This Arizona ranch hand wouldn’t trade life with her horses, dogs, cows
and the wildlife at her cow camp on the high mesa.
In the moonlight, with her gun and dogs, Sheila Carlson calls herself “the apex predator” as she watches over cattle. But when the early morning sunlight pours through the Ponderosas on Anderson Mesa, she’s likely to share a cup of hot coffee with any rare visitor.
Since 2009, Carlson has made her home at the historic Flying M Ranch south of Flagstaff, Arizona, splitting the year between a summertime cow camp in the high country and winter months in the ranch’s canyon country. Her boss, Kit Metzger, lauds Carlson’s “mothering instinct” with the ranch’s herd of replacement heifers.
That instinct is not only for cows. When Carlson makes her weekly trek into town and has cell service, she also checks on her Facebook pages. They include Cow Folks Care, Inc., a nonprofit fundraising organization for members of the ranching and agricultural communities in need. In 2014, the volunteer-run group raised and gave away more than $65,000. Another of Carlson’s pages recruits people to send letters to isolated folks without phone or Internet access.
Born and raised south of Salt Lake City, Utah, Carlson once was a suburban wife and mother with a city job. Now she’s a divorced grandmother with years of cowboying under her belt. She has worked at operations from Oregon to South Dakota. It was a life she dreamed of as a horse-crazy girl. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that the Flying M can ship all of its calves by Thanksgiving, because she’s got plans for December.
“Cow Folks Care got sponsored and we have a booth at the [Wrangler National Finals Rodeo] in Mandalay Bay,” she says. “I’m so excited.”
It’s another outlet for that mothering instinct.
MOM HAD A BIG LOVE for horses, and she put me on my first horse when I was 2. When Mom died, Dad had two girls—I was 12, my sister was 7—and he was at a loss. He put me in riding lessons on the M2 Lazy S. They tried to teach me how to barrel race on a pony that was blind in one eye. It was a great experience. But do I barrel race? No.
I HAD THE BUG. I spent a lot of time over at Grandpa’s farm, growing up. My favorite place was the old barn, with the hay and the cows and my imaginary horse named Zip. When I was 16, I cleaned a guy’s house once a week. I would make $5 a month, but I had free access to his horse. And I rode that horse everywhere.
I STARTED DOING ranch work in 2000. My first true job was in Wheatland, Wyoming, [with] 100 head of horses. The jigger boss would go up to the top of the mountain in the mornings and pop the whip, and horses would just pour down. You’d be horseback and you better hold on. I didn’t stay there very long. When you first start in the ranching, you get itchy-foot syndrome.
I REMEMBER the first time I saw one of the girls come in from riding up at Adel [Oregon, at a ranch where I worked]. Her hair was all stringy; she was just whupped. And I thought, “How could you [let yourself] look like that?” Now— sheesh—I look like that all the time!
I LIKE THIS RANCH. My boss listens to me and treats me like a person. After being here a couple of years, she gave me the opportunity to run some cows. She works so hard trying to make everything work for all the people that she hires. It doesn’t always work out. Because she’s a woman, a lot of men have issues with that, still.
I LIKE A HORSE that walks out good and can go all day long. Can’t be afraid of water. I’ve had to jump in a tank before and swim after a bull. Got to have sound feet because of all the rocks up here. I’m not into broncs. Can’t be too spooky. I like my mares. They seem to have more heart than the geldings do.
AS SOON AS I HEARD the news [that I was going to be a grandmother], I bought a pony saddle for him. It’s a slick fork. His parents are more into off- roading. But sooner or later, I’ll get him.
I WORE A DRESS when my son got married. By the time they had the dance for the mother and son, I was back in my jeans. And under that fancy dress—and it was fancy—I had boots on. No spurs.
YOU LIE UP here at night and right before dark there are bull elk that come in, bugling. There is a big red bear over at the wetlands at Pine Lake. I see all kinds of wildlife and I love that. I have my dogs. I have my horses. I won’t lie: I have my generator and my portable satellite dish. I can watch TV up here, and that rocks when it rains.
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Western Horseman.