Experience has taught this Montana cowgirl to appreciate all that comes with ranch life.
Raising horses and children on her family’s Dillon, Montana, ranch was exactly what Floydena Garrison wanted to do when she was growing up. This former Miss Rodeo Montana queen and Peace Corps volunteer channeled her energy into working to keep the 110-year-old ranch— passed down through her husband Billy’s family—a successful business. At 76 years old, Garrison still trails cattle from the ranch to the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management permit lands that supplement the 13,000 acres the family owns. Today, her three sons and their families share her love of rodeo and ranching, making theirs one of the last working ranches on the Big Hole River.
I HAD A SHETLAND pony that I rode all the time. I can remember the first time my dad put my sister and me up on her. She took off, headed back to the pasture, and neither one of us knew how to stop! She turned a corner and we fell off into the rocks. About the third time, my 4-year-old self pouted and said, “That’s it! I’m not getting back on this thing!”
MY DAD was kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He had a gold mine and we lived in a little town called Argenta when I was a kid. We had an outdoor privy. Then we moved to Glen and had a hand pump in the house. We thought we were in Heaven!
I GOT A WILD HORSE in Glen. That was the gentlest horse, and I did everything on him. I wanted to help the ranchers move cattle all the time, and that is when I really got interested in ranching.
WE MOVED TO BUTTE when I was a sophomore [in high school] because my grandmother was ill. I wasn’t used to being in the city, but I got acquainted with Billy’s cousin, who is still one of my dearest friends, and she rode horses all the time. That was my salvation.
I STARTED BARREL RACING in the Montana Amateur Rodeo Association in high school. I had never trained a barrel horse and didn’t know what I was doing, so consequently I wasn’t very good. But it taught me a lot and we had a good time.
I RAN FOR RODEO queen and won Miss Rodeo Montana in 1960. I went to the NFR in Vegas and competed [for Miss Rodeo America], but a girl from Arizona won it, and she deserved it.
I NEVER WENT to college and I was just puttering around, so I joined the Peace Corps in 1962. I went to Venezuela and worked with 4-H clubs for two years. I couldn’t get to the towns near Biscucuy where I was working, so I called the [Venezuelan main] office in Caracas and said, “Send me home or get me some way to get out there.” Well, [John D.] Rockefeller had a ranch down there, and we got some of his horses to ride to our towns. That was right up my alley!
THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T have anything. I formed a women’s club [in Venezuela] and we started making furniture. It was like the blind leading the blind, but we got it done.
I MARRIED BILLY when I got back in 1964. I had known him all my life. Then, we started having children in 1966, and when they were old enough to be in 4-H, we started hosting 4-H rodeos. We had 4-H rodeos here at the ranch for 35 years.
THE HORSES ARE MY thing and the cows are Billy’s. Early on, we started picking up a few good mares, and now most of our colts go back to those mares. I think it means more to you when you have raised and trained a horse yourself. It gives you a sense of pride.
ONE FALL, THE HORSES hadn’t come down from the hills, and Billy and I got worried. We headed out and we split up to look for them. Right as it got dark, I found those horses back in the canyon. They saw me and we all started down through the hills. The horses all stuck together, and mine just followed. It started to snow, and I don’t know how my mare could see where she was going, but we came out on the road. The horses just started toward the ranch, and I just kept following them. We would get to a cattle guard and they would stop and wait while I opened the gate. All 35 horses would file through and we just kept going up the road. It was one of the most beautiful things to trail behind them with the snow falling and just hear their hooves making a crunch, crunch sound in the quiet.
MY KIDS ARE FOURTH generation on this ranch. There are not a lot of ranches left in this country, and a lot have sold to absentee owners. I hope my kids can hold on to this place.
THE BOYS ALL wanted to stay on the ranch. We split [the ranch] up so they would all have a part. It wasn’t going to work with all three of them working with their dad. We could have sold it and made money, but we like our life here and want them to enjoy it, too.
THERE ARE A LOT OF LESSONS to learn on the ranch—patience, respect and how to listen. Just working with animals teaches you a lot. If you don’t have patience and really care about that animal, then you aren’t going to get too far. Especially with horses, because they are a lot bigger than you. I watch the grandkids and they have learned responsibility.