“Wake up and die right”: ranch hand stories of hard work and friendship
“Wake up and die right.” I never understood those words each time I heard them said by the owner of the amazing horsemanship farm for girls where I grew up riding. I remember thinking it sounded so dark… “Wake up and die??”
I’ve kept those words with me for a long time, wondering what my life would look like when I felt like I finally understood. Never have they felt more right than in the time I spent building fences with usually none of the right tools, saddling horses at 4 AM, cutting tree after tree after tree in the national forest, raking and baling hay at road speeds, chasing cattle on horseback through trees so dense I’d struggle through on foot… All while working alongside some amazing and hardworking girls.
At 26, I was bored with each career I’d tried since graduating college. I didn’t realize what it was at the time, but there was a huge gap in my life. A friend said he’d had a great summer working on a guest ranch out West and suggested I try it. Sure, I thought, I could be a trail guide. But why not go bigger?
I started Googling working ranch jobs and found one that immediately felt like home. Lucky for me, they were willing to take a chance on a walk-trot-canter English rider with some dairy farm experience. The crew as a whole consisted of the two owners, four ranch hands, and a cook. The ranch owner said she’d hired another girl she thought I would soon be best friends with. I thought she was full of it. (She ended up being right.)
Two months later, I was on my 40-hour drive heading for a family-owned cattle operation nestled between two National Forests on the Colorado-Wyoming border.
In the six months that followed, I found a new lease on life. I found a new family in the owners, my coworkers, and the animals. I felt full of purpose again — a feeling that had been missing since stepping away from working with animals. The gap had been filled.
My days started between 4 and 6 AM and sometimes I was lucky enough to watch the sunrise from horseback out in the mountains. Some days I was horseback — usually atop a pudgy and spunky horse named Pinto — moving cattle across green mesas and through oasis-like mountain draws. Some days I would hike for miles clearing irrigation ditches and come home at 10 PM to see my friends had left me a dinner plate on the warmer. Some days still I was on foot in a series of pens, trying not to choke on dust or get run over by cattle. Compliments didn’t come easy, but after one particularly tough day sorting cattle on foot my boss said I was “one of his best cutting horses.”
One of my favorite moments happened when a friend and I were moving a few head of cattle between pastures at dusk. A massive sand hill crane took flight and the cattle spooked, bolting in the wrong direction. As we ran to cut them off, I looked over at my friend — the sun setting behind her over my favorite mountain, the cattle running between us, my horse surging beneath me — and suddenly the moment seemed to defy sound, time, and gravity. I felt weightless, suspended in that beautiful sunsoaked moment. It was one of those memories you know you’ll remember forever.
Later that summer, we were riding a pasture to find some of rogue cattle and put them back in the right pasture. This random dog ran up to us and seemed friendly enough to pet so we jumped down to say hi and learned her name was Charlie. Charlie ran with us all morning, across the river and through the trees. When we found the cattle, she bee-lined right for them. We were horrified. The cattle would scatter and we’d have to spend all afternoon trying to find them again. But somehow Charlie decided to move them exactly where we needed them to go. She slowly brought them down the hill and started them towards the gate we needed to go through. All without a single command. We said goodbye to Charlie at the edge of the National Forest and tried to shoo her home. She was an unexpected but great coworker that day.
But my absolute favorite days were shipping days. We would gather the horses and saddle under the stars, with just the warm glow of the barn for light. We’d go over to the ranch house for a cup of coffee and wait for just a sliver of sunrise to appear so we could get to work. We’d move the cattle from a pasture to the corrals. The trucks would arrive and we’d joke around with our driver friends. We’d team up on horseback and on foot to weigh the cattle on a large scale and load them onto the trucks. After, we’d head back down to the ranch house for a proper breakfast and a quick break. Then start a regular day of work.
No matter the task of the day, no matter how tired I was — those six months were the most energizing time of my life. There is something truly special about getting your butt kicked alongside your best friends and spending every moment trying to give the best and healthiest life possible to a group of animals. There still is no one in the world I’d rather be with while getting caught in summer snowstorms, getting chased by sheep guard dogs, or hand-digging irrigation ditches. I’ve never laughed so hard while working so hard.
This might not sound like everyone’s dream job, but it sure was mine.
I think about the lessons learned every day, especially once I realized what it meant to wake up and die right:
- Work hard
- Live simply
- Be a good neighbor
- Never stop exploring
- Live every day, all day