Cowboy and horseman Kevin Meyer believes horses and riders of all backgrounds can benefit from working cattle on the open range. What better place to do it than on a remote ranch in Wyoming?
Crackling thunder and storm clouds threaten to shoot lightning bolts at the riders, so they spur their horses into a lope and hustle back to camp, slickers flapping in the cool air and hats dripping from the driving rain.
Getting caught in a mountain thunderstorm shouldn’t be so enjoyable, but the laughter and chatter among the riders says differently.
“That was exhilarating!” Kim Muer says back at the corrals.
Muer, who owns and operates a feedlot in Kentucky, is one of eight riders attending this cow-working clinic on the Bell-Otte Ranch near Garrett, Wyoming. Like the other participants, she came to improve her horsemanship and stockmanship, and working cattle in wide-open country presented learning opportunities she couldn’t find at a clinic inside an arena.
“I’ve always wanted to put on a clinic outside,” says Kevin Meyer, who two years ago organized his first cow-working clinic in a ranch setting. “I want to stay away from making this a City Slickers deal. And I don’t even want to say it’s only for horse show people. It’s for riders who want to get better and not just chase cows around.”
This clinic included ranch sorting and reined cow horse competitors, beef industry professionals, a dressage instructor and a young horse trainer. Most brought their own horses, and two riders borrowed horses from Meyer, to gather and drive hundreds of yearling calves, hold herd, long-trot through sagebrush, scramble up steep ridges and cross boggy streams.
“For 51 years I’ve been dreaming of getting to ride in the mountains on a horse,” says Lynda Percival, who came with her husband, Bob. “This has been very special to us. My husband and I have been riding for only the last four or five years. We like to ranch sort, and we’ve had some success at that. I want to go to the [American Quarter Horse Association] World Show in novice reining someday.”
The clinic’s concept reflects Meyer’s background. He was raised on a cow-calf outfit close to the Bell-Otte, but drifted away from ranch life as a young man.
“I went to college and was trying real hard to be a well-educated man,” Meyer says. “College just wasn’t my thing, so I decided to take a semester off. Now I’m on year 18 of my semester off.
“I started cowboying again. My first cowboy job paid $600 a month, so I started riding colts for extra money. I had no intention of being a horse trainer, but over time I was riding more and more. Eventually the opportunity came to just ride colts for a month and a half, and I actually hated it.”
Meyer returned to ranch work and was later hired by Wagonhound Land & Livestock near Douglas, Wyoming, where he worked his way from cowboying and starting colts to showing horses and managing the horse division. In 2008 he left to start his own training business. He also began conducting ranch versatility and cow horse clinics throughout the country. But it didn’t take long for him to get back into the cattle business, this time running yearling stocker cattle on leased land in the Laramie Mountains of southeastern Wyoming.
“I’m certainly not the best show horse trainer in the industry,” Meyer says. “And I’m not the best cowboy in the country. But I’ve got a foot in both worlds. I want my ranch horses to ride like show horses. I want them to work a cow with precision, know how to spin, how to stop and really get off my leg.
“But I want my show horses to have the same mental approach to their job as ranch horses, where they don’t get hot. I don’t want to have to lope my horses for two hours in order to show them for two and a half minutes. I want to unload them off a trailer, trot them around for a little bit, and then go show them.
“You can have a horse that can perform, but can also be relaxed, so I think there’s a balance in there between the two things. I think a lot of cowboys could learn a lot from the show world. But the show world could learn a lot from how cowboys ride and treat their horses.”
A few years ago, Meyer began devising a way to host clinics in a ranch setting, and the Bell-Otte’s vast mountain pastures were an ideal location. Bert Bell homesteaded the ranch in 1884, and his great-granddaughter, Celia Corson, owns and operates it today with her husband, Jack. Corson’s and Meyer’s families have been neighbors and friends for decades, so both were happy to work together hosting a clinic. Meyer also leases the ranch and runs more than 2,000 yearlings there during the summer.
“I got to thinking about clinics,” Meyer says. “Really, how can you do a cow-working clinic inside an arena? So many riders are now showing in stock horse contests, ranch horse events and reined cow horse shows. But how many people truly understand why we do the things we do in the arena? You won’t truly understand it until you do it outside.”
With Windy Peak standing in the background, Bill Gentle eases his 4-year-old bay gelding into a sea of 352 yearlings. Meyer, assistant Michael Martin and seven clinic participants hold the rodear on a flat patch of tall, wavy grass.
Earlier, the riders had gathered the cattle from a pasture of about 4,500 acres, driven them into a 1,000-acre pasture, and trailed them to this spot.
At Meyer’s instructions, Gentle walks slowly through the herd, and his horse works more quietly than the previous day. The horse was trained for reined cow horse aged events but didn’t make the cut. That’s when Gentle bought him.
“He’s really not an experienced horse,” Gentle says later. “This is only about his third time out in the big country. On Friday he got to be a jerk—wouldn’t stand still and got all excited. He has a tremendous stop and gets pretty ‘cow happy.’ You’ve got to slow him down.”
Some horses trained for cutting, reined cow horse and sorting become anxious around cattle because they’re never allowed to relax around them. Holding rodear and walking through the herd allows them to do that. Later, Gentle drives one cow out and works it as he would in a cutting arena.
“It was really nice to work out of the rodear,” he says. “If you lost your cow, you didn’t worry about chasing it. Just let the cow go and find another one.”
At the end of the three-day clinic, Meyer says, horses and riders will have advanced their skills in a wide variety of areas, from reading and handling cattle to improving their stops and negotiating mountainous country.
“We started the weekend with some horses that would not cross water, and riders who couldn’t make them cross water,” Meyer says. “Now they know they can teach their horses to do stuff like that. Those horses made a big jump. To me, that’s a huge step even though it’s a small thing. It doesn’t directly affect what their horses do in the show pen, but in the grand scheme I think it’s really important.”
To Meyer, presenting new challenges, giving a horse a job and riding out on the open range are ideal factors for a clinic.
“People have forgotten how to have fun with their horses,” he says. “They’re not having fun walking in circles and trying to get a soft feel. They’re also not having fun with a trainer yelling at them to rip their horse’s face off. So I hope that I can help people get just a little better. Teach them that they can have fun and also be productive. There’s not this disconnect where you can do one and not the other.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Western Horseman.