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Working On Horseback

For those of you who are new here, a few years back I produced a long form story about ‘The American Cowboy’ (click here to read it). I was afforded the opportunity to saddle up with a few true working cowboys and head up into the mountains high above Crested Butte to bring a thousand head of cattle back to the valley. This is one of the photos that never made it into the story. I still like it though.

Here I am working on my story about the American Cowboy. That's my horse Smilely.

Photographer’s Note – When I’m working on a ranch or on the back of a moto photographing a bike race, I’m using a custom system of ThinkTank products I have pieced together. I use their Belly Dancer harness (out of production so I bought 3 of them), skin systems modules and a holster to carry most everything I need. I actually use this system when I’m traveling. It packs down super light and is comfortable to wear.

Fall Is Around The Corner

As much as I hate to admit it, fall is just around the corner. I’m more of a summer kind of guy. It’s not that I hate fall, it’s that fall signals winter, and winter I could do without. Living here in Colorado we have all sorts of opportunities to photograph the changing of the guard. This image was a quick grab. We were driving down back road in Crested Butte last year and happened upon this beautiful scene. I jumped out and grabbed this one before any cars showed up to ruin it. I made this image with my trusty Nikon 28-300. You can read my full review of it here. I love that lens!

I maintain a map of various photo locations around CO, so I thought I would share it with you in case you are heading out to see the colors. Also, if you are a Kelbytraining.com member, Moose Peterson just released a great video about photographing fall colors. I’m in no way affiliated with Kelby Training, but I highly recommend it. It is an amazing training resource.

Photographer’s Guide To Colorado Map


View Photographer’s Guide To Colorado in a larger map

The American Cowboy – Part IV

When we finally mounted up and started to ride up valley, I told Doug that is an unbelievable day. I think I might have actually said something like…”Holy $#!+ Doug, this is so F-ing Awesome!“. Doug laughed and said to me, “Yep, this is a good day to be a cowboy”. I have no doubt that I’ll never forget this experience. Hopefully they’ll have us back next year so we can make it a yearly installment. Well, until then, I hope you enjoyed the series and learned a bit about Doug, a true American Cowboy. I leave you with the images I made that day when it was a ‘good day to be a cowboy’.

Parting Thoughts

I learned quite a bit from Doug and his family in the short time I got to spend with them. Heck, we even chased a herd of yaks out of his pasture. One thing I didn’t do was lane a bunch quitter. A story better told over a beer. The real lesson I learned was that when you see a group of folks like this, standing on the side of the road, and they invite you over to have a beer….You do it! Thanks to Jan, Doug, Lee, Andy, Manny, Ramon, Miguel, and Smiley for having me along and letting me share their story.

The complete series

The American Cowboy – Part III

One thing I learned from Doug is that Cowboys don’t work alone. They might not always be working with people, but one thing for sure, they are part of a team. Their team consists of a couple horses, a good dog or two, and the occasional helping hand of another cowboy. Before we get into what I learned from Doug about the members of the team, I thought I would share with you what it is a cowboy does.

A cowboy is a long range cattle manager. They are part doctor, part herd psychologist, part handyman, and a good part horse whisperer. During the summer when the cattle are out and about grazing on federally leased land, a cowboy is solely responsible for the health of up to 2000 animals. Doug rides this range nearly everyday of the week. He keeps detailed logs on every animal, administers medicine to cattle that require it, mends fences, and moves them to and from fertile ground as outlined by the federal grazing permits. Finally, in the fall, a group of cowboys will get together and move the herd from the high mountains to lower pastures for the wintering. With all of that said, let’s take a look at how the team works together to achieve this goal.

The Horses

  • Horse management is a big deal! I thought a cowboy would have a single great horse. That’s not the case at all. Doug cycles through three horses ensuring each horse gets a full 2 days rest between each day of work.
  • When riding in the mountains, cowboys will walk their horse about 100-200 yards up the side of a mountain then rest them for a couple minutes.
  • Most of the time when going downhill, you get off the horse and walk it. This is much easier on the horse’s knees.
  • IF you have the option to take a short cut that is hard on the horse, or you can take a route that is an hour longer but easier on the horse, you take the longer route.
  • Mountain horses are big creatures. That’s what you want when you are working in the high country.
  • Some people say you shouldn’t let your horse eat or drink. Doug disagrees and I do to. Horses are smart, and will keep themselves fueled as they see fit so let them do what they need to do.
  • In short, it’s all about the horse.

The Dogs

  • I had heard that cattle dogs are smart, but I had no idea just how smart they are.
  • One cattle dog is worth two cowboys.
  • A good cattle dog will let a cowboy work alone. Let’s say Doug needs to rope a cow so that he can administer some medicine. A cattle dog, under his direction, can cut a single cow out of the herd towards Doug where he can easily do what he needs to do.
  • A cattle dog, doing this kind of work, takes the burden of the horse. Remember, it’s all about horse management!
  • If one dog is good, two are better! In Doug’s case he’s lucky to have the father daughter super team with Chili and Pepper. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing!

The Cowboys

Even with this team of super animals, Doug needs to call in the cavalry every now and again. We will see what that looks like tomorrow. Remember when I said that this ranch is one of the most storied ranches in Colorado and it was established in 1860? All that is true, and to this day 3 generations of the family still work on it. Lee, Andy, and Manny are pictured here respectively. Lee has been cowboyin’ his entire life and is still doing it today. Andy, after recovering from a near fatal broken leg, manages all that is mechanical on the ranch. He is also responsible for growing all the hay that is used to feed the herd in the winter. Manny, although not directly related, has been a range rider on this ranch for 28 years. His father, who is now in his 70’s, was a cowboy here until he retired. This is more than a business, ranching at this level is a family tradition that has been passed on for generations.

The complete series

The American Cowboy – Part II

My day with Doug started early, earlier than I normally do anything. Doug and Jan asked me to show up at the ranch by 6:45 which meant I need to be up at 5, load the camera gear, and grab a cup of coffee at the General Store. No kidding, I had breakfast at the General Store before a cattle drive. The plan was to ride into the hills and move a large herd of cattle to a staging area where they would be pushed to their winter pasture the next day. Before I go into the details about driving cattle and lane-ing bunch quitters, I thought it would be interesting to share with you how a typical day starts for Doug.

While we prepared for the day, I tried to stay out of the way, make a few images, and observe what was going on. At first I was taken back by how different the start of Doug’s day is from most people I know. However, what I really thought was interesting is how excited Doug is about getting his day started. The guy is happy to go to work. I mean really happy! Who wouldn’t be? It starts with a quick call to coordinate, as Doug says, a pile of Cowboys, followed by the horse selection and preparation. Once the team is assembled, it’s off to the trailhead where we would begin our ride into the high country. I will have much more on that later in the series. Tomorrow we will take a closer look at the team.

The complete series

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy

The American Cowboy