is one of the hardest ways there is of making a living. It’s 24/7 and
then some. Up before dawn, cattle, horses, sheep and goats to feed and check
on, constant gate and fence repair, breeding, birthing, training and culling
livestock, vet and farrier skills, clearing land, building pens, welding,
hauling in and unloading hay and grain, tractor and saddle repair…it
goes on and on and on. Ahhh, but the romance of it! After having contacted
William and Marcy Epperson and doing a recent article about their ranch for
The Horse Gazette, they were kind enough to invite me out to their ranch in
Rock Springs, Texas, to go on a angora goat round up and watch the shearing.
Now I know ranching on their scale would wear me out but quick, but I got
to spend two whole days being pea green with envy.
I arrived, later than expected, and pulled into their driveway as William and his ranch hand, Russ Brown, were loading saddled horses into a stock trailer. Marcy met me at the car and asked if I was ready to ride and told me to go bundle up in warm clothes because we’d still be in the saddle after dark. I hurried into the bunkhouse and pulled out my gear as my excitement mounted. Hmmm, bundle up huh? It was after 2pm and already chilly. I’m a wimp about goose bumps anyway, so I put on dry socks, an undershirt and long drawers, a long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, jeans, work boots, gloves, stretchy cap and had my Carhart jacket on. Then out came the chaps. I had warned the Eppersons about my chaps. I had the chaps custom made something like 6 years ago, rodeo cut, doeskin and chocolate with fringe to spare and had yet to wear them anywhere but in a costume class that was years ago (see embarrassing photo). I met Marcy at her truck with my fancy chaps slung over my arm and we took off in front of William who was hauling the four horses.
We drove for quite sometime down gravel roads, through bump gates and over terrain that was getting rougher and rougher. Marcy and I got acquainted quickly and she graciously answered all my nosy questions. I had “open the locked gate duty” and by the time we went through two or three of these, William had caught up. We stopped at some catch pens that had a windmill close by and it was beautifully picturesque. The sun was low in the sky, and the color of the sky was spectacular.
William unloaded the horses and bridled up a lovely little line back dun named Ms. Helena for me (actually, her barn name is "Angelina" (pronounced Onhelena) and it probably sounded like Ms. Helena to me because of the Spanish 'h' sound for 'g'. Her registered name is Little Power Lauro). Anyway, Ms. Helena and I sized each other up and had a brief telepathic chat that consisted of me begging her not to dump me on my rump, especially not in front of a crowd. I buckled on my rodeo cut, fringed chaps and headed toward Ms. Helena. No one said a word about my chaps. Marcy stood patiently holding Ms. Helena for me to get on and it took me less than 5 seconds to assess the fact that with my knee highs, long underpants, undershirt, long sleeved shirt, sweat shirt, Carhart jacket, gloves, stretchy hat and rodeo cut fringed chaps, jeans and work boots, that there was no way I was gracefully getting my butt in that saddle. As I grunted and tried to look cool and pull myself up on a very patient Ms. Helena, it wasn’t half a second later that Marcy had come to the same conclusion. “Here” she said kindly, “let’s go over by that big rock.” Looking and walking like the Michelin Man I gratefully climbed aboard Ms. Helena. What a wonderful first impression I made on the gentleman rancher and his wife. They must have thought. “Cripes, she can’t even get on a horse!” So “Ok” I think to myself, “ so I’ve been standing on tailgates all my life to get on my percherons.”
Now all four of us were mounted and it’s decided that I’ll ride along with Marcy, and William and Russ will go around the other way. We enter a pasture of several hundred acres on our search for about 400 angora goats. Everyone is riding with some urgency since the job needs to get done today, and done before dark. Ms. Helena and I had telepathically communicated that if I didn’t push her too hard, she wouldn’t toss me too far. It’s very rocky in Rock Springs and Ms. Helena was the kind of gal that could navigate this harsh environment easily, however, I was not. I let her poke along and look at every stone she had to step on or around…we HAD made a deal after all. After about 20 minutes of riding, and Marcy patiently waiting up for me, and Ms. Helena only slightly pinning her ears when I urged her forward, Marcy told me she had to get to work and we had to separate. I was instructed to follow “the ridge” and drive any goats I found to the “high corner”. And POOF! Marcy was gone. Ok, here I am on a horse I just met, drop kicked onto hundreds of acres of cedar, cactus and rocks, following what I thought possibly could be, and possibly might be, a “ridge”. Ms. Helena with her head down and ears up navigated us well and within two minutes I could no longer hear Marcy’s horse’s shoes. “I’m ok.” I thought to myself. “I won’t get lost and start to freeze after dark and have to split my horse’s belly open for warmth like I’ve read in some westerns novels while I fight off coyotes flapping doeskin and chocolate rodeo cut fringed chaps above my head.” By this time I had been following the “ridge” for about 20 minutes and realized it was probably 20 minutes behind me. I was now in a cedar break that was impassable unless I turned back and retraced my steps (an option that is not in my DNA makeup) or go for the skinny trail with the 4 inch thick limb that was saddle horn high. I choose that. I tell Ms. Helena I trust her to get us through it in one piece. I give her her head and lean down over the horn as far as my Michelin Man outfit will let me. Ms. Helena doesn’t bat and eye even as the cedar nearly pulls us over and my shoulder hangs 3 seconds too long on the branch, but we make it! “What a horse!” I say to Ms. Helena as I give her a hearty pat on the neck and take note that my rodeo cut fringed chaps did their job. We travel on, and I’m not getting any feeling for the shape of the pasture or the whereabouts of my absent riding companions. I finally decide to head for a hilltop and have a look see. I look, and see, miles and miles and miles of cedar and rocks. So I sit quietly and watch Ms. Helena listen. She listens to the left; she listens to the right and then back to the left as she lifts her head a notch. “That’s the way we go! Good horse! Good, good horse!!” Another 20 minutes and I see the Russ on the tough little Spanish gelding he was riding. “HORSE MAKE TRACKS!” I tell Ms. Helena. Poor Russ, I stuck to him like glue asking silly questions and telling him, “I smell goats.” “Yes Ma’me” he’d politely reply. Now I’ve been riding for over and hour, I’ve covered plenty of ground and I have yet to see a goat. I stick with the Russ for a while and Marcy makes a brief appearance asking if we’ve seen goats or William. “No.” we both say and she’s gone again. Russ and I zigzag back and forth for quite sometime and still don’t see a goat or the Eppersons. Finally we come upon what must be the high point where we are all to meet with the goats and then drive them down the fence line. Except not knowing the pasture, and Russ on his second day with the Eppersons, I decide I’m not so sure we’re in the right place. Russ decides to head down a wash thinking he hears goats. I had smelled them on and off for the whole ride and to finally hear them was a good sign. Now since I wasn’t sure if this was the high point, I tell the Russ that I’m going to follow the fence line down to follow what I perceived is the right direction to the truck. He tips his hat to me, says “Yes Ma’me” and is gone.
Ms. Helena and I travel the fence line for almost and hour and by now the sun has set and it’s getting cool fast. I can still see in the pink and blue, to navy colored sky and we move steadily on, stopping on occasion to listen for clues. We hear a couple of hollers and the sound of horseshoes on rocks, but no one calls out or comes over the hilltop, so we keep moving. About half an hour before dark I spot the windmill that we had parked by. I ride back to the catch pens and unsaddle and unbridle Ms. Helena and turn her into one of the small pens where the green grass is ankle high. I had ridden 3 hours and not seen a single goat. Ms. Helena goes to grazing as I start un-Michelining myself. Just 10 minutes later William, Marcy and Russ return. They nearly all the goats! The horses were unbridled and loaded and we headed back to the ranch house to warm up and eat. I was thrilled to get to ride a regular sized horse and be off by myself enjoying the countryside and just simply being in a saddle…and I had another day to go. After some great crock-pot chili, a hot shower and a phone call to my sister telling her about all the excitement I’d had, I fell right to sleep, anxious for the next day.
Early the next morning I went with the men to check and feed the cattle, goats, sheep and horses. First we stopped at the yearling pen and 25 brightly splashed Paints came up for grain and corn. They were just gorgeous. Black and white, brown and white, dun, buckskins, blacks and grullos all vying for position at the feed trough. I must have taken a whole roll of film in just that one pen. Next we drove over to the sheep pen. They all came running along, following the truck. This gave William and Russ the chance to throw out hay and do a head count. All sheep accounted for, we moved on to the cattle pen. The Epperson’s raise Corriente cattle. Another head count was done and more hay thrown out. I took a bunch of pictures of cows too. Next we drive over to the two year old horses pens. Colts and fillies had been separated, but were in adjoining pens with large pastures. Again, I was absolutely delighted with the color and the spirit of the young Paint horses. They all looked spectacular, all muscled up and filled out. The Epperson’s way of pasture ranching horses allows the horses to learn herd behavior and grow up in nature’s elements. They learn to seek shelter, navigate rough country, and handle themselves when harassed by coyote or bobcat. I burnt up another roll of film while the horses were fed and counted. We returned to the house for coffee and a muffin and Marcy told me she wanted to take me out to see the mares in foal. We drove several miles from the ranch house and turned into a pasture that held the pregnant mares and several cattle. Vigil, William and Marcy’s young son, handled the bumpy ride through the pasture and gates by gurgling, giggling, fussing and letting his voice bump along with the road. A few minutes later we stopped on the ranch road. Marcy had brought along two bags of hay pellets and began calling to the mares. In a minute, waaaaay up on a ridge came a line of horses. “Oh” said Marcy, “the lead mare’s not bred.” Well now I’m squinting, thinking maybe I can see a horse, I definitely see movement, and Marcy can tell the mare’s not bred. The woman has the eyesight of a hawk and mare knowledge out the kazoo. So here come all the mares, in pecking order and several cattle are not far behind. Marcy warns me to get up in the truck since putting out the pellets can be hazardous around the horses and cattle. We get all the pellets dumped out in a long row and Marcy gets out of the truck and walks through the herd of mares checking on their health and appearance. I’m amazed at the wonderful condition of these mares, which are pasture bred and survive so well in this rough and lonesome country. Marcy gets a head count of both the horses and cattle and returns to the truck. I asked her if she ever came out here alone and she said she tries not to, but sometimes does. The magnitude of the land and strong sense of remoteness is very apparent in Rock Springs. It’s not a place that you dilly-dally or take for granted. We head back to the house because William has told us we’re going to go round up cattle! YEEHAW!!
Now it’s after lunch and the day is cooling down. I “Michelin Man” up again and find the lovely Ms. Helena outside, already saddled up and waiting for me. She doesn’t pin her ears or move away from me, so I figure she’s figured I’m not so bad. William, Marcy, Russ and I mount up and head across the road towards the cattle pastures. William usually rides their Paint stallion, Docs Drifter, and I note that the stallion though spirited and interested in all the other horses we encounter, respects William. Even though this is a stallion that runs free with the mares during breeding season, he’s a well-trained horse that drives and cuts cattle. He’s beautiful too. He’s a grulla tobiano with blue eyes. Marcy rides a brightly splashed filly, Russ is on the black gelding and I’m on Ms. Helena for the day.
The cattle pastures are fenced in the shape of a wagon wheel with the catch pen in the center. There are several cows in each pasture that must be driven to the center, separated and released into other pastures. As we ride through the first pasture, the terrain gets rough with rocks. There’s not one step that’s not a rock and usually rocks that move when stepped on. Ms. Helena has me figured out and is tippy toeing over the ground because she knows I’ll let her. I fall a little behind, but again am enjoying just being in the country riding at will. I catch up when I have to, and the four of us spread out and drive about 30 head of Corriente cattle towards the central catch pen. I’m glad William or Russ jumps off to get the gates because it would be a major production for me in my getup. William wants to hold one or two cows back, but release the others. One gate is opened and Russ, on his horse, stands behind the gate in case a cow tries to slip back through into the catch pen. Marcy and I stand mid-pen while William cuts out the cows he wants. Well, I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself…I see one of “the cows” that’s suppose to be held, make a run for open pasture… I kick Ms. Helena into action. Boy, did she wake up! It may not have looked like much to the observer, but to this cowgirl for a day, I was cutting cattle!! I kept the cow from passing, and I think I heard William say, “That’s the way!” however, it could have been “Get out of the way!” Anyway I went back to my post and stood my ground as long as I could help it, but I’d still bolt out on occasion and “help”. We worked three more pastures that afternoon; driving, separating and taking head counts. I was probably much too aggressive for a guest drover, but the Eppersons tolerated my behavior and my occasional burst of enthusiasm. William even sent me off in one pasture by myself. It was either to get me out of the way, or (and I like to think) he knew I’d hassle any wayward cow until it went in the right direction. Four pastures and four hours later it was time to head back to the house. Ms. Helena had been a perfect lady. Earlier in the afternoon I had ridden up by William and told him that I didn’t know, but I thought maybe Ms. Helena couldn’t navigate the rocks like he requires of his horses and that maybe he just ought to sell her to me because at my house there’s less rock. William, Marcy, Russ, Ms. Helena and me all knew I was lying about her rock climbing abilities, but if that mare could be squeezed into my PT Cruiser and William would let her go, I’d sure would have taken her home. William just grinned and said “Oh really.”
We rode back to the house and dismounted and as I was getting off of Ms. Helena, I learned a very important lesson. With both feet already on the ground I realized my jacket had hung on the horn. I was literally hanging there, toes barely on the ground, jacket not yielding. Luckily it was a button jacket and I released myself quickly. And luckily I was on Ms. Helena who stood stock still as I got myself out of trouble. If it had been a zippered jacket, there would have been no way to get a quick release. Buttons worked out, but snaps would have been better…checking before I dismounted would have been the smart thing to do. I was bundled up in a lot of clothes, but they wouldn’t have saved me had my horse decided to spook or buck. I’ll never get off a horse without checking my clothes first.
After a long day in the saddle, Marcy still
had the energy to cook chicken fried steak. We had a delicious dinner and
visited for an hour or so talking about horses and ranching, and then it was
time to turn in. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to see the goat shearing,
but I am invited back after all the foals are born. You can bet I’ll
take lots of film, and hopefully I’ll get to see Ms. Helena again. She’ll
have a foal by her side and be busy mothering, but I hope she’ll recognize
me in my Michelin Man suit with my doeskin and chocolate rodeo cut fringed
chaps. I also enjoyed the company of the Eppersons. They selflessly shared
their time and home with me, explained their way of ranching with clarity
and pride and exercised great patience with my exuberant behavior. They let
me call their horse Ms. Helena instead of her barn name Angelina, and it was
nice to hear the gentleman rancher address his wife as “dear”
and mean it.
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