Women of the West – Liz Brannan
Despite a debilitating bout with Lyme disease, this California cowgirl stays connected to horses and the ranching lifestyle.
Interview and photograph by Jennifer Denison
WHEN YOU MEET LIZ BRANNAN, it’s clear that the plucky 28-year-old cowgirl enjoys starting colts and doing ranch work. However, working outdoors sometimes comes with consequences. In the winter of 2007, after moving from Missouri to Wells, Nevada, to work on a ranch, Liz began experiencing flu-like symptoms, fatigue and shortness of breath. Suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease, an often misdiagnosed and unreported bacterial disease contracted from a tick bite, Liz underwent aggressive treatments. Though Lyme sometimes restricts her physically, she is a talented rawhide braider and is steadily making her way back to the lifestyle she loves, as well as writing a blog and book about it.
I WAS BORN in Ventura, California, but my family has lived in Nevada, Scotland and Missouri. My family has always lived out. If my dad wasn’t working for a ranch, we still lived on one and hung out with ranch people.
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I got to go with my dad to work with ranchers Larry and Toni [Schutte] in Big Springs, Nevada, and I just loved it, especially starting colts. During high school, while in Missouri, I had a colt-starting business. I was very fortunate that I was home-schooled, because I’d get up early and complete all my schoolwork for the day by 8 a.m. Then I’d go to work with the colts.
MY YOUNGER SISTER, Adrian, found a listing for a camp job near Wells, Nevada, on AgriSeek.com. I had just graduated from high school and wanted to go to Nevada and work on a ranch, so I called about the job. I really didn’t think the guy would hire me, because who hires a woman for a ranch job over the phone? But I got the job, loaded up my truck and trailer, and headed west.
MY MOM AND DAD always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to do, but to always be feminine while doing it. I would always wear makeup, my grandma’s pearls, and red nail polish and lipstick to remind me I was a girl. It’s very easy to slip into being one of the guys.
IT’S AN HONOR to get to work with cowboys on a crew. I never liked the term “cowgirl,” so my dad came up with the term “cowboy girl.” We did some research and discovered that is what they used to call cowgirls in the 1930s and ’40s.
THERE ARE SO MANY great horsemen on ranches out there [in Nevada]. They don’t do big clinics, and not many people know about them. I WENT INTO MY ranch jobs seeking help. Most of the guys were pretty sensitive about not wanting to hurt my feelings. They would say, “You know what works for me. ...” It was a lot easier to learn from someone when he puts things that way.
I WAS ASKED to help start colts on the Van Norman Ranch, which was a great experience. I’d never started colts in a big group like they do—I always worked by myself. Everyone leaves their halter on, they work the horse a little bit, then cinch on their saddles, grab the colts’ heads and shorten their reins, and just hang on. Everyone is throwing tarps to each other and trying not to run into each other.
I STARTED FEELING sick shortly after I arrived in Nevada. I was working almost seven days a week and 14- to 16-hour days, so I just thought my body ached from the normal wear and tear of cowboying. I just tried to push through it and didn’t tell many people that I didn’t feel good.
IT’S COMMON for those who spend a lot of time outside, like cowboys and ranchers, to get ticks. Most wouldn’t think to save the ticks and send them in for testing, but I sure do recommend that now. It’s not worth sacrificing your health and having to change your life because you have Lyme.
I STILL GO to friends’ brandings, help gather cattle and compete in ranch rodeos. I can do a lot more today than I could a year ago. Hopefully, that pattern will just continue.
I CALL MY HORSE Fat Albert. Dad got him for a song when I was 15 because he bucked a guy off and broke his back. He’s a Colonel Freckles and I love them. He’s super cowy, and he gets really cranky if you miss when roping.
LAST FALL, I returned to Missouri to start a bunch of Wiescamp Skipper W’s for a dispersal sale. There were 130 horses to get ready. I stayed a month, and it was really great getting to be horseback like that again and to be with the colts.
IT’S EASY to want to put your own timetable on a colt. You have to be able to sit back and see where that particular horse is at that time and work with what he needs, not what your ego wants.
I’M GENUINELY THANKFUL and feel so blessed to live the life I do, even now. Being a part of a culture that passes wisdom and traditions down through the generations is beautiful. When an old cowboy takes time to help me with my rawhide braiding and teach me what he’s spent over 40 years learning, I feel so honored. And then when a young girlfriend asks if she can come watch when I’m starting a 2-year-old, it’s humbling and exciting because it shows this way of life isn’t dying—it will continue
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