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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Em for Magnificent

For all intents and purposes, I've had two rope horses since I started taking my roping seriously. The first was fourteen hands (small, for you non-horsey types), a strawberry roan named Scotty who I got from a family friend in exchange for two old roping calves, the equivalent of $500. The bargain price was due in no small part to her tendency to buck, pull back and be nearly impossible to catch. Five years into hauling her it still took three people to get her into a horse trailer. But hot damn, she could rope. She was my number one mount from just after I graduated from college, through the first ten years of my marriage. She carried me to my first association championship and trophy saddle.

At twenty-two she finally slowed down a gear. We had young horses ready to go, so I passed Scotty on to friends in South Dakota. She carried their daughter all the way through high school rodeo, then they passed her on to friends with a younger kid. As of last fall she was thirty-five and still making their lives miserable.

Enter Ember. She is the exact same size, shape and general temperament except for the bucking, and not by coincidence. Her mother was Scotty's sister. I wouldn't say the transition was seamless, but within three years after the switch I had returned to the competitive level I'd achieved on Scotty. Then we exceeded it. I can say without reservation that the best winning streak of my entire rodeo career was thanks in a whole big heap to Ember. Em is for magnificent. Magic. Roping on her is so easy you wonder how you could ever miss.

Unfortunately, the one trait she didn't inherit from her mother's side of the family was invincibility. Ember is thin-soled and front end heavy which tends to make her get sore-footed easily. Plus early in her career she stumbled in bad ground at a rodeo in Kamiah, Idaho and tweaked something up in her left hip that took her out for the rest of that season and has been a problem off and on since.

A minor problem for her--just a slight short-stride in that hind leg--a huge problem for me. Because she and Scotty are so much alike, I essentially roped on the same horse for twenty years. Switching to a really different horse was not easy, especially when anything else you climb on is taller, longer strided, with more head and neck between you and the calf. Luckily Ember's stints on injured reserve were short--until we moved back to Montana.

Six months after we arrived she came up lame, and this time she didn't shake it off. I started playing rope horse hopscotch. Sweetgrass, Nico, Julie, Vegas. All of them perfectly good horses. None of them Ember.

A year and a half later, in early spring, Ember came sound. I was over the moon. I bought my association card, started mapping out my schedule. Our first rodeo run she gave me a throw so fast and easy I sailed it over the calf's head like a frisbee in my excitement. No worries. Plenty of rodeos to go.

Then the first week in June I came home from work and my husband met me in the yard with the grim kind of face that makes your stomach turn inside out.

"One of the other mares kicked Ember. It looks pretty bad."

It was. Her leg was swollen the size of a fence post from her hock all the way to her hoof. The same rear leg that had always given her trouble. Though we didn't have x-rays taken I'm fairly sure there was a fracture because six months later her ankle was still swollen, with a big lump on the outside. But the day she got hurt? That day I knew she was done for at least another year. Maybe forever. That day I took off walking across the open prairie. I walked for miles and I cried for most of them, mourning my lost season. Ember's pain. All the lost seasons ahead. I was convinced I'd never rope on her again. I'd lost my magic.

For two years it looked like I was right. Her ankle stayed swollen, her stride stayed jerky. We gave up hoping she'd get back to the arena and tried breeding her, but she didn't carry the colt to term. It looked like Ember would be living out her days just hanging in the pasture. In the meantime, my roping had gone down the tubes. I went an entire summer without placing in a rodeo. Tossed my ropes in a corner and quit after the second weekend in July.

The next summer was slightly better. I settled on Julie and we made a couple of decent runs. Then over the winter I got back on Vegas and we started to click. Placed at the first Senior Pro rodeo of the year, and again at a the third. I got a little of my mojo back.

Then this spring Ember made the mistake of letting me see her run.

Well, now. That hitch in her stride? Still there, but a lot less noticeable and given the fact she was going hell bent for leather and showing no sign of pain, obviously not a big problem for her.

Thus began the Return of Ember. We started slow, just leading her for exercise, then easy riding, then after two weeks I tried roping. The very first calf we ran she worked like she'd never had a day off, and I roped like I'd never been on another horse. The magic was back.

We made our competitive comeback at the end of June. First two runs we roped in 2.6 seconds. (With two broken barriers but let's not get picky. Besides, we still got a check on the second one.) By the fifth rodeo we were close to our old form. In a four rodeo stretch after that we got two firsts and a third, and would have had another win if not for that damn barrier. This is one of those runs, at Nanton, Alberta:

So what have we learned from all this? Not much, to be honest. I knew exactly how blessed I was when Ember was at her best, and I knew it would be pure hell when I was forced to change horses. Now she's nineteen years old, a huge chunk of her prime lost to injuries, but there's no sense shedding any more tears. I'm just going to treasure every calf we rope with the full knowledge that she's only got a limited number of runs left in her aging legs. I keep Vegas on reserve, tuned and ready, and ride him at rodeos where I feel the conditions don't suit Em. I'm going to pamper her as much as she'll let me, spoil her as much as she wants.

We're going to stretch that magic as far as it will go.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And So It Begins

As of today, we are officially harvesting!

Here's a close up of what they're cutting. That's barley. Malting barley, to be specific. Which means, yes, what you're looking at is beer on the hoof. 


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Prairie Thunder

I confess, I've been too busy taking full advantage of every second of our gorgeous summer days to write anything decent to post here. For now, you'll have to make do with more video. I apologize in advance for the unsteady camera, videoing from the back of a horse is dicey at the best of times, and doesn't get easier when a whole herd of her buddies comes thundering up in her face.

Nice sound effects, too!

Friday, August 17, 2012

We Interrupt this Daily Commute....

...because sometimes you've just gotta stop and watch the moose.

This was taken alongside the highway, just a mile north of the Milk River. We get a few moose wandering down out of the mountains every summer, but they're usually young males who've been chased out by the older, meaner dudes. This is the first time I've seen a cow and calf. 

Notice those buildings in the background? That's an abandoned Army radar base out here in the middle of nowhere, left over from World War II. A fascinating story for another time. 


Wednesday, August 08, 2012


In my lifetime I would estimate I've taken at least a hundred thousand pictures of this area, and none of them really does it justice. Still photography has a way of flattening out the landscape, so you can't really grasp the scope or scale of mountains, ridges and coulees. I decided to try a video panorama instead.

I took the video from my driveway, at the top of the ridge above our house. It starts out looking straight south then pans to the west, and ends looking straight north. At the very end, the far edge of the lighter colored grain crop is the Canadian border. That big ridge in the distance is in Alberta.

Now all I need is a better tripod so I can pan a little more smoothly!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

As is usually the case in summer, life has been hectic lately. Between rodeos and visiting family and swimming lessons and oh, yeah, work, things fall through the cracks. Like laundry. And dinner. People tell me to make a list. I've never had much luck with that, but I figured I should give it another shot so Wednesday I jotted down a few things I absolutely had to get done after work. Number one was roping practice, which wouldn't take long because I only needed to run a few to tune up my horse.

When I got home at six o'clock I started right in on my list. No dawdling allowed if I was going to be a better, more efficient me. I headed for the barn, then remembered it had rained over the weekend. I zipped the quarter mile out to check the arena instead. Ugh. Caked and hard and in need of working before I could rope. Back to the yard, then another quarter mile up and around to the indoor arena. I grunted and heaved the big front door open wide enough for the tractor, which actually started for a change even if it was on the third try.

Chug, chug, chug…down and around and back to the outdoor arena, where I spent an hour putting around and around until the ground was sufficiently fluffy. Then chug, chug, chug back to the yard. I parked the tractor, called the dog and hiked over to chase the roping calves from their pen to the arena. Except the steers were in the way so first we had to round them up and lock them in the feedlot, where they promptly trotted out the open bottom gate and disappeared over the hill.

Note to self: Add 'gather the roping steers' to Saturday's list.

When I was done swearing, the dog and I sorted off the bum calf that doesn't get roped and locked him in his separate pen, then chased the rest over to the arena. Then I swung past the house to roust my nephew for chute help and toss a peanut butter sandwich in the general direction of my son. Then back to the barn, where my husband's horse had to be captured so he didn't try to attack the others as they passed through the corral, and my mare needed water before I could take her in the barn to administer her arthritis medicine which of course I'd forgotten down at the house, requiring another quarter mile jog.

The geldings were nowhere to be seen. I grabbed a bucket of grain and trudged half a mile to wrangle them from the far east end of their pasture, and half a mile back with two horses trying to rip the bucket out of my hand. Saddled and bridled, I set off for a trot around the hayfield, riding one horse and leading the other so I could both warm up and exercise at the same time. Efficiency counts, you know. Two hours after I started getting ready, I finally roped. Seven calves. Approximately five minutes of practice.

See, I knew it wouldn't take long.

Then I turned around and began putting everything back where it came from. At forty-three minutes after nine I staggered into my house and scratched off the first item on my agenda. I flopped down on the couch, list in hand, and tried to figure where I’d gone wrong.

I’m still at a loss. I guess some people just aren't genetically pre-disposed to being organized because no matter how hard I try, I never seem to get past number one. 

My well-groomed arena

Addendum: For those of you who've stumbled through here more than once, a follow-up to my previous post on Fender Benders. Two weeks later, a credit to the healing power of horse flesh and Vetericyn.