Kristen Kovatch recalls a “real deal” cowgirl moment from a few summers back, when she was working as a wrangler in Wyoming.
I saddled up a horse the other day and mounted up just outside the barn rather than in the indoor or outdoor arenas, with the intention of heading down to the pond bank to do some stifle-strengthening hill work. In what retrospectively was one of the last really hot days of the summer, I felt for a few moments like I was riding out to go do some “real” work on horseback, taking me just for a minute back to a scene from a few years as a summer wrangler at a working guest ranch.
It was mid-May, one of the first days of work for the new wranglers, and we had just tried out three new horses on the trail: an old Quarter horse mare, a mustang-cross gelding and an Appaloosa mare. They all seemed pretty serviceable, quiet and sensible while having enough get-up-and-go to keep up on the trail. We were pulling off saddles in the corral, preparing to turn the trio back out with the herd, when our boss came roaring over the bridge in her ancient flatbed truck. The sorting cattle–ten head of rambunctious Highland cows–had been missing for a few days, and she had spotted them, miles from home. We threw the saddles back on the horses as our boss hitched up the stock trailer.
She hauled us up out of the ranch valley, up the switchbacks and to the sagebrush flatland to the south of the ranch. Miles from the ranch, the Highlands were marching, ten cows in single-file, methodically plodding in the opposite direction, following the scent of water.
“Drive them back home!”
Those were our only instructions as we were deposited out in the sage, three East Coast twenty-something girls on their lightly-tested horses, our boss disappearing again back towards the ranch in a cloud of dust.
We trotted to the head of the column of cows and got them stopped and then turned, pressing them hard as they reluctantly turned back towards our home valley. Wherever they had been hiding for the past few days, they had been far from water and had been decisively making tracks towards a watering spot miles downstream from the ranch. The three of us hooted and hissed at the cattle, the toes of our boots nearly in their rumps, all of us choking on trail dust as we relentlessly forced the cattle onwards. I was riding the Appaloosa, who had so far proven herself to be fairly unremarkable other than her leopard spots. She trailed the cattle like a decent-enough working horse, showing neither fear nor great interest in doing anything other than plodding right along in their wake.
As we reached the edge of the plateau, the ranch spread across the valley floor below us like so much green velvet split by the whitewater river, the cattle caught the scent of fresh water again, and gravity took them: suddenly our recalcitrant little herd took off down the old road slicing across the switchbacks, galloping downhill with haste. We followed in hot pursuit, realizing along the way that everything was essentially completely out of control.
Just as we reached a broad section of riverbank, the cattle plunged into the river shallows, gorging themselves on the fast-moving water. We were under firm instructions not to let them water themselves but to push them on back to their home pasture, where they could get as much fresh water and good grass as they wished. Here our little cattle drive devolved into near chaos, with the three of us riders alternately thundering along the bank or charging into the river shallows, whooping and shrieking at the cattle. Finally, almost imperceptibly, we managed to get them moving again, slowly crawling upstream towards the open gate back onto ranch property.
Along this forced march up the bank, a cow veered back into the river again and without thinking I sent the Appaloosa after her, crashing right through a pine tree, my fingers entwined into her thin mane and my head buried against her neck. We came out the other side covered in needles but with the cow plunging ahead of us back to join the herd. The cattle tested us again and again and my little mount went wherever I sent her without question.
At the end of the day–some two or three hours longer than intended–we finally unsaddled the horses and turned them loose, grimy and sweaty from their long afternoon. The cattle, for now, were safely back in their pastures, and we three wranglers carried ourselves with a new sense of confidence. Maybe we Easterners could actually hold our own out West after all.
As for the little Appaloosa, I can’t say she walked with any more swagger than before. Somewhere deep in that inexpressive gaze, she must have known all along that she was born for this life, a real-deal ranch horse.
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 and teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving. She has shown reined cow horse, reining, western pleasure, and draft horses, as well as dabbled in hunt seat equitation. 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, Take the Reins and Ranch and Reata.
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