Between branding calves and working bridle horses, Dale and Jessica Eng are raising two cow-savvy, confident and responsible kids.
South of Bismarck, North Dakota, not much breaks up the view of cattle grazing on rolling hills but the occasional homestead or field of sunflowers. The two-lane highway winds its way to the South Dakota line, paralleling the Missouri River. Dale and Jessica Eng’s place is seven miles north of the state line, with the house and barns only 100 yards or so from the river bank. It is an idyllic place to raise children—picturesque with a natural playground filled with rocks and trees.
On any given day, high-pitched children’s laughter echoes from the house to the barn. A blond-haired girl with a bobbing ponytail is sure to make a beeline to welcome any visitor, followed closely by a small boy in a big cowboy hat.
“Vickie Lee and Kolby James are really the only young people in the community, so they have grown up with confidence to talk to adults,” says their 28-year-old mother, Jessica.
Five-year-old Vickie Lee and her 3-year-old brother, Kolby, can talk about branding and vaccinating cattle, and are as polite as the day is long. Their parents, Dale and Jessica, manage cattle for the L Cattle Company, owned by Lee and Larry Vandervorst. It is the perfect job for a couple raising two young children in a remote part of North Dakota.
Cattle and Kids
Growing up with an “old-school” cowboy father taught Dale the hard way to start a colt. The young man from Turtle Lake, North Dakota, knew that breaking horses didn’t have to be a battle.
“Early on, I made up my mind to spend my life doing something with horses. My dad was the old way—get on and the toughest one won,” he says. “I got to thinking there has got to be a better way, and that led me to Ray Hunt. I wanted to be the best cowboy I could be, and to be the best I had to understand the horse. The horse was my tool. My life took o from there, and now we breed and raise our own bridle horses.”
Dale worked on ranches throughout the Dakotas and feedlots in Nebraska, and even put on colt-starting clinics in Canada, following Hunt’s methods. In July of 2010, at 51 years old, he met the love of his life, Jessica, at a clinic he was teaching on starting young horses in the vaquero tradition.
The two found common ground talking horses and horsemanship. Jessica grew up near Keldron, South
Dakota, and was exposed to the vaquero training traditions as well as the cowpuncher style of horsemanship. In her words, she fell for her teacher. They started married life in South Dakota, working as “sale-barn junkies,” moving horses and cattle through the pens at places like Faith Livestock and Lemmon Livestock.
Both knew they wanted children, and wanted to raise them in the agricultural lifestyle they had grown up knowing.
“We talked about [how to raise the kids] when it came time,” Jessica says. “We agreed we wanted to be a really big part of our kids’ lives and knew we could be with ranching. It is a family-friendly community.”
As soon as Vickie Lee and Kolby could ride, each child was seated in front of a parent while they worked the sale barns. The ultimate goal for the couple, though, was to manage a ranch, and L Cattle Company provided that chance.
The Eng motto is to get done as much as they can, and what they don’t get done today will get done tomorrow. That is not to say Dale and Jessica are lazy; in fact, the pair is up at dawn, with two sleepy kids in tow. Jessica packs snacks and lunches while Dale saddles and loads horses. The day’s activities could range from driving 165 miles south to check cattle pastured in South Dakota to gathering and doctoring cattle in different pastures at the home ranch. The one common denominator every day is that their children ride with them.
“This summer, we got down a pretty good system riding pastures with the kids,” Jessica says. “In our trailer we can load two horses and our [Polaris] Ranger [utility vehicle], so we would switch off as to who rides and who drives the kids. You get pretty creative when you have no choice.”
Vickie Lee and Kolby already are involved in every aspect of ranch life. The lessons they are learning, like roping and how to best control a calf for branding or vaccinating, are even seeping into their playtime.
“Vickie Lee and Kolby have cowboy toys in the house. They brand calves by laying them on their side and stretching them out. They know how it all works,” Dale says. “I love my kids with a passion. Every day we play, morning and at night. Kolby, he will say, ‘Dad, I go with you.’ And he asks ‘why’ the entire time we are working. Then he’ll crawl in my lap when we get home. He tells me stories about his pony bucking him off right after he roped a calf, but he got up and got back on. He’s got an imagination!”
Vickie Lee started school in 2016. Jessica opted for homeschooling, which allows them to keep the children close
“We structure schooling. It’s a Bible-based homeschool program, and we like the values it has,” Jessica says. “But with playtime, I just let the kids express themselves. We want them to be confident in their decisions and their instincts.”
Creativity and responsibility go hand in hand at the Eng house. If Jessica is shoeing horses and Dale is working with a bridle horse in training, the children come up with a game to play by themselves. Sitting in front of the TV is not an option. They also help with chores, like feeding their pony.
These are the tools Dale says the kids can draw on for the rest of their lives: the freedom of responsibility and hard work.
“I want my children to grow up and stand on their own ground,” he says. “We can teach them how to
work and be honest. Cowboying is something I can use to teach my kids responsibility, show them a better way of life. I hope one day they want to cowboy, but whether they do or not, they will know how to stand on their own.”
It seems that Dale will have his wish, though, with Vickie Lee already set on being a cowgirl like her mom
and Kolby wanting to be a roper. No matter where the Eng children go in life, the ranch lessons they are learning at a young age will help shape them into confident, successful adults. That’s how kids are raised in the North Country.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Western Horseman.