Category Archives: Horses

My Son, the Buckaroo

My week in Wyoming at the Padlock Ranch was the longest stretch of days I’ve been away from my son, Augustin, who is two-and-a-half (or a little older) now. Cell phones didn’t work and I convinced myself the “emergency” house phone was for that only…so no morning catch-ups or “night night Mommies” or “I’ll be back soons.”

These days, when one is uber-connected to everybody, everywhere, all the time, this can be a difficult thing. At first I felt like something was missing, like I’d forgotten my hat or my glasses. But gradually I grew accustomed to just thinking about “back home” and all those who awaited our return, and a moment of silence became the equivalent of telephone pleasantries. I like to think this system of communication, however intangible and unquantifiable, worked just fine.

As is evident by this blog, we DID have internet–wireless access was fantastic throughout the Padlock guest lodge. So my son got to see pictures of me, and hear all about my adventures “riding horsies,” via the words I recorded each evening. After our first day he renamed his rocking horse Copper (as she was formerly called “Margaret” for reasons unclear to me, I tend to think this is an improvement). And then, after seeing a few more photos posted here, he grabbed his grandmother’s sunhat–and she captured the moment on camera.

I give you my son, the Buckaroo.

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Where’d the Blonde Cowgirls Go????

Martha on Cactus at the Padlock Ranch in Wyoming--"cowgirl in training."

When I walked into Managing Director Martha Cook’s house this weekend, a question, something along these lines, was posed by Martha’s husband Lantz.

I suppose if we looked at this query from one perspective, we could answer, “Well, redheads are far more fashionable these days.” If we’re comedians by day, we might reply with a wry, “They’re out looking for their brains.” Perhaps if we felt of a philosophical turn of mind, we might surmise that a far more serious kind of seeking was taking place…and we could find them if only we, too, found a “calling.”

Roping practice at the Padlock--do you think the "city duds" give me away?

In this case, we were in fact, never really cowgirls…although I’m flattered to have been labeled one, even by a fellow Easterner. That we had the chance to “play” the part, to keep our bottoms in a saddle most of our waking hours, to think like a cow and “eat like a man” (I don’t think diets are necessary when you’re working that hard), and wear a hat, hold a horn, and swing a rope like the “real deal” just might…well, that was just amazing. Amazing in the way a dream sequence might play out…even more so now that several weeks have gone by and I’ve been able to perfect my own performance in the role in my head.

I’d tell you some good stories, but I fear there’s enough film and camera footage on this blog to expose me as an individual prone to exaggeration…albeit glorious in detail and drama.

She's gone "English"--with Clarke this weekend, and looking nothing like a cowgirl, alas.

Martha and I had a chance to sneak in a ride on Sunday morning. It was a long weekend, and one spent by most cleaning up and digging out from the devastation left in Hurricane Irene’s wake. There were many opportunities to volunteer, help, and get muddy alongside friends and community members (our towns were amazing in their ability to organize and inform–thank you!) And it just felt good to be on a horse, moving over the mud instead of through it, for a little while. In honor of the GMHA 100-Mile Ride, which was canceled due to the GMHA grounds’ extensive damage, we trotted along the trail for a bit, thinking of those who should have been…or would have been….riding those same miles had Irene stayed off the coast instead of swinging inland.

Perhaps a few were blonde cowgirls.

Maybe they’ll be back next year.

Martha and Buster after our Sunday ride, East Coast Time.


Cattle “Hat Cam” Debuts and One Week Later, I Dare to Reminisce…

I wonder if there is a line of demarcation following momentous events in one’s life—you know, a dateline you cross that either makes it okay to talk about “it” some more, or on the other hand, signals a point when you really should just let it rest and let everyone around you forget what a great time you had…since it was probably without them.

In this case, a week of work and city under the belt, plus an unruly hurricane bearing down on the Trafalgar Square Books offices, not to mention the homes of family, friends, and colleagues, has made the fading taste of latigo, sweat, and sun-faded grasses a little sweeter and a little stronger…dare I say for “old times’ sake”? It doesn’t take long to make a soft bed and good meal a distant memory. Nor do many days have to pass before a new friend, once close enough to share a quiet riding moment with…or a sunrise…or a flickering campfire…seems almost a stranger again.

The horses I had the pleasure of riding over the course of the week I spent with TSB Managing Director Martha Cook on the Padlock Ranch in Ranchester, Wyoming, have no doubt forgotten me—my scent, my voice, perhaps my weight in the saddle. They have done well by another rider by now…or more likely several. I am not inclined to imagine that they might remember me the way I remember them: Copper…patient, sure-footed, and sweet-faced; Smoky…with a nose for a cow and an unusual gaseous propensity; and TJ…so sensitive off the leg and weight aid, big, and handsome. When we drove off the ranch we crossed their dateline. We no longer figure into their work-oats-range equation.

I’ve wondered a bit if I’ll find the time in the months ahead to sift through the hundreds of photos I haven’t posted here, in order to show more of them. I’ve pondered whether it is worth it–whether anyone really cares. But then, this evening, I finally had a chance to edit down one of the “hat cam” movies I managed to capture (against all odds), and I found myself transported for an hour to a quiet mountain range deep in the middle of this expansive country. I lived it all over again, for a few minutes, right here at my desk.

And that is worth sharing.

The song is “Grandfather’s Brand” by the Padlock’s own Jesse Ballantyne, from the album Cowboy Serenade. Like it like I do? You can download it HERE.


Last Day, Final Ride, Flight Home

To our surprise, we had time to go for one final ride before we caught our (very small) plane out on Saturday. It seemed appropriate to “wind down” and bid a final adieu to one of the views that had, frankly, become almost commonplace over the course of the week. We saddled up and climbed up through the horse pasture behind the guest lodge, and after a brisk canter brought us to the top of one of the Wolf Mountains (really, hills), we looked away toward the Bighorns, Sheridan, Dayton, and Ranchester.

It seems natural that on a last ride on a last day of a memorable and wonderful week one would spend time considering how best to revisit the adventure again in the future…it seems natural that one would go over and over the highest of the (many) high points and laugh again at the goofiest moments–smile at the touching or tender ones.

We did all that, I’m sure.

I write this now, just outside Boston, on a muggy night with the window open before my computer. I can see the chain link fence across the way glinting in the street light. I can hear the cars going by on McGrath Highway. It was only yesterday that I rode TJ  up a Wyoming hillside next to Martha and Steve…but it already feels like years ago.

I miss it.

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Day Six: Contemplative Ranching

Today was our last full day at the Padlock Ranch in Ranchester, Wyoming.

Tomorrow I have to ride in one of those little airplanes again.

Pavement, traffic, and my desk chair await.

I could attempt to describe the day we had, as I’ve done in previous posts. I could summarize our conversations, the things at which we laughed, the views at which we gazed.

But I think, if you’ve been reading along this week, that by now you get it.

At one point this afternoon, our group gazed out over a long valley after having pushed 100 or so cattle through it and up the mountainside. We sat on our horses, side by side, and watched a few bovine stragglers weave their way out of the brush and up through the tall, waving grasses. Someone remarked that watching cows was fascinating. We all agreed.

After a week of moving with the cattle and learning how they communicate, what they notice, when they walk and when they run, Martha and I continue to be endlessly amused by their curiosity. They crowd around you, ears forward, eyelashes long, with a look of bemused wonder. Even when a comrade is roped (this time of year, most likely for doctoring purposes) and her or his bellowing must certainly communicate stress and/or anger at such an affront, cows will generally stick around, stick their nose in, and “ask” what’s going on.

It might be fascinating watching the cows, but the cows spend a lot of time watching us, too.

This mutual character study can’t help but be good for both sides. In the cows’ case, a little human presence breaks up their long days and offers a little adrenalin rush…after all, it must get boring working one’s way from grass patch to grass patch, brush to meadow, lying down and standing back up.

In the humans’ case, we have a chance to slow our usual manic pace to match the cows’…we can breathe more slowly, consider the landscape before we move across it, and think a lot about mealtimes.

The Padlock offered me a chance to leave the world of Apps and deadlines, reach down and touch the ground I’m standing on, and look up and acknowledge the heavens above. It made me think, but not in the sense of buying or selling or making a living. It made me think about earth, wind, and sky. It made me think about land stewardship. It made me think about the food that I eat and the hands that grow it, raise it, and harvest it.

I joked a lot this week about leaving my brain behind and actually gave myself permission to let my head “run on empty.” But the truth is, I had more opportunity to indulge in quiet contemplation and deep thought this week than I have in a long time. The Padlock Ranch experience wasn’t a frenzied rush to get things done; it wasn’t programmed from sunup til sundown. It wasn’t forced, or exhausting, or overwhelming–all of which I can imagine are possibilities on a ranch “vacation.” Martha and I were masterfully woven into the fabric of daily work on the ranch, so that we weren’t just along for the ride. But, at the same time, our hosts respected our comfort zones and allowed us to decide how much we were ready or willing to give. We didn’t ride nose-to-tail; we had freedom of movement. We didn’t chatter incessantly, but spirited conversation flowed easily between and around comfortable silences.

Basically, it rocked.

We hope to get one last ride in tomorrow morning before we go to Sheridan to catch the first of two planes home. In the days ahead, I’ll share video and more photos, as well as detailing symptoms of Padlock Withdrawal. I can’t believe the week is over already.

At least I have an awful lot to think about.

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Day Five: Making Movies and “Hot Dogs” (and a Little Riding, Too)

So, I know I’m behind a day, but yesterday started early and ended late (which here, is a good thing). The good news is today you will get two posts complete with tons of pictures (to drool over, I should think).

We were up early Thursday morning…the sun was just rising when we all made our way out to a draw just a ways down from the lodge. We were there to see the horses brought in–or rather, to watch a film crew watch the horses brought in.

A French film crew creating a documentary about the West had requested Padlock provide a number of opportunities to obtain footage, and I have to say, I can’t imagine a better setting. With no outside distraction, breathtaking scenery, and the drama provided by the livestock, horses, and hands, what more could you really want? (A couple of curious greenhorn bystanders, perhaps?)

We were on the ground early in the day, and got a lesson in colt-starting from Steve Johnson and his son Isaac (a film crew request). The colt belonged to Padlock Assistant Operations Manager Les Nunn, and he was a bright, nice-looking colt that had obviously been started right. It was only his second time in the round pen, but he advanced through the lessons in a mannerly way, and before we all knew it, Isaac was on him. As many of you know, started right, a colt isn’t going to put on a bronc show the first time a rider gets in the saddle, and this morning’s demonstration was testament to that.

We rode out later to drive some cattle, again for the film crew (as well as to check for foot rot), and it was by far the most intense “ranch” experience I’ve had yet. We had to gallop up and down some steep hillsides and actually (no, really!) turn the cows, keep them together, and all the things you see on TV and wish you had the guts to do.

The Padlock’s hundreds-of-thousands of acres is actually made up of a number of smaller ranches that were acquired over the years by the ranch founders (as well as the original Padlock lands). One of these, the – V (umm, I think that’s the right way to spell what sounds like “Bar Vee”) has some older ranch buildings on it, so we took the wildest ride I’ve ever had in a golf cart over a rocky cross-country “road” (I guess you could call it) to have a look (and there Padlock CEO Wayne Fahsholtz saved us from a long walk back by filling up our tank with diesel). The property is truly lovely, and the terrain quite different than the valley in which the guest lodge is located. Perhaps this is what has impressed me most about this trip to Wyoming–the remarkably varied landscape, from lush green to arid dry to rocky mountaintop.

Our day again ended around a campfire, where I was introduced to the best “hot dog” I’ve ever tasted–they are actually huge and sausage-like, but filled with Country Natural Beef (yep, the very same from the Padlock program). I also was informed that a hot dog is also known as a “tube steak”…perhaps that makes it more palatable? Knowing that it is all-natural beef certainly does…

So, the moon came up, the doughies came out, and pretty soon we knew that this day, too, was done.

That it, in fact, was a “wrap.”

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Day Four: Muffins, Mountains, and “Doughies” (and Horses, Too)

This morning I had the best muffin I have ever tasted for breakfast. I thought it might be the way it was baked, but I’ve discovered it owes its singular “delectability” to the fact that, while still warm, it was rolled in butter and doused in cinnamon and sugar.

I somehow ended the day as I began it, reveling in the marvels of culinary wizardry (and frankly, butter) as Martha and I were introduced to a campfire treat known to the Johnson clan as a “Doughie.” With the help of Pillsbury biscuit mix and a patent-pending cooking device that I can promise you will all want once you’ve tried one of these buttery balls of coal-fired goodness, Kristin Johnson delivered, as promised, something far better than the traditional S’more. No kidding. Doughies are the next big thing (around campfires, anyway).

Sandwiched between puffed, buttered, and sugared pastry was a day high up in the Bighorn National Forest–well, we were actually mostly in the grasslands that are located in the Bighorn Mountains, and while some of it is indeed forested, much of it is open and provides grazing for a few hundred head of the Padlock’s cows, calves, and bulls. Ranchers can graze cattle in the Bighorns if they secure a permit to do so, and in tougher years when feed may be scarce, the additional territory can prove invaluable.

Today we actually moved cattle from one part of the permitted area to another, and while really a rather orderly and slow-moving affair, it proved exciting for Martha and me nonetheless. I actually obtained live “hat-cam” footage of this momentous event…unfortunately, the very large video file is proving difficult to download, so you’ll all have to wait.

Isaac Johnson led us all to as idyllic a spot in the world as I’ve yet come upon…at the foot of a rocky face that jutted out of the ground, piercing an untarnished blue sky, wound a cold bubbling river. Far off at the end of a not-unpleasantly boggy meadow we could see two cabins, barely visible at the edge of the woods. A fly fisherman was casting into the rapids as we rode the horses to the river’s edge. There we dismounted, offered the horses a drink and a chance to graze, while we each indulged in a few quite moments…with our horses, with each other, with the grasses at our feet and mountains surrounding us…it was easily the most profound 15 minutes of peace I have known–or at least that I can remember.

I wish that this property, its people, its ideals, and its timelessness, would make itself just a little harder to love and a little easier to leave. I can’t help but wonder, once the sun has set on this week, how I can possibly find a way back again.

Kristin Johnson’s Padlock Muffins (courtesy of Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks)

Padlock Guest Lodge Hostess and Head-of-Kitchen Kristin Johnson highly recommends this cookbook, and after a glance through, I have to agree–the recipes are great and Ree shares charmingly written anecdotes that will surely make you smile. So will these muffins:

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup shortening

1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 F

Stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, cream the sugar and shortening, then add the eggs. Alternate adding the flour mixture and 1/3 of the milk to the creamed mixture, then fill greased muffin cups, bake for 20 to 25 minutes, and remove from the pan. Melt 2 sticks of butter and combine 1 1/2 cups sugar with 3 teaspoons cinnamon. Dip the warm muffins in  the butter, then roll them in the sugar and cinnamon. Seriously. And Kristin says you really should use 2 sticks of butter.

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Day Three: Holdin’, Headin’, and Hurtin’ (But Not SO Bad!)

Today was our first “full day” at the Padlock, although our third in Wyoming. We awoke to French toast and sunshine (Steve’s wife Kristin does all the cooking…don’t even get me started on the chicken pot pie we had for dinner tonight). Marvelous.

I guess with consistency in mind and perhaps even kindness, Martha and I were once again assigned the same four-legged partners we had yesterday. Copper and Blanco have now had 48 hours to decide whether or not they will put up with our East-Coast ways–and I must say, bless them, they chose to be benevolent souls and carried us through the day with little complaint and a whole lot of downright reliability.

We had a task of sorts today, and that was to ride through the 10,000-acre pasture (ha ha, you might say, when somewhere in the midst of 500,000 acres) and check out the “replacement heifers” (those that are intended to take the place of non-productive cows in coming seasons) and steers marked for the Country Natural Beef program for foot rot–which has been described to me as something akin to athlete’s foot.

It took some time and navigation of steep (yet beautiful) terrain to find our first lot of heifers and steers (at which point Martha and I both exclaimed, “Cows!”…yes, that would indeed identify us as the “dudes” we are). But we were in for some action. Isaac Johnson (Steve and Kristin’s son) rode through the herd as Martha and I “held” them in the midst of a massive prairie dog town. Note: Two things should be mentioned here–1) “Held” may be putting it strongly…we sat on our horses in a particular position on a hillside, as we were instructed, and I DID move back and forth a few times when a particularly brazen cow started to come my way; and 2) have you ever stood in the midst of a prairie dog town? The sound of the prairie dogs chastising you for your presence is almost deafening, and it is actually hard to find solid ground on which to tread, their holes are so darn prevalent.

Anyway, when checking a herd for foot rot, you move through the cows to get them to get up and walk or trot, basically affording you the chance to check them for lameness–a common symptom. If they appear off, they must be roped and checked and if necessary, given an antibiotic, which means they must be removed from the Country Natural Beef program (you don’t really want that).

Isaac found one that was suspect, and to our greenhorn delight, he and his father had to rope it and check it for the fungus, then mark it and release it–it made for exciting riding in and around Chez Prairie Dog.

There’s really nothing like having a cowboy gallop right by you, hot on the heels of a heifer, so close you can hear the rope whizzing through the air. Amazing, intense, and addictive.

So it only seemed appropriate that after dinner (that delicious chicken pot pie I mentioned earlier), we all meandered down to the horse barn for some roping practice on a wooden dummy (the cows were very thankful). Reata Brannaman, who is good friends with Isaac and Cooper Johnson and lives in Sheridan with her dad Buck and mom Mary, gave Martha and I a first-rate, first-timer’s introduction to the art of holding and throwing a rope. Both of us are pretty bad at the whole activity at the moment (let’s just say we have nothing to brag about and lots to be embarrassed by), but we’re surely destined to get better…

And miracle of miracles, despite the fact that we were on horseback from 8:30 to 4:30 today, and rode over varied terrain and at various speeds, neither of us is too lame to climb stairs, sit in a chair, or get in bed.

It really doesn’t get much better than this…

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Day Two: Padlock HEAVEN

We ran around Sheridan this morning, determined to visit the famous KING’S SADDLERY (more about this stop on our main HorseandRiderBooks blog), as well as find Martha some shoes, and buy a case of wine before our 11 am pickup–luckily, Sheridan is kind of a one-main-street kind of town and it was completely possible to complete our to-do list. (Oh, and the Mint Bar opens at 10 am…so for all those readers who care, I DID make it there, and I DID take a picture of the huge stuffed wolf…and shook hands with the owner–very nice guy! I’ll write about it in a future post).

Steve Johnson picked us up to transport us to the ranch. He works there seasonally, along with his wife Kristin and sons Isaac and Cooper. Now there’s a lot that’s special about Steve…let’s start with the fact that he’s an accomplished artist. His paintings capture a wonderful authenticity that can make you laugh out loud or feel the sharp pang of nostalgia.

Steve’s also a cowboy and horse trainer, and following our introduction to our absolutely FABULOUS accommodations (slate showers, private deck access, incredible location) he gave us one of the best lessons in basic horsemanship I’ve ever had. Now I’ve edited a number of books, and I’ve also handled and ridden horse since I was five, but I still felt like I was learning something, and learning it well.

The Padlock Ranch spans almost 500,000 acres. Seriously. They talk casually about “ridin’ up to the 10,000 acre pasture.” The utter massiveness of the operation is astounding, and its beauty somehow matches that. The quiet skies (no air traffic), the lack of roads, the utter isolation within 30 minutes of Sheridan creates a space that feels freeing and yet safe; wide open and yet not lost; private and yet all yours. I haven’t been here long, but I can tell you it is like no place I’ve ever been before.

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Ranch Horse Wishlist: A Feeble Attempt at Building the Perfect 8-Hour-Ride in the Vain Hope that Perhaps It Does Exist…

Despite the fact that Martha kindly offered the opportunity to hop aboard her Morgan earlier this week, I still haven’t ridden in preparation for our Wyoming riding adventure. In fact, as I alluded in my last post, DESTINATION PADLOCK RANCH has taken on a slightly forboding tone, primarily because I was kindly reminded that “chafing” isn’t always paired with the word “dish.”

Have I shown you where we are staying??? Yep, the guest lodge totally rocks.

Nonetheless, I remain confident (although perhaps falsely so) that my years of experience in the saddle and on different speeds-and-breeds will do me well. I have a hard time imagining giving up the dream of having nothing to do but “ride the range” (and, er, I guess whatever the boss hand tells me to do?) because my muscles hurt and the view from the guest lodge deck beckons (along with the hot tub).

So, with a nod to the “rules of attraction” and the “power of positive thinking,” I will set aside my warmup moans-and-groans and instead concoct a horsey cocktail that is sure to leave me feeling good about the world, swell about my riding skills, and certain that everyone I just met is indeed my best friend.

I give you my Ranch Horse Wishlist:

1. I wish that you will be smart. Not “S-M-R-T” smart. Not solving calculus equations with your hoof smart. But something comfortably in between so that I can count on you to save my sore butt when I choose the wrong dogie to wrangle.

2. I wish that you will be tall. But since you are a Quarter Horse (most likely), I’ll settle for big-barreled.

3. I wish that you will still have a sense of humor despite the fact you have worked the range for (probably) 20 years, through all seasons, all storms, and with all manner of imbeciles in the saddle. I hope you can laugh (with me…not at me) when I ask you dumb questions or forget which leg goes where.

4. I wish that you will have a nice eye that softens when you look at me (once I bribe you with the sugar that was meant for my six a.m. coffee) and brightens when I visit you in between rides.

5. I wish that you will be cuter and faster than Martha’s horse.

6. I wish that you will have a wild mane for me to rub and tussle when we do something fun (and that it is long enough for me to grab when I start to fall off…)

7. I wish for you to have an independent spirit and curiosity so we can venture away from the group, just the two of us, with neither of us feeling lonely.

Is my "wish horse" waiting for me? (Or running away??)

8. I wish for you to feel spunky in the morning and satisfied after a long day’s work (mostly to make up for my own sorry self).

9. I wish for you to have a smooth, sure-footed lope that covers miles without my noticing (fat chance, you say…and I know, I know…)

10. And finally, I wish for you to fall just a little bit in love with me, as I’m absolutely sure I’ll fall for you.