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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

The American Cowboy – Part I

Doug

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.

Preparation

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

The American Cowboy

Howdy! I hope everyone had a great weekend. I know I did. This weekend I had both the honor and the privilege to spend a couple days tagging along with a true American Cowboy. By ‘tag along’, I mean ride with, prepare with, work with (as best a city slicker could), and share a few beers with. Basically, be a cowboy for a day. As Doug said, “it was a good day to be a cowboy”. One thing this city slicker didn’t do was ‘lane a bunch quitter’ so they might have me back? More on that later.

Doug is as authentic a cowboy you can find. I believe his official title is Range Rider. In a couple of weeks I will be sharing his story, along with the story of the ranch he rides. Until then, here are a couple quick facts. The ranch he works was established in 1860. 6 generations of family have worked it since. 3 generations of family are currently working on it. I honestly don’t know where you could find such a rich and historic heritage in modern America? Also, here is a quick fact about Doug. You might think that a true cowboy has a Garth Brooks or Clint Black ringtone for their phone. Not Doug! He’s got Metallica. Not just any Metallica….old school Metallica. That’s just one of the cool things about him. More to come in couple of weeks so stay tuned for his story.

This Week – I’ve got a strong week planned out. I hope you like it!

  • Tuesday – An awesome installment in the ‘Out Their Front Door’ series featuring an incredible British photographer.
  • Wednesday – Having just experienced the most incredible fall colors I have witnessed in Colorado, I put together a bunch of free desktop wallpapers for you.
  • Thursday – A little something special for photo buddy, Scott Ackerman.
  • Friday – iPhone Friday full of images from a road trip between Salt Lake City, UT and Elko, NV