Cowboy For Hire
Wanted: Day worker. Long hours, difficult tasks, unpredictable schedules. Pay not always commensurate with experience. Benefits include freedom, family time, opportunity to be horseback. ‚Äú I work all over, for whoever needs me. It‚Äôs the worst way in the world to make a living, but it‚Äôs the best way of life.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒDUB METCALF
It‚Äôs morning, but just barely.
Cleve Anseth watches for the headlights that indicate his ride is on the way. His horse, saddled and ready to earn his keep, waits with him. Their 4 a.m. commute, via pickup and stock trailer, will end where some might call square in the middle of nowhere, but that‚Äôs fine with Anseth.
Soon he‚Äôll be horseback, gathering and branding cattle. The Paisley, Oregon, cowboy is a day worker, hired by area ranches to help during the busiest times of the year.He‚Äôs been at it long enough that several ranches count on him when it‚Äôs time to gather and brand cattle, or when calving season arrives.
It‚Äôs not an easy life, nor is it lucrative.A day worker‚Äôs wages make it tough to pay the bills without supplemental income,so Anseth shoes horses on the side. But the rewards of the work‚ÄĒ and the freedom it offers‚ÄĒare the magnets that keep tugging at him. Anseth says he never really wanted to do anything else.
Neither did Dub Metcalf, who finally gave in to his longing for the cowboy life after a career with a water pipeline company. Now a few years past retirement age and with a lifetime of experience with horses and livestock,he enjoys steady day work on ranches across several West Texas counties.
Day work means part-time wages for a full-time job, and bearing the cost of the tools necessary for the trade‚ÄĒhorses, tack,ropes,chaps,trucks,trailers.It means working in the sunshine or the rain or the snow. For many, it also brings a level of uncertainty about where the next paycheck will come from. Those who are drawn to it, though, say they wouldn‚Äôt have it any other way.
CLEVE ANSETH GREW UP in Raynesford, Montana, not far from Great Falls. His father, Jerry, worked on several different ranches, but eventually landed steadier employment with the state highway department to support three boys. By the time Anseth was old enough to swing a leg over a horse, he and his brothers started helping out at neighboring ranches.
‚ÄúIt was just something we always enjoyed,‚ÄĚ he says.
Anseth competed in high school rodeos and, as he puts it, ‚Äúended up with horses.‚ÄĚ In the summers, he worked for local rancher Walt Johnson.
‚ÄúHe helped me learn how to start horses and rope,‚ÄĚ Anseth says. ‚ÄúIt was a pretty natural fit for me. There‚Äôs a lot of farming [near Raynesford], too, and I did that because I needed a job. But I tried to stick with the horses as much as I could. Horses and roping‚ÄĒI‚Äôve always loved roping.‚ÄĚ
After high school, Anseth chose to continue his education outside of the classroom and under the big skies of Oregon. He worked full-time for the historic ZX Ranch in Paisley for 10 years, but decided five years ago that he wanted to be in control of his own schedule. Going out on such a limb was frightening,he says, but he felt confident he could make it work.
‚ÄúThe ZX is a big corporation and you got paid every other Friday, whether the market was up or down,‚ÄĚ says Anseth, 37. ‚ÄúQuitting a full-time job with a house, a wife and two kids was pretty scary because the check isn‚Äôt there every two weeks. I thought, ‚ÄėAm I going to be able to make this work?‚Äô
‚ÄúEvery knucklehead that came through the ZX said,‚ÄėWell, I‚Äôm quitting.‚ÄôAnd you‚Äôd ask what they were going to do.And they‚Äôd say,‚ÄėI‚Äôm going to start colts and day work.‚Äô Well, they‚Äôd starve to death.‚ÄĚ
What helped Anseth is the relationship he‚Äôd built with his bosses at the ZX.
‚ÄúI had a good rapport with the ZX and didn‚Äôt burn any bridges when I left,‚ÄĚ he says.
Half the battle in getting steady work, Anseth points out, is
doing what you‚Äôre hired to do.
‚ÄúIf you go there and do your job,they‚Äôre more than likely going to have you back,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúYou‚Äôre not going to go there and change everybody‚Äôs ways,whether you like it or not. But if you go work for somebody and give them a day‚Äôs work and do it well, they‚Äôre going to have you back. That‚Äôs what‚Äôs been my saving grace‚ÄĒshowing up and doing a good job.‚ÄĚ
Anseth remembers plenty of young day workers who wanted to do things their own way, and that‚Äôs a surefire way to lose a job.
‚ÄúWhen in Rome,do as the Romans,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúEvery ranch is going to do something different, and you‚Äôve got to do it the way they want it done. I knew guys that rode through here to day work and they‚Äôd bellyache about how they did it and how it should have been done.And of course they aren‚Äôt here no more.When you‚Äôre working for somebody,you‚Äôve got to do it their way, whether you like it or not.‚ÄĚ
BEING A MORNING PERSON is definitely an asset for a day worker.The job typically starts about 6 a.m., and on many days that means leaving the house at 4:15 with one or two horses in tow. Whether the job includes gathering or branding, it‚Äôs usually done by early afternoon. During calving season, the job is seven days a week and quitting time fluctuates depending on when calves decide to make their appearance. About 10 months of the year, Anseth has steady work.
‚ÄúDecember and January are usually fairly slow, but then cows are getting ready to calve,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúFrom February pretty much through the end of November, I‚Äôm pretty well blowing and going.‚ÄĚ
He fills in the financial gaps by shoeing horses.
‚ÄúIt helps a lot,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúI think I could probably make it without the shoeing,but if it‚Äôs out there to do, I‚Äôm going to do it.‚ÄĚ
Anseth keeps eight horses, including one that‚Äôs retired and one for his kids, in order to keep up with the ranch work and to pursue his roping. Having reliable horses is a must, he points out.
‚ÄúMy main thing is a horse that can do it all‚ÄĒa good traveling horse, good to rope on, and that will watch a cow. He‚Äôs got to be pretty well-rounded,‚ÄĚ Anseth says. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve got to be able to rope a bull in the trees and get him tied down or pulled in the trailer, or brand cows or wean calves. If they‚Äôre paying me to do a job,I don‚Äôt want to ride some dink that‚Äôs either getting in a wreck or can‚Äôt get the job done.‚ÄĚ
He also wants a good roping horse or two.
‚ÄúWith the day working, if I want to go to a ranch rodeo or a team roping, I can,‚ÄĚ he says.
Anseth‚Äôs love of roping led him to start producing an annual event three years ago, in conjunction with Paisley‚Äôs Mosquito Festival, which raises funds to control insects. Putting on an event that draws ropers from throughout the area is one way Anseth shows support for his community. Another is taking on the job of girls‚Äô basketball coach at Paisley High School; the assistant coach is his wife, Shanna, a registered nurse who works part-time.
For the past five years, are ‚Äúpretty close to the same‚ÄĚ now. But the job comes with its share of anxiety. A couple of years ago, Anseth broke his leg in a horse wreck.
‚ÄúIt was worrying the heck out of me,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI was in a wheelchair for four months. I was wondering if I was going to be able to ride again. Everyday life will stress you to the max once in awhile.‚ÄĚ
ANSETH‚ÄôS TWO SONS have inherited his appreciation for horses and the cowboy way of life. Because their school has a four-day schedule, Quentin, 11, and Logan, 8, often accompany their dad to work.
‚ÄúProbably the most rewarding thing about this job is being able to bring my kids,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúMy older boy goes a lot. He doesn‚Äôt get paid, but he eats it up.‚ÄĚ
Anseth treasures the time with his sons, and says they‚Äôre learning to appreciate the life he‚Äôs chosen.
‚ÄúWhat a great, great life to raise your family in,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThey learn the value of life itself, of animals, of a work ethic. It seems like there are so many kids that don‚Äôt know how to work. I appreciate every day that Quentin and Logan get to go,because they learn that it‚Äôs not just handed to you. You‚Äôre going to have to earn it. It‚Äôs a heck of a good way to raise them, I think.‚ÄĚ
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, Dub Metcalf traded in his pipeline job for a day worker‚Äôs life. He says, only half joking, that he had a job to support his ranching habit‚ÄĒraising sheep at his home in Robert Lee, Texas.
The 68-year-old has come full circle,and the end result is a job he‚Äôs always loved.
‚ÄúI started doing this when I was about 19,‚ÄĚ Metcalf says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve worked at every kind of job there is, and I‚Äôve always come back to cowboying.‚ÄĚ
And it‚Äôs all because of horses.
‚ÄúHorses got me into this,‚ÄĚMetcalf says.‚ÄúI started riding colts for people. I‚Äôve worked at it my whole life.‚ÄĚ
After graduating from high school in Arkansas, Metcalf headed for West Texas, drawn by ranching and the opportunity to make a good living.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve had country leased here for year,‚ÄĚhe says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve had cattle, but mostly sheep. It‚Äôs more sheep country than it is cow country.‚ÄĚ
Sheep were more lucrative before the U.S. Wool Act of 1954‚ÄĒwhich provided incentives for ranchers‚ÄĒwas phased out in the mid-1990s and before predators ‚Äújust about whipped everybody,‚ÄĚ Metcalf says. He still has income from raising sheep, but day work has provided steady income for many years. The full-time job was a measure to provide for his family.
‚ÄúI started working on these ranches when we had kids, and my wife and I both wanted them to go to college. I didn‚Äôt think I could do it on the ranch, so I had to get me a job,‚ÄĚ he says.
Metcalf and his wife, Cynthia, have two grown daughters and a son.
All the while, he was paving the way for his eventual ‚Äúretirement.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs hardly been a leisurely pursuit.
‚ÄúI work up at the Renderbrook Spade Ranch about three months a year,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúIn the spring,we‚Äôll brand and put out bulls. In the summer, we‚Äôll gather bulls. In October, we‚Äôll wean their calves, and then come back and ship them. Then they‚Äôve got some fall-calving cows up there now.‚ÄĚ
Metcalf recalls looking for ranch work when he quit his full-time job, and talking with Bob Northcutt, who at the time was managing the Renderbrook Spade.
‚ÄúI went up there 11 years ago and told him I wanted to go to work, and I guess I‚Äôve been out every time they‚Äôve gone out since then,‚ÄĚhe says.‚ÄúI guess I made a hand.‚ÄĚ
He also does day work at several other ranches, typically starting by daybreak and working until at least noon. During weaning season, the day may stretch until late afternoon.
‚ÄúI work all over, for whoever needs me,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúA friend of mine,we go together and split the gas.We stay pretty busy if we want to. Probably I‚Äôll wind up staying busy, if I wanted, seven or eight months of the year.
I have to do some other things. I heard somebody say the other day, ‚Äėit‚Äôs the worst way in the world to make a living, but it‚Äôs the best way of life.‚Äô It‚Äôs not a good living. I‚Äôve got other income or I couldn‚Äôt do it full time.‚ÄĚ
GOOD HORSES are key to a day worker‚Äôs success, and Metcalf keeps five.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs three horses I use all the time and two older horses I don‚Äôt use as much,‚ÄĚ he says.‚ÄúThe youngest I‚Äôve got are 5-year-olds and the oldest are 12. I‚Äôve had them all their lives, and they‚Äôre all half-brothers. I bought them off the Spade. They‚Äôre big, stout, ranch-type of horses that‚Äôll buck you off if you don‚Äôt watch it!‚ÄĚ
Although Metcalf says that with a chuckle, getting bucked off or otherwise injured is one of the biggest risks of the job. A serious injury could mean loss of income. It‚Äôs something he thinks about even more with each passing year.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs nothing really bad about [day work] unless you get bucked off or a horse falls with you and you break your arm or something,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúAs you get older, you‚Äôve always got that in the back of your mind. It‚Äôs beginning to bother me, because I‚Äôve always got ahold of my horses. It‚Äôs just part of getting old. You have to adjust.‚ÄĚ
METCALF CALLS COWBOYING and day work‚Äúsomething that you‚Äôre born with, that you want to do.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just the freedom of it,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs being in an eight-section pasture when the sun‚Äôs coming up. Everybody out there wants to be there. Everybody‚Äôs on a good horse. It‚Äôs just a fun place to be.‚ÄĚ
Working for the same ranches year after year means Metcalf can depend on getting paid, even if the wages aren‚Äôt all that impressive.
‚ÄúThey pay by the day, and these ranches pay more than they did whenever I started,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúMost of them have a little retirement built in, and insurance. We turn in our time when we get through, and they mail us a check.‚ÄĚ
Although the paycheck is a necessity, it‚Äôs not everything. Day work is as much a lifestyle as it is a job.
‚ÄúI told one of my brothers the other day, it‚Äôs definitely not for everybody, but if that‚Äôs what a guy wants to do, there‚Äôs no better way of life,‚ÄĚ Metcalf says. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs still a lot of good young cowboys in West Texas that I work with every day that are making a living. They‚Äôre not making a good living, but they‚Äôre doing what they want to do.
‚ÄúIf I had my life to do over again,I think I‚Äôd just go to a ranch somewhere. I think I would. I can ride a horse better than I can sit in a chair. That‚Äôs where I‚Äôm sup‚ÄĘposed to be.‚ÄĚ
Susan Morrison is associate editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.