Women of the West

Melissa Fowler

Melissa Fowler and horse

Moving from the Oregon coast to western South Dakota was a childhood dream come true for this rancher and horsewoman.

From extreme drought to hip-deep snow, western South Dakota offers a variety of weather for ranchers to navigate, and that is just fine for Melissa Fowler. Though born in California and raised in Oregon, Fowler didn’t truly find the place she belonged until she was 35 years old and got married to Buffalo, South Dakota, rancher Ty Fowler. Today, the pair work his family’s Grubbing Hoe Ranch running cows and yearlings, and operating a successful horse program. Fowler also ranches on her competitive cow horses. | Fowler grew up riding horses with her siblings in Oregon. Though she took a break from owning or riding horses when she had her son, Kane Hill, she found her way back to managing horse boarding facilities, starting horses and facilitating clinics for local horsemen and -women on the West Coast. | Connecting with others in the horse industry was how Fowler found herself on an online ranch chat site visiting with Ty. That led to a trip to South Dakota, where he put her to work. While unexpected hard labor might deter some, it helped Fowler realize she wanted to pursue a different course in life. Now, she has a footing in the rugged land she and Ty call home.

Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

My parents moved us to Oregon when I was 3. They were hobby farmers with seven acres and had town jobs. We had cattle and horses, turkeys and chickens, and they wanted us to have chores. I’ve had horses since the time I was big enough to get on a horse. My sister was five years older than me and I got her hand-me-down ponies, ornery ponies.

I used to tease my dad saying I’d move away and marry a rancher, and he would chuckle. So when I met Ty, I don’t think my parents were surprised.

When my son was a baby we didn’t have horses. I lived in town and worked for years, but I felt a part of me was missing. You do what you have to do. I was a single mom, working two jobs and taking care of my boy. As soon as I could get horses again, my son was well-mounted.

I was boarding my horses when another barn owner approached me and asked if I was interested in leasing their property—250 acres, cross-fenced with a huge riding arena. That was a lot of land on the coast. I knew it was a lot of responsibility, but I just jumped in.

Buying horses that weren’t broke like they were represented was getting me into wrecks. So I bought babies and started them on my own. I started hosting clinics with various horsemen, and I was learning different kinds of horsemanship practices myself. My horses that I started would be part of the clinics, and then people wanted to buy my horses.

Ty and I started visiting online, and after a month I came out here. Ty gave me a horse [to ride] and I just fell in love with it all. I grew up in the trees. Here, you can see everything and you can ride for miles and miles. I loved it and I loved the work. I was here for 18 days and it felt like a short trip.

My horse program was growing, but I wasn’t in love with where I lived. [My son and I] were both ready for a new adventure. My son is my rock and he said, “Let’s go!” It was an adventure and this community welcomed us like you can’t imagine.

Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

Ty staked me to an older bay horse. I could rope on him and he was cowy. That horse taught me a lot and filled in for me where I was lacking. He would get me a good shot in the branding pen.

I had to prove myself when I came here. There are not a lot of ladies that work on crews.

We will go to 10 or 12 different brandings to help. I get asked to castrate a lot of this area’s calves. Some days I wish Ty hadn’t taught me so well, but now when we help, I do most of the cutting. These guys aren’t going to ask you to castrate their calves if they don’t trust you, and now I think most of the neighbors accept me.

Ty is my best friend. We do everything together. We banter and give each other a hard time, but we don’t fight—well, we do when we are working cows, but that is normal. I wasn’t ready for this life or for him until that moment in my life. I feel we are lucky to get to work together every single day.

It’s peaceful here. Sometimes I pinch myself. You ride out and watch the sunrise come up with the colors, or while we gather we see the most amazing things, like a fox coming down the hill with a coyote on its tail. When you hear the cattle and we ride out, I think how blessed I am. Sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve this life.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Western Horseman.

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