The Cattle Keepers
Kathi Lynette Carlson was born on November 17, 1961 in Santa Barbara, California. Suzanne (Sue) Veronica Benech Field was born on May 12, 1950 in San José, California. Both women are respected "cowgirls" at the Hollister Ranch, where I had the pleasure of interviewing them on July 26, 2016.
CCW: I’ve seldom interviewed two people together, so this will be a little different, but you seem to work so well together as partners. It makes sense.
SBF: Well, to put it in perspective, we are officially CowBelle of the Year. It took two cowgirls to make one CowBelle this year.
KC: They had to go to national authorization for it to be the two of us. They never do that.
CCW: Can you tell me a little about the award?
SBF: It's given every year by the Santa Barbara County CattleWoman’s Association. They chose Kathi and me because we work together so well as a team, both of us, promoting cattle in the county, doing good deeds and good works. So we're CowBelle of the Year.
CCW: And you got those beautiful silver bracelets.
SBF: Yes, hence the bracelets. We're inseparable.
KC: We have silver cow bells, too, with our names engraved on them.
SBF: It’s sorta like being Miss America. And now we’re on the committee to choose the next CowBelle.
CCW: It must be quite an honor. How many cattle women are there in California?
SBF: It is an honor. It’s huge. How many cattle women in California? Well, there’s fifty-two counties in California, and there’s cattle women in every one of those counties, I’d say there’s probably thirty to a hundred cattle women in each county. Santa Barbara County is well represented. I think there’s probably a hundred or more members. The charge of the Cattle Women is to represent the cattle industry and promote beef.
KC: Teach, encourage, inform, excite people about it.
SBF: Kathi and I work for the California Rangeland Trust in preserving rangelands, and we do a lot of work promoting cattle and better rangeland management and such, and we work with schools coming out to the Hollister Ranch showing them what cowgirls and cowboys do…
KC: And we’ve gone to schools in town.
SBF: We’ve done a lot of different things like that to promote beef in Santa Barbara County.
CCW: Which leads me to my next question. I see you out there on your horses sometimes, and it's so picturesque, but I really do wonder, what actually do you do? Can you tell me about the work you do as cowgirls?
KC: I just think about it as how lucky we are!
SBF: Because you love what you do. That’s the important thing.
KC: No two days are the same. Every day is different. I love that.
SBF: It keeps you humble, too. So...what do we do? We take care of the cattle, and what that means is that you have to have the right number of cattle in the right place at the right time. You have to notice whether the cattle are ill, or if there might be something dangerous. You move cattle regularly because you want to evenly graze your rangelands, so there’s a lot to do. Whether you’re doctoring a cow, or moving a cow, or gathering the bulls in because the bulls' season for breeding is over, or just shoeing your horses so you can get out and do that, it's all part of the job. And your horse is a huge partner.
KC: The horse is like your car. You’ve got to keep it cared for.
SBF: So it’s a constant thing. When you’re dealing with livestock, things happen all the time. Unusual things happen. In normal situations, you just go out and keep a good eye on what’s going on. Based on your eye, and the information you have and the crew you have with you, you respond to the task at hand, and it’s constantly changing. It’s never the same twice.
KC: And every season is different….if you’re shipping, receiving, branding…
CCW: What season are we in now?
SBF: We’re in shipping season. We’ve just shipped a lot of cattle off the ranch. Because of the drought as well, we’ve just culled more cattle, and more and more every year, because this is the fifth year of drought, and it’s really difficult, so we cull very heavily, we move cattle off earlier, we ship them off earlier…just because the grass cannot sustain the number of cattle that we’re used to.
CCW: How long have you been doing this here at the Hollister Ranch?
SBF: I’ve been helping John McCarty since 1992. I’ve been an owner here since 1986, and I was sort of around and was used as a quasi-volunteer, until finally he decided, “Oh, she likes this. We’ll give her more work.”
CCW: You had a previous career as a marine biologist?
SBF: I still have that career. I’m semi-retired right now, because the cattle business takes a lot of time, and so does marine biology, so you have to pick. And actually, you won’t believe this, but being a marine biologist offshore is a lot more difficult than being a cowboy! And that’s saying something, because it’s pretty difficult being a cowboy; it’s pretty rigorous physically. But it’s a little bit more rigorous to be rolling and patrolling on the briny deep.
CCW: And Kathi, what about you?
KC: I became an owner in 1996. I think it was 2002 when I started riding…and in 2004 I left my job at Patagonia. I did advertising and catalogs and design for them for twenty years. I took a leave of absence because I decided I couldn't just do this part-time and make it happen, and I loved doing it. So I left my job at Patagonia, and followed my heart. That was 2004 when I started giving it everything I have.
CCW: So you’re full-time doing this. And you, Sue, are full-time plus doing marine biology?
SBF: I dabble in marine biology when needed. Kathi and I both do other things. Like we do baseline surveys for the California Rangeland Trust, which has nothing to do with actual cowboy-ing but has a lot to do with being able to talk to ranchers and understand their needs and wants, and I’m a biologist, so I can put together a nice package for them when they’re going for conservation easements.
KC: One of the things we tell the kids when they come here or we go to the schools is that you go to school and you get your degree in whatever field you choose–Sue got it in marine biology, and I have it in graphic design. Your life will evolve, and that skill will follow you and work for you in whatever you do, in ways you would not have predicted! I’ve done brochures, ranch reports, beef labels…I use my graphics all the time. Sue uses biology all the time. So we try to tell the kids: follow your heart, do what you do, and don’t let that slow you down from moving to the next place. Just keep going, because it will evolve into something else. It all comes together.
CCW: You two are an extraordinary team. You complement each other so well.
SBF: Exactly. And that’s why we’re CowBelle of the year!
CCW: So presumably you both grew up riding horses, or something like that?
SBF: I grew up on a farm. My parents grew apricots, cherries, prunes. My dad was what they call an orchardist. He had nothing to do with horses. His biggest contact with a horse was when he was growing up, he had to use the old gray mare to till between the grape vines for his father because you couldn’t get a tractor between the two sets of vines. So that was his experience with horses. My mother was a city girl from Detroit. Married a farmer. Afraid of animals! She grew out of it. But my horse thing…I don’t know…it just came from somewhere.
CCW: Do you have siblings?
SBF: An older brother and a younger brother. Neither of those were interested in horses either, but both are in agriculture. So ag was our start. But when I was about seven or eight I just decided I wanted a horse, and my dad said, 'then earn more money around the ranch'...’cause he paid us equal pay for equal work…even at that age. By the age of ten, I could afford my first horse. But in a year I went bankrupt. I’d spent all my money on the horse and didn’t have enough to feed it. So I had to sell it. Very harsh. But I learned my lesson. So the next time, when I was thirteen, I only spent half my money on the horse. The other half, I put aside, to feed it, put it in shoes, and keep the vet happy.
CCW: How about you, Kathi?
KC: I was from Santa Barbara, and my dad took me on a trip to the High Sierras when I was four years old, with Walter Blake, a man that was sort of like my grandfather. Two weeks in the High Sierra on horseback. The whole trip, my dad heard me saying, “When can I get a horse? When can I get a horse?” I didn’t stop asking even after we got back. Finally, at the age of ten I was able to get a horse. Similar thing: I had to earn my money to keep it. I had to feed it. It was about a mile away. I had to ride my bike up this steep hill, feed it, and be back showered at the breakfast table eating with the family eating before school, and if I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t keep the horse. I’ve had horses ever since then. Horses are a passion.
Sometimes I want to warn parents when they bring their kids to visit the horses out here. Are you sure? We think the implantation period is sometime between four and six. It can be quite expensive and life changing! But seriously, we love being a part of the community here. And we love meeting people on the road, at the beach. It’s a great joy to see people get involved.
CCW: I think you’re both natural teachers and you represent the Ranch very well. What does it mean to you to be here? I talk to a lot of people around here, and everyone has so much passion for this place. It’s interesting to hear folks reflect on what the Ranch means to them.
SBF: This ranch is special. It’s special to me as a biologist, because it’s in that bio-geographical transition zone. It’s next to the ocean, which is really huge. It has an ecological landscape…not just a specific ecology here, here, and here…it has multiple eco-systems that all interact, and it’s large enough and has been a ranch long enough, that it’s almost, in my view, like a super-tanker. It keeps going in its direction, and things bounce off it this way, and bounce off it that way, but it’s still intact. Because it’s large, historic, and beautiful. And to me, it slowly but surely, as I became an owner here, absorbed me. I am now part of the ranch. It’s almost like, okay…who is controlling who? It’s difficult to express, because the more you’re here, and the more you look around, the more you see it on a daily basis, you become one with this ranch. It’s amazing...and I am in love with it, and I want to keep it this way as best and as long as I can...and I feel in my heart that this ranch will always be a ranch. It just says, “Okay, fine. All this flack flying this way and that way. I’m still a ranch. I’m still going in my own direction.” That’s why I jumped on the wagon. I didn’t try to turn the wagon or drive the wagon. I jumped on the wagon.
KC: I'm here probably because of my husband and surfing. He brought me here. I had the passion for horses, but when we got here we could have our own worlds, which I love. He loves to surf, and I love the horses, and the cows, and it's more of a dream than I could have ever imagined. You know how when you're a kid you might dream about how you'd like your life to be? This is more of a dream than that. I never, ever take it for granted. Any ride we're on...the views we see, just coming in and out. This ranch is gorgeous. I agree with Sue. It has a life of its own, and it's such an honor to be a small part of it.
CW: I agree with you both. I wake up in the morning, this time of year, and there’s a certain bolt of sunlight in my face and I know it’s about 7 a.m., and I look out and I see those golden hills, and sometimes there’s a canyon wren singing, one of my favorite sounds in the world…we’re just so lucky. I mean, I'm from New York. It's like another planet. I still wonder every day how I managed to be so fortunate. I'll never take it for granted.
KC: We all feel that way.
CCW: Let’s see. I’m scrolling through my questions. I already sort of asked you what a typical day is like, and apparently there are no typical days.
KC: Well, they all start early.
SBF: Sometimes they start in the middle of the night.
CCW: Do either of you have a special place on this ranch where you really feel a sense of the magic?
SBF: No. I kinda take it like a blanket and wrap it around me. There’s just too much in every canyon. There’s eighteen canyons along this ranch. Every canyon has something special for me, has a special memory. So wherever I go, I have a smile on my face. Everywhere I go.
KC: For me, I feel the magic on horseback, just out there riding.
This is a side note, but tonight I called Andy and said, “Andy, I forgot to tell you but I’m going to the Hollister House to talk to Cynthia, so I won’t be there at five.” And he said, “What makes this any different than any other day? Did you think I was expecting you to be there?”
SBF: No…but this is a new excuse.
KC: I’m grateful for him. Our spouses have to be very flexible. We wake up early and we get home late.
SBF: And our men are independent. Very supportive and independent. They can take care of themselves, thank you very much.
CCW: Are there any particular adventures or anecdotes you want to share?
SBF: There are thousands. I have a couple of stories here.
KC: Can you read us one?
SBF: Well…first to explain…when my first spouse, AJ, passed away, I had a lot of time at home at night, and my estate lawyer, Neal, said, “Do something. Keep busy.” So I would write down the day. I have a stack this thick.
KC: She did the book of poems, and she’s been thinking about doing a book of short stories. But she hasn’t let me read any of them.
SBF: Here's one I like that ends with a three-hour ride on the beach. Will was mounted on Nick, Kathi on Pecho, and I rode Dulce, and this is what that night was like:
"The ocean was dead calm, almost pond-like. The air was moist and full of my favorite scent, decomposing seaweed. Will rode between Kathi and me as we quietly noted the shapes of the bluffs. The horses, ridden with only our lead ropes, fell into a unified rhythmic stride shoulder to shoulder as if they were hitched together...just like the horses, we felt our souls drift together, and for the last hour of our ride, few words were spoken. Nothing needed saying as our magic four-legged carpets carried us through the sea and the stars. There is really no way I can describe the joy of our moonlit ride, but know that it was as real as it gets and cannot be purchased with money."
KC: I remember that night. It was so quiet. All we could hear was our horses breathing. We rode to Cojo and back.
CCW: I guess it's like a magic spell sometimes.
SBF: Yes, everything so still, not a breath. Three hours. I remember getting off. I was pretty stiff!
And here's a piece that might give you a better idea of what our work is like...this happens in September:
CCW: One of the things I like to ask people is what is your source of strength? What gets you through the hard times?
KC: Being who we are.
SBF: Yes. I think we’re just stubborn as mules. There’s no quit.
But also I think…real hard times? I hug my horse, and I know I have partners. I call them my people. I know they’re not humans, but they’re my people. And when I can’t talk to Kathi, and I can’t talk to anybody else, I just hug a horse. A partner.
KC: I jump on a horse and go for a ride. We definitely have hard times, but for the most part we keep our chins up and go forward. Ride on through it. It’s in Sue’s poem book. Ride through it. We know we’re gonna get to the other side, and we just keep going. It’s like that super tanker. We’ll get through it.
SBF: Experience tells you: The best way out is always through. Not to plagiarize, that was from Robert Frost. But it’s the truth. We’ve been there. We’ve been to sorry places, but we just don’t quit. We get through it.
KC: I know that question relates to a lot of things on a daily basis but sometimes physically, on our rides, there are places we go that are so thick with brush, or a hillside so steep, you think, “I can’t go up. I can’t turn. I can’t go back. I can’t get off my horse. But I can go one step… just keep moving.”
SBF: John McCarty told me that if you don’t know what to do, just keep moving. It works.
KC: And the safest place is on your horse, not off your horse.
SBF: That too. And keep moving. In life as well. Don’t stop. Don’t be deer in the headlights. Try this, and if that didn’t work, try that. Don’t hold it against yourself, don’t over think it. You just keep moving until something works, and you move forward, and then you log that in your memory. Better next time. Of course everything is different next time.
CCW: Does anyone come to mind as having been a really important teacher or mentor to you?
SBF: I’ve had many mentors. I had a mentor as a marine biologist who was one of my employers. He was my second employer. He hired me when I was about twenty-seven years old, and I was the only female in their marine biological consulting group. But he treated me as a marine biologist, nothing less, nothing more. He said if you’re on this boat, you need to know how to use this boat, how to repair this boat, everybody relies on you. Never a harsh word was ever spoken. If I screwed up, it was…oh, you screwed up. How do we not screw up? What do you think you could do better next time? He was a huge mentor as far as how to manage people and how to manage your life. Don’t go ballistic. You can be frustrated, but talk to other people. We had a beautiful team. It showed me what teamwork can be and it showed me what egalitarian treatment was. When he sent out a team, he’d say we have five biologists and two technicians. He didn’t say we have a female biologist.
KC: I’ve had several mentors. First, my dad, Tom Colsen. He taught me to work, and that if you love what you do, you won't work a day in your life. Another is Rell Sunn. She was a woman surfer at Makaha, the Queen of Makaha. Makaha in Oahu was a place that was very local, and people wouldn’t allow you to surf there if you weren’t a local. But Rell would surf with beautiful finesse, and she would allow people in. That’s the way she was in her spirit. We became good friends, and she was a mentor to me in the way she was as a person. “We are all welcome.” Even Haoles like me. We’re all one. This is one world. She was very big in this thinking, everywhere.
She had cancer. She was given less than two years to live, and she fought it for fourteen years. She was given tests and treatments…she would tell me, “I’ll never do that one again…” Oh, the things she did for the research! They learned a lot about cancer through her. She passed away in 1998. She was in her forties, very young. But the spirit of her…she was phenomenal. So anyway, I lost my mentor.
But then…she sent me a new mentor. And that was Sue. Sue took me in, exactly as Rell did. Everyone is welcome. I’m walking down the road, and Sue said, “You wanna see a horse be born?” Do I wanna see a horse be born? Are you kidding? I’ve always wanted to see a horse be born! And that horse was Nick, born seven days and seven nights later.
We stayed on the side of the road, and that was when she first read me her poems. And Wendy would come and bring us food. And Jenny was there. And Sue said, “You wanna ride?” Yeah, I wanna ride. I was leasing Pecho at that time. We started riding, and she started teaching me. But it was the very way of being invited in. I believe Rell found me a new mentor, and that was Sue.
And then Sue introduced me to John, and John says come down to the round pen. She can sit on a horse, I can teach her the rest. John has also been a mentor.
CCW: All your mentors all have this “inviting you in” approach, but you also have the willingness to accept the invitation.
KC: And then...I never leave.
SBF: It's true. She latches on.
CCW: One of the things that’s nice about this interview… it’s taken a different turn…it’s very much about a friendship, too. The way you relate to each other is very beautiful to me. I think that friendship is one of the most important kinds of love there is.
KC: I think there are very few people who actually have it, though. To find a really true friend…people look for it all their lives and maybe never find it...For me, with Rell, and Sue, and John…I would say that when you are so fortunate to find that friend, you hold on.
SBF: Where you really develop a deep friendship is when you cheat death together. When you're faced with critical things, and you’re relying on your buddy to be there, and they’re there, come hell or high water, it’s huge. And there’s things…dealing with large animals. I feel like early man going after mammoths or something. It’s all about having your buddy there to help save your life, or your horse’s life. We got through it, and that’s a bonding moment.
It’s just like I like to see every one of my horses be born because there’s a bond, just like a bond between a mother and child. I don’t know what it is. But there’s something about it….I guess as a woman…to watch something be born.
KC: The other thing Sue does that’s cool, is she has a stinky t-shirt in her hands, and as soon as the baby is born, she smells that t-shirt, which is Sue…
SBF: You become part of the herd. But the thing is, there’s a bonding there. Horses when they’re born are very precocious. They’re ready to go. Their eyes are open, they’re watching, they’re smelling, they’re taking everything in. And if you’re there, and you’re watching and helping the mama, and the mother trusts you…here comes baby, and baby gets up. Mom goes first, she gets to take care of baby…lick, lick, lick…all the things she does…but I’m sitting there watching, the smell is still there. And then, after she’s taken care of her baby, and they’ve made that initial mom-baby bond…okay, Grandma Sue is here. She’s part of the herd. And look…Mommy loves Grandma Sue! It’s a great bonding moment. It’s something I want to do with all my horses.
CCW: Is this something you’re sort of figured out over the years?
SBF: As a biologist, I like to observe everything. I observe very closely. I connect with my animals. And I just joined in. I understand that we will be together down the road. The other day I was looking for some cattle on foot, which I hate doing, deep in the brush, and Nancie Brown was holding my horse for me, which was Nick, who I saw born and have been riding ever since he was rideable. I worked my way up through all this brush and I came up way ahead, but Nick didn’t see it. But Nancie saw me, and she tried to pull Nick away to where I was, but Nick just stood there, waiting for me to come back. He was just waiting for me to come back. Nancie had to drag Nick a few feet until he saw me. Then he moved away with her. That kind of relationship is something you don’t get unless you’re working partners on a day to day basis, and I’ve known Nick all his life, and trusts me and I trust him. He was just waiting for me to come back.
SBF: If you slow down and observe, more and more and more life comes forward.
CCW: Wonders abound. There’s a whole infinity out there that we’re not usually privy to. And when you do glimpse something, it feels like such an honor.
SBF: Well, you become more connected to it. You understand. You can feel it breathe. You start moving in a rhythm similar to your surroundings. When AJ passed, I spent a lot of time just sitting and looking outside. And what did I see...
CCW: Have you ever seen a mountain lion?
SBF: I have a six-shooter that has snake shot in it. I also have a little air gun that shoots pellets. That’s really good for moving bulls in the brush. It’s like a little mosquito bite to them. I usually don’t have it so I end up throwing rocks instead. They just look at the rocks and snort at us. I’ll probably carry my six-shooter once I get a little more practice, for snakes. Have we seen snakes? There was a time I was on Dulce on a very sheer cliff and I’m slightly acrophobic anyway, so I just semi-close my eyes and let my horse take me, cause if I look down, I’m a little nervous and I don’t want to get my horse nervous. So we’re on a sheer cliff, and there’s about one hoof width per step. I look over my shoulder, and about shoulder high is a rattlesnake. And it feels the heat of my horse. I can hear it rattling and I know it’s scared, but it’s still really scary. And it’s sitting there telling my horse I don’t want you to step on me, get away, get away, yet my neck is about even with its fangs, and I just closed my eyes again, ‘cause there’s no use getting everybody excited, and my horse walks past, I got past, and the snake goes the other way. That could have been death. Absolutely.
Right in the neck. Seeing a rattlesnake eye to eye is not really pretty. So that stuff happens. Luckily my horse just didn’t care. She was too busy making her way through this very rugged area.
KC: We were riding at Bulito, and all of a sudden Sue runs forward. And I stopped. What did she see that scared her so much? And I’m basically standing on a rattlesnake.
SBF: You know what the most dangerous thing on the Ranch is? Here's a story about that:
CCW: When I hear these stories, I think maybe it isn’t that different from the way it was for those guys in that 1890s picture on the wall. Do you ever feel like you're living sort of a nineteenth century life?
SBF: Absolutely. Bees don’t change. Those yellow jackets will get you. Same plan: run.
KC: Some things are the same. Some things never change.
SBF: But it’s constantly evolving too. I can go home and watch a flat screen TV after work. But I like the fact that we’re different, and yet it’s the same. There’s a rhythm that’s the same, and there’s an understanding. Their horses were their partners, just as ours are. And there’s a certain type of clothing that isn't that different. It's not exactly a uniform, but kind of like basic working clothes.
KC: There’s a reason for that. It works.
SBF: The style of their hats is a little different, their vests are a little different. Spurs were important then and now, and boots are important. Saddles have evolved through the years. I tell you: we have way better saddles than the old guys did! And going forward is a good thing, because it means we’ve learned. I’m sort of proud of that. We’re not trying to be retro. We’re using similar things but learning from the past, and applying what we’ve learned. And there's technology! Hey, man, we have cell phones! Cell phones do actually work in some places, and they’re a great idea! We aren’t afraid to use a cell phone just cause it ain’t cowboy. It is cowboy! We need to communicate. Whether it's smoke signals or cell phone, we need to communicate.
KC: Reminds me of a fun exercise we did with the children when we hosted a school field trip recently. We asked them to come up with all the reasons to have a bandana. They came up with a lot. It's not just part of the look.
SBF: Sunscreen. Mark a trail. Wrap a wound. You can keep going and going. It was really fun. It got the kids really thinking.
KC: We gave them bandanas, and we brought in our old hats and chinks and let them try them on….it was fun to get their thank you notes.
SBF: We see some kids that are natural born cattle keepers. There was this one eight-year-old who threw a loop, that was like…wow…I want you on my team!
CCW: When are the brandings held, and how frequently?
SBF It depends on when the babies are born, usually February or March. Early spring or rainy season.
CCW: And it’s a community thing? People come from other ranches, and you go to other ranches?
SBF: It’s huge. It’s sort a like a barn raising. Everybody works together. We make it fun.
KC: We have a barbecue. Make sure everybody’s fed well.
CCW: All I remember is a smell of burning flesh.
SBF: Well, you can rest easy. It's mostly the smell of burning hair. Cow skin and human skin are two different things. Cow skin is very thick. And it’s all so quick. It’s probably the least stress you can have in order to get 'em vaccinated, tagged, and branded. In a minute and a half, they’re done. It’s kind of old school, but there’s a reason to do it.
CCW: I wander around a lot here on foot or bicycle. Occasionally I’ve encountered a bull and I’ve felt scared. Are some more aggressive than others?
SBF: Absolutely. We try very hard to get rid of the aggressive ones. We had maybe thirty or forty cow-calf pairings, and mixed in with the cow-calf pairings, there were bulls. We had them at the Santa Anita corrals and we were sorting off cow-calf pairs. It’s hard. Here you have this whole cluster of animals, and they’re all black, and they all have black babies. How do you know what mommy and what baby go together? You have to watch. So you sit there and watch, and all of a sudden, you see one suck. “Okay. There’s a pair.” Because Mommy won’t let some stranger suck. So we find that pair, and we go in, and we cut them both off. We have to watch both the mommy and the baby and don’t lose ‘em among all these other black animals. So you focus on those two.
We were cutting off cow-calf pairs, and I walk in, I’m on Nick, another steady Eddie, the brother to Pecho. Walking in, I get this cow-calf pair out, being very focused. My total focus, and Nick’s total focus, is on the cow and the calf. He knows I’m looking, and he’s looking. Well, we’re keeping the two together and driving around the herd. And there’s this Charolais, a big whitish, grayish kind of bull. They sometimes have a nasty reputation. The reason you use a Charloais bull sometimes is it has a bigger bone, bigger size, and if you’re breeding for beef, it’s good, but they do have an attitude. So I'm cuttin' the cow-calf pair up, and here comes this Charloais bull, and for no reason, it comes charging at Nick, going for Nick's flank:
CCW: So, reviewing the cowgirl lessons: you gotta keep moving, face your fears, trust your partner…
SBF: Open up to every possibility….
KC: It’s cowgirl magic. Like the time John sent us to get this bull. It was a long ride, all the way out to Cojo, we found it, in a creek, we coaxed it this way and that, brought it in, put it in the corrals. We found out afterwards, he had gone after this same bull, and it almost flipped his horse. It was better we didn’t know that part.
SBF: If you’re afraid at all, and your horse is a little tentative…that's trouble. That's why I like to raise horses here on the Ranch. They’re raised on the Ranch, they live on the Ranch, they know and understand all the threats and thrills. I raise them as Grandma Sue, and I make 'em very confident. We trust each other. Some exceptional horses don’t lose their confidence even if Grandma Sue does.
CCW: I spent some time behind a tree once trying to avoid a bull. I couldn’t decide if it was a real threat or if I was imagining it.
SBF: What color was it?
CCW: It was black. It was a very windy day, one of those days when all living creatures feel annoyed and unsettled. It was making distressed noises, and sort of pawing the ground. I was genuinely scared. I hid behind a tree and wondered how long I was going to have to stand behind the tree before he went away. I just didn’t want to have an encounter.
SBF Actually, you did a good thing. Go silent, go stealth. You’re no longer a threat.
CCW: So I’ve often wondered: how well are these bulls screened before they get to wander up Sacate Canyon?
KC: Well, if we see that there’s a bad one, that’s it. Cows too.
SBF: There was a wild cow that hit Pecho in the chest. Three times.
KC: Cows can be nasty too. Especially if you get between them and their calf. Or they lost their calf and they’ve got a bag and they’re hurting and upset…
CCW: I think about these animals, because they’re so much a part of the backdrop of our lives. I often wonder…they’re so huge…imagine if they were also intelligent? If they realized how much bigger they are than us?
SBF: Some do. Some get educated. Oh, absolutely. Different levels of education. And cattle are not dumb. They can smell water from miles away. They know where to eat. Once they’ve been familiarized with their pasture, they know what to do, how to protect their babies from predators. No. Field cattle learn. And they are not stupid.
CCW: How many cows do we have at the Ranch now?
SBF: About ninety-seven heifers and eighty-five cows. That’s because of the drought. We’d usually have more.
CCW: Have you ever seen a drought this bad?
SBF: Yes. They come. There’s been historically bad droughts. This is almost as bad as it comes. It gets bad.
KC: Hope for rain next year.
SBF: But there's been huge droughts. Every twelve years you have major droughts. It's the cycle of sun spots...
CCW: But your instinct tells you that this great ship of Ranch is going to keep on going.
SBF: Yes. Absolutely. This is fluff off its back.
CCW: How do you think we're doing as stewards of this Ranch?
SBF: I think we're doing well. We can always do better. The 4-H motto is to make the best better. But it's a moving target. There's so many multi-dimensional random variables that any human who thinks they can fix it all better be ready to be humiliated. It's good to be aware, and try your best. That's all you can do.
CCW: But we can make it worse. We should at least be diligent about not making it worse.
SBF: Absolutely. We know what bad is. We try to make it better. But better is a moving target. You try this. Oops. That failed. You try this instead; okay, that worked. But it didn't work this time. You keep going forward. This is the beauty and the challenge of a cowboy. Be aware of the environment. The challenge is to say, let's try this. You don't get fixed in your ways. You're not going back. We use the information as it comes along and we apply the information. And here's another thing that I learned offshore: there's a lot of things going on, so you only tweak one knob at a time. You don't tweak six knobs all at once and then wonder what you did. You tweak one, and just a little. Small tweaks, and see what happens. You don't panic. If you panic, you're dead out here.
KC: If you're on a horse, you can't panic.
CCW: What gives you hope? What lifts you?
SBF: Every morning. When I wake up every morning and I see Venus's belt. It gives me hope. I look out and I see the mist and the fog moving in on a multiple-year drought. It gives me hope. What I see around me gives me hope. The animals I see around me give me hope. The native wildlife gives me hope. They're still here. They're trying their hardest...
KC: I think you wake up every morning and you've got to give all your energy to hope. You choose.
SBF: There's one more short piece I'd like to read, because it describes a good day on the Ranch. It was one of those days that happen once in a while, and can happen anytime, when no one was thinking anything, and it all just overwhelmed us, or at least it overwhelmed me. It was like a dance. A cosmic dance.