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. " I work all over, for whoever needs me. It's the worst way in the world to make a living, but it's the best way of life." —DUB METCALF
It's 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's fine with Anseth.
Soon he'll 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's been at it long enough that several ranches count on him when it's time to gather and brand cattle, or when calving season arrives.
It's not an easy life, nor is it lucrative.A day worker's wages make it tough to pay the bills without supplemental income,so Anseth shoes horses on the side. But the rewards of the work— and the freedom it offers—are 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—horses, 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't 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.
"It was just something we always enjoyed," he says.
Anseth competed in high school rodeos and, as he puts it, "ended up with horses." In the summers, he worked for local rancher Walt Johnson.
"He helped me learn how to start horses and rope," Anseth says. "It was a pretty natural fit for me. There's 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—I've always loved roping."
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.
"The ZX is a big corporation and you got paid every other Friday, whether the market was up or down," says Anseth, 37. "Quitting a full-time job with a house, a wife and two kids was pretty scary because the check isn't there every two weeks. I thought, 'Am I going to be able to make this work?'
"Every knucklehead that came through the ZX said,'Well, I'm quitting.'And you'd ask what they were going to do.And they'd say,'I'm going to start colts and day work.' Well, they'd starve to death."
What helped Anseth is the relationship he'd built with his bosses at the ZX.
"I had a good rapport with the ZX and didn't burn any bridges when I left," he says.
Half the battle in getting steady work, Anseth points out, is
doing what you're hired to do.
"If you go there and do your job,they're more than likely going to have you back,"he says."You're not going to go there and change everybody's ways,whether you like it or not. But if you go work for somebody and give them a day's work and do it well, they're going to have you back. That's what's been my saving grace—showing up and doing a good job."
Anseth remembers plenty of young day workers who wanted to do things their own way, and that's a surefire way to lose a job.
"When in Rome,do as the Romans,"he says."Every ranch is going to do something different, and you've got to do it the way they want it done. I knew guys that rode through here to day work and they'd bellyache about how they did it and how it should have been done.And of course they aren't here no more.When you're working for somebody,you've got to do it their way, whether you like it or not."
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's 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.
"December and January are usually fairly slow, but then cows are getting ready to calve," he says. "From February pretty much through the end of November, I'm pretty well blowing and going."
He fills in the financial gaps by shoeing horses.
"It helps a lot,"he says."I think I could probably make it without the shoeing,but if it's out there to do, I'm going to do it."
Anseth keeps eight horses, including one that's 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.
"My main thing is a horse that can do it all—a good traveling horse, good to rope on, and that will watch a cow. He's got to be pretty well-rounded," Anseth says. "You've 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're paying me to do a job,I don't want to ride some dink that's either getting in a wreck or can't get the job done."
He also wants a good roping horse or two.
"With the day working, if I want to go to a ranch rodeo or a team roping, I can," he says.
Anseth's love of roping led him to start producing an annual event three years ago, in conjunction with Paisley's 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' 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 "pretty close to the same" now. But the job comes with its share of anxiety. A couple of years ago, Anseth broke his leg in a horse wreck.
"It was worrying the heck out of me," he says. "I 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."
ANSETH'S 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.
"Probably the most rewarding thing about this job is being able to bring my kids,"he says."My older boy goes a lot. He doesn't get paid, but he eats it up."
Anseth treasures the time with his sons, and says they're learning to appreciate the life he's chosen.
"What a great, great life to raise your family in," he says. "They learn the value of life itself, of animals, of a work ethic. It seems like there are so many kids that don't know how to work. I appreciate every day that Quentin and Logan get to go,because they learn that it's not just handed to you. You're going to have to earn it. It's a heck of a good way to raise them, I think."
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, Dub Metcalf traded in his pipeline job for a day worker's life. He says, only half joking, that he had a job to support his ranching habit—raising sheep at his home in Robert Lee, Texas.
The 68-year-old has come full circle,and the end result is a job he's always loved.
"I started doing this when I was about 19," Metcalf says. "I've worked at every kind of job there is, and I've always come back to cowboying."
And it's all because of horses.
"Horses got me into this,"Metcalf says."I started riding colts for people. I've worked at it my whole life."
After graduating from high school in Arkansas, Metcalf headed for West Texas, drawn by ranching and the opportunity to make a good living.
"I've had country leased here for year,"he says. "I've had cattle, but mostly sheep. It's more sheep country than it is cow country."
Sheep were more lucrative before the U.S. Wool Act of 1954—which provided incentives for ranchers—was phased out in the mid-1990s and before predators "just about whipped everybody," 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.
"I started working on these ranches when we had kids, and my wife and I both wanted them to go to college. I didn't think I could do it on the ranch, so I had to get me a job," 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 "retirement." It's hardly been a leisurely pursuit.
"I work up at the Renderbrook Spade Ranch about three months a year,"he says."In the spring,we'll brand and put out bulls. In the summer, we'll gather bulls. In October, we'll wean their calves, and then come back and ship them. Then they've got some fall-calving cows up there now."
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.
"I went up there 11 years ago and told him I wanted to go to work, and I guess I've been out every time they've gone out since then,"he says."I guess I made a hand."
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.
"I work all over, for whoever needs me," he says. "A friend of mine,we go together and split the gas.We stay pretty busy if we want to. Probably I'll 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, 'it's the worst way in the world to make a living, but it's the best way of life.' It's not a good living. I've got other income or I couldn't do it full time."
GOOD HORSES are key to a day worker's success, and Metcalf keeps five.
"There's three horses I use all the time and two older horses I don't use as much," he says."The youngest I've got are 5-year-olds and the oldest are 12. I've had them all their lives, and they're all half-brothers. I bought them off the Spade. They're big, stout, ranch-type of horses that'll buck you off if you don't watch it!"
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's something he thinks about even more with each passing year.
"There's nothing really bad about [day work] unless you get bucked off or a horse falls with you and you break your arm or something," he says. "As you get older, you've always got that in the back of your mind. It's beginning to bother me, because I've always got ahold of my horses. It's just part of getting old. You have to adjust."
METCALF CALLS COWBOYING and day work"something that you're born with, that you want to do."
"It's just the freedom of it," he says. "It's being in an eight-section pasture when the sun's coming up. Everybody out there wants to be there. Everybody's on a good horse. It's just a fun place to be."
Working for the same ranches year after year means Metcalf can depend on getting paid, even if the wages aren't all that impressive.
"They pay by the day, and these ranches pay more than they did whenever I started," he says. "Most 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."
Although the paycheck is a necessity, it's not everything. Day work is as much a lifestyle as it is a job.
"I told one of my brothers the other day, it's definitely not for everybody, but if that's what a guy wants to do, there's no better way of life," Metcalf says. "There's still a lot of good young cowboys in West Texas that I work with every day that are making a living. They're not making a good living, but they're doing what they want to do.
"If I had my life to do over again,I think I'd just go to a ranch somewhere. I think I would. I can ride a horse better than I can sit in a chair. That's where I'm sup•posed to be."
Susan Morrison is associate editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.