Writing on the Range

How to Tick Off a Rancher

People stop and ask ranchers questions.

A handful of unwitting questions can irritate an otherwise amicable rancher.

Generally speaking, cowboys and ranchers are a pretty amicable bunch. But there are questions that can irritate a rancher and, if you ask them, there’s a chance you could find yourself on the outs with your new cowboy acquaintance immediately. 

So what are these faux pas? Let’s just start at the top. No real rancher, any time or any place, wants to hear the question, “How many cattle do you have?”

What a rancher hears is, “What’s the current balance of your checking account?” Now, as ranchers, we understand that’s a natural first question for the uninitiated. So, we deflect. Something like, “Aw, enough to keep me busy but not enough to make me rich.” (That’s my personal favorite.) Or, we try to confuse. “Well, this country will run about 30 cows to the section.” 

People sometimes stop and ask questions that irritate a rancher.
Ranchers are generally friendly to strangers. But a few ignorant questions can get under their skin.
Photo by Ross Hecox

Someone with the sense God gave a goose will realize that, for whatever reason, this rancher doesn’t want to reveal certain parts of his business. But, sometimes, folks just don’t catch the drift. So they ask, “Well, then, how big is your ranch?” (They might preface that by asking how big a section is.)

Now, that’s an even bigger misstep than the cattle number inquiry. What a rancher hears is, “How much money do you have in your 401K?” Why don’t you just ask him the current price per acre while you’re at it? So, again, a polite rancher will deflect and confuse. A direct rancher might just tell you that it’s none of your business and remind you of the quickest way to exit. I’m sure there are some who don’t mind divulging the specifics of their outfit, but most traditional, honest-to-goodness ranchers aren’t comfortable with that amount of their private affair going public.

While those two are the most cringeworthy questions to ask a rancher, they’re not the only ways to make a real cowboy wish you’d just stayed home. Here are a few more:

“What a cool cow dog. Can I pet him?
What a rancher hears: “Cool muscle car, can I tinker with the engine?”
(As an aside, when in ranch country, don’t ever pet a man’s dog with or without asking.)

“What a pretty horse. What did you pay for him?”
What a rancher hears: “Just how rich or poor are you?”

“Pretty horse. Can I ride him?”
What a rancher hears: “Can I take your wife to dinner?”

“Neat hat. Can I try it on?”
What a rancher hears: “Will you punch me in the face?”

3 thoughts on “How to Tick Off a Rancher”

  1. A good and amusing article. When I was new to ranching, I remember asking those questions until we were politely told by one of our neighbors about what the rancher hears. I don’t think the people asking are usually malicious, they just want an idea of what ranch life is really like. Having a deflection is a good idea. Considering the anti-beef ideas floating around, we need to find a way to be polite and let them know that we are not welfare ranchers, especially those of us with grazing rights. I like the humor of the article and we need to incorporate that in our responses.

  2. Ha, you guys are funny. Reason I’d ask how big your ranch is, is to see if it comes close to the size of our “stations” (ranches) here in Australia! How many cattle….probably not offensive here either. The ” can I ride your horse?” question….well yeah I get that one!
    Cheers from Australia!


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