Women of the West - Sylvia McComber
Hard work and self-reliance help this Colorado rancher withstand the struggles of an unpredictable livelihood.
Interview and photography by ROSS HECOX
Making a living in the remote, harsh climate of northern Montana requires hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness. Sylvia McComber and her four siblings developed these traits at an early age while helping their parents run the family ranch, located 80 miles from the town of Havre.
She met her husband, Jack McComber, in college. After working briefly as a cowboy, he began training horses, a profession that led the couple to various places in Idaho and California. They raised three children, and as Bonnie, Heather and John were beginning to enter adulthood, the family moved to Colorado.
About 20 years ago they purchased a small ranch south of Rocky Ford, on the plains of southeastern Colorado, where they raise and train horses and run cow-calf pairs. Jack judges horse shows, conducts horsemanship clinics, and often tends cattle in the mountains—jobs that keep him away from home. Sylvia often runs the operation by herself and has weathered blizzards, drought and primitive living conditions.
She also makes chaps, vests and other leather goods, and competes in cow horse and ranch versatility events alongside Bonnie and two of her grandchildren.
TONIGHT JACK is in Arizona, hauling horses. I just pulled an enormous calf. The wind was howling, and that translates to dust—yuck. I’ve done it in a blizzard, so tonight wasn’t so bad after all. What a privilege it is to experience these challenges. This is is the life I love.
MY PARENTS and ancestors were just amazing people. Both of my granddads were in Montana before it was homesteaded. One of them was a Scotsman, had a huge territory and ran sheep. He lived in the ground in a dugout.
WE WERE the work force. My folks relied on us [their children]. We packed water to chickens in winter, built fence, milked cows twice a day, spent long days working in the hay field. It was hard, but it sure kept us busy.
I WAS THE ONE that liked to ride, so I had jobs checking water, moving cows or making sure the bull was there.
I WORKED OUTSIDE, and when we’d come in for a meal the boys might sit down, but I didn’t. I was needed to help in the kitchen. And that was fine. I never resented that at all.
GOOD HORSEMANSHIP is being considerate of your horse and putting aside your ego. So often we have our plans for the day, but we don’t listen to our horses. And I don’t mean spoil them, but it needs to be a partnership. You can set it up to where they know they have a big part in what you’re doing. You’re not just jamming them around. In other words, they’re not a motorcycle.
I HAD A GELDING that had some baggage [from a previous owner]. John helped me, and I went through all sorts of scary stages with him. But then he became so good. He was the most affectionate horse I ever had once he realized he could trust me.
WE HAVE so much freedom. If someone calls and asks if we can brand with them for three days, we can do that.
WE BOUGHT this place, moved here, and then Jack went directly to the mountains to manage a set of yearlings. We just camped here. It took a year to get a house here.
I PROBABLY am the only person you will ever interview whose most exciting Mother’s Day gift was an outhouse. John and I wrestled that thing around and dug a hole. All we had were shovels; we didn’t have a tractor.
EVEN WHEN our kids were young, they were selfless and hardworking. That brought Jack and me a lot of joy.
THE FAMILY involvement is so fun. As our kids grew up, we had them with us all the time. Now with our grandkids, there are three generations of us showing together.
IT’S A REAL uncomfortable thing to think about because we don’t have money [set aside for retirement]. And I guess I have a lot of faith. I would have to say I really believe God will provide, not because I deserve it but because he promised he would.
BEING A COWGIRL, you have to have satisfaction in a whole bunch of areas. You can’t be dissatisfied if you’ve got to cook for a crew of guys. That’s part of the life. It’s not just when you’re running barrels or riding a cutting horse.
YOU HAVE TO LOOK for the happiness a lot of times. Ranching isn’t a bed of roses, but if you try to be thankful and mindful of small things, you wind up being happy.
Article originally published in the June 2016 issue of Western Horseman.