Cow Punch'n



I pulled on some silky long johns, blue jeans, and thick socks as the sun rose. Truck gage said nine degrees above zero. Sipping tea, I drove along the Yellowstone River up Paradise Valley in fresh untainted early morning light to Tom Miner Basin. Zaydee and I saw wild sheep along the dirt road. Domestic sheep with playful little lambs kicked around like jumping beans in the corral on the ranch near the river. Snow sparkled; the river flowed between frozen chunks, the jagged Sawtooth Mountains pierced the blue sky horizon. The ragged ridgeline just this side of Yellowstone Park is just the kind of jagged that makes me itch to climb but today was about cows and dogs. Vern greeted me with his classic grin, the kind of boyish up-to-no-good mischievous glinting grin exceptionally suitable for good natured cowboys. We headed out to round up the cows so we could switch their tags. He’s been training three Border Collies since June. Have you ever seen a good cow dog work? Truly a sight…pure joy, plenty of smarts and subtleness…the impressive connection between dog and owner…dog and cows. Luke, a beautiful trim classic tri-colored Border Collie, rounded the cows up and herded them into a pen. He responded well to commands from Vern. No barking, just keen management through movement. No panic, rather Vern would tell Luke to "lie down" periodically and then "walk up” behind the cows and keep them moving at a slow controlled pace. Duce, broad-shouldered with red, brown and white markings, worked the cows once they were in the pens, moving them from one pen down a chute to another.If you can get past the poopy butts and slinging snot, cows have a quirky calm beauty to their eyes framed by long lashes. Big ears, soft furry foreheads, plump bellies, angular little asses…cows have the ability not to look too far into the distance. The cows we worked today are one year olds, so they are still kind of cute. Our job was to switch out their little calf tags for big cow tags. Just like children on the first day of school sporting new clothes too big, the cows’ tags were over-sized, flopping from fuzzy ears. “They’ll grow into them,” Vern said with a chuckle.We got worked a bit while trying to get them into the trailer. The chute would have made it easier but it was full of snow. We chained the truck up before Vern backed the trailer up the hill to the pen. Vern is gentle but firm…not a proponent of chaos and shouting. I like the way he thinks and appreciate his ability to try different things until finding what works for that particular moment…those particular cows. They are learning, always learning…young cows…bright eager dogs…light-hearted cowhand, in a graceful and klutzy dance full of poop and sunshine. Earlier in the day while riding in the truck, Vern dished some lessons learned when dealing with women. He said the easiest way to deal with a woman is to admit a mistake when something wasn’t working. “Don’t take it personally and simply try something else. Too many men take it personally,” he said.I wonder. But I can say working in the studio is similar to Vern’s approach on the ranch. Studio life is a constant graceful and klutzy dance where humbleness, fortitude, invention and the willingness to try new things allow an environment where one continues to learn and grow…trying not to take things personally yet opening up all of my person to the process. I wonder how things would go if I had a couple of smart working stock dogs to help herd my ideas and a firm gentle wise cowhand to keep things clipping along.