to suggestions, but still stay with what you feel, you’ll get there.”
Debbe Dunning has clearly cultivated a new career path for herself in the world of television, only this time she wears many hats. As executive producer and host, she finds herself at once being in front of the camera, while at the same time coordinating her ranch visits and handling duties behind the scenes. In all, she is playing a role, this time not as an actress, but as a sincere individual who cares about the legacy of America’s dude ranches and the value they add to the culture of this Western lifestyle.
Those who know or get to know Debbe will quickly learn of her mischievous and engaging sense of humor, clearly exemplified in the closing sign-off in the video version of this interview on cowgirlmagazine.com:
“I always say that there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ there’s no ‘I’ in ‘fear,’ and there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Debbe’. Just D-E-B-B-E.”