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  • Writer's pictureTara Vaughan

Hello from the Wild West, My Third and Final Chapter

I left you describing the time I was thrown into the deep end, holding a calf roped by its heels, dallied to my saddle, while Chris checked to see if its nut had dropped. A couple of days later I was invited to a wedding. One of Flo and Everett’s granddaughters got married. I was told that I could turn up in my work jeans, cowboy boots, shirt and cowboy hat. I could not allow myself to turn up to a wedding looking that scruffy, a dear friend, Kirsty, taught me standards so off I went to town and I bought a long skirt and a pretty top to wear, I finished it off with polished cowboy boots. I believed that I looked pretty casual, turns out I was one of the more smartly dressed people there. The ceremony was just under 20 minutes long. One of their friends got ordained so he could marry them. There was one reading, read by the mother of the groom, and no hymns. The theme was bright orange, I felt sorry for the bridesmaids – orange is a difficult colour to pull off! There were seven bridesmaids and groomsmen and they walked down the aisle in pairs. The church wasn’t full and it wasn’t a classic beautiful church that I’m use to from back home. It was modern and a funny shape.

There were no canapés at the reception and we had a hog roast but it wasn’t a hog roast, it was 18 shoulder joints roasted and shredded like a hog roast but no crackling, even without the crackling it was delicious. There was no table plan anyone could sit anywhere. The speeches were short and to the point. They did their first dance while everyone was still sat down, then there was the father daughter dance and finally a dance similar to the conga but in pairs. The bride threw her bouquet and then the groom sat her down before doing a ‘sexy’ dance so that he could remove her garter for the garter toss – that is something I have never seen before.

We left the wedding after dinner and I started the seven-hour drive north to Wyoming. The next day was Chris’s niece’s birthday and he wanted to be there, with his family.

I woke up and looked out of the window, we didn’t arrive until 2 o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t wait to see what this new land looked like. I could see a little lake from my bedroom window, green grass and rolling hills that turned into mountains, the view strangely reminded me of Scotland. It was a clear crisp day and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night we had to be up at 6am – that’s ranch life, no lay-ins. I walked downstairs and met Chris’s parents, his father, Charlie, had decided to take me on a tour. Fortunately, I had asked to borrow a jumper and a jacket, for when we reached the mountaintops we were surrounded by four inches of snow and visibility was poor. I didn’t know it but we were about 9,000 feet above sea level, snow in June wasn’t unheard off and I started to feel a little altitude sickness.

Chris’s niece had a lovely birthday party surrounded by friends and family, she had the most enormous chocolate cake to her self, she managed to eat half of it and had the biggest smile on her face – she is the happiest one year old I’ve ever seen!

Chris and I left the next morning and headed to Cheyenne, the nearest town, an hour south. We stopped off to see an old friend, Justin, who is one of the best horsemen Chris knows. Justin trains reining horses, think dressage but on a loose rein and a little faster. It is incredible what they can get their horses to do. We had a tour round the yard, two of Justin’s employees tried to sell us a couple of colts. I got to have a play with one of the horses belonging to one of Justin’s employees. Justin, having not seen Chris in over a year, persuaded Chris to stay, Chris agreed, making sure that Justin would let me ride one of his top horses. More friends joined and we had a good dinner, crowded round the tiny kitchen table before heading outside to sit around a fire, where one of the cowboys played his guitar and sang old cowboy songs.

The next morning, I watched as Justin rode a couple of his horses in training. He rides with a light contact and a long rein and is able to ask his horses for flying changes; half passes, sliding stops and more with barely a contact. He steps off one stallion and calls me over, my turn. I put my foot in the stirrup and swung my leg over the saddle. The horse is sensitive and responsive. Justin teaches me a couple of aids, shows me what to do with my hands and tells me if I don’t say whoa when asking to stop, then I owe him twenty push-ups. It takes me a few circles to get use to this way of riding, Justin has me spinning in circles and doing sliding stops in no time. We talk about how he trains his horses to learn these commands and how different it is to riding dressage, yet at the same time kind of similar. Justin steps on another horse and allows me to play around on my own for the next hour. It is an amazing feeling, the slightest movement and your horse does something different. Lifting my hand, pushing my legs forward and slowly saying whoa my horse would go from a gallop to a sliding stop. It was extraordinary. I got off and we said our goodbyes before starting the seven hour long journey home, stopping half way we joined Dawson who was taking a couple of his bulls to the vet, followed by happy hour with his family.

Moving Bulls

That week we moved cows into new pastures. One day, for some reason, we decided to do this in the middle of the day, it was hot; 44ºC and cows are not a fan of moving in the heat. The first half we moved were fairly easy, they were shaded up but obvious to see. We drove them up on top of the canyon and through a couple of fields, then in the distance came a pair, Chris sent me back to get them and he carried on with the rest of the herd, as I was picking them up I saw a few more in the distance, as I got closer to them I saw more. More and more kept appearing. Chris eventually joined me and together we drove the rest of them to meet the original heard.

Friday 28th June, a day I don’t think I’ll ever forget, my first time roping – at a branding. It was our own clean up day and we only had 14 calves to do but Chris thought it’d be easier to do with the two of us even though I knew nothing. We woke early, saddled the horses and gathered the pairs. The first five pairs were easy to find, I drove them to the corrals while Chris searched for the others. Once they were in I came back out to help Chris, he’d found another two pair. I spotted the rest of the heard and Chris sent me on my way to gather them. I drove a cow and a bull down into the old riverbed, dodging the fallen juniper trees and pushed them up the other side to where the rest of the herd were standing, before driving eleven mamas, nine babies and the bull back to the corrals. Chris and I sorted them, separating first the bull, before splitting the mamas and babies up. The babies huddled in a corner; Chris had me practice my roping on a gas canister while he picked up the vaccine, branding iron and fork. I have only roped off a horse twice, I have never thrown a rope at a calf before, let alone learned the angle I need to throw it to rope a calf’s heels; I had learnt to throw at a calves head. Chris said we had all day to do this. By 9am it was 37ºC and rising. It would normally take Chris 45 minutes to do all 14 by himself. It took me around two hours to rope four. There is so much to think about. Riding up to pick a calf, swinging my rope and aiming at the calf’s heels, picking my rope up when the calf steps into it and holding it as long as needs be, then as quickly as possible dallying (wrapping the rope around the horn on the saddle), before dragging the calf to where Chris is standing with the fork, which he’ll then place over the calf’s head to hold it down, then standing at the correct distance, holding the rope tight but not pulling too tight so I don’t hurt the calf. Oh and whilst doing all of this, I have to remember to ride as well. Chris gave me directions all the way. I struggled most with the dallying and then, I’d say, I struggled with remembering to ride. I’d be concentrating so much on roping, that I’d just forget what signals I was meant to be giving my horse so that she’d stay straight to the calf at all times. At one time, the horse went left and the calf went right, behind the horse and I was caught in the middle with the rope pulling into me at my waist. My natural reaction was to jump off, as the rope was about to start pulling me off, and I thought bailing was the safest thing to do. How wrong I was. As I swung my right leg over the saddle Chris yelled at me, telling me not to get off. It was too late. He explained how the safest place is on the horse, how I could get myself killed being on the ground and all that I had to do was ride my horse, turning her in a sharp right circle, unraveling the rope so that I would be facing the calf again. I still think jumping off was the safest option but hey, what do I know.

It was a long day. We switched in the midday heat. Chris heeled a calf, I would place the fork over its neck, Chris would jump off and I would climb on to take a hold of the roped calf. Occasionally, if Chris only roped one heel, I’d have to sit on the calf and loop the rope over both heels. He had to drag a couple of the calves with me sat on top of them and one time I had to wrestle the calf to the ground. There is a technique to doing this by ones self but I hadn’t been taught that. Chris told me to grab the tail and pull it as hard as I could towards myself. Well I pulled and I pulled and this calf would not fall to the ground. Chris made the decision for us to switch early and as soon as I was on board he walked over to the calf, placed his hands over the top and flanked it, there is no way in hell that I’m strong enough to do that!

We ended the day a little after one o’clock. I was exhausted, hot and dripping in sweat. I felt like a failure. I thought I’d be better. It was only after a few days had passed, that I had had time to reflect, that I realised just how much I had accomplished. I have had one lesson on the ground from a neighbour of Chris’s. I have swung a rope twice from a horse, at a bush, not a moving target such as Chris, the dogs or even a goat. I knew that I had all day to do this, that I could take as much time as I needed. Chris had made sure that we had nothing else to do that day. I did not enjoy being a beginner. I did not enjoy that I couldn’t master it all at once. But as Chris and a couple of others reminded me, this was my first time, most people my age have been roping since they were four or five years old. Chris told me that he’s had people with more experience than me, turn up to his branding and I would’ve roped better than them. He told me that we should have switched long before we did. It was my decision after all and I was determined to stay in the ring as long as possible. My right hand, forearm, shoulder, and lower back ached for the next few days. This is a tough gig and on Friday I was ready to quit, for the first time whilst I had been in America, I wanted to go home. I wanted to call my mother and have her tell me that everything was okay that I can stick it or come home but I didn’t.

Chris noticed that we had a flat tire and had to go to town. I should’ve stayed, gathered myself and taken the time to reflect on what I had just achieved. Instead I hauled myself into the truck just to prove to myself that I can keep going even when I don’t want to. I felt defeated. No sense of achievement. The heat and lack of water didn’t help, I was exhausted, the girl at the garage didn’t help, she started to tell me her life story, I wanted to slam her head into the desk to quiet her. Instead I politely told her that we had a lot to do and had to crack on. Think it’s safe to say I was tired and emotional by that point.

The next day we met Dawson and his wife Jenny in a little town a few hours away and road tripped with them to Oklahoma for another of Flo and Everett’s granddaughter’s weddings. Crashing American weddings seems to be my thing; this was the third wedding (twice on this trip) I’ve attended and not really known anyone – they are very accommodating.

It was a sweet wedding, no bridesmaids in orange dresses. The service and reception took place in the same venue, a red tin barn. It had been decorated well and thankfully had big A/C units in to keep the place cool. The ceremony was short, around 20 minutes. It was a dry wedding. If you wanted to drink we had to go outside. People bought coolers in the back of their pickups filled with beer. I felt this was rather red-neck American but that didn’t stop me from joining in, I went and bought rosé. The wedding finished around 10.30pm and we headed to, what turned out to be, a dive bar. We played pool. Someone bought the entire bar a round. I had a cowboy sheepishly ask me to put Taylor Swift on the Dukebox; before I could even say okay, he slipped $20 into my hand and told me not to tell anyone it was him who’d wanted it. That’s the easiest $20 I’ve ever made!

On Monday we rode out to gather a bull, he was standing with five mamas, one of whom had just calved her first baby, it was so cute and small. We loaded the bull and drove it an hour across the ranch to a pasture I hadn’t been to before. We dropped him off and headed home. On our way back, driving through the neighbours ranch, we could see a few of them down in the corrals practicing team roping. We went and watched a few runs. Sage, a 16 year old, taking turns to run with his father and a couple of his fathers’ friends.

Tuesday was my last day, and we spent the day painting the kitchen cabinets. At lunchtime Chris got a phone call from Sage, it was broken and all Chris could make out was “help” and “bull” and roughly where he was. We jumped in the truck and headed his way. All Chris could envision was Sage trapped under his horse with a bull trying to get him. Luckily it wasn’t that bad. Sage’s father arrived minutes before we did. We found Sage sat on his horse with a steer on the end of his rope. This steer had got loose and Sage went to fetch it, unfortunately for him, he’d pushed it in the wrong direction making it run through a couple of fences and onto the neighbours ranch. He decided to rope it but couldn’t then get it to go anywhere so he decided to sit and wait for either the steer to decide to go with him or for help, whichever came first. I was told to stay in the truck, so I watched as the three of them wrestled the steer into the trailer, it was quite a performance.

We arrived back home, finished the final touches in the kitchen and I prepared dinner, we had invited Everett and Flo to join us so I could say goodbye and thank you. Unfortunately the heavens opened and half way through our main course they realised they had to leave or they’d never make it home. They made it as far as one of the ranch houses and realised they’d never make it, so they camped there for the night. In between the rain there was hailstones a little smaller than golf balls and lightening flashing lighting up the dark cloudy sky and rolling thunder.

And then all of a sudden it was time to go home. I said goodbye to the dogs, and climbed into the truck. The sun was rising over the canyon tops as we drove the 24 miles to the main road. The morning light was a site to remember, dazzling on the dewy rough grass. The sky was clear, not a cloud to be seen. I lapped it up, absorbing every little detail. Remembering how the juniper trees hug to the sides of the canyons with cactus weaving in and out between them.

Smokey Rim Ranch is a magical place. I have never felt more at peace with myself as I did there; I was filled with contentment and joy. I could not plan anything; I was forced to live in the moment every day. I hope to go back there one day soon, I’m working on a visa but that’s not a guarantee.

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