It’s been a high-clover year north of the Black Hills, where this South Dakota native makes her home. She counts blessings like that every day.
Interview and photograph by Christine Hamilton
Dawn Newland and her husband, Wilbur, ranch west of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, on Wyoming and Montana land that has been in the Newland family since 1905. They married in 1991, blended their families—Dawn’s two sons, Chance and Casey Rhye, and Wilbur’s son, Chase—and had another son, Ben.
As an artist, her talents range from leatherwork to oil and watercolor painting. As a rancher, she can rope and drag with the best of the neighbors, face down blizzards and mud to feed the cows, and drive her Friesian-Quarter Horse cross team to pick up grain.
She’s had her share of challenges. Her first husband, Casey Lange, died in a plane crash, leaving her to ranch, run a horse herd, and mother two young sons alone. She and Wilbur lived through having two sons deployed to Iraq, and Dawn has battled cancer.
These days, the Newlands enjoy their grandchildren and watching their sons take on ranching. And Dawn’s first solo art show was in October at the 1876 Gallery in Sundance, Wyoming.
One of my favorite spots [on our ranch] is the ridge above the hay meadow. It’s a high spot where you can see three states [South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana]. In the summer that spot invites you in, and in the winter it says you should leave now. I try to adhere to that.
The last three or four summers, once the guys cut the hay, I’ll just go rake with my team and throw windrows together so they can bale faster. It’s one of those thrills to do; my mares love to trot, so they do it pretty fast. We’ve clocked them at 19 miles per hour, pulling a load.
We’ve always raised ranch and reined cow horses, with a lot of cutting bloodlines. I want something substantial that will cover big country, with a nice, sloping shoulder that gives you that long reach. I’m 61 years old and I have to have something easy-riding. I want good legs and feet. But I love pretty. I like to ride mares—on a cow, mares are just more gritty.
I grew up about 20 miles north of Wall [South Dakota], along the Cheyenne River breaks. It’s incredibly rough country, full of cedar trees. You could ride for days and not see anybody. I have two sisters and two brothers. We were little wild ones: rode the breaks, broke horses for people and chased cows.
My folks worked for every darn penny. So I would paint pictures [to sell]. My first client, the Badlands Bar in Wall, had eight of my paintings. They paid me $50 apiece. That’s how I bought school clothes. And the Badlands Bar still has them.
I had just made this statement: “I do not need a man in my life right now. I am doing okay and a man would complicate things.” And then Wilbur calls. He says, “Would you like to go to the state high school rodeo with me?” and I’m like, “Uh, um, oh, sure.” I got o the phone and said, “I can’t believe I said yes.” So he shows up and packs out the car seats, and takes me and the boys to the rodeo.
We both love history and in the winter months, while I’m working in my studio, [Wilbur] reads to me. He has a wonderful speaking voice. We go different ways most of the time, we work cattle differently, we ride differently. But we love each other and we love our kids.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was at a really late stage. They gave me a colostomy. I was sick every day for months. That summer, I went to two ranch horse competitions with my colostomy bag tucked in. I won both, and proved to myself that I could live again. The next year, I called [the doctors] up and said I want this [colostomy] gone. It’s just a scar now. I’m going on my eighth year [cancer-free].
Right now, the prices are up and we have grass; but you know it will roll down the other side at some point. There are moments you think there’s got to be a better life somewhere else. But I can’t think of where it would be.
I love the morning. You walk out and there’s no clutter. The air is clear and, as an artist, I love the light. The day is a new beginning. And I think my life is all about new beginnings.
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