Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hangin' Out


The mare was a she-devil in buckskin clothes. Built like a linebacker on steroids, bulging with muscle right to the tips of her ears—which were generally pinned to her head. She didn’t like people. She wasn’t particularly fond of other horses. But she loved to rope calves. She could break so hard from the roping box that she’d leave you spinning in mid air. Then stop like she slammed into a brick wall, and make a quick suck-back move that practically laid the calf in the roper’s lap to be flanked and tied.

Calf roping is hard. The dismount alone takes years to perfect. Imagine climbing on your bike, cranking it up to about twenty miles an hour. Then slam on the brakes and step off while it’s skidding. Now picture doing all of that while roping a calf, with your rope coils in one hand and a set of bridle reins in the other. You can see why watching my brother learn to rope calves was so entertaining.

Dad wasn’t rodeoing much one summer, so he lent the buckskin mare to my brother-in-law. Richard had roped on her enough to get used to the deadly stop and suck-back. He knew you wanted get out of the saddle quick. If you paused halfway off, she'd slam you on the back of your head in the dirt. Then stand there and laugh while you sucked air.

Richard's traveling partner hadn’t been planning to ride the mare. But after the first two rodeos, it became clear that Arnie’s mount wasn’t getting the job done. He was way too free. And I don’t mean ‘free’ as in without cost. In fact, he’d probably cost Arnie several hundred dollars in winnings by refusing to stop when the loop went around the calf’s neck. Arnie would rope, swing his leg over the saddle, then hang there in the right hand stirrup reefing on the bridle reins until 0l’ Sorrely finally decided to put on some brakes. That’s what a calf roper calls ‘free’.

 But come to think of it, a person probably could have had him pretty cheap. Arnie might’ve even paid you to take him after that second rodeo. Richard suggested maybe Arnie should ride the buckskin mare at the third rodeo. There was definitely nothing wrong with her stop.

“But don’t forget,” Richard said. “You can’t hang out in the right stirrup on this mare like you do on your horse.”

“No problem,” Arnie said.

 As luck would have it, Arnie drew the best calf in the herd. He timed the start perfectly, roped quick, pulled his slack, and started to step off. He was fixin’ to be in the money. But old habits die hard. He paused in the right stirrup and jerked on the reins.

Later, while shaking the dirt clods out of his shorts, he recalled that as he cartwheeled down the arena in a ball of dust, he managed one coherent thought. “You know, Arnie, you really shouldn’t hang out on that mare.”


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Best Play Ever


During my tenure as a student trainer at Montana State University, I picked up some extra internship hours by working summer basketball camps. John was, by at least a foot, the smallest player out of the two or three hundred sixth through twelfth graders. It took every muscle in his spindly little body to launch the ball into the basket from the free throw line. But he kept trying.

Every morning and afternoon for five straight days in July, the campers drilled. Shooting, dribbling, footwork, defense--for eight long hours the coaches pounded fundamental skills into kids. And they kept a special eye on John. In the drills, they could make sure that the littlest camper got a his fair share of shots. Evenings, though, were different. Each of the players was assigned to a team for the week, the teams divided into leagues based on age.

After dinner, the teams played a round robin tournament. Grade school teams were coached by current members of the MSU Bobcat basketball team. As luck would have it, John's coach was the tallest guy on the team, seven foot two inch Tryg. In the huddle, John's head barely reached Tryg's waist. The games were competitive, with awards going to the members of the tournament champion team.

The coaches made sure everyone got an equal chance to play. They exhorted their players to spread their passes amongst their teammates. But on the final day, poor John had yet to even take a shot. Every time he touched the ball, a much bigger player smothered him before he could move.

 I could sympathize, having endured the same treatment from my annoyingly large little brother for years. All day, every day, I lurked on the sidelines like a bored vulture, waiting for a body to fall and not get up again so I could hustle out and inflict my newly acquired skills on him. Which was how I happened to be sitting on the bench when Tryg dreamed up The Play.

 The fourth quarter was underway and one team held an insurmountable lead (danged if I remember which team, though). John was still pouring his all into the game, but some of the spark had gone out of his eyes. If only he could make one basket...

Tryg called a time out and told his team to take a seat on the bench. Then he gestured the other coach, a point guard named Ray, to meet him at the scorer's table. They huddled together, Tryg sketching out his idea with his hands as he talked. Ray nodded his agreement. He went back to his team, called them together, and drew out a new play on the clipboard. Players glanced toward Tryg's bench, nodding. On Tryg's end, John was at the center of the huddle, eyes wide, studying the clipboard with great intensity. 

The referee blew the whistle. Both teams took the floor. The game proceeded without incident for a few trips up and down. Then Tryg called The Play. Getting the signal, Ray chimed in with a special defensive play of his own.

 John, mouth set in a determined line, cut across the key. The forward set a pick for him. John popped free at the three point line. The point guard passed him the ball, then set a second pick. The defense played their role perfectly, stepping back just enough to allow John to drive the lane and lay the ball up. If you weren't watching closely, you would never have guessed that they'd been told to let him score.

 Both teams erupted in cheers when the ball dropped through the hoop. John's grin lit up the gym. His feet barely touched the ground as he sprinted to the other end to take up his defensive position. At the next dead ball he trotted over to exchange a low-to-high five with Tryg.

 "That's an awesome play, coach," he declared. "I think we should run it again."


Monday, July 20, 2009

Bum Rap

Someone was killing his chickens and stealing his eggs. Which was the same as snatching the food right off his plate. In those days, a man living out on Badger Creek didn't just pop into Browning for groceries. A trip to town was a two day ordeal. As far as he was concerned, killing chickens was a shooting offense. He scooped up a pile of feathers and bones, all that was left of the latest victim. The bum calf met him at the door to the chicken coop. It slurped at his leg as he latched the door, hoping for an extra bucket of milk. He shoved the hungry orphan away. It tagged along behind as he inspected every inch of the chicken coop. There must be a hole. The culprit was getting in somewhere. A weasel he guessed, though a skunk was also possible. He bent to run his hand under the edge of the wall, searching for holes. The calf sucked at his hip pocket. He batted it away automatically, as he did a hundred times a day. There! A hole, burrowed under the bottom board and into the coop. He blocked it up with wood scraps and rocks. A temporary fix, at best. He'd have to figure out a way to trap the murdering thief if he wanted to end the carnage. He stood, stretching out the kinks. The sun had dropped behind the mountains that reared up only a few miles to the west. Time to dump out some barley for the chickens and mix up a bucket of milk for the calf. Then he could see to feeding himself. Bedtime came early, mostly because there wasn't anything much to do after dark. He stripped out of his jeans and shirt and sniffed at his long underwear, a traditional one piece union suit. Good for at least another week. Next washday, though, he'd have to do something about that missing button on the rear trap door. He'd no more than crawled into bed when a ruckus broke out in the hen house. Panicked chickens screeched and clucked for their lives. He leapt out of bed, stuffed his feet into his boots, straight over top of his long underwear. No time for clothes. He grabbed his shotgun and lantern and sprinted out the door, across the yard, through the gate, the half-buttoned flap of his union suit snapping in the breeze behind him. A few yards short of the coop, he stopped. The coop had gone quiet. He lit the lantern as he crept closer. Then he turned the latch and nudged open the door with the muzzle of his shotgun, finger poised on the trigger. And a cold, slimy something grabbed him right through the open flap of his longjohns. Kabloom! His scream was almost as loud as the blast of the shotgun. He wheeled, fumbling for a second shell to ward off his attacker. The bum calf slurped at his kneecap, wide-eyed and hopeful. The neighbor lady clucked sympathetically as she helped him load cages of new chickens in his wagon a few days later. "Hard to believe a weasel would up and kill every chicken in the coop. I hope you got him with that shotgun of yours." He only grunted. No way he was telling her the weasel was the only thing in the henhouse that had escaped the fatal outbreak of lead poisoning.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Goats Rule

Remember all that stuff I said about sheep? Goats are the polar opposite. A goat can survive for a month on four drops of water and a rusty tin can. They are nearly impossible to contain, and even harder to rope. If you had any doubt which breed is superior, you need to see this: Sheep Surfing Notice that the goat has figured out it can use the sheep as a stepping stool onto other stuff. Next week, he's going over the fence.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Give Us a Little Slack

If you're not a rodeo person, you're probably unfamiliar with the concept of slack. Which, come to think of it, can mean two things. First is the slack in your rope after you catch a calf or steer, which has to be 'pulled', 'jerked' or 'waved' in order to snug the loop down around the animal's neck, feet or horns. Slack can also be missed, which is rarely a good thing and usually ends with either a miss or a calf roped around the belly. The kind of slack I'm talking about today is rodeo slack. Rodeo committees like to keep their performances within a two to three hour time frame. After that, butts start to go numb and beer consumption reaches a point where urinating off the back of the grandstand begins to seem like a good idea. Therefore, performances are usually limited to no more than fifteen contestants per event, more often ten or twelve. The remainder of the cowboys and cowgirls compete in a separate section called slack, held before or after or sometimes on a completely different day than the performances. This is pure, no frills competition. Dozens of ropers, steer wrestlers and barrel racers, one right after another, no breaks for clown acts or those silly bucking events. The following are pictures from the Browning Indian Days rodeo slack, which started, as slack is prone to do, at eight o'clock in the morning.
Shooting the bull while waiting for the steer wrestling to start. Love the buckskin horse on the left. Checking the draw. Every animal has a number, and each contestant has an animal drawn for them by the judges. The draw is posted on the wall of the rodeo office.
Sorting the steers, making sure each contestant runs the one drawn for him.
Seven am comes too early to get dressed right away.

Coulees and Canadian cows

I frequently use the term "coulee" in my blog posts. Many readers aren't sure what I'm talking about. So today, I took pictures. This is Fox Coulee, looking south. It's smaller than a valley, wider than a ravine, deeper and longer than a draw. The buildings in the distance are my cousin's ranch, and our nearest neighbor.
This is the Milk River coulee. The land in the foreground is in the U.S. and the area back by the river is in Canada. They are separated by that wire fence you can just barely make out in the middle of the picture (you might have to click on the picture for a full screen view to see it). If we'd been close enough, I'm sure those cows up on the bench were saying, "Moo, eh?"

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Will to Die

When I was six years old, we got a pair of lambs. We made them a special shelter. I petted them, bottle fed them, put on little collars and broke them to lead. I would have slept with them if I could have gotten them past my mother and into the bedroom.

And then they died.

 For years afterward I blamed myself. Too much dragging around on the leash. Not enough milk. Too much petting and hugging. It wasn't until I married a man who raised sheep that I realized their passing had nothing to do with me.

Sheep just live to die. Which is true of all living things, I guess. But most of us don't go around looking for ways to expedite the process. Or simply lie down one day and decide, "Oh, heck, why bother getting up? It's just eat and poop, eat and poop. Who needs the hassle?"

How they manage to go lights out at will is a mystery. Not all sheep possess the ability. Which is why they resort to suicide. A portion of our pasture had fences made of smooth wire woven into six inch squares. The sheep weren't allowed in that section, after the first two stuck their heads through the squares and hung themselves. We also had to keep a sharp eye out for any gate rope or piece of twine with a loop in it big enough to form a noose, lest we find a sheep dangling from it.

And then there were the water tanks. My husband set out a thousand gallon tank, ten feet in diameter and two feet deep. The next morning there were two floaters. He assumed that, tempted by the stretch of open water, they had climbed over the side and been unable to get out again. He could fix that. He dragged sheets of plywood out to the tank and built a cover, leaving only an eighteen inch hole where they could put their noses in to drink.

The next day, he found a dead sheep stuck head first in the hole. He pulled it out. There was another sheep underneath. He yanked that soggy mass of wool out of the hole, only to find a third at the bottom of the tank. He was fairly sure the last one in must have had to jump up and down on his buddies in order to create enough space to get his own head under water.

At some point, you become resigned to the fact that if a sheep isn't dead, it's only because he hasn't got around to it yet. And once they're down, they rarely get up. A friend's young son once came running into the house in a panic after seeing his ancient horse stretched out, soaking up the sun. "Mom! Arm is down!" (Yes, the horse's name was Arm. They can't all be Trigger and Midnight.) He didn't buy her explanation that the horse was sleeping. In his short experience as a sheep owner, 'down' was a fatal condition. Nothing would calm Rex short of dragging his mother out to the pasture, where she nudged Arm awake.

Arm was seriously annoyed at having his nap disturbed. And Rex was mightily relieved to learn that, unlike a sheep, a flat horse isn't necessarily a dead horse.


Almost three years later this continues to be the most popular post I've even done. and by far the best part is the stories the readers added in the comments. And when you've read all the ones here, go here and read the stories from literary agent Janet Reid's crowd. My favorite is the one from Fawn, whose lamb had to 'go back to it's mother'.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Exit Strategies


There is a precise moment when you realize that you are bucked off. When your butt is jacked so far out of the saddle that recovery is impossible. At that instant your focus shifts to exit strategies.

 Like any relationship gone bad, when the time comes to admit that the situation is beyond salvage, you must attempt to get out with as little damage as possible. Pain is inevitable. The trick is to avoid hospitalization and long term prescription opiates.

If I had listened to my internal warning system, we would not be having this discussion. The day, to that point, had not gone well. My son crawled in bed with us at four-thirty in the morning and proceeded to pummel me for the next three hours the way that young children do in their sleep. Later, in the midst of an impromptu Fourth of July family reunion featuring nine children under the age of twelve and their assorted parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, my dog decided to crack open a can of whoop-ass on a visiting German shorthair. Repeatedly.

When she was finally captured and hauled off to solitary confinement, I went in to make lunch. And dumped a pound of pricey Bar S barbecued pork down the front of my shirt and onto the kitchen floor. (That distant shrieking noise is the sound of a dozen or so people who have just realized, upon reading this, that all of the black flecks in their lunch may not have been pepper.) 

Then I accidently set fire to a swamp.

But once the flames were doused and the smoke cleared, I ignored my inner, smarter voice and decided to ride the colt. Nothing tough. Long trot a couple of miles up to the top of the hill and back to take the edge off, then a few trips around the barrels. No problem. Hadn’t I just been bragging to everyone how well-behaved he’d been the day before?

Yeah, you were asking for it, I thought, as the saddle horn drove into my tender belly on the first big jump.

A mile and a half into our long trot, I still should have known better than to relax my guard. I hauled on the reins, but his head had disappeared between his knees and there was already space for a complete set of New York City phone directories between my butt and saddle.

You know better than to brag about a colt, I thought on the second jump, my knee ramming into the swells and my forearm bouncing off the top of the saddle horn. Especially when there are a couple dozen people around who will all want to know how he managed to throw you off.

Try not to land on your face this time, I thought, as I blew my right stirrup and rotated ninety degrees, my thigh catching the rigid edge of the cantle at the back of the seat.

Ah, hell, those were my favorite sun glasses, I thought, as I bounced off his butt and began my descent to earth. I’ll never find them in this hayfield.

Please don’t kick me in the head, I prayed, as I hit the ground.

I sat for a moment, catching my air and ticking off body parts. They were all still attached and I couldn’t detect any obvious bleeding. Not a bad landing, actually. The alfalfa was tall and reasonably soft, and my hip well padded. I rolled onto my knees. Everything seemed to be in working order. And hey! There’s my sunglasses!

The horse had stopped twenty yards away. He waited until he saw me stand up. He didn’t actually say neener-neener, but I’m pretty sure he stuck out his tongue. Then he turned and jogged off toward the barn.

I catalogued the damage as I trudged home. Bruises on my knee, forearm, belly and upper arm from the saddle horn and swells. Six inch welt on my inner thigh from the cantle. How in the world did I scrape the hide off the front of my right ankle through my boot? And I must have jammed my left ring finger into his neck. All damage sustained from trying to hang on. Not a scratch from hitting the ground.

My exit strategy definitely needs work, I decided. Next time I'll just bail out on the first jump. It’s a lot less painful.

 The rescue squad came roaring up, alerted by the sight of my riderless horse sauntering into the barn. My sisters and my husband bailed out of the chore pickup. I assured them there was no need to fetch the ski patrol/EMT brother-in-law or the LifeFlight helicopter.

 “You know,” my older sister said helpfully, “I find that a couple miles of long-trotting before I work my horse on the barrels really settles them down.”

 I considered punching her, but my finger hurt too much. I settled for a snarl. “Gee,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”