“Now that you’ve learned by rote, you are ready to learn by magic.”
This was the greeting my new boss gave me when—after growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduating from college—I packed up my car and drove to Colorado, to the new job I found at a horse stable in Breckenridge.
In the 25 years since, I moved to Montana, got married, and had kids. I worked at a number of ranches around the state and learned a little more by rote while getting a master’s degree in ranch management. But all throughout those years, I’ve always tried to remember my boss’s words of wisdom, reminding myself to be open to the magic that surrounds me.
Riding on pairs one day this spring, I found an antique bottle in the grass, its perfect clear glass should have been broken by hooves or hailstones decades ago. There’s the simple joy that bubbles up when the snorty mother cow that lost her own calf at birth talks to the orphan calf you’ve got dressed up in the black cape of her dead calf’s hide. The cow falls for the illusion and lets the new calf nurse, accepting him for her own. There is the cowboy in the branding trap who sails a perfect loop behind a cow and snags a calf by two heels.
Of course, life on a ranch isn’t all colorful silk scarves and applause from the audience. Sometimes the days spin off into a downward spiral of broken machinery and prolapses and sour hired hands. Every once in a while, you pull a dead rabbit out of the hat.
From my lessons in the classroom, I’ve learned that the magical elements of the cowboy way of life can be broken down into their individual parts and explained away by science. The gangs of soggy calves romping in the pasture are the product of good genetics and the mother cow’s reproductive tract multiplied by 250. The beautiful hip shot thrown by the cowboy in the branding trap is a simple matter of physics: the momentum of the swing—adjusting for wind and distance—while factoring in the half step that calf is about to take.
But science and formulas can’t explain all of the magic that surrounds us here on the ranch. The beauty and the wonder and the overwhelming feeling that there is something more at work here. Sometimes the best thing we can do—the only thing we should do—is sit back in awe and be thankful we have a front-row ticket to the show ★.