I don't know how many times I have said, "I was born 100 years too late." I have always been drawn to cowboy stories of the Old West. I can spend hours thinking about how cowboys would drive hundreds of head of cattle thousands of miles across open rangeland and mountain vistas. As long as I can remember, my Dad had a poster of John Wayne, and now I drink coffee every morning out of my John Wayne mug. I bought my first horse as soon as I could figure out how and have always thought of myself as a cowboy, day dreaming of herding cows on my mare, and living life in the Old West.
When I heard about Cowboy Bucket List Adventures; a weekend of herding cattle on my own horse, on the open range and sleeping under the stars with meals served from an open fire, I knew this was the adventure (for me and my horse) that I have fantasized about my entire life!
I have wondered how my cow-bred mare would respond to cattle. She has a pedigree to make me curious if she has the instincts of the great cow horses I watch at the Snaffle Bit Futurity. However, as curious as I am to find out how "cowy" my mare may be, I'm most interested in trying something new and building solid skills with my horse so that we are more versatile no matter what we do or where we ride.
When I unloaded at the 5500-foot elevation level in the Sierras, with just my bedroll and mare that was saddled up and ready to ride, I quickly got acquainted with the small group of other Bucket List enthusiasts and their horses. There was a dun mare from Fresno, a Paint from the Central Coast, even a big dapple grey gelding that looked like he was part Spanish Barb. The trail ride was very easygoing as we headed to "Cow Camp."
We were told that the cow camp is over 100 years old and has been used to gather cows, going back to the early 1900s. We rode through pines, cedars and firs. Some of the horses were clearly energized by the unfamiliar scenery and smells. A big grey gelding was particularly animated and I watched his rider smile as she told the group why she came. "I love my gelding and want to experience this with him," she said.
All of the riders were experienced, however, not all of the horses had spent a lot of time in the mountains. Some of the horses had been on pack trips and were very familiar with trail rides in the forest. Others were less accustomed to the mountain surroundings. Regardless of our and our horses' comfort levels we were all here for an adventure of a lifetime.
The following morning the air was cool. As we rode across the wide alpine meadow the mountain sun was strong and I could feel it through the brim of my cowboy hat. The heat and the dust added to the authenticity of the experience and it was as though I was living out a page from one of my favorite cowboy westerns.
As we rode across the meadow, some of the horses whinnied and were uneasy. We were heading straight for a large herd of Black Angus cows chomping on lush green grass. The insecure horses were comforted by the fact that we stayed as a group and moved slowly toward the cattle. To my delight, my mare felt calm and intently watched the cows.
We took turns riding our horses into the herd. When it was my mare's turn, I was encouraged by my "cow coach" Sherry Knapp. Sherry and Mike Knapp, along with their children Larry and Michele, own and operate the Lazy K Ranch in Central California. Lazy K Ranch is famous for owning the largest working band of registered AQHA mares on the West Coast.
Sherry helped me "feel" the cow and set it up for my horse to be in the right place. She coached me on what both my horse and the cow were about to do. Thanks to her coaching, I was able to concentrate on my mare and feel her. I tried to focus on my timing and Sherry helped me to also tune into the cow. As my mare sorted the cow off from the herd, I actually got the feeling of how it would have been to cut a cow away from the rest of the herd back in the Old West, when it was needed to doctor, vaccinate or brand the cow. Thrilling!
While we were in the meadow with the cows, the horses that had more experience got a beginning cutting lesson, and the horses with less confidence, worked on how to push a cow away from them. I watched as each rider and horse team achieved a great sense of accomplishment, gained confidence and had so much fun!
A Sight To See
After our time sorting the cows, we herded them downstream. People in cars pulled over to watch us drive the cattle past. Children playing in the river stopped and stood in awe at the spectacle of a dozen cow pokes driving 40 head of cows to a lower meadow on the southern slope of the Sierras. If ever I felt like I was totally in my element, this was that moment. I was talking to the cows, singing to them to find the trail ..."Keep moving" I would croon. I was reassuring my mare, as she was now watching the cows, her ears sharp, anticipating the fat steer that wanted to break off from the herd.
The day was as perfect as I ever could have ever imagined. We sat around the campfire and reminisced about an era gone by. We talked about the cowboy code and a western heritage that is all but unreal to most folks today. The only thing that would have topped it would have been to look over and see John Wayne himself mounted on a beautiful buckskin.
That night as I lay under the stars, tired from a full day, I thought this is probably as close as it gets to re-living life as an authentic cowboy in the Old West. I spent the day in the saddle; we drove cows down mountain trails through thick forests and across mountain streams. Then, back at Cow Camp, after we put our horses away for the night, the group sat around a campfire eating delicious BBQ, and home made peach cobbler prepared in Dutch ovens and talked and laughed.
Both my horse and I made some terrific memories on this Cowboy Bucket List Adventure. Even more, I have charged my cowboy battery and am as dedicated as ever to the lifelong pursuit of being a better horseman. I have a new appreciation for ranchers and cowmen and I love that I have learned a few tricks of their trade. I got to see new trails and meet like-minded horsemen and women that live here in California and share my passions.
Now that this adventure is off my bucket list it has moved to my yearly vacation list!
Author Joanne Peterson lives and rides in East Bay Area's Bay Point.