California couple Buddy and Laurie Montes have spent more than 30 years hiring on at ranches together, even when women were not always allowed to ride.
The steep, rocky hills of California’s ranch country can be taxing to horses, cattle and cowboys. It’s not the place to work when you’re in a hurry or with horses and a crew you don’t trust. That’s why Buddy and Laurie Montes prefer to work as a two-person crew; they know what to expect and enjoy working together every day. Rarely do they get into an argument.
In late summer, the couple drives a herd of heifers higher into the hills after the cattle had drifted down to the creeks and riverbeds. They separate and ride out over the vast, golden hillsides, searching under the oak canopies and along the riparian areas. Laurie rides ahead on her sorrel mare, pointing the cows Buddy feeds to her from below in the right direction. The couple can’t see or hear each other, but after more than three decades of working on nearly a dozen ranches in California together they have a rhythm and routine.
“We get along better when we work together,” says Laurie. “We don’t talk to each other much when we work, because when you’ve worked with someone this long you know what the other is going to do
and can read them.”
Raised near Bakersfield, California, Laurie started riding at a young age and competed at local open shows, and as an adult started her own colts and day-worked on ranches where the crews were usually made up of men. She and Buddy met in the early 1980s through a mutual friend on a ranch, and married in 1986, vowing to work only on ranches that would hire both of them. In their 31 years of marriage, they only encountered one ranch that wouldn’t hire Laurie, and they stayed only a few months, long enough to earn enough money to move on.
“When I started out, there weren’t a lot of women getting hired on ranches unless they were married or related to the owner or someone on the crew,” says Laurie.
“Women couldn’t show femininity or be too opinionated; you were expected to dress and work like a
cowboy. It’s not like that anymore.” Buddy, a fifth-generation vaquero, grew up on the Tejon Ranch and later worked there before moving to Nevada, where he worked on big outfits like the Winecup Gamble Ranch.
On all the ranches he worked, he didn’t encounter many women in the saddle. Seeing Laurie’s potential, however, he taught her his ways, and she’s become his top hand.
“I was always told to watch your cow boss’ eyes and [that] would tell you what you need to do,” he says. “Poor Laurie, because I’m the worst about sorting a cow and looking off, but she seems to know what I’m doing. We’ve also made a point of being well-mounted, and that makes work easier.”
It used to be that most of the ranches where they worked required them to ride company horses, but now the couple has their own string of ranch horses.
“We rode the horses a ranch provided us most of the time,” says Laurie, “but most of them were pretty good. Cowboys tend to safety up on their own horses and won’t go running down a hill after a cow as hard as on a company horse. You get a little more protective of your own.”
Through their years of marriage, Buddy has relayed many of the ranching traditions he grew up with to Laurie, and they use them every day. One of the philosophies he learned was to take as long as it takes to do a job with horses or cattle, even if it takes all day.
“We never get in a big hurry,” says Buddy, “because it’s not like one of us is waiting at home for the other. We’re out there together. We don’t want to overheat the cattle and have them scatter, so we take our time and work them slowly.”
Another tradition the couple practices on most of their horses is training them to be straight up in the bridle.
“We ride most of our horses in a hackamore and then the two rein as long as needed, and we’ll go back and forth until the horse is ready for the bit,” says Buddy. “But I will use whatever a horse works well in. We have a variety of hackamores and bits, and we’ll use whatever it takes to get along with a horse.”
The couple has made their living working on several family ranches and leases. The most remote place they lived was a 500,000-acre cow camp near the Mojave Desert on the Onyx Ranch, 31 miles off the highway in Kern County, California.
“We lived in an Airstream trailer with a propane refrigerator and stove, and no electricity,” says Buddy. “We could ride 15 miles in any direction without seeing a fence.”
They spent 14 years running cattle on a lease at Rancho San Emigdio, an old Mexican land grant in present-day Kern County. In 2002, they took a job managing the cattle operation for the diverse Booth Ranches in Orange Cove, California. They remained there until last July, when the cattle operation was
dispersed. The couple is now cowboying for Dry Creek Ranch, a family-owned cow-calf and stocker operation in Snelling, California.
Buddy and Laurie Montes, both in their 50s, don’t aspire to develop their own cattle operation at this point in life, and they’re content cowboying. When they’re not working, they are fixtures at California bridle horse and ranch roping competitions.
“We’d rather maintain stock for someone else than bear the risks of our own herd,” says Buddy. “We just like to get out here and ride together every day.”
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Western Horseman.