With its deep canyons and craggy, cactus-infested hillsides, the 7 Up Ranch is home to hardy cattle, tough horses and a cowboy who traded the show spotlight for remote family life.
Story and photography by ROSS HECOX
KJ Kasun points Coyote down a steep hill, zigzagging through prickly pear, juniper, yucca plants and loose piles of rock. The sound of horse and cowboy snapping dead tree limbs and dislodging small boulders echoes against the basalt hillsides.
Kasun had just spotted two black cows about a mile away, so he and his two dogs began picking their way into a canyon and back up another craggy hillside. On this final day of an arduous cattle drive, the Campwood Cattle Company herd is about two miles from its destination. Out of sight, Kasun’s crew holds herd for about an hour while he backtracks toward the two remnants. There are those who would have been tempted to pretend they never noticed those two black specks in the distance, but Kasun doesn’t entertain the thought.
“My horse is tired. I’m tired. But I’ve got to get them,” he says. “In this country, there are so many hidden pockets and holes. When you see cows, you’d better suck it up and get them because you may not see them again for a month.”
Kasun manages Campwood Cattle, which runs both cow-calf pairs and stocker yearlings throughout the rugged desert of western Arizona. Its cattle are scattered across four different ranches: Howard Mesa, Lazy Kate, Wild Horse and 7 Up. Each ranch consists of deeded land mixed with government allotments. Kasun and his crew are gathering the western side of the 7 Up, a 44,000-acre rock pile with deep canyons, high mesas and every merciless sprout of thorny vegetation imaginable.
Last winter, about 500 cows grazed along Burro Creek, a perennial stream that has cut a deep, breathtaking canyon through the desert west of Prescott. Typically, the cattle are gathered out of the canyon in March and trailed about 25 miles east to pastures with higher elevation and cooler temperatures. The job takes nearly three days, the crew camping for two nights, and each cowboy bringing three horses.
This time, the crew includes Kasun, Jamie Wood and Levi Lewis. It’s one or two fewer hands than Kasun prefers, but he’s confident they have the ability and the horses to handle the job. Lewis was raised in Colorado, hired on with Campwood Cattle a year ago, works hard and wants to learn. Some local ranchers may have questioned Kasun for hiring a woman, but Wood has proven to be tougher and more resilient than a lot of cowboys. The Montana native has worked for ranches from Texas to Nevada, and after three years working on the 7 Up she knows the country and the cattle. Neither Wood nor Lewis is a born-and-raised Arizona cowpuncher, but Kasun believes that adaptability, self-reliance and work ethic matter the most in this country. After all, those qualities have helped him make his own transition from small, fluffy-sanded cutting arenas to vast, unforgiving canyon country.
The first day consists of trailering to Halfway and then trailing saddle horses about eight miles to campsite. Halfway, a remote house, barn and set of corrals where Wood lives, sits halfway between the 7 Up headquarters on the east side and Burro Creek on the west. Around midday, Kasun trots out of Halfway with the string of horses following and Lewis and Wood driving from behind.
A rocky, winding trail—too rough for a truck and trailer—leads the crew and their horses to camp. Mostly bays and sorrels, the horses carry Campwood Cattle’s wagon bow brand, which is three stacked, downward-arcing quarter-circles. The horse program was put together by Swayze and Kathy McCraine, who also established Campwood Cattle.
“We used to buy horses, but they just wouldn’t stand up to this country,” Swayze says. “So we made up our minds about 15 years ago to start raising our own colts.
That’s when they purchased Dual Winner, a 1996 son of Dual Peppy. The stallion won $2,200 in cutting competition, and today he is crossed on eight broodmares who are daughters or granddaughters of stallions such as Mr San Peppy, Playgun, Gallo Del Cielo, CD Olena and Pepto Taz. Last year, they purchased a yearling colt from the Fulton Ranch in South Dakota. By million-dollar sire A Streak Of Fling and out of a Paddys Irish Whiskey daughter, the blue roan colt gives them high hopes for their breeding program.
A few hours later the crew trots into camp. They unsaddle, feed horses, and then settle around a campfire already built by Kasun’s father, Kelly, who is there as the cook. Before retirement, Kelly and his wife, Brenda, both worked in law enforcement in Prescott. Their two youngest sons followed the same career path, but their oldest pursued a different occupation.
“I knew at an early age that I wanted to get into ranching,” Kasun says. “When I was in grade school, the teacher asked each of the students to tell about what we did for the summer break. I said I spent the whole summer working on my family’s ranch in Wyoming. I got in trouble when later the teacher saw my dad and asked him about our Wyoming ranch. He said, ‘We don’t have a ranch in Wyoming.’”
Kasun grew up riding horses, but owning a ranch was just a dream. He left home at age 18 to train horses, spent time in California and then made his way to Oklahoma and Texas, working as an assistant for successful cutting horse trainers such as Shannon Hall and Roger Wagner. By January of 2006, he was the head trainer for Rob and Carrie Tiemann’s cutting horse program. He proved himself a rising star in the National Cutting Horse Association when in 2007, at age 34, he won the limited open division at the NCHA Futurity on the Tiemanns’ Gunnin At Sundown. He soon qualified for the finals of several prestigious cutting events and in three years won more than $110,000.
Although it seemed like an illustrious career was finally taking shape, Kasun was becoming disenchanted with life as a trainer.
“You can be so driven that you put the blinders on and you forget about your relationships,” he says. “The cutting horse deal is hard on family life and I made some mistakes."
“I also still had the bug to be ranching, and I wanted to be home every night and watch my kids learn how to rope and experience ranch life."
Seeking to return home and get closer to the ranch life he had always dreamed about, Kasun contacted the McCraines, cutting horse enthusiasts he knew who ranched in the Prescott area. They made an arrangement in which Kasun managed the Wild Horse division near Bagdad, Arizona, and trained cutting horses part-time for the public. Kasun moved his family in the summer of 2009, and he ambitiously promised to build a full-fledged training facility in 60 days, a project that involved clearing land, installing water lines, erecting a 16-stall barn and building two arenas. Kasun put in many 16-hour days and got plenty of help from his dad and two brothers. And he beat his own deadline.
“On the 36th day, he was riding horses,” Swayze says. “He oversaw it all by himself. That impressed me.”
By the fall of that year, Kasun and McCraine began devising another arrangement. Kasun was finding Bagdad too remote to attract enough cutting horse clients, and the McCraines needed someone to manage Campwood Cattle Company. Swayze offered the position to Kasun and also offered a partnership in the company.
“I didn’t have enough money [to buy into the partnership],” Kasun says. “So I asked, ‘Will you carry me on what I can’t come up with right now?’ He said sure. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ So we structured a business plan.”
In 2010, Kasun and his family moved to the 7 Up headquarters and settled into the main house, built in 1884. Managing the cattle operation, particularly on the remote and rugged 7 Up, posed a serious learning curve for Kasun.
“I think he got a little shell-shocked at how big the ranch is,” Swayze recalls with a laugh. “This is range country. You can ride right by a cow standing behind a few rocks. I remember one time he came in and said, ‘I know dang well I put 200 cows in that pasture, and we only penned 180.’ I said, ‘Well KJ, it’s not like they’re gone. They’re still out there.’ He said, ‘There’s no way they’re out there. I rode every inch of this place.’ And I said, ‘Actually, if I’m short 10 percent I don’t feel too bad. We’ll get them.’”
Kasun was intent on pleasing his boss and partner.
“I would get home at night and if something had gone wrong, I’d tell my wife, ‘Oh, I hope Swayze’s not going to get mad,’ ” he says. “She’d tell me to just relax. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to earn this, so then I worried about how I was going to hang onto it. It was a huge blessing.”
Gathering Burro Creek
Before sunup, Kasun and his crew saddle up and trot toward Burro Creek. Kasun descends into the canyon on the first trail, while Wood and Lewis ride farther west before cutting down near an abandoned homestead called Lovelace. The plan is to gather cattle from each end, then trail them up a middle road.
“It takes a while to learn this country,” Kasun says. “You can think you see a path to get from here to there, but then you work over that way and come up on a cliff you didn’t see.”
At times, Kasun has spotted cows grazing at the top of a steep ridge and had no choice but to wait an hour until they worked their way down. Other times he has blazed a trail best suited for a goat.
This morning, his challenge is finding cows along the creek. The heat and flying insects have already begun driving cows to higher ground. Kasun crosses the creek and notices scratches recently left in the dirt by a mountain lion. He crosses again, studying faint tracks, crumbling cow patties and new blades of grass. He guesses most of the cattle have moved out.
As Kasun works his way west, he begins seeing cows sprinkled along the hillsides. Some have young calves, while others look to be on the verge of calving. One by one, he climbs up to them and sends them down. Eventually, he meets Lewis and Wood, and they begin trailing everything they found up a path that rises nearly 2,000 feet out of the canyon. Eventually, Wood branches off to gather several more head, and then Lewis peels off to turn a non-compliant cow. Kasun keeps the herd moving.
“You have to trail cattle out of here,” Kasun says. “You can’t drive them. In this canyon country, you have to trust these cattle to move along and make that turn up ahead, because you can’t be back here and all the way up there at the same time. Out here, you work by yourself all the time. If you let a cow follow a general direction, she’ll generally land where she’s supposed to.”
By midday, the crew filters about 50 head into the pasture near camp. After a break for lunch, they each saddle another horse and make different circles along the edges of the canyon. Kasun rides up to a point overlooking Burro Creek, the Lovelace homestead and Shirttail Mesa. The arid landscape stretches to the horizon, without a vehicle, power line or cell tower in sight.
“How many people do you reckon have stood on this point and looked off?” he asks. “Not very many.” Just before heading back down, he stumbles across two bald-faced cows and points them toward camp. He rides to another rugged mesa and finds two more. With the sun sinking toward the horizon, the crew unsaddles sweaty horses and calls it a day.
There is just enough light to see when the crew saddles up for the final day. They open a gate and let the rest of the horses head back to Halfway on their own. Then they make a circle in the small pasture near camp and begin moving the cattle to the east. While Lewis works the drags and Kasun rides near the front, Wood scours the surrounding areas, finding more cows and kicking them toward the others.
Two miles from the end of their journey, they hold up the herd on an open field. Kasun and Wood drop into a canyon while Lewis stays back. At the bottom, Wood heads left and Kasun goes right.
“I’ll probably be just 20 minutes checking this hill up here,” he tells her.
That’s when he spots the two black cows a mile away. He and Coyote work their way downhill, not far from the place where Wood got into a bad wreck just a few days ago. Trying to turn a cow, her horse was running and slipped on the rocks. Wood hit her head and was knocked out for a few minutes, or maybe an hour—she isn’t sure. But fortunately her horse didn’t run away. Once she regained consciousness she was still disoriented, so she crawled into the saddle and gave her horse the reins, and he walked back home.
“You’ve got to be pretty self-reliant,” Kasun says. “If you lose your horse, you might have to hike 10 miles back home. Cell phones don’t work, so you’re on your own.”
As Kasun approaches the cows, he discovers they both have calves. He also finds a dry cow nearby. He and the dogs get behind the group and begin making their way toward the herd. It’s times like this when Kasun appreciates a horse like Coyote. The bay gelding has trotted up and down countless rocky hills but still has plenty left in his tank.
“That horse keeps his ears pricked up and wants to go to work,” Kasun says. “We try to breed horses for work ethic. You don’t want to have to kick on a horse all day long. In the morning, when you step on a horse and he’s got his heart set on the job just like you do, that’s pretty cool.”
As tired cows and calves stream into a pasture near Halfway, Kasun sits near the gate, counting. He figures another 125 are out there, hidden in the crevices but at least walking to Halfway out of habit. Wood will likely gather many of them on her own over the next few days, and Lewis and Kasun will help when they can.
In this rugged desert country there is no audience to perform for and no awards to be won like in the cutting arena, but it won’t be long before Kasun’s children are out there with him, something he’s looking forward to.
“I don’t think we ever grow if we don’t have goals,” he says. “My goal right now is to be a good cow man and rancher. My other goal is to get this ranch big enough that if my kids want to run part of it someday, they can do that. If they don’t want to, that’s fine. But I want to give them the opportunity.”
Article originally published in the June 2015 issue of Western Horseman.