Amazonian beauties, boldly charging on horseback, singing out a fierce, golden war chant and wielding spears…
Mean-mugged, scantily dressed females hopping around in the octagon, dealing out heavy blows with a tiny fist…
Suit-clad sophisticates with painted nails and sharp eyes closing all the big deals from their eyries in the big city skylines…
Shabby dressed and bespectacled super-thinkers, masterminding lobbyist groups, organizing protests or even-if they’re truly sincere-rescuing stray cats…
Big hair and an airbrushed face, armored in designer clothes ,speaking softly behind a pulpit…
And lastly, the Hollywood-type Agent _ who never wears anything that doesn’t flatter and somehow manages to chase criminals and terrorists down in heels and never miss a target with a handgun.
You understand who I’m talking about. The Modern Woman. She makes all of us regular gals with a husband and kids feel as if we are the weaker vessels. Every magazine has one of these displayed, peacock-like, on the cover; every record label their own female anthem to blast into the air. The ‘Modern Woman’-who may or may not be real -is just a puppet, purring propaganda.
I can think of at least one type of woman doesn’t run with that bunch. For all of history, she has walked the same path, and in the last couple of centuries, emerged only as a fluke, and nameless. She does nothing for applause; gives no nod to the worlds’ vote on whether or not she is authentic or significant. And even though the world has tried to redefine her, the labels don’t stick. By the same token, she takes on her role without considering it to be a yoke of servitude. It’s likely she is flanked by a husband, a father, brothers and sons who truly and deeply respect her.
Generations of women have spent quiet lives on the land and raised a family. That doesn’t look like much in print. Consider though, that each of them chose that life on purpose, and “sacrificed” whatever they “might have been” to be beside their man and behind their children. And they didn’t raise their fist and crow when they had to spend all day plowing behind a mule, or shoot an antelope for camp meat, or break colts, or feed and bust ice-doing men’s work. There’s just work. Work that women do better than men, and work that men do better than women but it’s not ‘your place’, it’s your specialty.
Since watching over 400 breakaway ropers compete leading up to RFDTV’s The American, the world is buzzing with the news: women can rope! I reckon women have been roping since as far back as horses, cows and ropes have existed. Taking a glance around where I have grown up, it’s almost comical to compare the ranch gals I know with the Modern Woman in a cowgirl costume. In fact, the gal’s I know are in such a class by themselves, they deserve a different category altogether. They are ladies. These women have modesty and self-respect. Their character, humility, compassion, bravery, faithfulness, beauty and brilliance dwarfs the feminist-propagandized Modern Woman, and these ladies simply can’t be hijacked into promoting that agenda.
This blog used to have a tagline. “Tales, Tips and Wisdom from a cowgirl’s happily ever after.” I removed it, and here is why: the word “cowgirl” just doesn’t have the same meaning it did for me growing up. I’m not against it, and I don’t mind being called a cowgirl. But in the context of the world outside ranching, the term is meant to assert feminist pride and/or a pin-up image. You know, the old “anything you can do, I can do better” all while dressed to tease. Not my line.
A milestone in my life was when I was almost sixteen, and the phone rang. My mother answered. I could tell by her voice she was a little surprised by something, and then she handed me the phone. After a minute or two of “Yessir’s” from me, the conversation was over. I had just been asked to come daywork for four days on one of the bigger ranches around. Just me. By myself. I had only just gotten my drivers license. (They had to be really short handed to have asked me!) I was nervous and excited, and it was four days of 4 a.m. mornings by the end of which, exhausted me. I was the only girl on the crew. There was no sympathetic ranch wife to cook meals, we just packed lunches. They played a prank or two on me, and taught me a lot of Spanish while I taught my young horse what it meant to work when you’re tired. I got yelled at a bunch. That wasn’t the last phone call I got for daywork. I was honored, and had to try hard and make up for a lot of things I didn’t know and wasn’t good at.
“Well look at that damn girl,” I heard one hand say to the man next to him. They laughed, but they weren’t making fun of me. I had held up a trotty bunch of Brangus cows by myself, a feat which while nothing spectacular, would have been a challenge for anyone. They were just glad they didn’t have to do my job for me. I was holding up my end on the gather…making a hand.
There’s a word I would prefer over being called a ‘cowgirl’. I’d rather be called a lady. And when it comes to the work we do on a ranch, I wouldn’t mind just being called a hand.
One thing that every person has to learn is how to approach in the right way. I enjoy watching my kids learn this with the animals. When you watch someone approach an animal, especially for the first time, their speed, posture, tone of voice, and manner can tell you almost everything you need to know about them.
Of course, the animals do the same. They learn all they need to know about you from your approach. People are contradictory, and probably a great riddle to them. It’s amusing to watch someone approach a horse with a halter; they obviously have an agenda. They march in like a hungry predator that’s cornered its’ prey, all the while saying in English, “Whoa. Easy…I won’t hurt you…” Ha! The slower they move, the more they look like a stalking predator. The confident approach is too aggressive while the timid approach is too creepy. I’ve found that with a humble, patient yet bold attitude, the best results come about.
These days, it seems that people want so badly to be ‘good with horses’ or ‘good with dogs’, they’ll spend a fortune learning how. They practice, and study, and rehearse the proper thing to do, all the while forgetting to simply be honest, kind, and good.
Not long ago, I was reading through the first three chapters of the Bible. (Genesis 1-3) I cried as I read it. God had a good purpose, good intentions for us. He gave us worthy work to do: to care for His Creation, the land and the animals. It’s just what ranchers do today except Adam and Eve didn’t do this ‘for a living’. There was no economic justification for watching a first calf heifer all night or driving sheep and cattle to better pasture. They did it because it was their purpose. God created Adam and Eve in His likeness, in His image. You could say they represented God to Creation. That’s the thought that made me cry. Because now, since the Fall, creation runs from us in fear, and we approach it all wrong. If you don’t mind some advice from a ranch gal, don’t believe the nature documentaries. Not every creature in God’s creation can be defined by the evolutionary model of predator-prey relationship.
There’s no training method that can do what a pure heart can do. When my daughter started crawling, my dog, Bek, was banned from my presence most of the time. She had never been friendly to anyone at first and never, under any circumstances, would she tolerate children without me having a hand on her. She didn’t like little kids, and I always kept her away from them for safety. My dog let some kids pet her, but only if they approached her right. And then, Kaelyn came along. Even with the scientifically wrong approach-basically slobbering, hollering, and launching her unsteady little self at the dog-Bek seemed to understand the child’s intentions were…good. Bek, the most unfriendly little smoky black Cattahoula/Border Collie that never let anybody come near me, suddenly became tolerant of literally anything…and liked it. By the same token, a stranger could offer Bek a steak and lose their arm.
You can achieve so much with animals on the merits of character alone, even with barely any skill. They teach the skills as you go. Just be honest, kind, and good in your approach. (I feel compelled to mention that bald-faced ignorance will get you hurt. So use common sense!)
Recently, I read the Great Commission from out of the gospel of Mark and had this question: what did Jesus mean by “all creatures”? I’ve asked this several times in my life of many other people, including seminary-educated scholars and common sense preachers. They’ve all told me it meant ‘all races, colors, tribes and tongues of people’. Duh. Of course it does. But my question threads back to Genesis 1-3, and the God-created purpose of mankind. That was the first commission, and it was built in to mankind from the get-go. Of course, mankind failed to do it well. But see, that’s where our approach really matters, to people and animals. Is it possible to let creation “hear” that same ‘message of reconciliation’ just by the way we approach it?
I know of some wonderful, sincere Christians who approach others with the Word of God like most people approach a horse with a halter in their hand. While speaking of love, they press hard for their desired response like salesman. And when the reaction is flight, they give chase. How can this possibly be the right approach when the Savior Himself didn’t do it that way? I know this may take some reflecting, but my question is, how does God want you and I to approach trials? Prodigals? Colts? Marriage? Parenting? Challenges? Land management? Failures? Dogs? Life…? More importantly, how should we approach God?
We can redeem so much of what is God’s in this world, just by being kind, respectful, and honest, even if we don’t know exactly how to reach that person or get through to that colt. Even if we are scared of what might happen next. We can also be blessed like never before by approaching God in a humble way. Let’s not get hung up on ourselves. Instead, lets be humble, kind and courageous in our approach and in doing this, increase the kingdom of God.
She knows the feeling of being taken for granted. Her entire life is spent doing all the work for zero appreciation, and then, another year begins and she starts over. She’s raising her babies while battling all the forces stacked against her with pretty much no help…unless the ranch she lives on comes with good weather and a good cowboy.
If you have mingled at all in the ranch crowd, you know that they work hard. You’ve heard them talk about being up all night watching heifers, or feeding hay in the snow and busting ice, or getting up in the dark to spend all day sweating in the branding pen. But it’s interesting to ponder why they do this. Why they drag their kids along in a feed pickup and why they learned to rope, still ride a horse to work, hunt coyotes, watch the markets, or can use whatever is laying around on the ground to fix a water pipe or leaky trough. Ever thought about it? It’s all because of her.
Yes, her. The mama cow. She’s the reason for all this. Some may argue and try to convince you that ranchers do what they do for money. That green is the bottom line. Well, they’re right…green grass, that is. If I may be bold, I think I can say in general that ranching as a business is successful if that particular ranch is able to continue operating the following year. Nobody gets filthy rich doing it. (They might get filthy working, or rich selling the place, but that’s beside the point.) So why keep it up? Well, somebody has to help that ol’ mama cow.
Each spring, when the calves are vaccinated and branded, the mama’s usually receive some sort of topical treatment for parasites like ticks and flies, which can really affect her body condition if not held at bay somehow. And every fall, when her calf is weaned and shipped off, she is run through the squeeze chute and given an exam. There’s an unwritten checklist that gets ticked off for each cow. First, is she pregnant? Then, her age and body condition and any abscess or skin condition is looked after, sometimes in sandy country her feet get trimmed, and of course, she gets a round of shots as well. She may not enjoy this. (Ever met a mom who looked forward to her yearly doctor visit? Me neither.)
All the time in between, the cattle are out to pasture. They are always provided with abundant water, a salt block to lick, and a mineral supplement in some form. Seasons that the country is lacking in protein and forage don’t usually mean famine for her because of that feed pickup I mentioned earlier. The feed is made of grains and things like cottonseed hulls, but it’s the protein percentage that really matters. We call these processed cubes ‘cake’. Think Marie Antoinette. Yes, when the range is looking poorly, we simply “Let them eat cake!” If there is snow on the ground, and they can’t get to the dry grass that keeps them full, then in addition to the protein supplement, they get hay as well.
Put simply, the mama cow is the success or failure of the ranch. If she isn’t in good condition during breeding season, she won’t produce a calf. If she isn’t in good shape during calving, she will lose her baby or raise a scrawny one. If she gets to looking poor at any time during her pregnancy, it spells trouble. So taking good care of her year round is priority number one. Good cowboys and conscientious ranchers do their nutrition homework. They’ll go to the trouble of having their grass and soil lab tested to know how best to compensate for what it lacks, just for her.
But contrary to what most folks think, a cow isn’t just a cow. Her pedigree is important in a couple of ways to ensure that she bears a healthy calf and raises him good and big by shipping time. Ranchers select a beef breed that is best for their type of terrain and climate. A rancher has to weigh out all the different factors that effect the bottom line if he wants to raise cattle that are both marketable and suited to the climate they’ll have to live in. Everybody loves Angus beef, but is an Angus cow going to raise a good, heavy calf in the desert…or up at the timberline…or in the swamp? There are so many breeds of beef cattle, each one with a slight advantage over another in different conditions. But that’s only one way pedigree matters.
The really important thing about a mama cow is her wisdom. Consider what it is that she has to contend with on a given day: she has to find her own nourishment each day while also eating enough to produce milk and grow the calf she’s carrying; go to water once, perhaps twice a day; weather any and all storms; and avoid predators and pests. All this takes what we humans would call ‘survival skills’, an iron will to thrive despite difficulty, and a heap of good ol’ common sense.
Take the average range cow on the New Mexico high plains. This is pretty good grass country, if it rains. But the wind! More constant than the unblinking sun. She lives in an 8 section pasture, let’s say. It’s boundaries are defined by a fence, but it’s the lay of the land that she has memorized. Every day, sometimes twice, she makes a pilgrimage from grazing to water and back. In the windy spring, when her calf is small, she can’t take him all that way. So the herd elects a babysitter who skips getting water. This cow stays with all the babies while the others go to water. Later, once the calves are bigger, everybody can go.
That cow knows a hollow spot where she can lay down to shelter her baby from the West wind, but she’d need to take him plumb to the other side for a similar spot if the wind changed. She keeps a running tally on what’s green and growing in each region of her home pasture, and she teaches her calf, too. There are certain grasses that are especially nutritious that she chases all over, growing up tender in the wash-outs and gullies where the rain puddles sit a little longer, or on the slope of a particular hill where the sun doesn’t burn it to a crisp right away. Predators are really only a serious danger in bad weather or when her baby is small, and that’s where a good cowboy and his rifle come in mighty handy. She’s clever though. She won’t let any ol’ predator get a bite if she can help it.
She knows the wind. She can tell what’s coming before it gets close, whether it is a coyote or a summer thunderstorm. A mama cow finds water with her elephant-like memory and her hound-like nose, but she endures the elements like a saint. She’s tender with her newborn calf but mean as a snake to anything that gets close to it. I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone describe her as fierce, cunning, resourceful or courageous, but she really is. All of these qualities are essential to the success of a ranching operation, because they ensure that her calf thrives through the seasons. Banking on her wisdom, a ranch owner can throw the dice to start another year.
The role of the mama cow is to raise the next generation well and to just be herself. City folks snicker and think cows are ‘cute’ or funny, but her nature is somewhat unpredictable. Along with her qualities and her wisdom, she possesses certain other traits that aren’t so admirable. These traits are what earn her names like ‘Old Bat’, ‘Hussy’, ‘Wench’, and other unmentionables. You don’t defy the elements and successfully raise a calf every year by being sweet all the time.
Silly urban myths such as milking range cows (as if beef breeds and dairy breeds weren’t at opposite ends of the bovine spectrum), or believing that cows are being exploited as if they wouldn’t be living out on the range having calves anyway, are an insult to this creature. She’s no domestic at heart, so to speak. (History backs this up. The cattle left behind by Spanish explorers became just as wild as the horses that became the Mustang. But no one petitions the government to let them run wild on the range!) If left to herself that ol’ mama cow will inevitably turn wild. In such cases, a cowboy needs more than a feed truck to keep track of her. He needs a horse and a rope, and maybe a cow dog or two. Whether he calls himself a Cracker, a Puncher, a Cow Hunter, a Paniolo, a Gaucho, a Charro, or a Buckaroo, his job is to take care of her. The good ol’ mama cow. Without her, he is as relevant as a medieval knight and his skills merely a circus sideshow. Thank goodness for the humble range cow.
And lest we forget this lesson about taking her for granted, we can behold it all in black and white, because after all, the cowboy, cowhorse, and cowdog all need a reason.
A view of the land no one else can comprehend and a perspective on life that few can appreciate begins with the working partnership between a man and his horse. I can’t think of many occupations that offer this anymore. Back-country outfitters, mounted policemen, and cowboys are the only ones left in modern times. Why sure, there’s an entire equine industry that employs thousands of people, involves hundreds of thousands of horses and millions of dollars, but these man-horse relationships aren’t the working kind. Racing, rescuing, showing, breeding and training horses is a wonderful way to make a living-and it is certainly work!- but it’s not exactly what I mean.
I mean the sharing of everything, from success to failure; harsh weather conditions, youth and old age, injuries, proud moments and shameful mistakes. Men and horses who work together know from direct experience the value of compassion and grace, perseverance, a positive attitude, and even ambition. They also know the cost of carelessness, of a bad temper, and laziness…and all this they have learned from each other. I’m not glorifying animals to being equal to human beings. But I would be the first to admit that horses are nearly always honest, and people would do well to learn what they can from them. That’s why men who live and work with horses, not as their project but as partners, are so unique in the world.
It strikes me as sad that almost everyone, except the very rich or very poor, had this kind of wisdom once. Now it’s such a small handful of folks, and the number is dwindling. Horses used to move everything and carry everyone, they were needed by mankind and now they’re not. Now, only a few people still need horses to get their work done. And the cowboy is one.
Cowboy work can’t be done without horses, and though modern methods and machines try all the time to make a hand, they can’t really hold a candle to even an average ranch horse. Thanks to the big budgets of commercial beef operations, cowboys all have pickups and trailers to haul their horses to the back side of the big pastures. (See a good article on the topic of mechanized ranching by my adopted sister here.) As a result, ranch horses now can retire at the age of twelve or fourteen instead of eight or ten. Despite using machines for some ranching tasks, this is still a hard line of work for men and horses.
When you were a kid and they told you to do something hard because it ‘builds character’, you resented the phrase, but now you know it’s true. It’s the same for horses. Wet saddle blankets (a cowboy term that means simply making a horse work) and long miles (covering country gathering cows, checking fence, or hunting in the back country) builds character in them. You can lope a horse in the sand for hours every day, and all you’ll end up with is green horse that is very fit. It’s when you challenge him to do something to help you, when you learn to depend on each other, that you create the conditions that will ‘build character’.
Ranch horses know their job. Most of them show a good deal of common sense and are what the horse industry calls ‘gentle’. Cowboys call it ‘broke’. One cowboy may take time with his horses and teach them what he expects of them, while another may just ask the horse to go to work and never even bother naming them. Some cowboys like their horses ‘cowboy broke’ while others like to get them ‘ol’ man gentle’. Some will study and eventually become true horsemen, and some will be able to get on anything and ride it and never learn a thing more. Cowboys care about their gear (tack) for different reasons; some for the look and the statement it makes, others for how it fits their horse. And that may be the most telling thing when it comes to learning whether or not he truly works with a horse for a living day in and day out.
My husband’s two work horses, ‘Yeller’ and ‘Champ’, are both under the age of seven. They aren’t broke for women, kids and old men, but he would trust his life to them. Their manes and tails are matted most of the time, and neither one is real people friendly. Both of them are the horses some other guy didn’t want to ride. But, they hobble, tie, and shoe easily; load and unload from any trailer; and take pretty much anything in stride…just maybe not from the ground. Haven’t gotten either one to eat out of my hand yet, but they like my husband.
Yeller had to trust Cody to free his feet from a sheep-wire panel once; to nurse him back to health from a snake bite; and to get porcupine quills out of his nose. And in return, Yeller gives him all he has every time Cody asks. Champ has only been in the string for a few months, but already he has taken care of my husband in a dangerous situation when other horses might have panicked and gotten someone hurt. Both of them worked to get cattle out of the path of a grass fire, getting too close for comfort and breathing in more than their share of dust and smoke.
At the end of a long day that started in the dark of morning, when my husband unloads his horse, they’re both tired. Tired from doing the same work, the same way, together. They were partners and it took more than just energy out of them. He unsaddles, and hangs his wet saddle blanket on the rack where it can dry. He rubs his horse down, washes his back if it’s a hot day, and turns him loose with the others. The first thing the horse does is sniff the ground, his knees buckle, and he rolls. Then he goes to the water trough and takes a deep drink. And he throws up his head, ears erect, looking for Cody. Before my husband can take his boots off and stretch out in the recliner, he takes the time to feed his horses and tend to anything else they need. He’s beat. I can see it in his eyes and in his horse: both of them are sore and need some rest. But I also see the other things: the triumph and the trust, their inter-dependent sense of accomplishment and pride. One a master, one a servant, but which? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Maybe all this would be difficult to appreciate for one who has only ever used machines to get their work done. But since I know firsthand this blessing, I think the world could use more tired men with tired horses.
I awake on that morning with dread. I know as I slam down my third cup of strong, strong coffee that I must be on my A-game or else. I won’t see the inside of my house until (probably) late tonight and will not have time to rest or breathe or sit, and I will be making a 100 mile round trip, not counting the miles I’ll be driving from place to place when I get there; and that I must be home in time to feed my family dinner.
It’s El Dia de los Muertos…but not the one in October. It’s the day of my monthly supply run to the ‘big city’ of Roswell.
Today I start early, and it’s not like other days. I’ll be leaving the borders of the ranch, crossing the cattle guard into the wide world, and therefore, I must wear make-up and clean clothes and even jewelry. Today the children must also wear clean clothes. It seems a monumental achievement upon first glance in the mirror.
But I press on. Fueled by caffeine and the adrenaline that arises when you behold your to-do list early in the morning, I set to my work. By 8 a.m. the children are fed, dressed, and almost loaded in the pickup. I have loaded up the trash to take out. I do a flight check. Daiper bag. Snacks. Drinks. Grocery list. Sam’s list. Feed store list. Hardware list. Sunglasses. Money. All the while, I know I forgot something. Oh! yes. I need to get dressed.
Amid the fussing in the backseat and the rattle of the pickup cab (dirt roads inevitably cause this), I pray as we roll out. I ask for guidance, for protection, and most of all, for energy.
When we reach the highway, the children are usually lulled to sleep. (Dirt roads cause this, too.) The radio soothes my nerves for the next hour and a half, interrupted only by a half dozen phone calls, three of which are from my cowboy.
They ring to the tune of: “Since you’re already in town, can you run over and pick up that oxygen and acetylene? can you grab me a couple pairs of gloves? will you run over to the Paul’s Vet Supply and check on that stuff I ordered? I’ve been meaning to go do it but I didn’t wanna make a special trip.” Sure, I say. No problem, honey. But in my head I’ve calculated the time this will take*, not to mention budget adjustments. I mentally gag down the impulse to remind him that these things require unloading and loading two toddlers and taking them inside each establishment…every mom knows what kind of mental sharpness, spiritual peace, and outer calmness this requires.
When I hit the first stop light, I go into a sort of survival trance. As I make my way from one end of town to the other, I attempt to remain human and again, I mutter a prayer. I planned my route based on the lists, and decide to save Wal Mart for last because they’ll be open after 5 p.m.
You may snicker at me by now, saying to yourself that this would be simply the work of the morning for you. True, I am a slow and methodical creature. I know I am not the woman who can whiz through town, whistling as she goes about her errands, who stops at the end to get her nails done to reward herself. But then, many do not understand how much time it takes to do hostage negotiations with one carseat, let alone two.
Although my kids are tough little things, they can’t go without food. So, there’s that. Fast food or walk in and sit, lunch is no walk in the park.
By the time I get to Wal Mart and move as much of the other purchases from the day in the front seat (it’s Roswell, after all), I am dragging. The kids are whining. I pray again. We get inside and have to go back for my grocery list. We get started shopping when a bathroom break is unavoidable for me. So we park it and go behind those doors and re-emerge to this: “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t have to go right now? Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.”
On with the list! I start by sauntering through the store behind the cart, finally producing the magic volume reducers (pacifiers) to prevent the entire store from echoing with their renditions of Marty Robbins. At last I see my list is complete. The basket is mounded high with a month’s worth of groceries. The children are rubbing their eyes and the bags under mine are probably too scary to look at. Like a Titan, I brace myself behind the heavy basket and push it toward the checkout line, where I wait another 45 minutes, by which time the children’s voices have regained their volume and their determination to make their complaints heard is turning heads. That’s when I hear: “Mama, I need to go tee tee.”
Once we have gone we return to the checkout line again, and it is at last our turn. I know we have to get out of here ASAP. I unload the entire basket onto the conveyer belt. The blip…blip…blip…blip… makes me break into a nervous sweat because of the aforementioned budget calculations (and silent prayers are said). When at last I slide the plastic and collect a five-foot-long receipt to begin the trek back to the pickup, I am now running solely on prayer.
It’s almost dark outside and I push the basket around the parking lot two times before remembering where I parked. That’s a tough one to admit but it’s true. This ranch gal can find a bull brushed up in a ten section pasture, but she loses her truck in the Wal Mart parking lot.
The children are strapped in, and provided with snacks and a drink. I breathe a thankful sigh, thinking how I don’t have to unbuckle them and drag them out until we get home. The groceries are sorted and packed into coolers and loaded in the bed. I start the engine relieved that I only have to fuel up before I head home. The phone rings. “Honey, since you’re already there, can you pick up a couple cans of Copenhagen?” I hesitate. I sigh. I say, Sure, babe. And I turn up the radio to keep the kids awake for one last excursion, into the gas station this time. El Dia de los Muertos…at least, that’s how I feel.
The ride home is when the exhaustion sets in. The kids are asleep at the wrong time of evening, and will awaken when we arrive so they can play until 10 p.m. I peer into the dusk, seeing foxes and deer in the edge of the headlights. I must keep my eyes open! The rest of the evening is a blur, except for…
…my cowboy. He greets me with a kiss and a smile. He helps me unload and put away the items that replaced his salary. Dinner. Clean up. Try to keep awake until the little ruffians are ready for bed. Then, wash off what’s left of the make-up, and go to bed.
Folks, I’d rather be boiled in oil. Or be taken captive by a band of Comanches. Or be staked out in the sun on top of an ant bed. Or…just about anything than go to town on the monthly supply run. That’s why I call it “El Dia de los Muertos” because not even coffee can keep me alive until the sun goes down. I’m a goner before even leaving the house!
It’s grace and grace only that carries me and my littles through the day. As much as I dread it, it’s really a day spent relying totally on God at every turn. So in reality, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I pity the folks who run into me in town. Chances are I didn’t even recognize them! I’m darting about in survival mode, usually not realizing that God’s grace could relieve the stress too, if I would let Him. That’s something that I will have to work on. I can’t avoid the ‘day of the dead’, but it doesn’t have to kill me if the life I have in Christ comes to the surface.
*Some of these instances are not typical of my town run. In defense of my cowboy, he tries very hard not to make me run all his errands. Since he has accompanied me on these supply runs before, and since the title of this post is so fitting, he prefers to run his own errands ever since our second kiddo was born. So that’s largely hypothetical, but it does happen…to all of us ranch gals, every now and then. 😉
Sun up used to mean the crackle of a fire and clanging of cast iron, horses snorting, the smell of wood smoke and the feel of spring chill. There was the otherworldly jingle of trace chains and the creak of well-worn wooden axles as the chuck wagon set out for the day. The cowboys caught their horses and rode out for the gather, leaving the cook and the wrangler to break camp and jingle the horses along to the spot where they would be branding. They had a lot to do to have the mid-day meal ready on time and the remuda close for the change of horses.
They had to choose the right spot, and keep the horses grazing nearby. Then, they’d gather wood, un-hitch the team, and get the fires going. I fancy they started with boiling a pot of beans, and putting on a pot of coffee; then when the coals were right they’d start a dutch oven of sourdough biscuits. Comforting as that sounds, it would be a heck of a lot of work in the wind.
I can imagine it as if I had been there, on the wagon, a century ago. But now, it’s the purr of a diesel pickup and that rattle of a stock trailer leaving the house before the sun. The horses are caught and saddled in the trance of pickup headlights, and hauled to the drop-off point where the gather will begin. And me? Well, folks, I’m not on the wagon this year…again. I guess my role is as the wrangler. I help the cook, and I wrangle toddlers.
Ranching may have changed over the last century. But some things haven’t. A hundred years ago, the man hired as chuck wagon cook was the second-in-command. He had to be the most savvy, had to know the bosses’ mind and know his way around the country. Not only did he need to be a good cook, but he needed to know the in’s and out’s of the works so that everything ran smooth. The morale of the crew during spring and fall works could often hinge on the quality and timing of the meal, because they may be working in freezing wind or killer heat or even rain. A good meal really does a lot for the attitude of a man working in the weather.
These days, the chuck wagon cook is usually the bosses’ wife. And she fills the exact same job requirements as a chuck wagon cook would have back in the day. Only now, she uses her SUV or a ranch pickup, and packs the back with food she made in her kitchen. Her day begins at 3:30 or 4 a.m., and it’s a series of oven timers, stirring, tasting, and lots of toting tea jugs and coolers back and forth. They keep the coffee hot, take cookies to the branding pen, and then serve a full-on catered lunch. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside a few of these women. Let me tell you, they are invaluable. Their ability to adjust, and to accommodate the inevitable change of plans, is truly a super-power. Besides that, they do it with heart and they care about the quality of their work. I used to view their role as something like a prison sentence, because all that mattered to me then was which horse I would use and if I roped good. I have a new perspective now. Their job isn’t glamorous, often thankless and definitely taken for granted, but if they didn’t do it as well as they do, the works would be miserable. If you haven’t seen it, I wrote about this special gal in my post called “The Ranch House Rose”.
Two weeks have gone by since the crew started branding, and between us and neighbors, we will be doing it for maybe a month or more. Branding time is when the old glory and romance of ‘the cowboy’ still shines out, and I confess I do love it most of all. I expect I will someday rejoin the crew. But until then, like the wrangler who had to help the cook with the wagon, I have my share of lessons to learn first. I guess my horse and I will baby sit, and I’ll tote coolers and tea jugs and look on from the other side of the fence…for now.
Ah! The anguish of heart. I still feel the terror of the moment, although now I’m much older. That helpless feeling you feel when you can’t stop a tragedy, and goodbye is forever still pounds in my chest.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was not yet nine years old. It had snowed a couple days before, leaving drifts on the ground. When it snowed, my granddad plowed the road with his tractor. He hadn’t plowed down the road to the West that went into the horse pasture, and no one had driven that way since the snow. Perhaps it’s untouched purity is what drew me in that direction. Being so young, making tracks in the snow was always fun.
Most of what happened that day was a blur. I’m sick to my stomach even remembering. My mom and I had homeschooled all morning and by evening time I was needing to get outside. Kids get cabin fever in a shorter time than adults do, so my mom sent me to call in the horses. She knew they would all be up at the corral-or close to it-already by that time of day, but it was the adventure I was hoping for so I pulled on my snow boots and trekked outside.
I remember sliding on some ice on my way up to the corral. I saw the horses were waiting in the corral for their hay, except for my horse, ‘Pop’. I called him, but he didn’t appear. Laddie, Dan, Lena and the others were all standing there looking at me. But I remember Dan kept jerking his head up, ears in the alert position, listening. At my age I was too young to worry. I just headed out to the west because that road led to the horse pasture, just to see if I could lay eyes on him somewhere out there.
I played my way through the untouched snow and finally looked up. There he was. Pop stood by the cattle guard in kind of a strange position. I could see his breath pumping out into the cold air even at that distance. I called him, but he didn’t move. He just put his head down low.
I ran to him, picking up that something was wrong. As I got closer I saw blood all over the snow and how he was barely upright on two legs. My horse was in bad shape. He was covered in sweat, foaming around the shoulders and up high on his neck, and steam rose up from him a cloud. It was like witnessing his spirit slowly leave him.
I didn’t slow down then. I fell on my horses’ neck and the cry that finally came from my throat was barely audible. My sobs and tears just would not stop. I looked into his soft, round eye and I heard him tell me goodbye. I went from weeping to shock to panicked action. There was wire around him up under his foreleg from the old wire gate that we sometimes strung up across the road. His other shoulder hung dangling, the hoof jammed in between the pipes of the cattle guard. His hind legs were planted in the cattle guard too, but only one could hold weight. The other was broken.
I worked my tiny self so hard trying to free him from the wire and finally removed some of it. But I couldn’t do any more and I needed help. I sat down on the snow in front of my horse. My beautiful buckskin horse-of-my-dreams, the one that had given me wings. He nuzzled me, he put his nose into my lap and let me hug his head…my forehead on his. I was too young to have any words. What passed between us then was only in our spirits. He was a gift from God and I knew it. If I went for help my mom and my granddad weren’t going to let me come back. This was goodbye. The only words I managed to utter were, “I can’t save you Poppie. I love you.” I sat with him until my heart broke, because it was cruel to let him live like that another minute.
Many know this kind of pain. It’s not unique to me. But it’s hard to lose a horse. They give us so much of themselves and when their time is up, we are shocked by mortality and how terrifyingly final death is. The thought of never riding them again is a loss I can’t explain. But I know it. I know it well.
The horses had run in that evening and because the snow had drifted over that cattle guard, Pop never saw it and fell right into a death trap. Dan was Pop’s full brother; they were both buckskin colored and both good ranch horses. He had tried to tell me something was wrong that day. In the years since, I have learned to watch my horses more carefully.
A cattle-guard is placed in a road where a gate once was, and it allows you to drive through the pastures without having to stop and open a gate. Cattle rarely get hung up in one, but I’ve known three horses that have died in them, all because of snow. We put up cross-ropes with orange tape or flags tied on them in the winter now.
Growing up on a ranch comes with some hard lessons. The day Pop died, I learned that life is precious. It’s not time that we should value so much as life, and we should never take our gifts from God for granted. Already I had learned about death, but that day, I learned about loss. Some goodbyes are forever. I think learning this when so young has shaped me a great deal in life since.
I also learned something important about mercy. It’s very hard to explain, but the moment I knew he couldn’t be saved, I was struck with the thought that if I loved him, it would be selfish to make him suffer more.
If that had not happened when it did, I would not have loved my horses as deeply throughout my life as I have. I might have treated them all with casual indifference, and considered their years of service to be of little consequence, valuing them only by what pleasure they gave me. Saying goodbye to my horse was a hard lesson, but God used Pop to teach me some wisdom about life. He does work in mysterious ways.