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The Cowboy Brand

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

There’s a small bottle of hand sanitizer in Russell’s car with a white label on it, reading ‘Rugged Cross Cowboy Church, Magnolia, Arkansas.’ They were giving them out at last week’s service. Ask and thou shalt receive, I suppose. The Cowboy Church’s slogan is ‘Come as you are’, and people do. Apparently the pastor preaches wearing a button down shirt and blue jeans. He owns cows. Genuinely pastoral, for once.

The Wednesday evening service was cancelled, but the preacher thanked God for Facebook Live, and Russell and I watched from home. The preacher told us, “When you’re riding for the brand of Jesus, you’ve just got to rope. Repent, Obey, Pray, Evangelise.” He was good: upbeat and down to earth. I enjoyed it.

After Cowboy Church we watched the Cowboy Channel on TV, where Cowboy Kitchen followed another re-run of the National Rodeo Finals. The adverts are for trucks, saddles, whisky, and jeans. They’ve all got horses in them, and dust. Plenty of atmospheric dust. They hark back to a time when horses were all there was, when cowboys had cows. Then the National Finals come back on and a cowboy in a pink shirt scores an 84.5 on a bucking horse called Garden City Gal. The 17,000 spectators cheer, all in cowboy hats. We cheer too; she’s our horse. Russell and I are horse people, but our colleague Joe is a self-identifying Not Horse Person, and when I asked Earl if he’d ever ridden in a rodeo, he looked appalled and said, “No no no, I just watch’em. Hell, I haven’t been on a horse in thirty years.”

Watching rodeos takes practice, I’ve found. A week of it has trained my eye to get past the insanity of the sport, and begin to enjoy the art. I’m learning to spot a good bucking horse, good timing, a stylish ride, and a foul. Slowly but surely, I’m getting familiar with the top cowboys’ names. Ryder Wright is a personal favourite. He’s my age, but was only 18 when he placed fourth in the world; 19 when he was crowned world champion. I turned off the telly and went outside to practice roping by the light of the windows.

The morning was bright and brisk, flooded with purple as the wisteria comes into flower, growing up the skeletal trees like ivy. Our fields are turning purple too. It’s my job to quadbike around in the mud, keeping thistles at bay with a chemical spray hose, and trying not to get stuck. The horses will, of course, know a thistle by its shape, but the springtime pasture will be a wash of grey in their eyes. They can’t see red or green. The back pasture is flooded yellow with buttercups and flowers like tall yellow daisies turned inside out. I asked Russell what the flower was called. “I don’t know,” he said, “But I know you can’t do anything with it. Horses won’t eat it. Neither will cows.” It’s a shame to kill the flowers but I expect the horses don’t mind much about the aesthetic, even if they can see yellow. Sometimes I wonder, though.

Today, we released some of the colts into a new landscape altogether. When we opened the trailer door in Louisiana, they were apprehensive but curious about the new shapes and smells and space. The colts need fattening up and a friend of ours has some long grass that needs eating, so this morning we used a truck of feed to lure the colts out of their paddock and into a pen, then herded them into a chute and into the trailer, five at a time, until all 15 were in. I’ve never seen so many horses loaded at once, let alone horses that aren’t halter broken. They clattered about a little while they got themselves organised, but then stood calmly for the whole journey. The trailer’s partitioned into thirds so that if there is a problem, it stays relatively contained. In England, people used to do a double take at our four-horse trailer. Hi Lo’s biggest truck takes 35. It’s bigger than my house.

On the way to Louisiana, guitars twanged through the truck radio, with pop stars singing ‘hey cowgirl, with your hat down low’ and ‘ain’t the world just one big country song’, and I realised the difference between America and South America. Gauchos sing about cows; cowboys sing about cowboys.

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