May 25, 2012

Earl Thode - World Champion Bronc Rider

Another great rodeo photograph of first World Champion Saddle Bronc rider (1929) Earl Thode - who grew up on the old Thode place where I now ranch. This was shot from a film presentation at the Casey Tibbs Museum in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota. Here it is noted that he developed the upright shoulder-spurring style used to this day in the saddle bronc event. Another local World Champion bronc rider is Jeff Willert (2005) who will be riding in the Casey Tibb's Match of Champions in Ft. Pierre next weekend. Pretty great to have two world champions from the very tiny South Dakota town of Belvidere ... South Dakota raises great bronc riders.

Earl Thode also participated in bull dogging and roping events and above is a shot from the ranch of his car and horse ready to hit the road to the next rodeo - wooden wheels and all. The Thode family house behind still stands and is where I get to camp when working on the ranch - in the south end bunkhouse room where many a cowboy slept. (thanks to Earl's sister, Mildred Thode Sleep, for this photograph). I think of it often as I cross this spot daily and feel the presence of the past and wondering what it was all like way back then. ©JEAN LAUGHTON

May 24, 2012

Living on a Ranch 'Set'

When living on a 'set' it important to keep your set authentic. Human nature brings the desire to change the set, but if you make any changes it is necessary to keep within the theme and to add only objects that will enhance the reality of said set – therefore, not spoiling the overall effect of permanence and existing reality. Continuity is key ... When walking onto the set it is natural to feel a bit out of time even though you sense you are living in real time or perhaps somewhere between reality and a previously scripted version of. Notice objects around you in order to get into your role, but do not become too attached to such objects as they ultimately belong to the prop department. It is wise to also be careful when cleaning these objects, as to not destroy their weathered look – a process that took much time. Be careful not to disrupt the elements by adding too much of yourself – remember, you are just part of the story – a visitor of sorts moving through a sequence of scenes from a long running drama. If you add or subtract too much and disrupt the essence, you will push the story off kilter and a total script rewrite will become necessary. The key is authenticity and that takes discipline. Your impact must be subtle, visually. When you are ready to step out of your role completely, and only then, can you leave the set and move into your next character.

May 21, 2012

A True Grit Cowboy Mentor

Branding season makes me realize how years can fly by when in ranching mode and I think back to when I first got here. Luckily I have taken many photographs, or it would all be a blur. I showed up here on the ranch as a total novice - that is for sure. I rode some, for fun, as a kid but was no horseman or cowboy and had not really ridden for twenty years or so. I laugh sometimes when I think of diving in and working and riding alongside long time top hand and cowboy Lyle O'Bryan. Like when I first started roping and we decided to brand without a crew the first spring. If I roped all the calves (along with the winter's worth of work I did) then he would 'pay' me by giving Beau to me (pictured above) as my ranch work horse. Ok, it took a while for me to catch all of them. It was a dry year and Lyle had sold way down so we only branded 150 or so. I would hold them by the back feet while Lyle wrastled them down, by himself, and tied them up and branded and vaccinated them ... the best way to learn is to just do it!

Of course it takes time to learn to rope well consistently, but this was a good start. Another time, that spring of 2003, he tied my rope on hard and fast - meaning tie it in a permanent fashion to your saddle horn - we rode up north to doctor a sick cow. Lyle roped it by the head and said ok get the hind legs - I had never roped a cow before and guess I didnt really think about being tied on ... somehow I got both hind legs on the first loop and was thrilled. Lyle was also tied on hard and fast and stepped off his horse to give the cow its shot then took the rope off the head and told me to ride up and let the hind feet go. I had gotten so used to dallying that I forgot about handling my slack being tied on and got the rope under Beau's leg and down we went - I think I remember laughing about it - now I would probably freak out. Luckily Beau was ok and I didnt hurt his leg but it was a definite lesson on handling my rope. I realize things will never be like that again with everything being so new again. I can now enjoy moments when I realize I am getting better at certain things over the years.

One of the first times I rode on the ranch, in the Fall of 2002, I was helping Lyle work off heifer calves up north. I rode Beau, who was very green, and just the two of us gathered all the cows and worked the replacement heifers off. Beau was drifting to and fro as green horses do - the pasture seemed huge to me - the wind was blowing massively and blowing my hat off. I think at some point we traded horses. It took quite some time to get the job done but Lyle guided and instructed me throughout. I remember falling asleep later, after the ride, in the booth at the local cafe. A good days work for a real greenhorn. I had never experienced such full days until I started working on a ranch.

I rode and worked alongside Lyle - and still do - learning to do whatever he was doing from working cattle, to pulling calves, to doctoring calves, branding, feeding, haying, assisting in breaking a few horses by hazing, riding colts etc ... It would take decades of experience and more guts than I have to reach his level and I, by no means, compare myself to ranch women who have been doing it all their lives. I just do what I do and am who I am. Whatever came up - I wanted to experience it or at least try and learn from Lyle and the other cowboys I worked with. I sometimes remind myself to really listen when I hear him or other cowboys describing things. Such a wealth of information and such a gift -  pay attention and take note.

Landing on Lyle's ranch, as I have mentioned, was a bit like going back in time. It was all cowboy - no shortcuts. And I lived, seven years of my time while on the ranch, without running water ... camp in a simple bunkhouse with only a wood stove for heat and kept it real basic. We scoop cake onto the truck and off the truck to the cattle, we have pitched many large bails of hay by hand, rode everywhere on horseback with no four wheelers on the ranch etc ... It has been a good place for me to learn, being able to work alongside someone while hopefully being of help - big enough but not too big of a ranch for us to handle - well, really what am I saying - Lyle handled it on his own before I got here. And he learned to adapt to doing things by himself. Like tying the steering wheel on the truck then jumping out to scoop cake to the cows - doctoring calves and cows by himself etc ... just takes a little ingenuity and a lot of skill - like many other ranchers in the area.

I definitely didn't land on the set of "Legends of the Fall" or some Robert Redford movie (ha ha) ... no glamour but real true grit all along the way.  It feels good to know I can be of help here on the ranch and to our neighbors. I will never fill Lyle's shoes, or boots I guess, in my new evolving role as 'manager' but at least I will give it a try. Thanks Lyle. ©JEAN LAUGHTON

(Photo: Lyle on Stringy Holding Beau near Horseshoe Butte on the Badure Ranch)


Just back from a 5:30 AM branding on the Brunsch Ranch thirty miles south. Walked in and checked my email and had a nice note from ALINE SMITHSON of LENSCRATCH saying she had posted my story and photographs on her fabulous blogzine. It kind of reminded me, in a funny way, oh yeah I did those things on the ranch and took those photographs. Some days the work trumps art - well many days, and it is a good reminder that I am here to do both - to somehow try and preserve some of the moments and tell the story of the people who I work with. Hope you enjoy the story and be sure to check out the work of many talented photographers on the blog - it is a great site.

May 7, 2012

Branding TIme Again on the Quarter Circle XL

It is branding time again on the ranch this Friday. It continues to be all about cows cows and more cows this week - getting things lined up. The neighbors will come and help up brand - and after that we can be stress free and enjoy going to help brand at ten to twelve of their brandings. It is a great time of the year.

We have a chuck wagon cook coming again this year so one less thing to multi task and look forward to his coffee cooked over a wood fire along with the other dutch oven food. Breakfast by the fire at 4:30 am and lunch on the prairie following the branding make it easy to feel like I am time traveling.

My thoughts rewind to when I first made my appearance as a total novice - before I got into 'character'. It is hard to believe this will be my 10th branding season. It still feels like I just got here although I have learned so much along the way and hopefully preserved some of it with my photographs. As I step into more of a manager position on the ranch I still look to my business partner and 'old' time cowboy for all the advice and depend much on our neighbors for spring and fall work. It is a good system around here and makes for a strong community - we couldn't get all the work done without their help.

Since I first set foot on the ranch, I have felt like I stepped back in time. I often ride around in daydream mode, thinking about the early day cowboys and brandings on the ranch and how the way we cowboy and brand is not much different from the 1800's. The cast of characters just changes over time. When you stand in the branding corral on the ranch you can see an indentation in the land just a ways away where one of the Thode's had a dugout where they set up camp in order to claim the land for the ranch when it was homesteaded around the turn of the 20th century. I feel I am surrounded by history while carrying on the cowboying tradition on the ranch. Thanks to my friend and business partner Lyle O'Bryan for giving me the opportunity to be a part of it all. ©JEAN LAUGHTON