Horseback: Sand Hills of Nebraska

I’m horseback on a hilltop, scanning the ravines of rugged Nebraska grasslands for strays. It’s a blustery September day during the fall round- up, and I’ve been put to work. My mare, Izzy, is a tuned-up Quarter Horse and not crazy about being alone. She whinnies loudly for her equine bud-dies that, for the moment, are out of sight. But we have a job to do. We need to continue gathering these 100 cow-calf pairs from a 1,000-acre pasture and drive them back to ranch headquarters.

Ranch owner Jerry Rowse pops up on a distant ridge on his horse, and four other guests are spread out elsewhere in the big pasture. I nudge Izzy into action, and we push the cows that come across our path to- ward the big water tank. After an hour or so of roaming separately, the group gathers and drives the entire bunch back to the ranch, about five miles away.

“We have a lot of guests that worry that when they come here they’re not gonna get enough ridin’,” says Rowse. “And usually by about Wednesday, we’re pretty much to the middle of ’em.” Visitors get as much riding as they can handle, in other words.

The daily plan for my three- day visit has been pretty simple: Do whatever it takes, and keep going.

“We ride for a purpose,” says Rowse’s wife Tammy. “You have a job to get done. It’s not just a leisurely little trail ride. You got somethin’ to do. You gotta get somethin’ checked. That’s a big thing to a lot of people.”

The 1 1 Ranch spans nearly 9,000 acres of archetypical grassland and is located outside Burwell in Central Nebraska, about 90 miles north of Kearney in the Sand Hills region. Tammy’s great- great-grandfather came to the area in the 1880s and actually donated some of the land for Burwell when it was laid

out in 1884. Jerry’s family roots here date to the 1880s as well. This was Sioux and Pawnee territory, though the American Indians and buffalo were gone by then. Historic and restored Fort Hartsuff, eight miles outside Burwell, was built in 1874 to protect settlers and keep the hostile tribes from each other’s throats.

Cattle ranchers came relatively late to the land we’re riding today. “They thought this was all sand dunes up here,” Jerry explains. “They thought there was no grass…no water. So nobody come up in this country until the 1880s.” Turned out there was plenty of both. Today, Nebraska produces more beef per square mile than any other state.

Around here (and much of the West), brands are like family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation, and Lyle Worden, a rancher friend of the Rowses’, gave his 1 1 brand to Jerry and Tammy. “A great honor,” says Tammy about the unique wedding present. “That just don’t happen.”

The Rowses only take ten guests at a time. “I want to know our guests,” says Tammy about serving meals in the house she grew up in. “And I want them to get to know us. I want to eat a meal with them. So it’s important to us to keep the smaller numbers and interact with our guests.”

Most of the ranch’s registered Quarter Horses are born and raised right here. And Tammy’s niece Erin, the 2007 Miss Rodeo Nebraska, helps with riding instruction. “I’ll work with guests on how to hold their body, how to control their movements, how to work with their horse,” she explains.

Nebraska’s Sand Hills are an often-overlooked part of the West, but I found the wide-open ter-rain to

be beautiful. And we saw a lot of it. After breakfast and saddling our own horses (there’s help for beginners), we’d mount up for the day’s ride. Six hours horseback is a pretty typical day for this place. Since this was the fall roundup, much of my time was spent gathering in pastures with the rest of the crew, which always included Jerry’s dog Aggie, a well-trained Australian Shepherd that had no fear and no quit.

“She can be kind of like another hired man,” admires Rowse. “Even better ’cause she don’t talk back!” We’d usually gather 100 cow-calf pairs at a time, sometimes two pastures a day. After getting doctored and vaccinated, some would be turned out again and others would be shipped off to the feedlot. Rowse and local cowboys handled the gates and chutes, then we’d ride fences and make sure the windmills and water pumps were working.

While mending some fence with Erin, she points out her favorite vantage point: “We’re gonna ride up this hill right here. It’s my most favorite lookout spot on this entire ranch. You can see a very, very, very, long ways.”
And seeing it all while loping on that fine horse Izzy, I felt like I could see far into the past?and hopefully the future.

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