Breaking New Ground

On their Oregon ranch, a couple and their adopted children discover a new life together.

July 2004. The Juntura Ranch Rodeo.

Joe McKay and his son, Gabe, enter the arena side by side. Joe backs his horse into the header's box. Gabe waits on the heeler's side. Their horses compress, intent on the chute where the steer waits. When the gate opens, steer and horses break as one. Joe's head loop drops over the steer's nose. Gabe's loop, swinging high overhead and downward, sets a perfect trap. Steer steps in; ropes pull tight; flag drops. Joe's wife, Joyce, and their other five children are at the fence, cheering.

A ranch rodeo is in progress in the eastern Oregon town of Juntura, population 50.

Kids on horseback are contestants, too. Teamed with adults, they sort numbered cattle through a gate between two pens. If the number sequence is broken, the team is disqualified. Sorting and roping teach a rider to observe the cow's intention and initiate a countermove by a third party - the horse. Maintaining control of a cow can be like staying one jump ahead of a lightning bolt. It's a skill many adults find hard to master. These ranch-raised youngsters handle ropes with confidence and ability beyond their years. And they run up bills at the hot-dog stand, mess with a water snake in an irrigation ditch, and gallop on the shady grass.

Joe has been patiently working cattle with his six kids since early in the day. He cinches up his horse, and slips into the saddle as if he's weightless. Gabe does the same. They ride to fourth place in the team roping.

Nothing separates this ranch family from the others. Only strangers are moved to ponder that Joyce and Joe are white, and the children are black.

At Home

Joe's pickup and trailer pulls into the McKay ranch yard, just across the valley from Juntura. Quail flush from the garden when Joyce opens the front gate. Joe and the boys unload the horses and lead them to the barn.

In golden sunlight, the horses are tied to the long manger. As they're unsaddled, they pull mouthfuls of hay from the overhead rack and fill the old barn with the sounds and smells of other days reaching back to the turn of the 20th century. Horses and humans. Hands on hide. A partnership.

More than a dozen saddles line the south wall, and saddle blankets are draped over a pole sweat-side-up to dry. Six saddles are small, but well-worn.

When the horses are turned loose in the corral, they drop down and roll sweat from their backs in the soft dirt. At the irrigation ditch, they lean deep into the sliding water and relieve their thirst.

The youngest of the McKay children, 8-year-old Joan, sits under a maple tree in the yard, a baby cottontail rabbit cuddled in her arms.

Luke and Martin are relaxing in the TV room. Ten-year-old Luke, an excellent roper at home and at the neighbors' brandings, rarely participates in public. He supports the others with his presence.

Martin has a special ability with horses. He gets more out of them with less effort, knowing when to ask and when to wait. Cinnamon, the 4-year-old he rode today in barrel racing, had never seen a barrel unless it was full of gas or oil or a branding fire. Martin held the anxious colt together through the cloverleaf pattern to win third place.

Clare and Anna Rose set the table, talking as they put forks and spoons beside the plates in no particular order. Clare is 11, but she has the poise of an older girl, laughs easily and makes others laugh. Today she won the barrel racing on her little Paint Horse gelding, riding hard to the first barrel, checking him lightly and sending him into the turn. At each barrel she controlled his speed, and pushed fast to the finish. Winning is in the tilt of her chin.

Animals fascinate Anna Rose, as if they share a private language. First to notice a calf with droopy ears, or a doddering trot, the 9-year-old points them out to her dad and follows the treatment until they're well again. Nothing about Anna Rose reveals that her 12-year-old mother gave her up for adoption, unless it's Anna Rose's ambition to keep the animals of her world healthy.

Gabe plays with a tiger-striped kitten on the floor. He balances on the outer edge of childhood. A competent roper, he's deliberate, never one to be rushed unless it's in a footrace. Then he's a force to fear. Heading back to camp after a day of driving cattle, it's not unusual for Gabe to ask his dad's permission to get off his horse and run. If it's okay, he ties up his reins, bails off and leaves the horses in their running walk far behind.

Handling a rope came natural to him. He mastered building a loop and roping a bucket on the ground fairly fast. When he was ready to try it on horseback, Joe gave careful instructions. Adding a horse and calf to the mix increases the opportunity for accidents. Joe's goal was to keep Gabe from getting in trouble, just as he's done with all the children. People can get hurt in a branding pen. They can get killed.

Joe washes up and comes into the kitchen. "Clare got a check, and this guy here," he says, gripping Gabe's shoulder, "double-hocked that steer and won us fourth place."

He doesn't mention that despite his wins, with the entry fees for each of the kids' events, he ended up owing the roping club $300.

See the March issue of Western Horseman for the complete story.