Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Pop Quiz

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Guess which of the days in the forecast below is the one we're scheduled to spend all day at the corrals, pregnancy testing cows?


Looks like it's time to dig out the long underwear and the Muck boots. 



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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Lazy Cowgirl's Guide to Trailer Training

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Most people realize that competing on the rodeo circuit requires a great deal of travel. They might give passing thought to what it's like for the horse, riding along back there in the trailer, but I suspect most of you haven't considered what it took to persuade the horse to hop into that box on wheels to begin with. Horses aren't exactly geared for walking into confined spaces with no apparent exit. After all, they are prey animals, and what better way to end up as lunch than to get cornered?

Trailer training is one of those things that usually just sort of happens on our ranch, after the horse is reasonably well broke. The day will come when we need to circle the far south lease and riding three miles just to get to the starting point doesn't make much sense, so we'll hook up the big stock trailer and haul the horses out. The stock trailer is wide, long, and has open slats at the top, so it's minimally threatening. Load the older, more experienced horses first and the newbie will usually follow after only a moment or two of hesitation. Once they're accustomed to the stock trailer, it's just a matter of progression to the more confined spaces of our rodeo trailers.

This week was different. We have a two year old colt that needs breaking and a brother-in-law willing to take on the challenge. Unfortunately, said brother-in-law lives on the opposite side of the state, near Bozeman. And, as part of his payment for taking on the colt, he and my sister get use of my parents' good horse trailer, which has been standing idle since we're all taking a summer off from the rodeo trail. So here I am, with an unbroke, skittish two year old and the most challenging of our trailers, and somehow I have to persuade him to hop on in.

If you pay any attention to horse training, you'll know that the current trend is to do a ton of ground work with colts, all different kinds of exercises in the round pen and arena until they will not only follow you into a bar just because you asked, but also know what kind of drinks to order. This is great. Really. A lot of horses are living better lives and so are their owners, but if you've ever watched this kind of training, you'll notice one thing right away.

It is a crapload of freaking work.

I mean, running around the round pen, sucking air kind of work. I am really not a fan of sweating. So today I present the Lazy Cowgirl's Guide to Trailer Training, aka How My Grandpa Did It. If you want to try this at home, you'll have to start by acquiring a horse that's never been in a trailer, in this case a two year old Quarter Horse gelding named Captain (whose baby pictures you can see here, if you're inclined).



Day One, Sunday:

Begin with the least threatening of the horse trailers, our rodeo trailer, which has no stall dividers or mangers inside. Park it in the lot where the horse is confined and tie the door open. For the first day, back the trailer into those big tractor ruts just behind where it is in this picture, which brings the floor to ground level and eliminates the step up to get in.


Place the horse's grain and hay inside the horse trailer. Walk away. He'll either go in there to eat, or he's gonna get very hungry. In Captain's case, it took about half an hour and he was in there munching hay. 


Day Two, Monday:

Pull the horse trailer forward out of the tractor ruts so he now has to step up and down to get in and out. Put feed in trailer. Walk away. Come back for evening feeding to find all of morning's hay and grain cleaned up. Catch horse and lead him into the trailer as you put grain in the bucket. Try not to let him smash you in his eagerness to jump in and chow down.

Day Three, Tuesday morning:

Park the fancy, schmancy trailer in one of the horse lots. Tie open back doors. Put feed in manger. Walk away.


Come back for evening feeding. Find all of hay and grain from morning cleaned up, meaning the colt has been in the trailer. Catch ol' standby rope horse and load in front stall, with grain. Put grain and hay in the second manger for the colt. Lead him up to the back of the trailer and let him contemplate the situation for a few moments. Then tap him on the butt and watch him jump in for supper. Ease divider shut behind him. Voila! One colt loaded in the horse trailer for the first time, and happy to be there. 



I am well aware that this hands off method is unlikely to earn me a feature show on RFDTV and a my own line of training aids for sale online. On the flip side, as you're reading this Captain is most likely enroute to the Gallatin Valley, his first ever road trip, and we probably didn't have a near marital meltdown in the process of trying to load him.

Besides, if it worked for my Grandpa Mel....


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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Heart Butte

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A couple of weeks back my sister and her fancy schmancy new camera were visiting, so we decided to go off on a photo safari of the wildest reaches of the Blackfeet Reservation...at least from our perspective. We live on the northeast side and rarely venture to the southwest section, especially the back roads. So we gathered up my cousin Rhonda to be our personal historian/trail guide, since she lives down there. I'll sprinkle some of these photos around the blog over the next few weeks, starting with the area around Heart Butte, which is both a mountain and a town.


Green Lake....I think



Badger Creek canyon



Heart Butte



Jack pines, which were once used to hold burial platforms.



Sun lodge...and one explanation of what they're used for:  Okan


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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On the Road Again

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There is this window of opportunity in June when calving, branding and trailing to the summer pastures is done and haying hasn't started, so all there is to do is the thousand and one 'fix-its', and everybody knows the minute you cross something off that list the cows will go tear something down to replace it. If you need to take a road trip, this is the time. So we did, to my husband's home country of Brown County, South Dakota, clear out in the northeast corner, approximately 900 miles from here at the ranch, most of which involves driving kitty corner across Montana.

But let's rewind a few months, to the reason for the road trip, not that seeing Greg's family isn't enough. Many moons ago Greg told his brother to keep an eye out for a cheap grain truck in good condition. A couple of months back, we got an email with a picture and a message from David saying, "If you still want a truck, you should take a look at this one."

Greg did, and burst out laughing. Turns out, the truck in the picture was purchased brand new by his dad back in the 70's and auctioned off when he gave up farming due to health issues. Now the guy who bought it had it up for sale, and yes, cheap. You can bet Greg jumped all over that, because it is a good truck, in good condition, and it's a great memento of his dad who we lost over a decade ago.

We've been dithering about when to make the trip. Had to wait until school got out, then things kept popping up, finally last week we decided we just had to do it. Climb in the pickup and go. This decision was in no way influenced by the email from my sister-in-law about how they just bought a new pontoon and planned to spend the July 4th holiday cruising on the lake. Really. Just ask her how long it took me to write back and ask if they had room for three more on the boat.

Thanks to prolific rain in the past two weeks, the drive was gorgeous. Even the badlands in North Dakota were green, verging on lush. Almost made a person want to move to eastern Montana. A very large 'almost'. Negated immediately upon exiting our vehicle and being sucked dry by mosquitoes. My child looks as if he's had a recent case of chicken pox. Our wind here might not be pleasant, but it sure does keep the bloodsuckers at bay.

So instead of a dusty rodeo or a drive to Glacier National Park, our July 4th looked like this:



And a lot of this, which was when we realized our poor, underprivileged nine year old had never seen a professional fireworks display. Luckily, he got good pictures. 



And then the temperature hit ninety with an equal measure of humidity, so we loaded up the grain truck on the flatbed trailer with only four feet hanging off the back and began the trek home with a questionable clutch, but spare parts along just in case. I'd show you a picture of that, too, but for some reason the blog doesn't feel like loading it. Suffice to say, there were a lot of wide-eyed oncoming drivers on those narrow, eastern Montana roads. At least when I was at the wheel. 

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bog Blog

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We are lucky enough to live in an area where there are few true natural hazards. We don't have earthquakes, the chances of a tornado is low due to our proximity to the mountains, and we harbor no venomous snakes...as far as we know. We don't even have poison ivy.

What we do have are soap holes.


A soap hole is a spring that rises up in a particular kind of soil. Maybe one of you soil specialists out there could tell me exactly what it is about this white dirt that results in the formation of these bottomless wells of soupy, slick mud into which an animal can fall and never emerge, because when they try to crawl out the sides just collapse and they slide back in.

Worst of all is if a horse goes into one. We don't have any soap holes in our horse pastures, but an unsuspecting visitor once rode into one, and the horse couldn't begin to get out. After a few tries, he just gave up. One of the other riders broke out a rope, managed to toss it around the saddle horn, and they dragged him out, but then almost lost him to shock. Over the years, we've learned to warn outsiders what and where to watch for these death traps. 

And they're tricky. In dry weather the top crusts over and looks like solid ground, so a cow or calf will wander out onto it only to break through and sink. We put the tires around the edges to mark them, and you'll notice it's swallowing them up. There are countless more already at the bottom. We've tried fencing them, but they contract and expand based on how much moisture we get in any given year, so sometimes they eat the fence, too. 

Luckily, most of the time what falls in is able to get out, with nothing worse to show for it than a coating of nearly impermeable mud that they'll be wearing for days. And if there are some that don't...well, since all of our soap holes are clear out on the south lease, that's a cow or calf that goes missing and unaccounted for because unless it happens as we're trailing cows, we don't see it happen.

Given the price of cattle, we're going to be fencing the holes again this year. Unfortunately, even a good solid barbed wire fence wouldn't stop certain critters from venturing where they shouldn't. Good thing Max can swim. Now to toss her in the reservoir and get rid of the mud before she gets in the pickup for the trip home. 



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Sunday, June 01, 2014

Still Kickin'

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Yeah, it's been a while. Life sort of gang tackled us in the past month, the way life will do on a ranch. We've had cows to artificially inseminate and bulls to fertility test, and consider yourself lucky that I'm not sharing details or photos of either. Then there's branding and trailing to pastures and pondering which bulls should go with which bunch of cows, and oh, yeah, how 'bout all those fences the drifting snow knocked flat?

And somewhere in there, we do a little farming. And oh, right, on top of all of that? I'm in the process of training my replacement at my town job, which is requiring me to all of the sudden stop and explain all those million and one things you normally do at work without really thinking, and let me tell you, that much thinking pains me considerably. Not to mention the part about having to talk to people all day, when I'm used to just hiding back in my little billing office, safely away from the public eye.

Times like this, you sort of wish you didn't live in the place where it stays daylight until 9:30 pm, cuz that working 'til dark can damn near kill a person. Notice I didn't mention anything about starting at daylight. Morning people we are not, and if a person's gonna be self employed, they oughta at least get to choose what time they go to work in the morning.


In the meantime, though, my newspaper column does go on, so I do have a story to share. Here's one about our branding crew:


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Just Don't Shoot the Banjo Player

Over time, we have accumulated a rather motley collection of acquaintances and relatives, as one does. Our collection is a touch more diverse, due to our family's propensity for rodeoing and dragging home strays from all over the country. Plus the younger generations have moved around a lot and married people from 'away'. Plus I've become involved with writing and an arts festival that brought me into contact with performers from here and there. Plus there's this exchange program that brings young people from countries like England, Sweden, Norway and Australia to work for six months at a time on local ranches.

All of that is to explain how we ended up with all of this descending upon us for Memorial Day weekend:

First off, let it be clear that there is no holiday involved. We will be branding calves, the main herd on Saturday and a smaller bunch on Sunday. This requires gathering up a crew, which consists of friends, neighbors and family, whom one might rightly expect would be a solid cross section of native Montana ranch stock.

Yeah. Not so much.

First there's my husband, the pride of Bath, South Dakota. My cousin to the east will bring her husband, who is a former Highway Patrol officer and native of Long Island, New York. My cousin to the west will bring along his wife Charlotta, who is a native Swede but speaks four other languages. They'll also bring their current exchange worker Mitchell, who hails from New South Wales, Australia and speaks something none of us can understand unless enunciated slowly. He sports shoulder to wrist tattoos and sleeveless muscle shirts to show them off, which is fine by me because the tattoos are beautifully done--and so are the muscles.

So much for the locals. Next we have my sister and her two kids, who planned to pop over from Spokane for the weekend, except it got a little more complicated because my brother is currently deployed at what I swear he told me was a place called Skank in Afghanistan, and his wife was depressed about being home alone for the long weekend, so she's loading up her four boys and driving over from Tacoma to meet my sister and come to the ranch. Did I mention my sister in law is a native of the Dominican Republic, and Spanish is her first language?

Into that mix toss a bluegrass banjo player from the Flathead Valley who comes around two or three times a summer to practice his target shooting while helping to rid us of our constant infestation of gophers. Yep, we have the makin's of quite a crew. Or a backwoods version of the United Nations, except with varmint guns.

I starting counting heads and beds and meals and said, "I'd better make a run to the grocery store."
My husband started calculating how many shooters he was going to have on hand and said, "I'm gonna need more ammunition."

And then he looked at me and spoke the immortal words of redneck party planners everywhere: "You get the beer, honey, I'll get the bullets."

It'll all be good as long as nobody shoots the banjo player while he strums the theme from Deliverance in the background.


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Sunday, April 27, 2014

I've Been Traded

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Many years ago, when we still lived in Oregon and I was still working as a high school athletic trainer, I had summers off. Since I had nothing better to do with my time, I decided I might as well write a book.

Yeah, I was that clueless.

I wrote that book. And then I decided I'd like to try my hand at a mystery, so I wrote another one. And I read a lot of books on how to write books and I took a writing class at Blue Mt Community College, and finally after I finished the third book, my husband said, "So are you ever going to, like, try to make money at this?"

Huh. Now there was a thought. So I hunted up the closest writing conference that offered a chance to pitch your work to agents and editors, signed up for a couple of slots, tucked my book under my arm and marched into the Willamette Writers Conference with only slightly more of a clue than when I sat down at my computer to write for the first time. I pitched to one editor and one agent, and miracle of miracles, they both asked to see the whole manuscript.

And then....nothing. This was my first introduction to the speed at which the publishing industry moves, which is slightly slower than a snail in molasses on one of our sub-zero Montana days.

Finally, a couple months later I got a polite note from the editor saying Thanks, but no. And then one day, as I sat on the sidelines of a regional championship basketball game with approximately six hundred high school kids shrieking in my ears and a pep band mutilating Centerfold over in the corner, my cell phone rang.

The woman on the other end said, "Hi, this is Janet Reid."

And I yelled, "Who?" over the din.

And she said, "Where in God's name ARE you?"

That was the beginning of my relationship with the woman who has been my literary agent ever since. She has stuck by me through three unsaleable attempts at being a mystery writer and one she sent straight back with a note that said, "Uh, no. Private detective stories really aren't your thing." When I gave birth to a boy and changed careers and started a business and moved from Oregon back to Montana and didn't write anything for almost three years, she sent a baby gift and checked in periodically and finally said, "Okay, you've given reality more than its due, it's time you started writing again."

So I did, because writing a novel might be like sucking your brain out through your ear with an eye dropper and smearing it on a page, but it's still easier than saying no to Janet.

She hung tough after we decided mystery and suspense in general weren't my thing and I should try writing straight women's fiction and romance, even though by that point it specifically stated on her website she didn't represent either. In the process of writing my first non-suspense novel we both got so frustrated I bought a plane ticket, flew to New York and she locked us both in a conference room for two days with a poor intern named Ryan who probably went straight out afterward and got a job in something that was NOT PUBLISHING.

As we shopped that book to publishing companies, it became increasingly apparent we had evolved in different directions. When she signed me, Janet had novelists from several genres under her wing. Over the years, she has honed her stable of novelists to mainly crime, suspense and literary fiction writers.

And me.

The book industry is all about who you know, and what you know about them. Editors have preferences, and when an agent sends a book out they are, in essence, attempting to set up a blind date between two friends, hoping they'll fall in love with each other. Trouble is, most of Janet's friends wanted to fall in love with someone who commits murder and mayhem in their books, and I was writing love stories.

To find a match for me meant doing all kinds of extra work to learn about a whole different genre then develop contacts with those editors, who had no interest in any of her other clients. From my side, it meant I had an agent who wasn't fully in tune with my segment of the publishing industry. Not an ideal situation for either of us.

This is the point when most agents would throw in the towel. Actually, that point for most agents would've been about three books ago, but Janet isn't good at giving up. I began to fear opening her emails or answering her calls because I was sure any day now I'd be getting the one that said, "I'm sorry, but this just isn't working any more..." 

This week I got that call. Except she didn't cut me loose. Unknown to me, over the past few months she has gone out and hunted up the best possible agent for the books I'm writing and persuaded her to take me on.

If this were baseball, you'd say I'd been traded. I've cleaned out my locker at Fine Print Literary Agency, stuffed all my tattered manuscripts in a duffle bag and caught the red-eye to the west coast, where I've been picked up by the amazing Holly Root with Waxman-Leavell Literary Agency , in exchange for undisclosed amounts of scotch and, I assume, a writer to be named later.

It's gonna take a while for the jet lag to wear off, but I am convinced this change is for the best, and not just because Janet told me so. She also told me I'll be buying all the drinks next time we meet up.

I will be honored.

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