Original Story by Sheila Haviland
As a little girl I would lay in my bed at night and just before I fell asleep, I would escape to my fantasy world of me riding a beautiful spotted Paint and herding cattle across the prairie. So we booked the Lonesome Spur Ranch in Montana with Hidden Trails, an agency specializing in equestrian vacations all over the world.
Last week I finally got to live out my fantasy.
On 29 May 2011 I embarked on a trip I will never forget.
Two girlfriends and I arrived at the Lonesome Spur Ranch, in Montana on 29 May. The Lonesome Spur Ranch is a working ranch. They are not setup to pamper you, but instead encourage you to participate in any and all ranch chores. Since the three of us own our own farms, the idea of doing chores on someone else's place was not at the top of our priority list. Most of the guests were there for the riding and not for the "ranch hand" experience.
Besides the ranch owner and wranglers (hired help) my friends and I were the only Americans on the ranch. Everyone else was either from England or Switzerland. Even the owner’s wife was a Brit. That rather surprised us, but it also made the trip a bit more interesting, because now we had people from other countries with other points of view. Including my friends and me, we had seven people (guests) in our group. We were lucky; all the folks in our group were good people. We didn't have to deal with any idiots. Big plus in my book!
The ranch impressed us because all the horse bridle's were either a hackamore, a Bosal or had a snaffle bit (for those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, just know that they didn't allow the guests to hurt the horse's mouth). The horses were not deadheads and would ride tail to nose or as individuals, depending on the rider’s ability. For those of us that were experienced riders, an independent horse was a huge plus. Granted the horses are not as responsive as our own horses, but we learned to communicate in their language.
Upon our arrival we were assigned our cabin. Our bathroom was adjacent to our cabin. We had to walk outside to get to the bathroom, which was not so nice if you had to pee in the middle of the night, but it helped us wake up in the morning...brrrr.
We did not get fresh towels every day, nor was our cabin or bathroom cleaned while we were there. We lived a little better than the paid ranch hands. There was a hot tub on the property for the guests to use and thanks to my friends we used it once. My friends had to find someone to tell them how to unlock it and how to operate it. If it had been left up to me, we would never have used it, but I'm glad we did. We had such a good time in the hot tub. My friends brought wine and I parked the car next to the hot tub and turned up the music. We laughed and giggled so much that night that the entire valley heard us. The next morning the ranch cook asked if that was us making all that racket last night. Guilty.....we had a blast!
When we arrived in Montana the day's high was 44 degrees. When we left Maryland it was 91 degrees. I was freezing! Thank God our beds had double comforters or I would have frozen to death that night. Even with two comforters, my PJs and my sweater on, I was still cold.
The next day the weather warmed up to 68 with clouds and occasional rain showers. We saddled up our assigned horse (we got a new horse assignment every day. Sometimes it was the same horse as the day before, but in five days I rode three different horses) and the ranch owner's daughter and her family loaded our horses and took us to the Crow Indian reservation to go check on their cattle. They had pushed their cattle to higher pastures weeks earlier but because it had rained in Montana for weeks, they were unable to check on them after they left them on the mountain. We rode for hours to get to the cattle in the mountains. The wind was blowing at a steady pace and horses sank into the ground about four inches every step they took. The ground was so saturated from all the rain they had, that the ground was like a soggy marsh. Even in the mountains the ground was soggy. We found their cattle and they were all there and safe. We rode for at least six hours that day.
On Tuesday, the threat of rain was imminent so the owner wanted us to stay close to the ranch. One of the wrangles took us on a trail ride around the ranch. Good thing we didn't go too far because we did get rained on and the wind was still blowing, so I was froze to the bone when we returned. Even a "ranch" trail ride was a two hour trip, so it was nothing to sneeze at. After our ride we drove our rental car to Cody, WY and did some shopping. I bought an Outback Oilskin, to keep my legs dry on the next ride. I'm so glad I bought that coat because I needed it for the rest of the week.
On Wednesday, we rode to the top of a mountain near the ranch. Again, we rode for about 3 and a half hours and saw a beautiful view. One of the horses went lame on that ride, but he got back to the ranch ok. The ride to the top of the mountain was a steep climb over rocky terrain. It was not a ride for the faint of heart. I'm not sure if they take the novice riders on that ride too, but if they do I can tell you it probably scares the crap out of them. I just gave the horse his head and sat on him like a passenger until we reached the top. Poor guy was working his butt off. It was so steep that we stopped every 200 yards to let the horses catch their breath. After our return the ranch had organized a trip to Cody to eat at the Ima hotel which offers a dinner theater with a shootout in the streets of Cody and a trip to the Rodeo. Since the three of us had already been to Cody, we decided to drive to the nearby ski resort of Red Lodge. Red Lodge was a quaint town nestled in the mountains. We eat dinner and walked Main Street window shopping. When we returned to the ranch we found out the Rodeo was cancelled due to the EHV-1 threat. Good thing we went to Red Lodge.
On Thursday, the ground had finally dried up enough to where it was looking like a cattle drive might be possible, but there was no mention of it. After breakfast the wrangles loaded up our horses and took us to a nearby Natural Resource area. It was called the Cottonwood Plains NRCS. We unloaded the horses and split up into two groups. Our mission for the day was to check on the ranch owners cattle. We were barely a mile from the trailers when our Wrangler said he just saw a Rattle snake. Of course most of the people in the group start to get worried. They asked him a million questions about rattlers. Personally I think he was just pulling everyone's leg, but God had the last laugh. By the end of our ride, we had seen three rattlers, one bull snake and one yellow garden snake. My friends’ horse nearly stepped on one of the rattlers. The horse jumped six feet to the side. After that, all the horses were jumpy. My horse later thought he had seen a snake under a rock and almost threw me out of the saddle. I folded like a leaf and nearly missed the saddle horn. But thank God I stayed in the saddle and there really was no snake. We found the cows and they were fine. I'm sure that those cows get checked on, with each new group of guests. Which I'm guessing isn't a bad thing either; since that way the longest they wait for someone to notice something is wrong is a week. At dinner that night, the owner finally announces "We are going to move cattle tomorrow. We will be leaving at 7:15 AM and any one late will be left behind. Saddle your horses at 6:00 AM, eat breakfast and we leave at 7:15 AM. Get a good night's sleep because it will be a long day." I almost jumped out of my skin! On Thursday the wind blew at a steady 25 mph. It blew so strong that it was blowing under our cabin door and straight into my bed. Granted the fact that the cabin door had an inch gap at the bottom of it, probably had something to do with it. At one point during our ride, the wind blew so strong that it almost unseated me from the saddle. I had to literally push myself back into the saddle. Up in the mountains the winds blew steady all the time. You can hear it on the videos.
Friday was the big day. I woke up without the alarm. I couldn't wait to get started. My friends and I were ahead of schedule. We got showered, saddled our horses, eat breakfast and were ready to load the horses at 7. At 7:15 we pulled out of the driveway headed for the Crow Indian reservation. The roads on the reservation are not paved and since it had rained for weeks, there were huge ruts (or as we know it, pot holes) in the road.
We arrived at the ranch, unloaded 15 horses from three stock trailers and were in the saddle by 8:15AM. Our ranch owner broke us up into two groups. Each group was to ride and gather as many cattle as they can. It took us awhile before we got to the pasture (mind you these aren't pastures like we have but HUGE expanses). Then we formed a long line of horses and started walking and gathering the cattle we came across. After we go to the pasture we saw why we had split up into two groups. There was huge canyon that ran straight down the middle of the pasture. While we were looking for cattle, an antelope jumped up in front of us and kept running around in front of us. You can see that on the video. Later we realized what was going on. It was a mother and she was distracting the dogs from finding her baby. We almost stepped on her baby, but it popped up just in time. The dogs weren't around, so all was good. We found some cattle and began pushing them towards the rest of the cattle.
We gathered up two bulls as well. These bulls did not take kindly to us wanting to push them anywhere. Just when we thought there was no way we could get these bulls to move even an inch, the dogs show up and bit those bulls making them move forward. I was never so happy to see a dog!
We moved our cattle up the mountain and eventually ran into the cattle that the other group had gathered. All of a sudden we had a huge herd in front of us. It was impressive. We stopped for while in front of a gate. None of us knew why they didn't open the gate and let the cattle through. After a while a wrangle rode by and told us to eat our lunch. One of my friends asked why we were stopped for so long and was told that we were waiting for a videographer to arrive. Apparently the cattle owner video tapes the cattle and shows the video to the cattle buyer so the buyer doesn't have to go into the mountains to see the cattle first hand. I guess that is modern cattle sales? Finally the videographer arrived and we could move the cattle up the mountain. We pushed them through streams and up steep slopes. What I didn't realized was that the new born calves can't walk for hours, so every hour or so we would stop and give the calves a break. When we got to the top of the mountain, we had to stay with the herd until all the mothers had found their babies, because if we just left immediately and they didn't find their calf, the mothers would run back down the mountain and look for their calf.
At the very beginning of the round up, we had one calf break ranks and we couldn't catch him. That calf's mother followed the herd to the mountain pasture and then realized her baby was missing. After we had left the herd, the cow broke from the herd and was running for all she was worth to find her calf. The cattle owners had to race her down the mountain to open the pasture gates for her or she would have killed herself trying to bust through the gates.
We had one calf get injured during the drive. I suspect that it was trampled when we crossed the creek. I saw a bunch of babies get stuck in mud up to their bellies. I was surprised that we didn't have more injuries. When I asked the cattle owner what to do about that injured calf, the answer was "If it can't make it up the mountain, just leave it." It wasn't the answer I wanted to hear, but I knew I was in cattle country now and things are different. Later the cattle owner cut the calf and it's mother and yearling sister from the herd and left them in a lower pasture. The idea was to give the calf time to heal so the three of them would spend their summer in the lower pasture. Mind you, I know there are predators in the mountains, so I don't see how an injured calf would survive. I didn't say anything to anyone, but we all knew the deal and no one was real happy with what was happening.
We spent 10 hours in the saddle on Friday. We were all exhausted but loved the experience.
Saturday morning at 4 AM, my friends and I got into the car and drove to Billings to catch our flight home. We almost missed our plane. That would have really sucked because Billings only has two flights a day leaving in the direction that we needed. I was still so pumped from the cattle drive, that I slept very little (at least for me) that day.
When we got home I had jet lag and I'm still paying for staying up late in a different time zone. I crashed in my living room chair at 7:30 PM on Monday night.
I had the time of my life!
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