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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Rancher's Remote Control


I thought I had heard it all. I was wrong. Today I met a person online who has never seen a dirt clod. Think about that for a minute. A life without dirt. It’s stupefying. And sort of depressing, because people who grew up like this get elected to Congress and become, say, Speaker of the House, and they can’t even find Montana on a map but they get to decide farm policy. (Yeah, I know. That’s almost like political commentary. And Lord knows you get enough of that everywhere else so I’ll hush up.)

I have to confess, though, I too have lived in a world without dirt clods. The north end of Hermiston, Oregon is located on what is essentially a gigantic sand dune thrown up by the Columbia River during the floods at the end of the last ice age. For ten years, I had an arena that was incapable of mud. I thought I had found heaven.
Then one day my husband’s rope horse decided he didn’t really need to back up and keep the rope tight while the calf was flanked and tied. I reached for an all occasion horse training device to give him a little reminder smack in the chest…and came up with a handful of sand.

I was stunned. My entire philosophy of animal training had to be re-envisioned. Dirt clods are the remote control of ranch work. Any time you can’t or don’t want to get close enough for laying on of hands, a dirt clod comes to the rescue.

Dog getting carried away and about to run a bunch of yearlings through the fence? Explode a dirt clod on the ground in front of him, he’ll weaken. Got a pair of bulls that refuse to quit fighting and move along? Unload the double-barreled dirt clods on their butts. Rocks will do in a pinch, but they just sort of plunk and drop, without that satisfactory poof! of dust that makes a direct dirt clod hit so satisfying and effective.

Like all training devices, dirt clods require practice, and should be implemented with care. One year at the Glendive college rodeo, the boys from Western Montana College were having a problem with their bulldogging horse. Just as they started to slide from the saddle and grab the steer by the horns, the horse would duck off to the left and drop them on their head. So after the rodeo, they ran a few practice steers to address the issue.

Rooster picked a spot out in the middle of arena, selected a couple of prime dirt clods, and said, “Go ahead. Run a steer and jump him right here in front of me. I’ll nail the horse in the shoulder with one of these clods when he tries to duck out.”

His teammate’s eyes got big. “But you might hit me instead.”

“Not if you get your butt out of the saddle and down on the steer.”

(This is probably where I should put the Don’t Try This At Home disclaimer, right?)

As it turned out, the dirt clod approach did not prove to be effective in this particular case. Mostly because the steer wrestler kept bailing off before they got within range of Rooster’s throwing arm, whether the steer was in a position to jump onto or not. I would like to say I wouldn’t have been dumb enough to get on that horse in the first place. I would be lying.

The horse in question wasn’t ours; we’d taken him in to train. They called him Bear. He was prone to sulling up and refusing to move. One afternoon, my mom and my sister were up at the indoor arena with Bear and another horse or two. I was enjoying the fact that there was no one around to notice I was stretched out on the couch in the middle of the day until the phone rang.

“We can’t get Bear to move,” my mother said.

“Uh-huh,” I said, unsure why this was my problem.

“If we smack him on the butt, he kicks up,” she said.


“You’re brave,” she said. “We need you to come up here and get on him.”


She hung up on me.

I gave my couch one last, longing look and went up to the arena. “What exactly is it you want me to do?”

“You ride him. I’ll smack him on the butt when he stalls,” my sister said.

Hmm. That didn’t sound so bad. It wasn’t like he was serious about bucking. I climbed on. Eased him into a trot. He made it half a circle before locking up all four and stopping dead. My sister sidled up and swatted him. He snorted, bucked, and kicked straight in the air with both hind feet.

Luckily, my sister is not very tall. Especially when she’s flat on her belly in the dirt. He kicked right over her head. She crawled to her feet, dusted herself off and stepped back. Way back. Then she said, “Okay, new plan. How ‘bout I just hit him with this dirt clod instead?”

If there’s ever a time you hope your sister throws like a girl, this would be it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Open Range


The first of November signals the countdown to the holiday season for most people. The beginning of cool weather and windblown leaves and big gatherings during which we attempt to eat plates full of food the size of our heads, which has an adverse affect on the size of our butts and the fit of our jeans. Ah, tradition. Gotta love it.

For most ranchers in our area, late October and early November are weaning and shipping time, otherwise known as Pay Day for your year's hard work.

Steers and cull heifers are trucked off to feedlots. Replacement heifers are weaned and put somewhere they can't crawl out of and head straight back to Mom. In our case, they're penned up next to the indoor arena and fed buckets of oats by hand, which makes them a whole lot easier to handle once they become mothers themselves.

Weaning is also the time the cows are kicked out on fall pasture, including the previously harvested grain fields, where they clean up anything the combines left behind. Many of these fields flank the highways and gravel roads. 

Driver beware. This is an open range area, meaning if you hit a cow, you're at fault. If a farmer doesn't want cows in his crop, he has to fence them out. Ranchers have no legal obligation to fence their cows in, though most do because we like to know where to find them and are less likely to end up in fisticuffs with the neighbor because our herd is camped out around the water hole he spent a few thousand dollars excavating so his cows would have a place to drink.

I commute fifty five miles to work every morning, and fifty five miles home every night. Several sections of this road are populated by cows. Mostly black cows. And within another week or so, I will mostly be driving in the dark. It can be downright thrilling at times.

Since the subject is on my mind and I missed doing a Wednesday Back Up, today seemed like a good day to wander back almost a year, when we discussed How NOT to Catch a Cow.

Here's hoping all the ranchers out there have a little something left over from their calf check after all the bills are paid, and plenty of hay laid up for the winter. And that good old Mother Nature holds off on the snow for a while, so we don't have to start feeding it to those cows just yet. 


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Of Kings and Clowns and Kevlar


As some of you may recall, a couple of weeks ago I had a little contest, in which the winner was awarded her very own souvenir Bullrider Koozie Vest from the Pendleton Round Up. The beverage coolers are designed to look just like the protective vests worn by cowboys in the roughstock events of rodeo--bullriding, saddle bronc riding and bareback riding. There is a very touching and sad story behind the development of these Kevlar vests, but it turns out I'm not in the mood for that kind of thing today, so we're going to talk about beer vests instead.

I moved to Pendleton in 1997, which happened to coincide with the height of the career of a cowboy by the name of Ty Murray. The King of Cowboys, as he was known then. And still is, although Trevor Brazile will break his record of seven World Champion All Around Cowboy titles this year. Some people will tell you Ty did it the hard way, competing in the three roughstock events, versus the three roping events Trevor enters. Go ahead and jump into that debate. I'll stand back and watch the fur fly as the roughstock aficionados and the timed event fans go at each other on the subject of what makes a 'real' cowboy.

Because of course, being a roper and all, I have no opinion on the fact that those wimpy roughies get re-rides when they draw a piece of crap animal to compete on, while us timies take our lumps and head on down the road.

Anyway, back when I blundered into my first Round Up as part of the sports medicine crew, Ty Murray was as much of a pop star as his future wife Jewel, who he had yet to hook up with. Being single and famous, Ty attracted a lot of attention from the female segment of the population. Especially the inebriated segment. And since there is no area behind the bucking chutes for the cowboys to lurk, they end up hanging out on these benches behind the North Grandstand, right out in the main flow of traffic between the beer stand and the restrooms. Handy, no?

There was no way Ty could warm up there. He was swarmed by fans every time he showed his face. It was like the rodeo version of the Beatles. He had no choice but to hide out in the Justin Sportsmedicine trailer parked right across the road.

Which is how my job description suddenly went from athletic trainer to bouncer. When Ty was in the trailer, someone had to man the door at all times to keep people from barging in and asking for an autograph while he was kicked back on a treatment table in his underwear icing his knee (actually happened, by the way). And that's why I ended up spending quite a bit of time in his company, and if you spend any time at all around Ty, you will hear some really good stories.

Two of his best mates at the time were Adam and Gilbert Carrillo, identical twin bullriders who stood about five feet tall, with round, baby faces and non-stop grins. I felt like a gorilla next to them. When Gilbert propped his feet up on the table, Ty asked him if his mommy still had his little booties bronzed when he grew out of them.

The three of them had recently been at another rodeo somewhere and gone down to the bar afterward to blow off some steam. As the evening wore on and everyone got good and loosened up, Gilbert got into a scuffle. His friends were smart enough to haul him away before he got creamed because the guy was, of course, much larger than Gilbert. Pretty much everybody is.

Meanwhile, Adam was behaving himself elsewhere in the bar. Unaware that his brother had been antagonizing  the locals, he wandered into the restroom, where some guy he'd never seen before took one look at him, called him a not-very-nice name, and knocked him on his butt.

The next day, Ty found a shop that produced custom-made lapel pins. He chose a pair that were about four inches in diameter, bright yellow, and had them printed to his specifications. One said, Hi, I'm Gilbert. And the other? It said, Hi, I'm NOT Gilbert. 

Next time you're wondering what kind of a warped person would ride bulls for a living...well, now you know. As it turns out, it's also the kind of person who designs a protective vest for his beer bottle:

The Bullrider Koozie Vest by Adam Carrillo

Ty Murray's Home Page