True Grit: The Life of a 21st Century Cowgirl

Life and death on some of the world's wildest, most beautiful landscapes

by Kate Matheson
Apr 10 2018, 7:48pm

Little captures our collective imagination in the way of the American West. From the wild and romantic Westerns of the golden-era Hollywood studios to the cowboy-boot clad catwalks of 2018, the dream never dies. But is ranch life really all that dreamy? Here Kate Matheson, a very modern kind of cowgirl, tells Amuse what it’s like to live and work in some of the world’s most beautiful – and toughest – landscapes.

I first visited the American West in 2007 and I really quickly fell in love with it all. Us Europeans tend to fall for the romance of the West and that is still very much here and alive actually.

But then I fell in love with the sense of community, that was something I’d never experienced. And the landscape, the huge landscapes, the wildlife, the enormous quick-changing skies. I also fell in love with the people and the lifestyle, their work ethic, the perspectives on the landscapes and the livelihood. I feel like this is a continual learning experience and that is very appealing to me.

I’d been interested in Ranchlands (where I work) for a while because it’s a pretty progressive organisation. It’s a ranch management company with a focus on conservation, sustainability and holistic management. They immediately stood out as being dynamic with a very strong conservation focus. Ranchlands manages four large scale ranches in three different states.

As a way of life it can seem very ye olde, but it’s actually very progressive. The best conservationists are those living on the land who know intricately how those landscapes work. And those people are often ranchers. To be stewards of these ecologically diverse and beautiful landscapes is a real privilege.

The first settlers came here in the 1800s. We are part of the balance now. People are the key to preservation, if we can encourage people to get out in to the landscape, feel it, explore it, enjoy it then maybe fall in love with it then we are one step closer to conserving the land and this way of life for future generations.


Riding and Roping

We start our own horses on the ranches, I have two and started both my horses (taught them to be handled, to be ridden and how to be around other animals) and one in particular is a really good roping horse. Roping can be a dangerous activity. A cow can weigh up to 1000 pounds and a calf could be 400-600 pounds. Typically we would rope to doctor them, this is a safe and secure way to give them medicine if they’re sick, and then you can quickly release them. You and your horse have to be a partnership to do that and you have to work together.

I was lucky enough to grow up riding horses for fun, but to use your horse as part of your work is really something special. It also takes a lot of practice. Everyone thinks its just a soft piece of rope that you’re using, but actually its very stiff. It has a seal on it, it feels plastic. In the beginning you practice getting a feel of how that rope moves, it can be on average 50ft – 60ft long.

At the start you end up catching it on your horses head, and roping yourself, getting your foot caught in it or your spurs until you actually start feeling how it works, and understand how you can control that rope. To do that while riding a horse, and keeping your horse safe, yourself safe, and that animal safe, is really a thrill.

You See The Circle Of Life and Death In Very Close Proximity

Where I am at Zapata Ranch (owned by The Nature Conservancy) in southern Colorado is essentially situated on a high plains desert. We’re 8000 feet high, surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks. It’s predominantly sandy soil and meadows that are irrigated by natural springs and creeks, with high alpine forests on the surrounding mountains and we back onto the largest in-land sand dunes in North America; the Great Sand Dunes National Park is basically our backyard. A truly unique and diverse landscape that is hard to fathom unless you experience it first hand.

We look at what the land provides on each ranch and then diversify our businesses and operations accordingly. This could include livestock, hospitality programs, education programs, hunting, photography or painting workshops and a leather goods business. As jobs go it can on occasion be physically challenging for anyone managing livestock and land, and you have to be prepared to get a cut or bruise here and there on a fairly regular basis.

Hunting is part of the conservation program, ensuring numbers of Elk stay at a sustainable level. Cattle are used as a tool to improve the health of the land and encourage diversification of species. Cattle and many other ungulate animals will disrupt the soil, breaking the dry crust, urine and poo act as instant fertilizers. It’s a fascinating process.

People come from around the world to take part in an outdoor, educational learning experience. Our ranch Camp is the ultimate way to experience ranch life, sleeping on the prairie, riding horses at sun up to gather cattle or plein air painting as part of a specialized week.

Different states and areas of the west will have different threats to their livestock and livelihood, here our biggest threat is drought. Coyotes can occasionally be an issue as they prey on new born calves. But if a calf is taken by a coyote, instead of eliminating the coyote, we will sell the mum, because that means she’s not doing her job – she’s not protecting her calf. The coyotes have their own role within the environment, and we’re trying to build a cow herd that has strong natural instincts to protect.

Seeing the circle of life here, it’s just a reality, and you’re witnessing these as part of the balance. When we do have a death, that animal is eaten by coyotes and birds of prey, and other insects and it goes back into the ground. It’s part of the cycle.

But I’m not totally cold-hearted about these things, if we do have an animal die it is very sad, you don’t want that. But at the same time I think you become quicker to accept it, than if you’re not in this environment.

Managing A Conservation Herd Of 2,000 Bison

There is also a resident herd of 2,000 bison here at Zapata. They’re a wild herd, we do not move or rotate them like we do cattle, they rotate themselves throughout a huge open landscape. The work that Ranchlands and The Nature Conservancy has been doing with them is improving the genetics of that herd over a number of years.

Millions of bison were slaughtered across the west from Mexico to Canada in the mid 1800’s almost to the point of extinction. From between 20-30 million down to around 1000. Thankfully in 1894 they first became protected and many were bred with cattle to bring back the species. Now we’re trying to breed cows back out of them. The herd at Zapata is very close to being a genetically pure herd.

Though a lot of our approach is progressive, there are other elements of what we do which haven’t changed for centuries. When we’re moving cattle from pasture to pasture we always use horses and there will be anything from two to 10 people. We don’t use motorbikes or ATVs because horses have much less of an impact on the ground, you can also use your horse to rope if needed.

And when you’re out there and you’re riding you notice things with the cattle, if one is lame or sick, or that it has its calf with it. When you ride out and cover a lot of ground, sometimes thousands of acres, it a coordinated effort with the rest of your team to ensure you have all your cows together and they’re heading in the right direction.

It can be dusty, sandy, hot, windy or freezing cold and during the day you can cover around 20 miles or more on horseback while gathering these animals. There’s a lot of trotting. The horses themselves are pretty much around cattle immediately when they are born. Some horses are very cow-minded, it can be bred into them.

It’s quite interesting when you ride a horse that is bred that way, they will track that cow, they will move their body where they need to be, they are two steps ahead of you and what you’re thinking it seems, it’s a very cool feeling.

I love everything about it – it’s the kind of hard work that makes you smile from ear to ear – and go to bed feeling exhausted, but very much alive.

You can find out more about Zapata Ranch here.