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Life on a Ranch

Over the years, a variety of sounds have woken me up at night: coyotes howling, dogs barking, elk bugling, bulls bellering, horses squealing, cows trotting (past our window on their way out the driveway), mice scampering, owls screeching, and as of late, calves bawling.  We weaned and worked the rest of our calves this weekend and now they’re in the corral, within earshot of the house.  While the noise might occasionally wake me up, the calves actually don’t keep me awake at night- the low, steady bawl isn’t too bad.  On the other hand, the coyotes with their high pitched and sporadic howls, do keep me awake!

Back to weaning- we got a fairly early start on Saturday morning.  It was a cold, crisp, gorgeous October morning.  The sky was blue, the sun was out, and the air was still.  It was nothing short of a perfect fall day.  I haven’t ridden in a few weeks, so it felt especially good to be horseback.  I chose to ride my trusty gelding, Bert.  Bert is always up for anything and has a willing attitude.  In his younger days, he used to have a little too much energy- in fact, it was just enough to get a little annoying.  But as he’s aged, he’s gotten better and better.  He’ll chase down a runaway cow, gladly slow down to turn her back, then walk his way back to the rest of the herd.  He likes to sort and he moves soft off my legs, staying calm and patient.  And while he’s not my favorite to rope off in the branding pen, he is really fun to pasture rope on.  Bert is great in all of those ways and he’s never lost his quirkiness.  If he has to stand for too long, he likes to reach back and nip at my boot in the stirrup, or he’ll lift his front leg up like he’s going to paw, but sets it back down gently- his little way of letting me know he’s kind of bored.  And every single time I take his bridle off, he reaches down and dramatically scratches his right front leg with his head.  I stand and wait for him to finish scratching and then I put his halter on- it’s just what we do.   

I like Bert’s quirkiness and, while some of his habits would probably irritate a better cowgirl than me, I find him endearing. The thing I love about him, and the thing Lucy (who also rides him) has grown to love about him, is his kindness.  Even with all of his energy, and his ability to literally go all day and then some, he’s never felt out of control or made me nervous- he’s just glad to be a part and have a job to do. And the fact is, for me, having a horse to enjoy is a pretty important part of any ranch job.   There’s a Trinity Seely song called “Middle of it All” about horses being in the middle of a ranch-life marriage.  I've related to that song ever since I heard the very first line: “She’d never had an eye for things that glittered, for silver or gold”. You likely don’t know this, but I don’t like jewelry.  I never really have.  I do like a good horse though: “She would trade away forever to take a ride on a blue colored colt”.  While I’ve never had a blue colored colt, I’ve always loved horses, even when I was a kid and I had to overcome a lot of fear to enjoy them.  

That’s just the beginning of the song.  The rest of the song took time for me to relate to, but after 19 years married and as of yesterday, 20 years together, it’s fair to say we relate to the whole song.  The next line says, “He always said that he would marry a girl who shared his love of a life, hoping she would someday carry the load of a cowboy’s wife.”  That’s true.  Buck wanted to marry someone who loved ranch life and could carry the load of a cowboy’s wife.  When we met, we immediately connected over our desire to ranch.  We spent our first dates riding and talking about the future.  We were full of hope and eager anticipation to jump into agriculture.  In our early years of marriage, Buck worked on ranches.  I went to school, then started work as a nurse, and not too long after that became a mom, helping with cows when I could.  Not having grown up on a ranch, I began what would become the lifelong process of learning.  I remember the first time I heard the word “cull cow”.  We were working on a budget with Buck’s uncle Todd.  I was writing down categories and numbers and had to ask how to spell “cull”, thinking maybe it was “coal”, and then, I had to ask what it meant.  They were patient with me, and I know I wasn’t always easy.  I already knew how to ride, but I didn’t know ranching; I didn’t always want help, but also really needed it.  Buck tried to figure out how to dance around that tension and we jumped into another lifelong process of learning to work together.  A couple of years ago, a bystander at a branding told us how much she enjoyed watching us work together, “You’re quite a team roping out there together”.  For a moment, I felt for sure that we had arrived.  As it turns out, we still had room to grow and always will.       The rest of the song touches on the hardest parts of ranch life: “Once a thing of beauty and of pleasure, now a horse is just a tool to get it done. The things this ranch life requires take away the freedom and the fun.”  Over the last 20 years, we’ve tried hard to build something of our own and we’ve had to adjust our plans along the way.   At times, we’ve burned-out our kids with the intensity of it all.  The truth of that line stings a little because we've experienced all of those things: when the horses are a tool, feeling strapped down and not having much fun.  There’s truth in the next line too, “It’s not an easy road to take, to keep the promises you make, when your back’s against the wall.”  Going into a life in agriculture seemed so romantic and exciting.  But the truth is, the uncertainty is incredibly hard.  While we haven’t struggled to keep the promises we made to each other, I know we’ve let other people, and even ourselves, down.  We haven’t always lived up to what we thought we could do, what we planned to do, or what other people expected from us.  Buck, in particular, has felt the weight of having our backs against the wall- when the risk feels higher than the possible reward, and buying or selling a commodity, our livelihood, feels strangely similar to gambling.  And I've felt the weight of letting other people down. Our extended families have also felt the burden… they haven’t seen us as much as they’d like and I know it often seems like we choose cows or hay over them.   

“Spend our whole lives trying hard, learning how to ride while we should be learning how to fall, and the horse is in the middle of it all.”  I don’t know if anyone ever wants to learn how to fall, but I think it’s probably an inevitable part of life and learning.  When we gathered pairs yesterday and sorted cows from calves, I reached down to give Bert a pat on the neck after a couple of good cuts. Yesterday, he wasn’t a tool- he was a gift, my partner, my friend. I was reminded of how thankful I am... regardless of the challenges (and also victories) we face in agriculture, the horse continues to stay in the middle of it all, right out here in Union County. -Chelsea 


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