Lights, camera… This week, HN’s in-house cowgirl Kristen Kovatch recounts her recent experience of being filmed while working a cattle drive.
Having ridden on and led my fair share of cattle drives out west, I know they generally do not follow any sort of plan after the first five minutes or so in which everyone sets out fresh-faced and looking forward to doing some actual work on horseback. By the end of the day, everyone is usually frustrated, covered in dust and exhausted—horses, cattle and riders alike. At the same time, most of my all-time favorite rides ever normally involve rounding up and moving cattle on farms, ranches and the wild and scenic Shoshone National Forest, no matter if the drives go well or not. Even when it goes poorly, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had—ever.
So when the opportunity arose to assist in a cattle drive on my mentor’s property in western New York, I leapt at the chance.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that this was no ordinary “take cows from here and put them over there” cattle drive. This evening of festivities was intended to be a performance to be photographed by our employing university’s office of communications. So take the unpredictability and potential volatility of a normal cattle drive, and add a photographer with his own vision of what he would like to capture on film, a race against the setting sun for optimal lighting, and one dog, seven horses with riders including myself, a coworker, my mentor and his wife, my boss and two students, and fifty head of cattle…well, despite all of these variables, we loaded the trailer quite happily and headed off down the road. We weren’t just cowgirls, we were gonna be models.
At six in the evening in western New York at this time of year, the light is still plenty strong but rapidly on its way to setting, especially with the constantly-hilly terrain. We saddled quickly and followed my mentor’s wife on the trail to the pastures, winding through a cornfield and into the woods, slowly gaining altitude before spilling suddenly out onto a broad and gently-sloping pasture, bordered by trees and framing a beautiful view of the valley below. Our photographer, graciously chauffeured about the fields in an all-terrain vehicle by a neighbor, was in place and watching anxiously as we spread out to round up our cattle.
Accustomed to range cattle in Wyoming, who usually move fairly calmly at a decent walk, I was taken aback by the sensitivity of these cows, nothing like their western cousins. These were, of course, my mentor’s team sorting cattle—they have learned to simply run when the horses arrive. My cowhorse mare Playgirl and I had to make one quick maneuver, cantering down the field at an angle to stop the cows from running downhill but not pushing them faster. Working cattle is really all about geometry—what angles the cows and horses can make to each other that will allow everyone to end up where they want to be.
The herd settled into two groups; the slow group stayed packed closely together and allowed themselves to be driven up the hill towards the photographer. The other group spread out and continued to jog double-time, forcing my mentor and me to canter ahead and into prime photography space to cut them off. I tried to ignore the rapid clicking of the shutter and instead focus only on the beautiful sunset, the rhythm of my mare’s collected uphill canter, the joy of riding side by side with my favorite old cowboy mounted on a golden palomino like a hero out of some old western.
Once the herd was gathered and settled, the real work began. The two students, my coworker and myself rode in various formations towards the photographer, staring down the setting sun, the cattle collected in the background and held by the other three riders. After about six attempts, we finally found a formation that worked well for the photo—and so we repeated it, again and again and again. We smiled. We looked off into the distance. We tried to talk naturally. We pointed at make-believe landmarks on the horizon, we pointed at the cattle, we pointed at each other and cracked jokes and were made to do the whole thing again. “Smile. No. Don’t smile. Never mind, smile. Okay, let’s do it again.”
Next came individual shots—the students and my coworker rode towards the photographer one at a time, each with her own individual flair: a straw hat. A black hat. My lovely coworker with her sunglasses on her head, her sassy stare right into the camera lens, knowing exactly how to work it. When it came to be my turn, the photographer instead decided to try some unmounted shots. “Can we get some shots removing the bridle?”
Miraculously, my little green horse stood quietly for a long while in this lush green pasture, surrounded by cattle and the excitement of the evening, letting us stage shot after shot. I smiled. I didn’t smile. I stroked her neck. I held her head close to mine. I looked off into the distance. So did she. After what felt like a hundred photos later, I was allowed to bridle her again, mount back up, give her a pat—the shutter clicking the entire time.
The cows, bless them, were standing quietly behind us this entire time, a surreal gathering of animals that had taken off like the wild untamed beasts that they were just an hour or two earlier. After this circus of photos, pushing the herd hither and yon, we let them trickle back away again in pairs and threes back down the hill, into the falling evening and rest. We rode back down to the trailers in pairs ourselves, pleased with an evening of real work on horseback—with a little modeling twist.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.