This Montana native thought that having a career meant going to college and climbing the corporate ladder. She has since learned that it’s okay to make a living as a mother and cowboy.

The daughter of a veterinarian and a wildlife biologist, Sylvan Walden developed a fondness for open space and animals, particularly horses, at a young age. She graduated from Montana State University with a double major in range science and animal science. Rather than getting a town job, though, she found that she could apply her education working on ranches with her husband, Bob. The couple runs about 350 head of commercial cattle on 45,000 acres of leased and deeded land in eastern Montana, where Sylvan was raised. Through the years, Bob has taken outside jobs to help make ends meet, most recently working as a brand inspector, leaving Sylvan to feed and fill in on the ranch while also tending the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Reata.

Sylvan Walden on buckskin horse

MY MOM WAS A VET when there weren’t many [women veterinarians]. She had a letter from Colorado State University saying there were too many qualified male applicants to accept her, so she ended up at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. She started practicing in Red Lodge, Montana, and had to prove herself as a woman vet around those old ranchers.

BOB AND I MET on a ranch where we both worked. He was fresh out of Nevada and different than the other cowboys. We worked together a lot and were fixated on horses. We both believe in having cows to give our horses jobs.

WHEN BOB AND I got married we had a condition that a ranch had to hire both of us; we came as a team. We ran into some problems finding ranch jobs that would let wives ride. Most Montanans are a little more open-minded, though, and if I could prove my skills and work ethic they didn’t care what gender I was. If you’re tough enough to live in Montana they need the labor.

IT NEVER OCCURRED to me that I’d grow up, marry a cowboy and come back to McCone County. But when it’s right, it’s right.

A LOT OF PEOPLE do a job they don’t really like to save up for retirement. We wake up each day and do what we want to do. 

THE HARDEST PART of becoming a mom was losing my independence. My personality is all about doing a job, production, getting things done. I had to learn to see being a mom as a job, and that helped.

LIVING ON A RANCH teaches kids responsibility and that decisions are not always up to them. When we’re out riding and Reata wants to get off or go home, she’s had to learn that it’s really not an option because we have a job to do.

I WORKED AT A FEEDLOT for a while and thought I was lucky because I got to ride every day. When it was 40-below I could’ve checked pens in the pickup, but I always saddled up anyway.

I LEARNED A LOT about cattle through my mom and at the feedlot, but most of it I had to learn by just doing it and  figuring things out myself.

WE RAISE AND TRAIN our own horses. Bob usually puts 30 days on our colts and adds the finesse. I like the time in between where it’s just putting miles on them.

UNTIL YOU’VE RIDDEN a good horse you never know what you’ve been missing. I’d rather take a few extra years on the front end of a horse’s training and get extra years on the back end. 

THIS RANCH HAS NATURAL fences on all sides. To the average person driving by, the country looks like grassy, rolling hills. But if you get horseback and go after a cow it gets rough really quickly with deep, wide washes and steep, rocky ridges. The landscape is so fragile and changes often with erosion and the amount of moisture it receives.

LIFE WITH A TODDLER is pretty much the same as riding a green-broke colt all day. It has its bright spots and funny moments. It has its lows. And it always makes for a good story later that night. But you still get up in the morning and do it all over again in hope that someday they will make a good person.


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

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