Monday, November 23, 2009

My First Cows... Whew, a long one!

Let me just start by saying I think we created a monster. I don’t want to do anything for the rest of my life but live on a working ranch and take care of cows and horses. I don’t know how a person can go through almost half of a life and not realize how much they love something they didn’t even think they’d like. Make sure to check out the rest of the pics at the end.

I should have gotten to bed earlier Friday night but I didn’t. My alarm went off at 5AM and I rolled over. A groan escaped my lips knowing I was going to have to get up if I wanted to make it on time. Today I was headed to Butte Star Ranch at the base of northern California’s Sutter Buttes for my first cattle drive and sorting. I’ve never worked with cattle before so despite the early rise and lack of sleep I wasn’t going to be late.
Rolling out of bed I grabbed my cell phone to see if my sister had called or texted me yet. I was picking her up on my way to the ranch. Sure enough, she’d texted me at 1:15 AM. “Call me when you wake up.” Uh oh...that meant I was going to be dealing with a tired and possibly hung over sister this morning. I knew she’d been out with girlfriends last night and was up late too. I quickly called her cell number but there was no answer. Darn it…I decided I’d better hustle and get to her place early in case I needed to get her up.

In the bathroom I looked at my tangled mess of straw blond hair trying to decide if I wanted to wash it. It was cold in the house which meant it was going to be freezing outside. Instead I threw it up in a bun to keep it dry while I quickly took a shower. I did my best to comb out the crazy hair, ran my straightening iron through it and put on a hat. It was going to have to do. I carefully dressed in layers because of the cold. A long sleeved hooded t-shirt, a fleece jacket, tall and thick socks, jeans, my Ariats. I threw a short sleeved t-shirt, a thermal shirt and a thicker sweatshirt into my backpack for good measure. I didn’t want to get out there and be miserable because I was too hot or cold.

When I was done I called my sister. Again, no answer. I was starting to get a little worried so I tried calling her boyfriend’s number to see if I could get him to wake up. No answer. The only thing to do now was just drive over there. I’d get there in time to give her about 15 minutes to get ready.

I headed out to my Durango, and opened my front door to a world gone white. Fog had settled into the Sacramento Valley with a seriousness. Our first real fog of the season. There is something about fog that always makes me feel isolated and uneasy. Almost like the rest of the world no longer exists but you’d never even know it. Luckily the drive turned out to be uneventful. I stopped at our barn just long enough to grab gloves, and my rain slicker, just in case I needed them.

When I walked up to my sister’s front door I already knew it was going to be bad. I could hear her alarm clock screaming through the closed front door but the lights were all still off. One knock set off her dogs who ran through the house to bark at the perceived threat. A minute later my sister’s confused face peered out the cracked door. She was wearing a short white terrycloth robe and her face was puffy from sleep. “Why are you here?” she asked just before she let out a gasp. “Oh god, I forgot!” she screamed and went running back toward her room. “Come in!”.
I closed the door behind me and yelled back to her sweetly, “You have 15 minutes before I leave you here. I’m not missing this for the world.” I reached down to let her black lab and her pit/heeler mix smell my hand so they could relax. I squatted down and scratched their ears softly. Both of them worshipped me with their big brown eyes glad for the attention.

“Is that your sister?” I heard her boyfriend mumble and then her voice softer explaining what was going on.

“Come back here,” my sister called. I stepped into the hallway in time to see my sister strip off her robe and come flying at me naked. With her tan, lean body and hair the color of autumn leaves hanging in a snarled mess down her back she looked more like a tree nymph that would be more suited to running barefoot through a forest than running down the hall to get clean panties from the laundry pile in the living room. I chuckled to myself as she grinned and ran back past me to her bedroom calling out, “Sorry!” on her way.

“Did you just run through the house naked?” I heard her boyfriend ask. “Um…she’s seen me give birth so I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be offended,” the response. She was right, of course.

“All I want to know is does Chris have clothes on?” I yelled back down the hall. Once I’d established there were no worries about seeing anyone new naked this morning I headed down the hall to my sister’s door. She’d managed to pull a tank top on and was wiggling her skinny butt into a pair of jeans. “God, do I look like I’m still drunk? I feel like I’m still drunk. Should I brush my hair?”

“Whatever you do don’t take more than…10 minutes,” I said glancing at my cell phone. She chattered a stream of noise at me as she combed her hair, put a hat on, picked a small fight with her boyfriend and grabbed some Mike’s Hard Lemonade out of the fridge before we finally headed out to the car only 5-10 minutes behind schedule. I nodded, replied from time to time, and gave the boyfriend some crap about watching a movie about ballet because he couldn’t find the remote, but was mostly in my head still worried about if I’d like the horse they gave me.

Against my better judgment I agreed to let Sister drive because she knew the way and is a very aggressive driver. I did my makeup in the moving car and did my best to ignore how fast she was driving in the fog. She was worried about finding the turn off the highway but once we got over the Feather River and into Yuba City the fog was starting to burn off. As we got our first look at the Buttes for the day there were still pockets of fog hanging in the valleys of the mountains but we had a clear view of them. The Buttes are a strange mountain range that pokes up out of the almost flat land surrounding them. Not a large range and almost completely bare of trees they almost look like giant rolling hills but they're steep when you're up there. It was the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I realized with a sinking heart I’d forgotten my new camera.

We pulled into Butte Star at 7:25 with time to spare. Sister steered the Durango down the long gravel drive just past the café/gift shop. We parked and got out to stretch our legs. Other members of my trail riding club were already present unloading their own horses from trailers, tying them up and heading to the café for breakfast. After some smiles and helloes we were headed in to have breakfast ourselves. At a short counter the ranch owners’ wife was dishing steaming plates of pancakes and biscuits and gravy. The ranch owner was making the pancakes himself at a large griddle behind the counter while surrounded by his grandkids. It was heartwarming to have this kind family welcome us to their ranch like friends. We spent a few minutes catching up with old friends from the club discussing new horses and our next few rides.

With a belly full of pancakes and syrup I headed to the covered arena with Sister. We’d rented ranch horses so I didn’t have to worry about trekking up and down the foothills with the big grey psycho (Tax) and she didn’t have to try to get Promise to load into the trailer at 5 AM in the cold. We walked down the aisle peering into stalls where saddled horses stood haltered and tied waiting for riders to bridle them up and give them a spin around the arena before we loaded them in the trailer and headed for the property 15 minutes north where the cows live. We signed our releases and met the ranch owners son who was helping match horses and riders. He knew my sister from the last time she was out there in May. I’d been in Missouri for my cousin's highschool graduation and didn't get to go. He quickly sent her after a big chestnut named Mickey and she was bridled and in the arena in no time.

“How much experience do you have?” he asked me. “I’m experienced,” I told him. “I mean, not with cows or riding western but I can ride pretty much anything.” He directed me to a little black filly with a roan face. “This is Purdy Girl. She’s 4. Think you can handle it?”

“Sure,” I said, “why not.” I lead her to the arena and starting putting on the bridle he handed me. The ranch owner came over to ask me to trade him for a big cute buckskin that was already tied to the fence. "We've never taken him out but I'd like you to give it a shot," he said. I liked the look of him, bigger boned and an intelligent eye so I agreed.

"What's his name?" I asked.

"Don't him Buck."

"Very original," I laughed, and Buck it was. I fumbled around with the curb strap on his western bridle and struggled with his height (have I mentioned I'm practically a midget?) but finally got him bridled. Once it was on I took him for a couple of laps around the arena. As soon as we moved off the fence the paint he'd been tied next to started to pull back and dance around calling for his pasture buddy. Buck remained steady and ignored in large part the antics of his goofball herdmate. I decided I liked him.

Once we made sure everyone was comfortable with their assigned horses in the arena it was time to put halters back on and get them loaded into trailers. Sister wanted to take my car so she could have a smoke and I wanted to throw on my thermal shirt. It was chilly. As we started down the driveway, J, the barn owners son walked up to the car just as I pulled my shirt back over my head. Sister slowed and rolled down the window to talk (thanks Sis). He wanted to talk to her about some clinics they are planning.

There's no one else riding in my truck, so why don't you girls ride with me?" he asked. Having ridden english my entire life has not given me a chance to be around straight men who ride horses. I had no idea how charming that can be. We all chatted about roping and junior rodeo on the way to the property. He and his dad were missing a fundraiser for a fellow roper who was recently diagnosed with Lou Gherig's just so they could take us out. I can't believe how kind their family is. He agreed to keep in touch about team penning clinics and to have us back sometime to start learning to rope (do girls do that too?). They had a breakaway calf roping clinic the next day that both of us pouted about having to miss.

The land opened up before us as we drove the narrow road. On the left is some of the richest duck hunting land in California. On the right, the Buttes rose up into the sky. Pulling up to the property we passed the long barns still a mess from a recent storm. Large parts of the roof had lifted off and landed in the pasture next to the barn. Good thing the cows were out to pasture. A goofy young black and white Great Dane ran up to meet the trucks his long legs bounding across the land and his big lips and ears flopping with each stride. His head was massive and when I hopped out of the truck it came up to my chest. On his hind legs as he jumped around me he was a good bit taller than me which made everyone laugh.

We got the horses out and bridled again and it was time for quick introductions. There were 11 riders from our club, 4 with their own horses, and the rest of us on rentals. We were being accompanied by the ranch owner, his son J, and their friend Levi who lives in the house on the land with the cows. J explained we take the long way around the property and pick up the cows on the way back to herd them into the sorting pens. Sister lead the way and we headed out around the edge of the property. Buck gave me just a little grief about wanted to be near J and Chief, his paint buddy. Five of us, J, Sister and two of the experienced riders from our club and I took the lead and got ahead of our little group. Buck also got a bit fiesty going up and down the hills which I loved. At the top we had a clear view for miles and miles. We could see the peaks of Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta, the nearby cities of Colusa and Arbuckle and miles of the canals the duck hunters travel in their small boats. At one point Buck stopped not wanting to cross a little ditch but with a little patience on my part I talked him into it. What a good boy.

We came around a corner of a hill and got our first glimpse of the cows. There were only about five who saw us coming and quickly trotted up and then down a little rise out of sight. When we got to the top there was the herd of about 20 cows and their babies. These are a long horned mexican type of cattle they breed for roping and penning. J told me what they're called but I can't remember now. Some of them were spotted like Appaloosas and were really a pretty kind of cow. There were 9 babies already with the herd and just as adorable as baby deer with their big ears and spindly legs. J struck out to the left to get the herd pushed to the right lower corner of the field where the gate is. After a few minutes the rest of our little group followed him getting in our first lope of the day. I let Buck open up and catch up with my sisters taller horse. He was rock steady and comfortable to ride. You could feel the change in these horses the minute they saw cows. They're all business when they have a job to do. Once we'd surrounded the herd we slowed down to a jog to bring them in. Sister smiled the way she does when she wants something and knows shes going to get it, and asked J if he'd catch a baby for us back at the barn so she could pet it.

Once the cows were herded into the holding pens we stopped for a quick drink. Levi realized there were about 10 head missing and we sent out a posse to find them. J, Sister and I stayed behind because he agreed to let us run around and play on our horses. We had a Hard Lemonade and rested the horses until the group was out of sight. Then we ripped off our hats so we wouldn't lose them and took the boys out in the pasture to lope big circles letting the wind blow our hair around. J had tied Chief to the trailer to take a quick break and he screamed and danced around again about being separated from Buck. Sister took pity on him and we went back to give Mickey a break and we took Buck and Chief out do a lap of the small pasture. As we headed out we saw the first of the missing cows come over the hill into the field. We turned and cantered back to meet the group and help push the herd to the pens.

We watered up the horses again and everyone took a break for drinks and trail mix. Then the guys started the lesson about sorting. The first team in was a mother and her teenage daughter. The ranch owner explained they had a bull and 5 cows that belonged to someone else who needed to pick them up. He wanted the ladies to sort them out first. I watched with a critical eye seeing that sometimes slowing the horse down made it easier to control the cow. The ranch owner also explained these cows are pretty used to people and don't turn off the horse as quickly as fresh cows would. He taught us how to use our voices to move them and the air was filled with sharp crys of "Hey. Hey. Hey cows. Hey." The ladies were akward at first since it was their first time but soon they were moving the cows around and had the group we needed sorted out. The rest of our group took turns sorting and watching the gate.

Sister and I waited patiently and took our turn last. Our job was to sort out the mothers and their calves together. The ranch owner pointed out the mothers and we went into the small herd to push the mother and baby out and separate them. Our first cow was a dark brown with a patch of light brown on her head, blond horns and a white belly spot. Her calf was the oldest of the year. It took me a minute but with Buck focused in I soon had it figured out and we were running pairs out the gate. Chief was green and mostly a little lazy so Kim went back to trade him for Mickey and we took another turn sorting cows by color for fun.

Once we let the cows that weren't being picked up back out into the pasture we loaded up the tired horses to head back to the ranch. It was quieter in the truck after a long day that it had been in the morning. Sister and I were exhausted, but there were still horses to untack, brush and put away when we got back to the barn. Everyone pitched in and the work was done quickly.

What I was looking forward to all afternoon was the hot lunch waiting for us. We all settled in to the cafe for pulled BBQ pork sandwiches, potato salad, ice tea and cake and ice cream for desert. The ladies of the family put out a fine spread for the hungry cowboys and girls and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted. There is just something that much more satisfying about a meal after a long day of hard work. We shared the meal and our time, feeling closer after a day spent working together, and planned for our next day at the ranch. J agreed to host a team penning clinic specifically for the club and Sister even talked him into working out a day to bring our own horses up just to see how they react to the cows without wasting the group's time. Too soon we were saying our goodbyes and packing up in the truck to head home. Sister drove the whole way home, and I dozed lightly with horse hooves flashing and cows dancing through my mind.

Thank goodness someone remember their camera. These pics are courtesy of one of our club members but I don't think she'll mind me adding them here.

Getting ready to head out. Sister is in the green sweatshirt on the chestnut.

Headed out the gate. I'm in gray on the buckskin.

Found us some cows.

Round up!
Bringing the cows back to the holding pens.

Watering up after a long ride. The horses loved this trough and bured their noses in it to splash around.

Sister traded horses with J. Now she's working with the paint we called Chief. We're trying to keep the momma cow and calf together and push them out the gate to another holding pen so we can count the male and female calves.
Buck and I keep the mom busy.

He was really good for me while we were sorting. What a cutie.

Sister goes after an escapee. Chief was green and a little lazy. She had her work cut out for her.

Got one more moved out the gate.

This is J back on Chief letting him check out the youngest calf. The one he caught for my sister to pet. This is my vote for cutest pic of the day!


mugwump said...

Good job! It's fun isn't it?

Fyyahchild said...

Heck yes it was!

Jayke said...

Nice post! Got linked over from Mugwump's blog, I've always wanted to try working cows, wish there were ranches around where I'm from. Your post got me really wanting to try it, maybe I'll find some place that'll take me along this summer. Too cold right now.

I'll be sure to visit again!

Fyyahchild said...

Thanks Jayke! We're lucky that the weather here in the Sacramento Valley and surrounding areas never gets too cold. No snow which I can't imagine dealing with when you have horses. I feel especially blessed knowing I'll be riding all winter in our covered arena.

When it does warm up for you, see what you can find. We did pay for our outing at Butte Star but with the group (which was started basically on Craigslist and became a Yahoo Group) we've found a great support network for learning and we can negotiate some group rates for things like this. Regardless, we've met some wonderful people and I'm getting involved in horse related activites I never even thought of as a kid. Our next goal? A parade with the horses and kids!

Jayke said...

Wow, very jealous of your warm weather. It doesn't start to think about thawing out here until March, and the ground will be too soft to do anything more than walk until April-May.

A Parade! I did that once as a kid for my Pony Club, it was quite the experience, you'll love it for sure!

Amy said...

Dude, if you've never ridden in the snow, you don't know what you're missing!

I loved this story, you are a very good writer and obviously worked a lot on it. I love the last pic too, how cute!

gtyyup said...

Well done!! Just like movin' cows or goin' to a brandin' here...they treat ya like family. Glad you got the opportunity to experience a fantastic day!

Your writing is excellent...wish I could express myself as well as you's a gift~

Broken Pony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Broken Pony said...

WOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO!!!!! Looking forward to Saturday!!! Wild Turkey here I come!!!!!!! I think I've got that look again! HEE HEE!!!!