After 57 years of ranching in northern Nevada, this fourth-generation rancher still saddles up, rides big circles and helps work her family’s cattle.

The eldest sister of Bill Kane, legendary cow boss of the Spanish Ranch in Tuscarora, Nevada, Merilyn Sustacha possesses the same grit and work ethic as her brother. She started buckarooing on Nevada ranches as a teenager. She and her late husband, Jess Sustacha Sr., ranched in the Lamoille Valley of northeastern Nevada for more than 50 years and raised two children, Tami and Jess Jr. Now in her late 70s, Merilyn is a grandmother of three and is still active on the cow-calf operation she runs in a limited partnership with her children. She is frequently horseback, working cattle.

Merilyn Sustacha standing with bridle on shoulder

MY LIFE BEGAN in Eureka, Nevada. I was the oldest of four children born to  Thomas and Liberty Kane. When I was about 10 days old, my parents brought me home to Lee, Nevada, where my grandparents owned the Kane Ranches. I’ve been [in] Elko County ever since.

BEFORE I WAS OLD enough to go to school, I helped my granddad move cattle from pasture to pasture on the ranch. I rode a gray  Thoroughbred named “Cougar.” My family didn’t know kids’ saddles existed. I rode an old-time cowboy saddle with a tall horn and high cantle. I kept the stirrups long so I could get on easier. Boy, riding with long stirrups was tough on my hide. I learned how to grip with the insides of my legs or else fall off.

I LIKED RIDING  Thoroughbreds because they covered a lot of miles. My granddad had a band of Thoroughbred mares and bred them to [U.S. Army] Remount stallions.

I ATTENDED the first four grades of school on the South Fork Indian Reservation. I learned to speak their language. I rode to school on a bay horse named “Jerry.” After school, some of the older Indian boys would get under the Lee Bridge and spook old Jerry while I crossed it. I had some wild rides trying to get home. One day, I got a fancy new lunch pail, and my dad decided to fix a strap with a buckle to go around it and a ring to go over the saddle horn. That was a big mistake. Something spooked Jerry, the thermos started to rattle inside the lunch pail, and he started to run and buck. My dad always said, “Hold his head up.” Well, I couldn’t do that and hang on, too.

THERE WAS A DITCH that ran alongside the road, and that’s where I landed, followed by the lunchbox and thermos. That was my first bronc ride at age 7.

I ATTENDED eighth grade through high school in Elko. There weren’t school buses, so I lived with a family in town during the week. On weekends and during vacations, I buckarooed for my dad, the PX Ranch, J&H Livestock and Tom Tanner. All of the neighbors helped each other, and, because I was the oldest of my siblings, I was cheap labor. The only rides I hated were when Jim McDermott, the PX cattle foreman, sent me to the Truett Ranch. The sagebrush was as high as a person horseback, and it seemed there were hundreds of rattlesnakes. By the time I got there it was almost dark and every cricket was making a noise. It scared me to death, and I would make my horse go faster.

IN 1953 I had a pretty good stock horse and won a silver buckle showing him at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California. I also entered my first high school rodeo and won the cutting. In 1955 I roped a calf in 4.6 seconds, which was a record time for nearly 40 years. Later, I won the women’s stock horse class three times at the Elko County Fair and retired the revolving trophy.

ON JANUARY 7, 1957, I married the love of my life, Jess Sustacha, and we rode together for 50 years. Some days were good, others were long and bad, but we made the best of it.

I TAKE GREAT PRIDE in the horses I ride. I like a solid, all-around cow horse. I’m not getting any younger, so I like a horse to stand perfectly still while I get on, even if I cheat a little and take him over to a ditch or stand on a rock.

I’ve worked on this ranch for 57 years and have enjoyed every moment of it. I wouldn’t change a damned thing. As for retiring, my answer is never!

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Western Horseman. 

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