Kristen Kovatch has spent the past five summers working a ranch in Wyoming. In the process, she learned a thing or two about what “western” really means.
All this crazy-warm weather on the East Coast has me preparing my show calendar for the summer—with good reason, since this is the first summer in five years I’ll be able to horse show. I’ve spent the past five summers working a ranch in Wyoming from May through August, trading hauling a loaded show trailer at dawn for rounding up the herd at morning’s first light and bringing them down to the corral for the day’s work.
After spending the winter wrapping legs, braiding tails, carefully blanketing to minimize the growth of wooly coats and keeping horses indoors and out of the snow, it was always like letting my hair down going out west, where horses lived in huge pastures in one big herd with burdocks tangled in their feathers. Horse culture was THE culture out there, and I always felt like I was “getting back to my roots” as a western rider by spending time actually working in the saddle.
That’s also the place where I learned the idea of things getting western.
I spent a few days visiting a friend’s ranch in the Du Noir Valley beneath the Ramshorn range outside of Dubois, Wyoming in May of 2008. He had a sprawling operation nestled in a bend of the Du Noir River with miles of pastures stretching lush on the broad valley floor: he was a hay rancher with a band of horses and some cows on the side. On a bright, clear and crisp morning, we were finishing chores when a neighbor from up the valley drove up in the ubiquitous dust-covered pickup.
“You got some horses loose up by your back corrals!”
My friend looked at the neighbor and then looked at us. “I don’t have any horses out there at all.”
What we did have, however, were another neighbor’s horses from down the valley: According to legend, several generations ago, they were probably papered Morgans, which were then turned loose and allowed to become feral. They now numbered thirty or forty completely wild horses which my friend called the Du Noir brumbies, and a handful of them had broken through the fence and were now grazing in his hay fields. Our job that morning would be rounding them up and taking them back to their own land.
Mercifully the horses had grazed their way into a corner between a fenceline and the edge of a set of corrals. My friend circled the scrubby half-dozen horses while his nephew and I scrambled to open the right set of gates: in they thundered, wild-eyed, six shaggy-coated jug-headed little horses who had never been this close to human beings before. It was the closest I’d come to something resembling a completely untouched mustang.
With the help of a lunge whip and some portable roundpen panels, we managed to herd the little band onto a stock trailer, shut the door tight and leapt into the cab of the truck to haul the brumbies back home. As we jostled our way slowly down the potholed dirt road, the trailer rocked crazily from side to side as our captives banged about inside. We buzzed over a cattle guard and into the neighbor’s pastures, wheeling the trailer around and parking in the center of the field.
“Stand back,” my friend warned, waving us to the side of the trailer as he stood with his hand on the latch. “This is gonna be western.”
He threw open the door and stood clear as the six scrubby brumbies clattered off the banging trailer at a full run, thundering across the field in a veritable rainbow of equine colors. Now free from confinement, they ran for the sheer joy of it, kicking and playing across the pasture, the sound of their hoofbeats blending into the whistle of the Wyoming wind.
So what would it mean if we said something was “gonna get English?”