I spent the Memorial Day weekend on a working vacation in Wyoming. One of the puppies from the Dublin x Celeste litter is a working cattle dog on a 300-600 head cattle ranch outside of Daniel, and this last weekend was the yearly branding. The whole month of May is branding season and like a Mennonite barn raising, it’s both a working and social event where most of the community will assist in the work on each other’s ranches and enjoy a feast and party afterward.
Pinedale High School class of 2011 graduated on Friday and several of the graduates were in attendance at the branding, one even moved her graduation party forward just so she could attend. I don’t think any of the city kids at my high school would have moved their graduation party to work for free for an entire afternoon riding, roping, wrestling, and branding cattle. Especially not the Gucci-Hoochie girls or the velvet-palmed boys.
That’s not the case in cattle country, and there were more girls and women in attendance at the branding than there were boys and men. It was rather fitting given that the entire ranch is ostensibly a one woman show most of the year with Kara at the helm. Mr. Taylor runs a construction company and is the master of the various snow machines, 4x4s, motorcycles and diesel powered fun machines. Kara is the purveyor of all things warm blooded on the ranch, both two and four legged: children, dogs, horses, and cattle.
After a full morning’s work feeding, birthing, and cooking the dogs followed us over to the old homestead and we saddled up the horses as we waited for the guests to arrive.
The dogs were excited with all the people, movement, and anticipation in the air but they didn’t know how much fun they were about to have chasing cows and splashing in the natural streams that crisscross the acreage. Border Collies are natural workers and any sort of methodical human activity will draw their attention. One way to really freak out a reactive Border Collie is to totally ignore them and start dancing, or very slowly follow them around from behind. So all the commotion and orchestrated movement of the riders and the horses really had Mercury and Dublin mesmerized.
I was curious to see how well the dogs behaved around horses as this was their first exposure and you never know where the dog will draw the line between an animal that needs to be worked and one that is off limits. Both did just fine and were neither scared nor enticed to herd by the horses. With everything I throw at these dogs I’m always waiting to find the one thing they can’t handle, the spark for a melt down or tantrum and they never disappoint. It’s a blessing to have dogs that you never have to explain to people, dismiss their bad behavior, or worry about their safety or that of others. They always abide, are always friendly, and they always draw compliments.
When we first left the homestead and entered the pastures, there were only a few cattle milling about and the dogs were unsure what we wanted from them or what the mission was. Mercury came over to check in multiple times with a look on his face that said “why are you ignoring these cows!? Let me move them!”
But when we got up to the bulk of the herd and the riders began to arc behind and bring in the cattle from the rear, the lights turned on and Dublin and Mercury took off to get behind the cattle and help drive them back into the corral.
Dublin stayed close on my side of the herd and Mercury split out in a wide outrun to the other side of the herd and disappeared from view. I didn’t meet up with him again until the herd was all the way back in the corral and the branding was started. Word is that he was quite the little cow dog and one rider made a point of searching me out to tell me that my dog was hilarious. Apparently after most of the cows were through the last gate Mercury celebrated the event by finding a mud bog and wallowing in it vigorously while bellowing his satisfaction. I keep a blue plastic kiddie pool in the backyard to keep the dogs cool in the summer and Mercury is always the first one in and the last one out, but he’s never yodeled in bliss before so he was either totally amped by the cattle drive or he was stuck in the mud and wanted help out. Either way, I finally tracked him down wet but clean and sleeping in the back of one of the 4×4 utility vehicles I had given him a ride in earlier in the day and left parked behind the barn. He apparently managed to open the Velcro door himself and knew I’d come back for him there. I thought that maybe someone had put him there but it was so out of the way and everyone was busy with the drive that I suspect he figured it out himself. Smart dog.
I took some video of the drive but it’s so shaky that it’d probably give you an epileptic seizure if you tried to watch it. While most of the pasture is flat, it’s surrounded by several small bluffs which we riders would often use to form a perimeter. This was rather exciting for me getting Big Red to navigate the hills and valleys while keeping me on his back. This part of Wyoming has had record snows this year so the natural streams on the property were full and flowing. The clear shallow crossings went without incident, although a couple of times Big Red decided to jump the streams instead of wading into them, and somehow I survived and stayed in the saddle the entire time. I was told Big Red was a stellar horse, so thank dog there was at least one of us who knew what he was doing. The pool to see how long the city slicker stayed in his saddle payed out on “until the end.”
Back on the drive I did my best to stay on the horse and not make a complete fool of myself. It’s a lot easier to ride a horse as an adult since your legs are at 10 and 2 instead of 9 and 3. I remember as a child that I always had the feeling that I could fall off at any moment despite being unable to even get my legs back over the saddle without some clunky gymnastics. Now as an adult, sitting in a saddle felt very natural and I had no sensation of instability or falling, even when I got Red up to a fast trot to catch up to the other riders after I fell behind fooling with my camera. It was extremely liberating to be on a horse again after so many years and I can hardly wait until I get the chance again.
The final obstacle on the drive was the gate leading back into a long fenced corral where the roping and branding would soon take place. The experienced riders knew exactly where to park their horses to keep the cattle in line and moving. When I wasn’t needed to fill a gap along an edge I rode behind the final riders and snapped a few shots of the roundup.
After the herd was driven past the gate and crammed at the end of the corral, two horse trailers were pulled in sideways to provide a visual and physical barrier and the branding equipment was brought out. Dublin had a stellar moment when he turned back a stray calf in the corral and rounded up another stray all by himself.
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