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

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Long and Winding (icy, muddy, snowy) Road

There's an old joke that says behind every successful rancher is a wife with a town job. That would be me. Our ranch is 55 miles from the town in question. The first three miles is my driveway. The next nine are gravel county road. Then I finally get to a highway. But since Highway 207 ends at a border crossing that is only open from 9am to 6pm in the winter, it is essentially a dead end road during my morning and evening commute. It's me and the school bus out there most days.

Needless to say, the drive can be a bit of a challenge when we get snow, or even lots of rain. And since our ranch is higher in altitude and much closer to the mountains than town, conditions can vary dramatically from one end of my commute to the other. It's not unusual to get a foot of snow at our house while my co-workers get only a light dusting.

So I thought I'd invite you all to ride along on the drive home:

Yeah, the guy who cleans the parking lot LOVES my gravel roads.

This highway was clear, except for some slow moving traffic. (Or slow moo-ving, as one of my readers pointed out)

Getting closer to home, snow on the gravel road.

This section of the driveway is a little tricky. Took me three tries to get through it on Wednesday morning.

The last quarter mile of the road is drifted deeper than my bumper, but the hayfield blew clear, so this is where we cut down through the ditch and go cross country.

And finally...home.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

As If You Had to Ask

Yes, it has been snowing at our house. I'm sure those of you who read this blog regularly aren't exactly shocked. Here's what the front lawn looks like:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fleshing out the Skeleton

We were back in Bozeman last weekend, so I took more pictures of a saddle in progress, for those of you who are interested in how it all comes together. (see my original post Skeletons in the Garage, for the first half of this conversation) This one has the seat and the back, or cantle, in place, plus the 'rigging' on the sides where the cinches will attach. The placement of that front D ring makes a big difference in how the saddle will sit on the horse. Ropers and ranch cowboys like it set forward farther, nearly in direct line with the center of the swells. This keeps the front of the saddle snugged down around the horse's withers when a cow is being pulled or stopped, and lessens the amount of turning and rocking, which causes friction and pinching. Saddles built for pleasure riding or other events may have the D ring set farther back, behind the swells.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Goober's Finest Hour

I had a horse named Goober. He was gorgeous. Seriously. Big and sorrel, with a classic Quarterhorse build and beautiful head. The name had nothing to do with looks. It was all about personality.

Take the electric fence, for example. We put up a single wire around the yard, so the horses could graze off the grass rather than me wasting gas and sweat and perfectly good feed shoving a mower over it. Goober had to test that wire with his nose. Every time we turned him out there.

He had the personality of a golden retriever. If you were walking across the pasture and stopped fast, his nose would plow into the back of your head because he would be dogging every step, in case you had grain. Or just wanted to scratch his ears. But he was also fast and athletic and cowy. I still use the custom-made, hand-tooled, silver-mounted rope can I won on him at a jackpot in Selah, Washington.

Goober had only two major flaws. First, he was accident prone. If there was a scrap of wood anywhere on the place with a nail in it, he would step on it. A piece of wire that had lain in the pasture for twenty years, undisturbed? Goober would get tangled in it. Our last summer in South Dakota, he was the only horse on the place to get distemper.

And he bucked.

We’re not talking hump up and crow hop around the yard, half-hearted kind of bucking. It was drop his head, kick straight up at the sky, hello ground meet face. And man, was he strong.

I got by him for a long time because I could feel it coming. I’d climb aboard on a cool evening and I could barely get him to walk. This was not a good time to be aggressive. Instead, I’d ease along, and he’d start to loosen up, and after a few minutes we could manage a trot, and finally a lope, and no more than a mile or two later I could rope without fear of demonstrating my ability to do a forward half gainer in the pike position.

Then we decided to make a heading horse out of him. It went well in the beginning. Until the day my brother roped the steer and dallied his rope around the saddle horn and turned left and the larger than average bovine buried all four feet and hit the end like a ton of bricks, and the saddle slid back, bringing the back cinch into closer than normal proximity to Goober’s flank.

Goober blew. And spun. And my brother, for fear of getting tangled in the rope, had to bail out to save his life.

The game was up. Goober had figured out if he bided his time and waited for just the right moment, no one could ride him. Being a tad on the unmotivated side, he soon decided that pretty much any time you turned a steer was a good moment. His final appearance as a rope horse was at the Canadian Senior Pro Finals. Afterward, the stock contractor asked my dad to please quit bringing him, it was embarrassing when the team roping horses out-bucked his broncs.

Which was when we decided that if he wanted to buck, maybe we should let him.

As it happened, one of my husband’s friends from his bachelor days had a string of bucking horses. So Greg called Sparky up and told him about Goober and asked if maybe he'd like to try him out. Sparky said sure, why not? We made arrangements for a third friend to haul Goober to Bozeman where yet another person, a friend of Sparky’s, would pick him up and deliver him to eastern Montana.

About Sparky. You know that friend of your husband’s from back before you came along? The guy who isn’t quite housebroken and gets a real kick out of seeing if he can make you blush? Repeatedly? Yeah, that would be Sparky. And I’m told he’s a lot more civilized than he used to be.

So off Goober went, all bundled up in his best traveling blanket because it was late fall and it was cold. The guy in Bozeman took one look at him, all brushed and trimmed and spiffy and said, “But I came to pick up a bucking horse.”

By the time he arrived in Circle, he was convinced we were insane. “There’s no way this horse is going to buck,” he informed Sparky. “He’s dog gentle.”

Sparky couldn’t help but agree. After a day of Goober following him around the yard bumming for grain and attention, he was convinced we were exaggerating. It was probably just a girl thing. He must have throwed me off a couple of times and had me buffaloed. Put somebody with a little backbone on him who'd show him who was boss, he’d probably make a dandy pick-up horse.

Only one way to find out—saddle that bugger up and take him out for a spin.

It was chilly that day, and on the breezy side. Sparky picked out a good stiff bit to be sure he’d have full control. One with long split reins with the poppers on the end to spank up a horse that wasn’t putting out as much effort as you’d like. And off they went.

He headed for the plowed field a quarter mile down the road. Dang, was that horse lazy. Sparky could hardly get him to walk. He pushed him on down to the field, out into the summerfallow. Then he picked up his split reins and gave Goober a crisp pop on the butt.

When he called my husband that night, he had to agree. As he was laying there in the dirt, watching Goober buck off toward home, he didn’t think he’d ever seen a horse jump and kick quite that high without a flank strap.

Forget winning the rope can. In my mind, that will forever be Goober's finest hour. If only there were video.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

No Parking

Our ranch doesn’t own a single vehicle with a functional parking brake. In several cases, the pedal just sits there, flat against the floor, the cables detached. It’s not that we don’t like parking brakes. Or that they wouldn’t come in handy. But we’ve yet to find one that can hold up to the mud and the snow and the ice and beating over rocks and up and down coulees and slamming into badger holes and such.

Since all of the ranch vehicles have manual transmissions, the lack of a parking brake can be a real hassle when circumstances require the driver to get out. Which is generally every five minutes.

The safest course of action is to put the vehicle in a low gear and turn it off. This is the chosen method when the vehicle will remain parked for an extended period of time (and you’re sure it’s going to start again).

The real challenge is going through the gate.

There are dozens of gates. A gate across the driveway to keep the cattle out of the yard. A gate from the yard into the pasture around the calving barn and indoor arena. A gate from that pasture into the south lot, and another gate from the lot onto the hill field. Plus gates into and out of all of the larger pastures, the lane leading to the corrals, the corrals themselves…well, you get the picture.

Every time you set out to tackle a chore, you will have to go through a gate. That’s when you really wish you had a parking brake. Or a passenger to open and shut the gate while you stay in the pickup with your foot on the brake, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.

On the steeper slopes, you have no choice. You have to pull up to the gate, put the pickup in gear, turn off the pickup. Get out, open the gate, get in, start the pickup, drive through the gate, turn off the pickup, get out, shut the gate, get in, start the pickup and go about your business.

Repeat as needed, thirty to forty times a day. It’s not just the price of cattle keeping us skinny, folks.

You can see why the temptation to apply alternative methods can be overpowering. If nothing else, to spare the starter on the pickup. Of course, if the gate is on level ground, you can just put the pickup in neutral. It’s not going anywhere. Off the top of my head, I can think of two gates on this place that are on the level. Both on the far north pasture, where we drive a half dozen times a year.

As for the others—the method used depends on the resources at hand. Large badger holes are an excellent alternative to a parking brake. Dump a tire in one of those puppies, your pickup is staying put. Stopping with the front tire against a big rock works, too. Oddly, given the plentitude of both rocks and badger holes around here, there is almost never one right where you need it.

Snow drifts come in handy at gates. Heck, most of the winter you’re lucky the pickup is moving when all four chained tires are spinning. No worries that it’s going to roll off on its own. In some spots, the mud can get deep enough to do the trick. And when it dries, there are ruts.

The rut trick is the riskiest of the alternative methods. It’s a simple concept. If there is a rut in front of the gate, and the slope isn’t too steep, you can crank the front tires so they’re angled in the rut. Voila! Instant tire block.

Assuming the rut is deep enough. And the tires are turned far enough. And they don’t sort of get pushed straight again by the weight of the pickup trying to roll downhill.

A few months back, my husband came upon my dad repairing a section of fence just down from the gate into the south lot. A result, my dad sheepishly explained, of a rut that wasn't quite deep enough.

But why was the hole ten yards down the fence? If the pickup was parked at the gate, shouldn’t it have just run through the gate itself?

Oh, it did, my dad explained. But he’d gotten the gate open and dragged out of the way just in the nick of time. His sigh of relief was short-lived. Because he had the front wheels on the pickup cranked to keep it in the rut. So it rolled through the open gate, did a graceful loop during which it managed to miss half a dozen huge badger holes, and rolled right back through the fence.

Good thing that big rock stopped it on the other side.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do It Yourself

When you spend a lot of time off the beaten path, it’s inevitable that you are going to get stuck. Bogs, washouts, snowdrifts, bogs and washouts hidden under snowdrifts—there are plenty of booby traps lying in wait. And given the scarcity of people, there’s a good chance you’re going to be on your own when it happens.

Which is where the art of self-extraction comes in handy.

My husband is a pro at getting himself unstuck, a result of ten years of operating a one man feedlot in South Dakota. I’ve seen him bury a tractor to the axles in mud and push himself out with the bucket. Looked simple enough. Until I tried it myself, and ended up with the front wheels dangling off the ground and the back axle buried even deeper.

Like I said, it’s an art.

Last week it snowed. (Yes, in October. No, we don’t get used to it. We just learn how to whine with more finesse.) The snow was deep enough to cover up a whole lot of those booby traps. Greg managed to locate a bog he’d never seen before—with the chore pickup. He hiked home, got the tractor, and towed the pickup most of the way back to the house. By himself. Without tying the steering wheel down to keep it from turning. And with a front end so loose the pickup can dive into the ditch while you’re still pointing the wheel straight ahead, anyway.

But as good as Greg is, he couldn’t hold a candle to my Grandpa Mel.

My dad grew up in southwestern Montana, mostly in the Madison Valley around Ennis, surrounded by mountain ranges. His dad was a ranch hand, a horse trainer and a farrier, amongst other things. And to make a little money on the side, he cut poles.
Corral and fence poles were—still are—a hot commodity in a ranching valley. Especially a valley that's so rocky in a lot of spots that driving a post in the ground is nearly impossible, and the ranchers resort to jackleg fences like the one on the right.

If he wasn’t working elsewhere, Grandpa would climb in his old pickup and rumble up into the mountains. The logging roads were narrow, winding, generally clinging to the side of a mountain or a ravine. And steep. One in particular, that led to an especially good area for cutting poles, was so steep his pickup couldn’t make the climb without spinning out.

Not a problem.

Grandpa developed a routine. When he hit the steep section, he’d stop, turn around, and back to the base of the hill. Then he’d drag out his extra long tow rope and hike to the top. One end of the rope was tied off to a sturdy tree. The other, he snugged down to the rear pickup axle, between the duel tires.

Then he jumped in the pickup, put it in reverse, and let the rope wind around the axle, dragging him up the steep incline. At the top, he detached the rope from the tree, turned the pickup around, and let the rope unwind as he drove down the other side.

Pretty slick, huh?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ghost Stories

Two weeks ago we took a trip to Bannack, the site of the first big gold rush in Montana. Unlike the other historic 'ghost' towns in the area, Bannack is deserted except for a handful of state park employees. There are no sweet shops peddling hard candy, no old-fashioned mercantiles pushing souvenir t-shirts. The buildings have been preserved in their original condition, not 'restored'. And many are still in good enough shape to go in and walk around. The Meade Hotel especially is amazingly intact. 

The brick structure was built in 1874 as the Beaverhead County Courthouse. When the gold petered out and the county seat moved to Virginia City, it was converted into hotel. Walking inside now, it seems as if, with a little paint, wallpaper and elbow grease, it could open again tomorrow. It is incredibly easy to imagine one of the town's 'women of negotiable virtue' trailing her hand down the bannister as she descended the curving staircase, running a practiced eye over the crowd below in search of men flush with gold burrowed from the rugged canyon.


There is a campground on the outskirts of town, where Grasshopper Creek gurgles along, once again undisturbed by the miners who swarmed the area like hungry termites, washing tons of mud and gravel with its water in the desperate search for gold. Aspens rustle in the breeze, leaves glistening green in the sunlight.

But what must it be like at night? To leave the serenity of the campground and stroll the barren streets, where fortunes were made and lost, and the Vigilantes wreaked their horrible justice on men like Henry Plumer and his notorious gang, the gallows still visible up the draw.

Or was it the Vigilantes themselves who were the outlaws, cloaking their crimes with righteous rhetoric?

Imagine climbing the steps to the old hotel, the creak of the warped front door. Moonlight streaming through the windows and across the staircase, and the memories of a thousand souls rustling about the silent rooms and echoing hallways. Would you feel the vast emptiness of not only the town, but the surrounding mile upon mile of desolate canyons and mountains?

Or would you, instead, sense the presence of the woman said to haunt these halls. Even see her translucent form, nerves screaming as you watch her trail her hand down the long curving bannister, drawing nearer and nearer....

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fair Warning

I have a tendency to forget things. Birthdays, anniversaries, milk at the grocery store, my kid at the babysitter. (Although, in my defense, it wasn’t usually my job to pick him up, and I was as shocked as my husband when I got home from work and the boy wasn’t there.) My husband cannot use this particular failing of mine as a basis for divorce. He got to experience it first hand long before we went on our first date.

I moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota in the fall, and rented an apartment in town. When spring rolled around, I hauled my horses out from Montana and found a place in the country to board them. Just down the road there was a dandy twenty acre pasture, complete with a two stall, lean to barn, an old moving van for a tack room, and a nineteen-sixties single wide mobile home in powder blue.

And it was unoccupied.

I immediately tracked down the owner and persuaded him to rent me the whole works for a hundred dollars a month. I thought I was getting a heck of a bargain. Then I went in the house. Suffice to say, I thought long and hard about moving into the barn.

But I was determined to have my very own country estate, so I persevered. I managed to make the old blue trailer house almost habitable. At least the mice seemed to think so. And my horses loved the pasture, even if they did have to share it with a dozen replacement heifers the owner had hauled in. We were set.

I’d been there all of a week when I came home from work one night and took the horses out for a ride. My acreage was one corner of a hundred and sixty acre quarter section that was mostly planted to corn. As were most of the fields on every side. I’d never lived in corn country, and I thought the rows and rows of six foot tall stalks were pretty cool. So I went out the back gate of my pasture to ride along the edge.

Except I couldn’t get the gate shut. The owner, being a male, had the tension on the wire gate cranked up a few notches too high for my puny girl muscles. What to do? I could go back to the barn, scrounge up a piece of rope and tie the gate. But the sun was sinking fast, and I was barely going to get a decent ride in before dark as it was. And the heifers were all clear down at the opposite end of the field.

No problem. I’d ride first, then tie up the gate when I got back.

The next morning at work, I got a phone call from the neighbors down the road, where I’d previously boarded my horses.

“Your mares just walked in our yard.”

Uh-oh. I’d gotten a little distracted during my ride, thinking about this and planning that, and circled around and went back to the barn via the front gate. And sort of forgot all about that back gate that I didn’t get shut.

It’s not easy to find a small herd of cattle in hundreds of acres of six foot tall corn. Especially when it’s hot, and the middle of the cornfield provides cool shade and really good chow, all rolled into one. Luckily, it had rained recently, and my landlord was a good tracker. He probably would have been pretty upset if he’d had to pay his cousin to fly him around looking for them like the last time some of his cows got out. As it was, not only did he not evict me immediately, he didn’t even yell at me. And he fixed the gate so it was easier to shut.

I may be forgetful, but I’m not dumb. You find a guy like that, you’d better marry him.

Monday, October 05, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Cowboy?

I'm sure no one who has paid much attention to this blog is surprised that it looked like this at my house yesterday:

You may, however, be suprised to learn that there was a high school rodeo just down the road. Outdoors. And no, they did not cancel or reschedule. You wanna be a rodeo cowboy in Montana? You better learn to rope in the snow, pard, 'cuz if the ground hasn't frozen, the show will go on.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A Prayer from the Road

I’ve never been much of a road warrior. I like to sleep too much. In a bed, as opposed to the seat of a pickup. But amongst rodeo people, the ability to travel long and hard is as much of a necessity as skill in the arena. Don’t get me wrong—my husband and I put on plenty of miles. But compared to a lot of our fellow contestants, we were wimps.

I recall one weekend when we still lived in South Dakota. We hit three rodeos in two days, which we figured was pretty good. Except there were two more we’d skipped, which a person could work if they were willing to drive fast and forgo sleep almost entirely.

Our first rodeo was on Saturday afternoon, in eastern North Dakota. The next was a quick hop down the road. We didn’t even have to break the speed limit or leave the horses saddled in between. Unlike Gabby.

Gabrielle Moon was a barrel racer from our home turf, an itty bitty blonde with a personality ten times her size, and even more determination. I was just cracking open my rope can for my first run of the weekend. She’d already competed at Rapid City on Friday evening, driven straight through to morning slack at another rodeo up north, and still had two to go before she parked her rig for the night at her boyfriend’s place in Killdeer. Compared to Gabby, I felt like a real weenie.

We dawdled along to our Saturday afternoon and evening rodeos, then cruised on down to Lemmon to have a steak dinner and a good eight hours’ shuteye. The next morning, we had some breakfast and meandered toward the next rodeo in McLaughlin. I turned on the radio and happened to find a station that was broadcasting the state high school rodeo live.

Just as the announcer said, “And now, a moment of silence in memory of former state champion barrel racer Gabby Moon, who died last night…”

Odd, how crystal clear some moments remain in the memory, etched there by shock and disbelief. I can still feel the hot August air blowing through the cab of the pickup, smell the sun-baked grass, hear the static-filled void as the rodeo world stopped to mourn. And still, to the this day, without even closing my eyes, I can see Gabby riding across the road toward the arena on that last night, waving to us as we drove away.

She fell asleep at the wheel. Less than a day after her last run, I led the traditional riderless horse around the arena at a rodeo where she should have been competing, and we were all forced to recognize, once again, that the road is a far crueler, deadlier beast than anything we face in competition.

Later that same summer, we got an even more personal reminder. We left a night rodeo near the Black Hills and headed east to Burke. Slack was at eight o’clock the next morning. At two-thirty in the morning, less than an hour from Burke, we hit fog. Greg was behind the wheel, and I was fighting to stay awake to help him stay awake by babbling about pretty much nothing. I lost the battle, my eyes drifting shut, only to pop open again when I heard him swear.

There were headlights coming straight at us.

Greg hit the brakes as hard as he dared without skidding and moved right as far as he could. The car kept coming. And Greg kept slowing and kept moving right, onto the shoulder, until the outside duel tire on our pickup started kicking up gravel. The headlights got brighter. And brighter. I braced myself for the collision.

And the car swerved. Away, to the left, missing our bumper by what seemed like only inches. Then disappeared, a pair of red taillights fading into the fog, then gone, as if it had all been nothing but a fleeting nightmare.

Greg stopped the pickup, got out, and walked around to lean on the passenger’s side of the pickup. I climbed out, too.

“Is something wrong with the pickup?” I asked.

"No. I’m just shaking too hard to drive.” He braced his hands on his knees, stared at the ground for several long, deep breaths, then looked at me. “I was going to swerve. I’d made up my mind that the only way to miss him was to swerve into his lane.”

And when the other driver swerved, too, we would have hit him head on. Call it luck. Call it fate. Greg hesitated, and we survived unscathed. So many haven’t. Each loss leaves a hole in our hearts and our lives that will never quite be filled.

At rodeos across the country, the Cowboy’s Prayer is recited, asking for patience, for perseverance and for protection. Given the number of cowboys and cowgirls we lose each and every year to the road, there should be an addendum:

May I never let the pursuit of the dream override good sense,
or push myself past the point of safety.

May I always respect the road, with its curves and mountains,
washboards and potholes, and always be prepared for the unexpected.

May I always wear my seatbelt, even when it’s not comfortable
and I don’t think I really need it.

May I never meet the guy on the road who didn’t know
when to sleep, or how to say no to that one last drink.

May the deer stay in the ditches, the black of the highway
never be ice, and the tires never blow.

And most of all, may the road never give my family
a reason to hold a Memorial Rodeo in my honor.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Skeletons in the Garage

The other day I tried to explain a saddle tree to someone, and failed miserably. So while we were in Bozeman, I lurked around my brother-in-law's leather shop, asked endless questions and took dozens of pictures. So, for today's tutorial: saddle trees.

A tree is the saddle's skeleton. It provides stiffness, strength, and determines the fit of the saddle on the horse's back. For example, if your horse is wide through the top of the shoulders and back as many quarterhorses tend to be, you want a saddle with a tree that's wider and flatter to conform to the shape of the horse. This is especially important for rope horses and working ranch horses. A saddle that fits poorly will tend to move around when the horse pulls on or attempts to stop an animal that's been roped. The movement causes rubbing, pinching, and ultimately, rebellion on the part of the horse. When a rope horse quits stopping or pulling, the first thing we do is check the saddle to be sure there isn't a problem.  

This is a barrel racing saddle tree. It's shorter and lighter than a roping or ranch saddle because barrel racing is, essentially, a horse race, and weight matters. Plus there is little physical force applied to the saddle as there would be when roping a critter and dallying (wrapping) the rope around the saddle horn in order to stop or pull said critter.

The tree is carved of wood, then covered in fiberglass to add strength and durability and protect from rot. And termites, I suppose, if you have 'em. The tree is then covered in leather, with padding on the seat, etc. You can see the beginning of that process here, on what we call the swells, which is the front of the saddle. The saddle horn is under that sheepskin sleeve, which is on this one just to protect the horn while the saddle is being moved around during construction.

Notice that this tree is mounted on the base of an old barber's chair, which Richard bought and coverted so he can jack the saddle up and down while he works on it, which tends to save a lot of wear and tear on the saddlemaker's back and arms.

This is a ranch saddle. Notice the thickness of the saddle horn, designed to absorb the jerking and pulling of an uncooperative critter on the other end of the rope. This one is covered in rawhide. See the stitches where the pieces were laced together? Takes some serious skill to do that kind of work. Most saddlemakers don't construct their own trees, because its very time consuming and a real art. The rawhide is soaked until its very wet and soft, stitched into place, then shrinks up to look like this as it dries.