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The American Cowboy – Part I


Meet Doug! When Doug fills out his taxes, he puts ‘Cowboy’ down as his occupation. Over the next week I hope to tell his story and share a bit about what it means to be an American Cowboy. However, before I begin to tell his story, I thought I would share with you what I did to prepare for this assignment. You just don’t show up to one of the most storied ranches in Colorado with a couple of cameras and hope to learn as you go.


I decided I needed to take a riding lesson. As I looked around for an instructor someone suggested Cliff to me. After Cliff told me he was bucked off a horse, broke his leg in 4 places, and bruised his heart I was pretty sure he was a true Cowboy. When he told me he was 75 when it happened, I knew he was the right guy for the job. We spent an hour riding with Cliff and he did his best to teach us everything we needed to know.

What I Learned From Cliff

  • When you feed a horse a treat, feed it with an open hand. If you try to pinch the food between your index finger and thumb, you might lose your fingers when the horse takes their first bite.
  • If your horse gets away from you, turn it in a circle to quiet it down.
  • Wear leather soled cowboy boots. If you are ever bucked from your horse, you want your foot to slide out of the stirrup. Otherwise, there is a good chance you will get dragged by the horse.
  • A tall horse is a horse that is over 15 & 2 hands high. The horse I rode, Smiley, was a tall horse. There are taller horses.
  • My wife Shauna is a much better rider than myself. Cliff reminded me of this quite a bit.

Cliff’s horse Mack, pictured here, is close to 17 years old and getting ready for retirement. When I asked what retirement had in store for Mack, Cliff said…”I’m going to turn Mack loose on 3000 acres of free range and tell him that he earned it buddy!”. Now that’s a guy who loves his horse.

Gear Decisions

After hearing Cliff’s story, the first thing I did was get a pair of leather soled riding boots. When I showed up at Sheplers in flip-flops and told them I was looking for a pair of boots I could drive a 1000 head of cattle with, they didn’t know what to make of me. I’m pretty sure they thought I was making another ‘City Slickers’. Next I had to make a decision on the most appropriate gear for the story. I knew I was going to be riding a tall horse named Smiley which meant I wasn’t going to be getting on and off that often. A day of mounting/dismounting a horse with all that gear can really hurt their backs. I also knew I was going to be high in the Rocky Mountains, on uneven terrain, pushing cattle for up to 8 hours. All that while making images and trying not to get in the way of the real cowboys. As a photographer I read that as, take a very light and versatile kit. I test rode a few configurations during my riding lesson and came to the conclusion I would carry my Nikon D700 and 28-300 for the single handed versatility (you have to be able to shoot with 1 hand from the top or a horse) and a D5000 with 50mm 1.4 AFS lens for nearby portrait work. I left the 70-200 and 24-70 behind. The cropped sensor with the 50mm 1.4 gave me a nice light weight 75mm portrait lens. I did throw in a 17-35mm that I could use if need be. Oh yeah, no flash! I didn’t want to spook the horses.

After deciding on the gear I was going to be carrying, I decided to use my cycling photography system. Riding on the back of a horse is somewhat like riding on the back of a motorcycle right? The system I use for that is a few Think Thank Skin Components, Think Tank 40 Digital Holster, and Think Tank Belly Dancer Harness. I use the Belly Dancer Harness because you can hike it way up. That way it keeps all your gear in front of you, but you can still sit on a motorcycle, or Smiley in this case. The Digital Holster can easily hold a Pro size DSLR with a long lens. I used the Skin System Double Wide in front to keep a wide angle lens and snacks. The Skin System Chip cage on my left held my D5000 and 50mm 1.4. Also, the thing I like about the Belly Dancer harness is that it lets me comfortably wear a CamelBak hydration system full or 100oz or water, rain gear, and extra food. All in all, it worked perfectly!

That’s Smiley on my left. I hope to see you back here tomorrow as we take a look at what it means to be a Cowboy!

The complete series

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  1. Justin – awesome post my friend! My favorite quotes are as follows:

    1. “…you might loose your fingers when the horse takes their first bite.”
    2. “…there is a good chance you will get dragged by the horse.”
    3. “My wife Shauna is a much better rider than myself.”
    4. “Think Tank Belly Dancer Harness.”

    First time I have ever seen a post that included a discussion about the loss of limb, possibility of fatal head trauma, belly dancing and your wife! Can’t wait for the next report….

    your friend Texas ~ jeff

  2. Excellent post! Love your stories. I can’t wait for the next post. BTW, I need to hook you up with a photo vest from Rob Daugherty – The Vest Guy. I’m sure he’d like for you to demo one.

  3. Love it man. Can’t wait for the rest of the series. Congrats on taking this one, I’m sure it was a trip that will stay with you for a long time.

  4. Fantastic post. I’m really psyched for the rest of the series.

  5. So looking forward to this!

  6. Ed Thwaites says:

    Just hope you don’t break your leg in more than TWO places, and that your heart is WON, and not BRUISED! Fantastic adventure! Takes me back to my farm days when I had three horses…one newly “broken” named Lightning, who bucked off all my cousins, but never me. Good Thing! I’d be a sissy about broken bones!

  7. Wow, thanks everyone! It was fun story to tell and I’m really looking forward to this week as well. I hope you continue to enjoy it!

  8. This is WAY fun! You forgot to tell us the names of those canine cowboys….

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