Updated: Apr 30, 2020
The brood mares of Hi Lo Pro Rodeo still haven’t had their foals. For once, I’m happy about it. Today was my first day away from the ranch, and I would’ve been sick as a dog if I’d missed those foals by a day. My stolen time in Arkansas was blissful, but I knew it couldn’t last. How can I make the most of my numbered days, whilst practicing responsible social distancing? Well, fortune smiled on me in the most unlikely place: the vet in Amarillo. Hi Lo wanted to breed some mares to a special stud in Amarillo, a clone of a famous bucking horse called Bobby Joe Skoal, and my new host was doing a trip there too. So, I hummed Tony Christie and George Strait all the way to Amarillo by morning, then swapped cars, hosts, and lives in the car park, and set off for Colorado.
We stopped off at Oliver's Saddle Shop on the way home. Grandpa Oliver was tooling some leather in the back, whilst his son, Richard, worked on assembling some fenders, and Cody was stitching a saddle’s seat. The workshop is bright and spacious. A few half-made saddles stand on wooden horses around the place, looking naked with the leather un-stained and un-tooled. The walls are covered with stirrups and straps waiting to be attached, and tools waiting to attach them with. As stitching seemed to be the most repetitive task, I went to Cody with my thousand burning questions.
Each saddle is made by one man from start to finish. The guys say they’d be able to name everyone’s handiwork in a line-up, mainly by the tooling. Grandpa Oliver was working on a long strap with a floral pattern. Patrick’s half-made saddle had a basket weave. I asked Cody what kind of tooling he liked to do. “As little as possible.” I showed them the belt I’d made, and Grandpa Oliver smiled with his kind blue eyes and said, “Oh an oak leaf design. Nice.” I blushed with joy that he could even make out my attempt. “That’s not so common up here. ‘Cause, you know, there aren’t any oak trees.”
I’d been warned about the tree situation, but, I didn’t appreciate how striking it would be. On the 14 hour drive from Arkansas to Colorado, the earth became flatter with every passing mile, the grass turned from green to grey, and the trees disappeared altogether. We arrived at the ranch in the pitch darkness last night, and today I opened the door to a vast and uninterrupted yellow; yellow as far as the eye can see in every direction. The horizon is as far away as I’ve ever known it, which makes for a sky that feels at once huge and near. The clouds look as if they’re sweeping along just above the cows in the next pasture. Vertical space shrinks to a vanishing point far, far away, dwarfed by the vast wideness of the panorama.
It’s 7 am, Gary’s driving the pickup while I gawp out of the windscreen from the middle seat. Chewing on a toothpick, he reaches over me to get some hand lotion from the passenger door.
“We’re sissies here,” he laughs.
He’s got a bushy grey moustache and eyes that are blue, but not the striking electric blue of his sister-in-law, Donna’s. Gary’s been at the ranch for 11 years, but Donna’s only been here for six months. She’s the first person I’ve met in a long time that doesn’t struggle with my accent. Like her sister (Gary’s wife), Donna grew up in the Colorado countryside, but then she flew the nest to work in oil and gas all over Europe, America, China and Africa. She points out a small group of red cows, standing out from the hundreds of black ones. “Aren’t they pretty?”
Eventually the truck stops, Donna puts on gloves and tight-fitting sunglasses, then we both clamber onto the bed of the pickup. It’s difficult because the bed is full of loose pellets of cattle feed, aka ‘cake’. Ten cows already have their heads over the edge, their broad tongues occasionally stretching out for a particularly nice-looking pellet. You have to work your boots down to bury your feet in the pellets, and, if you don’t get your feet all the way down to the truck-bed, you’re in trouble. The perfectly round, hard pellets makes for excellent roller skates. The truck sets off at a slow rumble over the bumpy pasture, and Donna and I get to shovelling. We shovelled 2.5 tonnes of ‘cake’ today. We take it in turns and, as I haven’t got good shovel arms or sea legs yet, I’m quite glad there’s only one shovel.
Wading through cattle feed, my eyes overcome with yellow and blue, I had time and space to muse on scale. In each place I’ve worked throughout this project, the scale seems to get a little bigger. At my first stableyard, in Spain, 42 horses seemed like a lot. At the Polo farm, 100 horses. In Arkansas, 100 horses, but these bucking horses were big, and wild. And they ate. Boy did they eat. Half a tonne of feed a day seemed like a lot, and it was a lot for so few animals. Now it’s 1100 cows, plus calves, and I can’t get my head around the numbers anymore. Luckily, I don’t have to. Donna has a chart on her phone and Gary seems to have one in his head, and they mumble things like “I haven’t seen the frontman bulls in a while” and “Is that 1432?” to each other while they crane out of the windows. Sometimes, if there’s not much cake to put out, Gary jumps out of the moving car to go and deal with the cows, leaving me to hold the steering wheel while the truck bumps along in cruise control.
We get to a tin water trough surrounded by bare cottonwood trees. There’s one of those old windmills standing over it on a tall metal pylon. Gary spots a sick calf lying on the ground, its ears are a little droopy and its eyes have lost their brightness. It stands up when it sees us coming. Gary leans over the backseat to grab his rope, then tosses the loop gently around its neck, and moves in to pin it down while Donna draws 15ccs of yellow medicine into a syringe. Then she draws Gary’s brand onto a white ear-tag with a marker pen and loads it into a handheld device like a hole punch. One swift kerplunk and the calf is tagged.
Soon this calf will be branded on its flank, but, for now, it’s important to distinguish Gary’s calves from the ones owned by the ranch. Back in the truck, the low morning sun catches the dust on the dashboard, turning it furry yellow. Still chewing on a toothpick, Gary draws the three brands, side by side, in the dust. An inverted, reverse J in a half box for Gary, a sideways L and S for Donna, and what looks like a martini glass for Rush Creek. By the end of the working day, the marks on the dashboard have all but disappeared in the cake dust and the wind.
Back at the yard, it’s time to give Tuff his lunch. Donna and I mix up a bottle, and the tiny black calf comes lolloping over to us at the gate of the corral. He eyes me sceptically at first, but judges that I’m alright because I’m holding the bottle. He puts up his little chin and begins to drink, laying back his ears in concentration. Donna and Gary found him lying on his own in the pasture a week ago, when he was only a day old. Tuff isn’t an orphan, but his mother shucked him in favour of his twin. I didn’t know cows could have twins. Normally cows will keep the male twin and shuck the female, but not for poor little Tuff. Donna talks to him and runs her hands along his back in long strokes while he drinks.
“It’s just so sad, the poor little guy must be so lonely. He doesn’t have a momma to lick him.”
Once he’s finished the bottle, Tuff’s purple tongue licks the froth off his nose. He pushes his head into my arm and wiggles his ears, sniffing all around for another bottle. I tickle his neck and tell him I’ll be back soon with his supper.
This evening, as we rode through the cows, I exhaled deeply into the paling sky. I know I’m going to be happy here. We let the horses take water with the cows while the sun set behind the wild Kansas sunflowers, lighting up their dry petals in a flecked halo. It’s always nerve-wracking, moving to a new place, a new life, but I needn’t ever have worried about this. Donna, Gary, and Janette have hearts as golden as the pastures, and I feel immediately at home. My day’s work has certainly moved up a gear, so I’ll get stronger and tougher. I hope I’ll become a better horsewoman, too. Watching Gary ride tells me I’ve a long way to go before I can call myself a cowgirl, but tonight, before bed, Janette gave me a pair of her old jeans to keep. The family all agreed that I wore them well. The change has already started.
Previous chapter: Rodeo Stock Ranch, Arkansas
Next blog: A New Branding
*Support young writing by subscribing here or using the form below. It's free, and you'll get an email when (and only when) I publish new work.*
Facebook: Out of the Library, Into the Saddle