How To Be a Professional Cowgirl: Part I
Meet Kathleen McConkey, whose life has taken her from the New Jersey suburbs to a working Montana cattle ranch.
Kathleen McConkey would be one of the last people to tell you that she’s actually a cowgirl. The word’s too commonly used to describe folks who simply appreciate a western lifestyle. Kathleen grew up in urban north New Jersey taking equitation lessons at a neighborhood barn, and then attended Skidmore College where she played on the indoor polo team. That’s not very cowgirl.
But then Kathleen’s life took a different and decidedly western turn. Upon graduation, she picked up what promised to be an adventurous summer gig at a working guest ranch, the Bitterroot, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. At the end of the season, rather than turn her hardworking Honda Civic back east, she decided to stay. She worked four seasons at the Bitterroot, then overlapped with a winter at the Chico Basin Ranch in southern Colorado, a working conservation cattle ranch. She moved to the Chico full-time, then from there to the Chico’s sister ranch, the Zapata. From the Zapata, she moved north to Montana and Twodot Land and Livestock, a holistically-managed grassfed ranch.
The distinction among these ranches (working guest, working conservation, holistically-managed) is one of the reasons that Kathleen is expertly suited to her lifestyle–her Skidmore degree is in environmental studies with a minor in geoscience; her focus was on sustainable systems. That’s the very concept at the heart of holistic ranch management, balancing the cattle with the land in such a way that both benefit. But while each of the ranches on Kathleen’s resumé is distinct and unique in its approach to the centuries-old idea of managing cattle, they all share the same basic approach: it’s a job that is still easiest to perform on horseback.
But how did Kathleen, even with her environmental science background and love for horses, make the transition from East Coast polo-playing equestrian to all-day ranch riding? The easy answer: she rode. A lot. She started at the Bitterroot guest ranch, which blended western riding with an English style on the ranch’s homebred Arabians and gave her an introduction to rotating cattle on large grazing allotments. At the Chico Ranch, she dabbled in functional roping, assisting with branding, weaning, pregnancy checks and other parts of ranch life (everything from fixing fence to butchering cows.) When she moved to the Zapata Ranch, she was in charge of working with the ranch’s guests as well as major cattle moves and ranch events. And now at the Twodot, Kathleen is more independent than ever, working on a small crew on the day-to-day management of the ranch: planning the grazing schedule, moving cows, doctoring cows, building and fixing fence, assisting in calving, branding, weaning, preconditioning and pregnancy checks. She’s also the lead person for the land’s biological monitoring, measuring the land’s health to better make management decisions. She does most of this from horseback.
Did Kathleen grow up thinking she would become, for all intents and purposes, a cowgirl? Usually it’s a job that you’re born into, not necessarily one you can decide to become. “Some days I still have to pinch myself. It is crazy to think that somehow this is where I ended up. When I am riding out at dawn to go move cows and the rising sun is turning the Crazy Mountains pink, I laugh. I chuckle really. I chuckle a lot, because it is still all pretty ridiculous to me. I feel confident and capable doing my job, but it still amazes me that this is my job, and my life for that matter. This is what I have always been looking for, without actually “looking” for it. If that makes sense. My life to this point has been a series of seemingly random opportunities offered and choices made, all that have somehow come together in a real career, that really makes sense. I never knew what I ‘wanted to be when I grew up,’ I just knew what I enjoyed, I knew what I was passionate about, and what made me happy, and I strove to keep doing that—wherever and whatever that was. Now it’s led me here, and I’m still happy and passionate about what I do every day, and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
In Part II, we’ll chat more with Kathleen about her day-to-day tasks, just how much she uses horses on the Twodot, and how she fell in love with her little redheaded Arabian mare Zuby.
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