Preface – A Fear is Born
The edge of the pasture loomed in the distance. Angry hot breath splattered the backs of my calves with cow snot. The harder I ran, the farther the barbed wire separating the cow pasture from the cherry orchard appeared. All I had tried to do was save a helpless calf.
When I arrived at the bovine test center outside of Oakdale California I was not prepared for wrangling cattle. I stepped out of my silver Celica Supra wearing a blue denim mini-skirt and heels. The only other person on the facility at the time was Karen, the ranch foreman’s newly implanted girlfriend from Germany. Who, had she chosen, spoke English well enough to have warned me before I entered the pasture of a caustic cow with an attitude.
Lodge pole fencing encompassed three sides of the large, oval pasture. Barbed wire separated the pasture from a cherry orchard on the far end. A large pond lay directly in the center of the enclosure. A calf, no more than 30 minutes old, lay partly in the water at the edge of the pond. A want-to-be hero battle cry rang from my lips:”Don’t worry baby calf… I’ll save you!”
Fearing there was no time to change into suitable attire for calf rescue –I kicked off my heels, crawled through the fence and darted toward the calf. Karen watched in silence from the balcony. I was less than 20 feet from the calf when she charged; twelve hundred pounds of bald-faced, yellow furry hurtling straight toward me.
Perhaps I could have dove into the pond and swam to safety but at that time in my life I was more afraid of water than cows. With no other option, I took flight for the nearest exit. Unfortunately the nearest exit happened to be 14 inches of clearance under a strand of barbed wire 100 yards away. I was built for distance, not speed. I still had a good half pasture head start on the slobbering mass of rage when I turned to run. I could hear her pounding hooves gaining with every stride. I could feel the hot breath and snot on the backs of my legs. The fence still 20 yards in the distance. Feet, don’t fail me now.
I dove under the wire strand without touching a barb. I got to my feet, dusted off my bare legs and grass-stained skirt and ran a quick self-assessment. Not a single broken bone and my heart still beat in my chest; pounding actually. I had expected the cow to come through the fence after me. Instead, she turned and was well on her way back to her calf. Who by the way, had gotten to its feet and was perfectly fine. Suddenly veal had a certain appeal it lacked earlier.
In the days following the great cow chase of 1987, Karen became remarkably proficient at speaking English. She managed to articulate perfectly how a crazy American girl from Idaho nearly got herself mauled trying to save a not-so-helpless baby calf.
Henceforth, my fear of cattle was born. Over the following years, similar negative experiences involving cattle would occur. I have been chased out of pastures from California to Montana. If there are cows, I will be chased. I am a mad-cow magnet. Most recently the Little Eagle Meadows stampede of 2008 lies fresh in my mind. The kids and I narrowly escaped being trampled by a herd of angry, stampeding momma cows protecting their young. That one still brings forth a nervous twitch every time I think about it.
Needless to say I am petrified of cows. I don’t like cows. I don’t want to associate with cows and I don’t like it when people call me a cowgirl. Just because you ride a horse and live in the country does not make you a cowgirl. I am the daughter of a meat cutter. Cows are to be ground in to hamburger and neatly wrapped in one pound packages.
12 Steps to a better you
Twenty Five years of living in fear was enough. Fears are to be conquered. It was high time I faced my cow phobia and moved forward. I would develop a 12 step program designed to overcome bovine hysteria. I do not know exactly what those twelve steps are just yet, but since most self-help programs seem to entail 12 steps, so be it. Step one: I bought a cow. Her name is Isabella and she is expected to calf in May of 2012. I bought Bella at the Vale Sale Yard. I am very excited to be a cattle baroness and look forward to modeling my herd management style after Victoria Barkley of The Big Valley. Not, however, after the actress Barbara Stanwyk who portrays Victoria. The woman scares me.
I hope that Bella has a heifer calf so that I can increase the number of my herd. Heifers, they tell me, are your future. Bull calves are your profit. I don’t care either way really. I bought Bella for two reasons: One, to help face my fears and two, as an investment. I do not see us becoming pals.
Steps two thru twelve: The cattle drive. Due to the complexity and magnitude involved in participating in my first cattle drive, this event is worth multiple steps. It is my program – I can adjust the rules as I see fit.
Jessica made arrangements for us to help her cousin’s move cattle to spring pasture on the Palmer ranch in Harper, Oregon. I wanted to be as excited as Jess, but I was uneasy. The only one more terrified of cows than I am is my horse, Jack. I realize that Jack is merely feeding off of my anxiety and if I could just relax, so could he. I was not only worried about being bucked off in front of a large group of seasoned cow-hands, but also worried that I would be in the way. I’d never moved cattle. I’d never done anything with cattle short of running from them. I did try my hand at roping years ago, but that was different somehow. I was riding a well-trained roping horse that knew more about cows than I’d learn in a lifetime. “Old Red” took care of me – he knew when to dodge in and out of the hole, how to perfectly turn a cow for the healer, and even when to come to an abrupt and arm saving stop when I accidently roped the chute behind me…twice.
I groomed, saddled and loaded Jack early Saturday morning before sunup. Jess was ready to go by the time I swung by her farm outside of Payette. She could barely contain her excitement as. We loaded her big paint, Blaze, a cooler full of food and a heart full of anticipation. We were Harper bound.
We parked alongside several large stacks of hay. Narrow alleyways separated skyscrapers of yellow towering mounds of feed. The cattle were being gathered in a large pasture a half-mile away. I intended to use that half-mile to warm up my horse. I would not get the chance. I’d barely stuck my foot in the stirrup when Mr. Palmer, cattleman and owner, materialized on a four-wheeler. “The bulls are heading your way. Keep them lined out on the road and don’t let ‘em in this hay!” He was gone in a roar of dust and smoke as quickly as he arrived. I looked around for anybody who looked more fitting to be the recipient of his orders. What? Was he talking to us? Wait!… did he say, Bulls? Again I scanned the immediate vicinity in hopes of spotting “the real cowboys” riding seasoned ranch horses. Surely he must have been addressing them. The only other person there beside me was Jessica – grinning from ear to ear.
Jessica kept the bulls lined out as instructed with the help of a few riders who rode in behind the bulls. Jack danced around nervously trying to keep each bull in site as they filtered by. My attempts at remaining calm were off to a bad start. The dozen or so bulls were brought to the far corner of a large field where 200 plus cattle waited for the drive.
The cattle formed a sea of swirling black bovine dotted with an occasional flash of red. Cows vocalized a throaty bellow in answer to bawling calves. Had I been able to take my hands off the reins, it would have made an awesome photo op.
Two massive bulls faced off in a dance of domination. Jessica turned to me and offered up a tip that I assume was meant in the best of intentions for my safety. “If you see the bulls fighting like that, just stay away from them. (No problem there Jess) If one of them charges after you, turn your horses butt toward them. Don’t let them come at you broadside – they will try to ram your horse and get underneath them and flip you.” Charge us? Flip us? Really, that’s one scenario I had not thought of. Thanks Jess. Good hell, what was I doing out here.
Jack sensed my increased anxiety and took his nervousness to a whole new level. It was all I could do to keep Jack from exploding. I kept his feet busy by moving him in circles and figure eights. I tried turning away from the sea of cattle in hopes it would help to calm us both. It did not. We faced away from the cattle just in time to confront a mob of riders running toward us. In all fairness, they were not really running toward us – we just happened to be between them and their job. A charging posse of colorful wild rags and billowing chaps blew by. Jack tensed as if to brace himself from impending impact. Anticipating his flight instinct, I pulled his head around to disengage his powerful hind-quarters. 180 degrees brought us face to face with the swirling whirlpool of beef. Not a split second later and Jack would face his second demon; shooting out from the eye of the storm and heading straight for us charged a big black heifer with four tires of spinning rubber and metal on her heels. I swear I saw air under those tires as Palmer cut the red-tagged heifer from the herd. Jack snorted and gathered himself up in a ball of vibrant power waiting to blow. He jumped straight up into the air and performed a perfectly executed Soubresaut that would have made Mikhail Baryshnikov envious. Back on all four hooves, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Palmers face. I detected an almost apologetic look on the face of the cattleman. This is what I did not want. I did not want to interfere with the job at hand. If the rest of the crew were worried about my ability to control my horse, I would be in the way. I wanted to help if I could and stay the hell out of the way if I couldn’t. I wanted to blend in. I wanted to relax. I wanted my damn horse to stop freaking out.
Jack and I paced back and forth the full length of the swirling cattle. Cowboys sorted and removed several more red-tagged cows. I don’t know the reason why those cattle would be culled and I didn’t particularly care. I wanted to get this show on the road and start moving. My wish was answered when the herd was released and the large body of bovine began to filter out the gate toward an unknown destination. The drive was on.
We pushed the cattle down a gravel road, along the canal bank, through a farmers implement lot and over a bridge that crossed highway 20. Traffic was held off in both directions as the herd poured down the pavement and into the open desert. I relaxed ever so slightly the moment Jack’s unshod feet left the pavement and came down on the soft, dry sands of the sage. This was familiar terrain. What Jack and I lacked in cow sense – we would make up on the trail.
The herd was moved slowly to save the smaller calves. Jack discovered earlier in the spring that his long legs were pretty good at walking. Previous to this, our rides consisted of him dragging his feet at a dull plod. Now it was all I could do to keep him from running into the back of a slow moving cows butt. I tried everything from circles and stops – to backups and leg-yields. The leg yields were the most successful. I moved him on the diagonal along the back line of cows from one side to the other. One of the hands rode up beside us and commented, “Nice looking buckskin.” I said thanks, and added a disclaimer I hoped would justify our earlier performance in the field: “This is the first time he’s seen a cow – he’s only three.”The cowboy smiled and nodded his head, “By the time this day is over, he will be a different horse.” I loved my horse, but I sure hoped that cowboy was right.
I assumed Jack would wear down after the first six or seven miles through rolling hills and rock covered creek beds. He did not. My arms ached from holding him in and the reins rubbed a blister on the back edge of my pinky finger. I think we covered as much extra ground as the numerous cow dogs working the herd; weaving from one side of the herd to the next. I noticed that not everyone drove the cattle from the rear. Some of them were up front and others rode along the sides. I switched positions, riding to the front – back to the rear and along both sides for miles. Jack never missed an unshod step. Concerns that he would come up lame or stone bruised never came to light. Nothing seemed to wear him down. Jack continued to chomp at the bit and toss his head in a nervous fit of energy. It was starting to piss me off.
From across the creek bed I saw one of the riders cut from the herd and take off at a run. YES! This is just what the Marshal ordered! I reined Jack toward the rider and gave him his head. Jess warned as we passed, “Be careful, that’s Ben your following! He will take his horse up and down all sorts of crazy stuff!” We followed Ben at a distance. He raced down a trail that disappeared behind the hills one draw over from the river bed. I came to the realization that the solo rider might not know we were behind him. Why did he come this way? What if he rode off this way for some privacy? What if he had to PEE!? I thought it best to let our presence known and queued Jack to catch him.
I didn’t quite know how to put it tactfully. I rode alongside Ben and got right to the point. “So..Ben, you didn’t come out here to pee did you? Chuckling, Ben explained that he was riding to get ahead of the herd. The cattle had split into two groups. The largest group trailed the smaller group by a considerable distance. We would hold the small group at a designated resting spot and wait for the others. Lunch would be had at this spot while the cows “mothered up” before heading out again. Did you catch the cow-hand lingo there? If I weren’t careful, I would soon be saying things like, “get a move on little doggy” while spit’in tabackie!
The break for lunch was the first opportunity to catch a good look at the entire group of hands that had come along to help drive the cattle. The youngest rider looked no more than five or six years old. He rode a fine-bone little sorrel that seemed to take extra care of the young passenger. The little guy showed equal concern for his horse, “Are we there yet, cuz my horse is hungry.” I tied Jack alongside the boys’ horse and joined the others for a bite to eat. Jessica had packed sandwiches, apples, string cheese and berry granola bars. Jess makes the best sandwiches ever. We ate our lunch while the horses and cattle rested.
The cowboys and cowgirls came in all sizes, shapes, and ages spanning from the youngest being the five year old boy and the oldest being…well…very likely myself. They were as varied as the fringed chaps and colorful wild rags that adorned them. A pretty girl in a pink wild rag, rhinestone studded belt and a thick braid of red hair, held the hand of a cowboy in a simple white button-up shirt, buckskin chaps, blue wranglers and a white felt ranch hat. Each a unique individual presenting their own style, yet possessing a single commonality shared by all – the love of the drive.
It wasn’t until I reached for a bottle of water from my saddle bags that I noticed the bags had flipped over to one side of the saddle. I rummaged around in the bag to find the water had fallen out as well as…OMG! My Beanie Weenies! My can of Beanie Weenies were gone! How could I be expected to go on!? I felt naked – a vital part of me was missing. Somewhere in twelve miles of desert lay a bottle of water and a beloved can of Beanie Weenies.
By the second half of the drive, the cattle had lined out and appeared to know their own way. Jack, yet brimming with energy, had stopped his nervous head tossing and bit chomping. The wind was our constant companion, blowing dust from beneath the trampled ground into our faces. At times I could see no farther than my own saddle horn.
Jessica and I followed Ben who again loped ahead to get in front of the cattle. We had left the creek bed and met back up with an old dirt road. The road intersected a fence line equipped with a cattle guard. Ben instructed Jessica and me to ride up the fence line and block the cattle from turning up the draws. A large fenced area on the other side of the cattle guard called “the rabbit pen,” would hold the cattle for the night. The calves had traveled far enough for one day. As Jess and I took our positions on the draw, Ben turned back toward the herd.
From our vantage point high on the edge of the draw, we watched as cowhands pushed the long string of cattle toward the fence line. Mr. Palmer manned the gate from his four-wheeler. He did not want the cattle pressured. They would filter into the pen at their own pace. First in was a large, black, older cow with a small calf. Then another pair, and another; one by one – then two by two –small groups of cattle funneled into the enclosure. Palmer secured the gate on his herd when the last cow found her way into the rabbit pen.
Jess and I mingled with the rest of the group gathered around the cattle guard to discuss a job well done. The sky was beginning to cloud over and the wind had picked up a notch. Jess needed to get back home to her little girls. The others only had to ride back to the spot we stopped for lunch where trailers waited to haul them out. There was no room for Jack and Blaze without making two trips. At nearly $5.00 per gallon for diesel, we would ride out the way we came.
I would have to rely on Jessica to find the way back to our trailer. I could get us there eventually, but I had been more focused on my horse than on the route. I was not comfortable setting out without water, and more importantly, without my can of Beanee Weanees! I made an embarrassed plea to the group…”Did anyone happen to come across a bottle of water and a ….well….a can of…” A quiet girl on a big bay produced a can of Van Camp Beanee Weanees from the front pocket of her yellow hoodie. “I’m sorry, I drank the water, but are these yours?” Who cares about the water! It didn’t matter if Jess got us lost in the desert for three days – we would survive. We had the ranch hands staple food of choice, a whole can of Beanee Weanees!
Blaze and Jack carried Jess and I at a steady gallop across 12.5 miles of rolling sand and sage. Unaffected by the terrain, you would never know that Jack was barefoot. I did not care how hard the wind blew, how much rain poured or how dark it might get – I would not push him beyond what he volunteered. Despite the long hours of hard riding and relentless wind, the twelve and a half mile dash across the desert toward home was pure heaven.
We made our way across the pavement and over the bridge next to the implement lot. Large sheets of metal threatened to rip loose under the powerful force of gusting winds. Sand and dust stung our faces and burned our eyes. The horses were finally starting to show signs of tiring. We dismounted to give them a break and stretch our legs. As soon as my feet hit the ground I knew that stretching anything was not going to happen anytime soon. Both knees seized up in throbbing pain. I couldn’t stand upright let alone stretch. Despite the advantage of youth, Jessica was in no better shape than me. We resembled the old cowboys portrayed in movies that walk hunched over and bow legged, appearing to forever sit a horse.
We reached the edge of the pasture where the cattle were first held. The heavy, three panel gate leaned 45 degrees with the wind. It was all I could do to hold the gate upright so Jess could loosen the wires that held it closed. Shutting it proved equally as difficult.
A quick sprint across the pasture brought us in sight of the truck and trailer. Jack tucked his head and leaned into the wind, paying no attention to the tumbleweeds, plastic, tarps, ribbons, and various other horse-eating objects that blew wild in the wind. He was indeed a different horse than the skittish bundle of nerves that crossed the same pasture hours ago.
Jess looked as if the sheer force of the wind had blown her into the passenger seat. The truck door slammed shut behind her. I laughed at her smiling face beneath layers of dust and sand. Blood-shot eyes reflected my own wind burned face streaked with dust and sweat. “THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN!”
I slid the halter from Jack’s head before releasing him into the green pasture. He bent his beautiful long head toward mine. Forehead to forehead, I stroked the sides of his elegant neck. “Thank you my friend. Thank you for bringing us home safe. Thank you for not bucking me off in front of God and everyone. Thank you for keeping your feet always under you. Thank you for your unwavering, tireless heart. Most of all – thank you for being the greatest horse a “cowgirl” could hope for.