This Montana cowboy has spent his entire life horseback and with cattle, and also served as a brand inspector for more than 40 years.
At the end of the day, as dark, swirling storm clouds build over eastern Montana, Bill Blankenship rides back to the barn after checking cattle on his small ranch south of Glendive. He unsaddles his blue roan horse, Blue Duck, turns him loose in the corral and throws him some hay.
“I think I’ll keep him up tonight,” he says, as he turns out the tack room light, closes the door and walks toward his house.
It’s a habit to keep a horse penned up at night and let the others loose. Blankenship developed it while serving as a Montana brand inspector.
“I’d get called out to investigate a case at all hours of the night,” he says, “and I could just load up the horse and go. I don’t think every brand inspector was horseback as much as I was, but sometimes it was the only way I could get a job done. It was a huge part of my job. I wasn’t a fan of doing paperwork and working on the computer, but I could get something accomplished horseback, and it really balanced things out for me and kept me going all those years.”
After serving 43 years and seven months as a brand inspector on local, district and state levels, Blankenship retired April 1, 2016. His second cousin, Robin Blankenship, is one of many brand inspectors he mentored through the years.
A native of eastern Montana, Blankenship grew up on a family ranch about 35 miles from where he now lives. He still owns part of that ranch, where he grazes his own cattle during the summer.
“My family raised purebred Herefords, and I still do that and also cross some of my Hereford cows on Black Angus bulls,” he says. “I really like the Hereford disposition, and I think the breed is just as good as any of today’s Black Angus cattle. There aren’t any Herefords in this part of Montana anymore, so if I see one roaming around I know it’s mine.”
In 1972, after graduating from high school, Blankenship married his wife, Kitty, who grew up “one creek over” from him. He cowboyed on ranches and worked as a local brand inspector before becoming a market inspector at sale barns in Glasgow and Sidney, Montana. He later became a district brand inspector in charge of four northeastern Montana counties. In 1989, he and Kitty, and their two young children, Joe and Becky, moved back to Glendive. He remained a district brand inspector and had four surrounding counties under his jurisdiction, and also continued to build his own cattle herd.
To become a certified brand inspector, Blankenship had to attend a law-enforcement academy.
“As a brand inspector, I had the same arrest power as a deputy sheriff,” he explains. “I worked a lot of rural thefts, and they weren’t all cattle thefts. We sent guys to prison for stealing saddles.”
Blankenship says he enjoyed the diversity of the job.
“One day I might be roping stolen or stray cattle in a pasture somewhere and hauling them back to their owners, and the next day I could be testifying in court or interviewing people about a crime not even related to livestock,” he says. “There were a lot of cases I found interesting to work on and people wouldn’t expect a brand inspector to be handling them, but we did. I took it as a compliment when a sheriff would asked me to help him with cases, even if they didn’t involve livestock. I worked beside some of the finest law-enforcement officers anywhere. Their friendship and respect really meant something to me.”
While cattle rustling still happens, Blankenship says time has changed the way cattle are stolen.
“The days of a thief going into a pasture with a trailer and saddle horse and roping critters and hauling them off have decreased,” he explains. “Now, there’s a lot of fraud and thefts being committed on cattle operations by employees and on the computer. There are more livestock crimes committed than people realize.”
That’s why branding livestock is so important.
“Our saying at the office was that your brand is your return address for your livestock,” says Blankenship.
Though he never rode broncs or rodeoed, Blankenship became a pick-up man in the late 1970s and worked for several Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stock contractors, including Brookman Rodeo, then located in Wolf Point, Montana, until 2007. He picked up at rodeos all over Montana and Canada, including the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals, Montana High School Rodeo Association Finals and the Mile City Bucking Horse Sale.
It was hard to find affordable horses already trained to pick up, so Blankenship bought stout horses wherever he could find them and made his own. He trained them while working cattle on the ranch or at the sale barn, and they became handy ranch and pick-up horses.
“I admire a good pick-up horse as much as any horse,” he says. “It takes the best horses there are to pick up on. It goes against every instinct they have to ride up to a running, bucking bronc. The horse has to have a lot of confidence in himself and faith in his rider, and a lot of heart.”
Blankenship fondly recalls “Spook,” a horse brought to the Cody Night Rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, to be bucked.
“My son, Joe, was picking up there and bought the horse and sent him to me,” recalls Blankenship. “He bucked a little, but he wasn’t mean—he just had the wrong start. I went on to pick up at a lot of rodeos on that horse, and Joe still has him today.”
He also mentions “Baldy,” who he used to pick up in bareback riding.
“He was quiet and ready to go whenever I needed him,” says Blankenship. “I’d lay my reins over the saddle horn and could work on getting a bronc rider’s hand out of his rigging when he was hung up, and Baldy would stay right with the bronc.”
Since retiring, Blankenship says he’s been busier than ever spending time with his seven grandchildren, working with his cattle, helping at the local sale barn and going to neighbors’ spring brandings.
“When I retired I told my wife, Kitty, that we going to go cruising,” he jokes. “Cruising right out to the creek and building some fence. If I didn’t have this ranch I wouldn’t know what I’d do.”
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Western Horseman.