Hello from the Wild West
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
If you're interested in hearing what I’ve been up to out here in the States, then have a read. This was written about my time in Oregon in May. I am now in Colorado.
I am in central Oregon, in the high desert, on a 40,000-acre ranch. I’m staying with a man named Jim, he’s an equine vet, incredibly bright, trained in Glasgow and lived in the UK for over 10 years. His father was a heart surgeon – one of the best, and played polo, handicapped at 9 so pretty damn good at that too. Jim took over the ranch 27 years ago. His father gave him the option of coming home (from the UK) to run it or he’d sell up. He’s been here ever since.
There are two men who work for Jim; Brain and Don, the three of them are a similar age. Brain is half (Native American) Indian and apparently an amazing horseman. He used to groom for Jims father. He does not stop talking. He’s a bit of a smart arse, a little too handsy and shares too much personal info about Jim, yet he's incredibly loyal and would lay down his life for Jim. Don, on the other hand, hardly says a word. He doesn’t ride but he does everything else. We had our first conversation a week in to me being here and he’s slowly starting to talk more. He’s not shy just quiet and a kind soul.
Jim is an incredibly knowledgeable horseman. Yet his horses are all pretty feral. He’s gone from producing $100,000 polo ponies to his current horses that shy when I raise my hand to stroke them. He used to breed them, train them, and sell them, sometimes they would come back to him to be retired or bred from, a couple of the old horses here have played top-level polo.
The horses are nearly all thoroughbreds, a couple of warmbloods and draft crosses. No quarter horses, sadly. As you can imagine they are pretty hot. They’re small, about 15hh to 16hh. I’ll admit I’m struggling slightly with riding at the end of the buckle. They’re not trained to neck rein, yet they don’t understand a contact. It’s all pretty new and it’s been left to me to figure out, I’ve not had much guidance.
The horses routine goes something like this. Get ridden hard for six weeks, then turned out to run wild for anywhere between a few months and a couple of years. Then brought back into work and the cycle repeats itself. No one really spends time with the horses unless someone like me comes along. Jim says I spoil them. I like to think it’s more looking after them. My spoiling consists of grooming them, being patient when trying to catch them (they are buggers to catch) and, well, that’s really it.
The horses, what Jim says, are green broke 10 year olds. I think the youngest on the ranch is 11 or 12, the oldest being 29. I have taken on a project. She had a nasty accident as a three year old, her leg went through a drain of some sort and when she pulled it out she took all the skin off it like a glove. She spent weeks in the vet and because of that is pretty scared of people. Jim sent her to someone to be backed and she was good and has been ridden but not for the past few of years. I’ve been working with her for a few days now. Before I started Jim said “Go catch the bay without any shoes on”. I walked to the paddock, five horses, two paints, three bays, two without shoes, I guessed right - luckily. She’s a nightmare to catch. Not a fan of being groomed, has pulled herself loose twice now. I joined-up with her once and we had a great follow-up. I’m gradually de-sensitizing her; yesterday she let me put a plastic bag, on the end of a schooling whip, against her face and alongside the top line of her neck but only on her left side. However, she had a slight melt down when I went to put the saddle pad on her back. Jim wants her to be stood in the round pen with a saddle on for an hour or three each day. No food, no water, no shade and it is hot here. She’s an interesting project. Another that Jim would like me to bring on is apparently lovely to ride but getting on is the problem, as soon as you put your foot in the stirrup she blows up. She also hasn’t been touched for a few years. That’ll be fun…
Day one in the saddle was to see if I could ride. Brian took me out and later called Jim to say that I can in fact ride. We had to cross a small ditch and he thought that would be the testing moment to see if I would stay on or not. We then headed up to move some cows and I was trusted to move my own four pair. It was pretty cool. I’ve now helped move up to 100 pair. We’ll be in the saddle for four or five hours moving them from A to B, this is when I realised pushing cows is a lot harder then it looks and just how stupid cows really are. We moved this lot in for worming the cows, and branding and castrating the calves.
Jim has a couple in their 30s, Destry and Amber, come and help – now they’re real cowboys. Destry came up the day before branding day to help push cows, he has a quarter horse and it is magical watching the two of them work cattle. I’ve not seen a partnership like it before. The horse really knows what he’s doing. We had to cut the calves from the cows into separate holding pens. I stood at the gate blocking the cows from getting back in with the calves while Jim and Destry took it in turns to cut them and drive them through to where I was. Destry’s horse looked as if he was dancing as the cows tried to dodge and weave past him. I want to learn that. Although I’m pretty sure if I were to ride Destry’s horse, I’d only be a passenger as he does the job he knows so well.
I met Amber and a few others on my first branding day. I have a serious girl crush on her. She ropes better then the men and she’s tough as hell, throwing herself in to wrestle the calves and she’s not much bigger than me. She has been doing this her whole life and it’s really what her and Destry live for. I totally see why!
Branding day was awesome and an experience I’ll never forget. It was an early start and we finished all 119 calves by 2pm. Six people took it in turns to rope, others helped wrestle them to the ground if they weren’t down already, then Jim (being the vet) castrated, Brain branded, Don cut their ears, and I gave injections and counted them all. It’s all about teamwork here. On the second or third calf Jim called me over and said take this, and handed me a pair of bullocks, I’m pretty sure he was testing me to see if I’m squeamish. I got to get involved in the wrestling, it is hard work bring down a calf, and these babies are bigger then normal as they’d usually get branded at around six to eight weeks not three and a bit months (they had a tough long winter so things have been delayed slightly). Once they’re down you’ve got to take the rope off their neck and move it to their two front legs, at the same time someone is rearranging the rope on their hind legs, if the rope has only gone round one leg. You’ve got to be careful how you sit on them because they can easily kick you in the face if you get too close. Mum is sometimes close by so you have to watch out for her as well; she’ll take you out in an instant if she decides to.
We have another branding on Tuesday and I’m so looking forward to it. I want to rope but I don’t know how, it’s a real talent and you can’t rope from Jim’s horses. I’ll get more involved in the wrestling now that I know what I’m doing, I did feel like I was getting in the way but they’re all patient and understand that I don’t have a clue with what I’m doing. I’ve told them that we don’t do anything like this in the UK and they keep asking me how we do our cows, simple answer, I don’t have the foggiest.
I’ve been over to the Mustang Sanctuary, Sky Dog (in case you want to have a Google), a couple of times; it backs onto Jim’s ranch. It’s 9,000 acres and they have around 80 horses. It’s more of a rescues center then a mustang sanctuary. There are some wild mustangs that have been rounded up by the BLM but most of the horses (donkeys, mules, zebra x pony, Shetland x donkey) have been rescued from auction and many have been riding horses. Most of the horses at auction get bought by slaughterhouses and shipped to Canada or Mexico.
The horses are split into heards and have anywhere between 500-1000 acres to roam around in. As a volunteer, I get to ‘pet’ the horses and shovel shit. By ‘pet’ I mean feed carrots and groom if the horse is friendly enough to groom. I’m not going to stick around and volunteer there for June.
Destry and Amber have said they’ll help me find work. They spend their winters in California and summers in Oregon and know lots of people with ranches in both places. They think they’ll able to find me a different ranch for each week of June or have friends who’re happy to have me for a couple of weeks. Amber says every State cowboys differently and I’ve got to see how the ‘real’ cowboys do it.
I’m slowly gathering a heard of horses to bring home with me… One of the men at the branding offered me his horse for $1000, I said yes as long as he pays for its travelling back to the UK. He didn’t say no to the idea…
Jim says if I find a cowboy to marry then I can run the ranch. Do you know any men who want a life change?? I currently like the idea of summers in Oregon playing cowboys and winters in Wales hunting.
I’ve told some of them tails of hunting, they think I’m mad, especially because I jump. They don’t jump over here. A couple of them have said that they’d like to try it as long as they don’t have to jump anything.
Internet is extremely limited here. Jim told me I can only get it in town (the nearest being an hour and a half away). His wife came to stay a couple of days ago and told me that there is wifi here but it is limited. So limited in fact that I’ve written this twice because the first email delete when the internet cut out. I’m sorry I’m not replying to individual messages, I don’t want to use up all their internet. Here’s to hoping you receive this…