Women of the West - Lee McKinney
Raised in Iowa, this cowgirl’s adventuresome spirit pointed her westward, where she found her calling—shoeing horses, starting colts and working on ranches with her husband.
Interview and photograph by JENNIFER DENISON
FROM A YOUNG AGE, Lee McKinney was infatuated with riding horses and being a cowgirl. Bound to roam, she headed west as soon as she could and explored the backcountry on skis, afoot and horseback. In Wyoming, she met her husband, Jim, a bedroll cowboy who showed her the life she was destined to live. Now living outside Gardnerville, Nevada, the McKinneys may have finally found a place to put down roots.
JIM AND I HAVE been married 33 years. Our lifestyles just fit together. We both don’t mind moving around to find cowboy work and seeing new places. Neither of us have ever placed a lot of value on material things. Being around horses, cattle and in the outdoors is all we ever needed.
WE’VE NEVER LIVED in the same place long enough to have roots. Someday, I’d like to build a two-story house with an attic. People who have lived in a place a long time have attics where they store their treasures. I envision the grandkids going up in the attic and finding our photos and journals one day.
I GOT MY FIRST HORSE when I was 12. I had to save enough money to feed it for one year before I could get it. We bought it from a horse trader, and it was part Quarter Horse and part Welsh pony. I read about endurance riding in Western Horseman and decided my goal was to ride from coast to coast, so I named him USA.
I ATTENDED Montana State University in Bozeman because my dad valued a college education. I had to sell my horse because nobody in my family was interested in horses, and I didn’t have a means to support one in college. To satisfy my love for the outdoors, I became a ski bum
I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE an entertainer, but I have no talent. The only thing I can play is the radio.
MY PARENTS weren’t knowledgeable in my Western lifestyle, but I’d do things and tell them after the fact. One time, I rode a bull at the Jackson Night Rodeo and sent them a picture. That was the most exciting point of my life, and I don’t remember much about it except the bull’s name was Crazy Larry.
WHEN I WAS DATING Jim, I cooked one fall in a Wyoming cow camp. One day, one of the guys needed his horse shod, so I did it. The next day, he was wrangling his horse and told me the shoe was missing. I grabbed a shoe and went to shape it, only to find one already shaped to fit the horse’s foot on the anvil. I must’ve forgot to put on the shoe. I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, to have a horse lose a shoe I put on within 24 hours or to forget to put on the shoe.
JIM HAS HAD the most influence on my horsemanship. He taught me about starting horses in a hackamore and progressing to the two-rein and eventually the spade. It’s neat to apply a horsemanship tradition that has such practicality to the horse.
HORSESHOEING IS a great occupation, and I think I was built for it. If I don’t shoe, my back gets sore and goes out. I’d be in better shape if I could stay bent over shoeing all the time.
THROUGH MY YEARS working as a horseshoer, I feel like I’ve learned to understand horses and the way they react. I’ve become aware of little things horses communicate to me while I’m holding a foot up. A turn of the head and flick of the tail means something to me.
I’VE HAD my share of wrecks under and on top of horses. I don’t even have to hit the ground to get hurt. I’ve ridden bucking horses through trees and hit the branches, or I’ve been bucked off onto corral fences. I’ve had minor injuries, but have never suffered a major injury or have had to be hospitalized.
THE PLACE where we live now was supposed to be temporary, but we’ve stayed nine years. We like living where we’re at and being near the grandkids. We’re ready to settle here if it happens. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. There’s nothing tying us down to one place.
THE PRINCIPLE of pressure and release in horse training matches my philosophy on life. I think of a horse in a round pen running around trying to get out. When he gives in to his handler, he can still retain his life, but go do what he’s meant to do outside the pen. It’s made me realize that when we give in and accept God, we get so much in return.
I’VE LOVED doing all the things I have done in my past, but my past can’t hold all that I’ve learned. So, I just press on to enjoy the moment to be ready for the future.
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