I have always dreamt of herding cattle from horseback cowboy-style, across wide open spaces, through alpine pastures and along deep, salmon-red rocky canyons, and in and out of winding, rushing rivers.
I loved the western TV series ‘The Virginian’, have ridden since I was nine and have worked with, and written about cattle since my pre-college year on a South Wales dairy farm. Last September, my love of horses and cattle all came together on the most fantastic ranching experience on the Montana/Wyoming border in the USA.
Dryhead Ranch is an authentic working commercial cattle and horse ranch, run by a large family of cowboys and cowgirls – from great-grandmother Iris down to great-grandchildren Maddy, Cassidy, Howdy and James. The youngsters would holler and whoop as they careered around on their ponies in the yard and gardens – sometimes bareback, sometimes backwards – having the time of their lives once home-schooling was done.
On the ranch, there are 900 black Angus cows and their calves and 150 American Quarter Horses, ranging across 37,000 acres of native Montana pastureland. Each day, the eight-strong tourist troop of Scandinavians (from Finland and Norway), Europeans (from England and Germany) and home-grown Americans, tacked up and set off for six to seven hours in the saddle, sometimes returning back to base for lunch, sometimes eating out on the range.
Led by head cowboy and professional farrier Jake, who clearly has a deep, deep connection with all of his horses, we hacked several miles in different directions each day. Hot sun accompanied us most days, with two wet spells, including an incredible and slightly scary show of thunder and lightning across acres of forbidding grey skies on our final afternoon – making for a hasty and soggy farewell to our beautiful horses.
Dryhead Ranch is remote – at the end of a 30-mile road, gravel, rock and mud track. The scenery has not changed for thousands of years. The low, silver and aromatic sage brush trees were identical to those I was to see in paintings by the late 19th century Montana cowboy artist C M Russell in Great Falls a few days later. The grasses were mainly yellow and faded and certainly past their best, and on lower, more protected ground, wild sunflowers intermingled bizarrely with spiky cacti.
Sometimes we just rode and soaked up the jaw-dropping scenery. Other times we rode with purpose – collecting odd groups of heifers or cows with their six-month-old calves from little gullies and creeks, bringing them to one main bunch of a hundred or two, before moving them up and on to better grazing.
This was when team work really came into play – as a group we gathered the cattle and drove them together forward, each with our signature call. This was the most incredible fun – as I twisted and turned to keep the rear-enders going – putting four western lessons I had had back in England, (thank you Sarah and David Deptford of Sovereign Quarter Horses, Ely) to good use.
One of my horses, a grey called Creamy acted like a ‘sheep dog’ – riding up to the back of the cattle and nipping at the bottoms of ones that were going too slow!
My other two horses, bays called Danny Boy and Mr. Watson, were also fit, forward-going and sure-footed – which certainly helps when picking a way down rocky paths to a sheer-sided canyon below or fording the muddy banks of streams you can’t see the bottom of! It seemed incredible to me that they responded to European-style aids just as well as western- riding aids. Clever horses indeed.
This type of holiday brings out the collaborative best in strangers – be it gathering cattle, getting a second opinion on the tightness of your cinch (girth), or indeed to getting chores done, like washing up after scrumptious and filling home-made meals. Shared experience is powerful and addictive. We all said we wanted to come back for more!
Thank you Iris, Jennifer, Jake and Jessie for a wonderful week on your ranch, riding your beautiful horses and working with your glorious glossy black cattle. It was an honour and a privilege and truly a dream come true.