KIRBY — Tales of the expert ropers in Hot Springs County have drifted out of the Bighorn Basin and spread across the Mountain West for years.
They’re artists… They’re graceful and accurate like fly fishermen… They can rope a running calf at 40, 50 feet…
Few get to see cowboys and -girls rope outside a rodeo arena — out where the lariat is an essential business tool not a sporting good and where the path of a darting calf is evasive and uncertain. In many parts of the state and country assembly lines of chutes and calf tables have mechanized the intricate processes of branding. But tradition still reigns in some outposts, including on the Mead Ranch in Kirby.
Uzi, above, wears a handmade bit and handsome bridle complete with a bosalita, the band around the mare’s nose. Used when training a colt, it holds roper Ron Frank’s get-down rope.
“She carries a fancy bit and fancy headset to show her as a bridle horse — not a colt anymore,” said Mandy Frank, Ron’s sister-in-law.
The get-down rope enables the rider to lead or tie up the horse without jerking the animal’s mouth with reins and bit. Chains link the bit to the reins to protect the rawhide or leather when a horse drinks. Uzi wears a single rein with a romal tail, a style used on well-trained horses that allows control with a light touch.
A chest collar keeps the saddle from sliding backward when the rider and horse pull a calf with a dally — a loop or more of the rope around the saddle horn. Many parts of the set-up grew from the Spanish Vaquero tradition, imported to Mexico and the American West in the 1600s.
Dozens of calves bunch up as the ropers begin to pick them out for branding. At the start of the year, Wyoming was home to 1.3 million cattle, 98 percent of the previous year’s count according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationwide there were 94.2 million.
In 2018, the state’s calf crop numbered 670,000. The total number of beef cows — 714,000 head in 2018 — was unchanged from the previous year.
Cattle and calves produced $897.2 million in cash receipts in 2017, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture reports. Carbon County is the top cattle producer in the state with 54,000 head. (Some counties’ data is withheld to avoid disclosing information about individual ranches.)
Farm earnings in Wyoming took “a dramatic downward trend” between the end of 2014 and 2016 but have stabilized somewhat since then, the Wyoming Department of Administration & Information reported in March.
Ransom Logan lets his lariat fly in an artful loop as he ropes a calf. King’s Saddlery in Sheridan sells King Ropes up to 70 feet long and can custom make ones even longer. A standard 28-foot calf rope costs about $45.
Made from three or four strands of nylon, polyester, drylon or a blend, ropes are twisted right or left, in diameters between 5/16 and 7/16 of an inch. They are stiff enough to be pushed a bit, an action that can free a roped calf without having to dismount.
A hondo knot creates the small eye that enables the roper to make his or her adjustable loop. An experienced roper can throw the loop from either side, underhand or overhand forward or backward, ensnaring a running calf more than 40 feet away. Various techniques include the houlihan, a one-swing flip shot, and culo, thrown at a calf moving away. Logan is a master roper who uses a huge loop that requires considerable body English to get airborne before it jets toward its target.
Logan talked in 2016 with Wyoming Livestock Roundup about his work at the Arapaho Ranch, a 350,000-acre spread in Hot Springs and Fremont Counties owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
Riding Tooty Ta, Kate Frank lines up to heel a calf. She and the other ropers wore chinks — short chaps —designed to protect a rider’s legs from chaparral and ropes. Once roped at the head and heels, the ground crew can wrestle a calf down and immobilize it.
Ropers from neighboring ranches helped with the Mead Ranch branding May 19. Wyoming is home to a total of 11,400 farms and ranches, according to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, covering 30.2 million acres. The average spread is 2,649 acres, the department reports.
Few calves escape the grip of Mead Ranch hand Olaf Koehler. A Jackson Hole resident where Brad and Kate Mead have the family’s original ranch in Spring Gulch, Koehler drives cattle between there and Kirby as business requires.
It takes about a dozen workers to brand and doctor a single calf. Two ropers, two ground crew to pin the calf down, four persons to inoculate the animal, a brander, a castrator, a clerk, and a kid to mark each calf’s back so it isn’t roped a second time.
Brad Mead applies the Double T brand, one of the oldest in the state, to a calf. Great grandfather Peter Hansen bought the brand along with a herd of cattle from the Elk Ranch in Jackson Hole, according to the history told to Mead by his father, Cliff Hansen.
The Double T is a good brand, Mead said, because it can be applied with a single iron and doesn’t have figures that close up.
Wyoming began recording brands in 1909. The Wyoming Livestock Board Brand Book runs 1,048 pages and catalogs 28,633 brands. It costs $165 to register a brand. The practice of branding livestock is as old as ancient Egypt but the word has modern applications and meanings in business marketing and beyond.
No cattle ranch seems complete without at least one wild-eyed cow dog. Aspen Brooks, daughter of Ranch manager Travis Brooks, pets Rio, an Australian shepherd. The breed is described as brainy, tireless, possessing a penetrating gaze and born to be natural herders.
The roping crew assembles before a day’s work and goes over a few things with ranch manager Travis Brooks. The main crew, from left, Ransom Logan, Ty Vass, Jill Logan, Tom Frank and Ron Frank, put in a full day’s work with hardly a break before the Meads served “lunch,” sometime around 5 p.m. Across Wyoming, farm work, including ranching, employs 37,700 persons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Muddy boots pile up outside the ranch house in Kirby. Designed for safety, they have no laces that can get tangled. They are made to slide into a stirrup easily but not through one. They slip off relatively easily to prevent a roper from being dragged should she or he become unhorsed.