CYPRESS HILLS – I may have looked silly rounding up cattle on the western prairie. What kind of a cowboy wears a helmet and rides a stubborn half-breed painter horse through the Western Canadian landscape? Yet while I may have been a strange-looking cowboy, there was nothing unauthentic about my experience on the edges of the baby-green rolling Cypress Hills in the southern corner of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
“When people watch cowboy movies they come out here thinking that that is how it goes. I just tell them not to believe everything they see on TV,” said eighteen-year old Leanne Reesor, a fifth-generation rancher and the youngest child living on the historic Reesor Ranch, “I don’t even like watching movies with people running around and yelping heehaw and throwing their ropes. That’s not the way it is.”
But here the unfamiliar quickly became comfortable as I went on to eat prairie oysters and an end-of-day feast with the extended Reesor family. We watched the sun go down while her cowboy-poet father Scott Reesor recited verses about life on the ranch. This was after a day rounding up about two hundred cattle and the branding, castration, and inoculation of dozens of calves.
But this is a century-old tradition for these folk, a tradition that is quickly eroding as the urbanization of this prairie province continues. Smaller ranching operations like these are simply sold off to the highest bidder with their replacement by vast mechanized operations. My experience visiting this old-style ranch was all about connecting with a culture that struggles with very basic existential questions.
Don’t let your horse take you for a ride
The Reesor Ranch is nestled on the northern edges of rolling Cypress Hills. This is the rugged area where in the 19th century the North-West Mounted Police and their cavalry of men later known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police first took control of Western Canada.
The historic Reesor Ranch is one of a handful of working cattle ranches in this flat prairie province that have opened their doors to tourists as a way to supplementing income and passing on western traditions to interested tourists. These experiences give visitors the opportunity to become familiar with the lifestyle of the pioneers who settled the west more than a century ago.
Just be sure not to make the mistake of naming them farmers; you will quickly be told that ranchers keep their grass right-side-up, while farmers turn theirs upside-down!
The Historic Reesor Ranch offers packages that include horse rides into Cypress Hills, cattle drives, or even western-style cowboy cabin rentals. La Reata Ranch in the Saskatchewan River Valley on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker is a scenic spot with wide-open prairies, ranges, canyons, and sandy beaches where guests horseback-ride or experience a western Rodeo.
The Trails End Guest Ranch north of Moose Jaw takes you to historic landmarks including native teepee rings or one-time buffalo rubbing stones. Other ranches open to tourists in the area include the Sturgeon River Ranch, the Eastview Wilderness Ranch, or the Reedan Ranch.
Taking over the family ranch?
I lived on the upper floor of the Reesor family ranch, a century-old homestead decorated with family pictures, old cowboy hats, and even old poems and letters written by ancestors.
Leanne and her friends gathered like and excited poesy on branding day. At 18, Leanne is the youngest in the family, but is steadfastly committed to ranching and the lifestyle that goes with it. Maintaining the family traditions is just as important to her elder sister Joan, 24, but she is more likely set for a road-trip, trying her luck at a more urbane lifestyle. When I visited, their brother Jason had gone off to a well-paying job in the north to work as a welder. I was told that he has his own philosophy about the future of the family ranch.
Just where the future lies for their ranch is as very real dilemma for parents Theresa and Scott Reesor, as it is for their children.
“Scott and I have always tried to share the idea that it is not what you can get out of the place, but what you can bring to it,” says Theresa Reesor, “We want them all here, if they can find a place where they can generate income. The question is always what they bring to the table to keep this place growing.”
“They all have wonderful gifts. But we don’t know what the future holds,” she added.
Riding Darby, the chunky cream-colored painter horse
While the cattle spend much of the year roaming the fields unattended, the highlight of any rancher’s season is round-up and branding day. It’s a community affair as families gather, helping each other collecting the cattle, branding, inoculating, and even unceremoniously castrating the young male calves. Ultimately it ends in a boisterous affair of food, drink, and a real communal party.
We woke at sunrise to saddle up the horses as clouds blurred the landscape, fault of a forest fire in the distance. There were about a dozen of us who each headed in different directions as the morning sun bounced about. I rode Darby, a hardheaded chunky looking cream-colored half buckskin and half painter horse. Darby didn’t want much of my directions.
We headed up the sloping hills and through the wooded enclaves with Darby not the slightest bit interested in the goings-on. He just wanted to wander the green fields. The Reesor-clan and the handful of tourists helped guide the growing numbers of cattle that began a chorus of whining cries with their young not far in the distance. Scott, Leanne, and Joan orchestrated the migration, periodically consulting with each other on the best strategy to move the cattle without them getting caught up in fences or being separated from their young.
Lessons from another era
Scott Reesor was a latecomer to ranching, at 39. This was after he and his wife Theresa had meandered north on the Alaska Highway, then imagining that they would buy land and settle after getting involved in an operation of selling portable band sawmills. Finally in 1997, his parents invited the couple to take over the family ranch, which by that time was already doubling as a bed and breakfast.
“It’s a big house and there is lots of room, and Scott’s mum always had people here,” remembers Theresa, “I could not imagine this place without people or visitors. It was built for two families, but for generations there have always been visitors here.”
Even then the couple knew that with a few hundred cattle, ranching was no get-rich-quick scheme. History speaks loud and from far back. The family homestead here was founded after a 1903 spring storm killed some 350 cattle. That tragedy prompted Scott Reesor’s forbearers to establish a ranch where it stands today, from its one-time shanty.
Scott and Theresa continued to raise cattle, host tourists, all while running a spring-water operation.
“We hope to develop something that our children can be a part of if they want, which will support multiple families,” said Scott Reesor, “Our land-base is too small to support even one family really well. With these other businesses, if our kids all want to be a part of it and bring their gifts and abilities, who knows what we can develop?”
“You never know how it will end up since lot depends on the relationship between the siblings, which is such an important part of the formula. It’s a real miracle that it’s come this far.”
Branding day on the ranch
The western tradition of livestock branding is a complex fire-heated system that has its origins in ancient history. Newer ranches use mechanical systems that relegate traditional branding techniques something of a dying art. Here branding day is still a community affair of family, friends, and neighbors. Ranchers still rope, castrate, and brand the calves in much the same way as might have been done a century ago.
“No one does it anymore. Everyone rides quad and nobody rides horses anymore; it’s just starting to become obsolete. I remember brandings with my uncles, and I want my kids to experience that, and my kids-kids,” said Joan Reesor, “I want them to pass it on from one generation to the next.”
Branding day at the Reesor’s was like a military operation, with the mass of cattle moaning around the dusty enclosure. Like a general before the battle, Scott Reesor read out the marching orders to the troops; his family and friends. Everybody knew his or her role. A horseback pair roped the calves while Leanne branded the calves with hot rods in a smoky haze with her mother by her side. Five or six others wrestled the calves down while yet others tagged and Scott inoculated them.
Meanwhile a slightly self-satisfied, mischievous and amusingly sadistic knife-wielding Joan learned the art of castrating, contentedly collecting prairie oysters in a small white bucket.
Decisions on the horizon
As the day progressed, the processing of the cattle became much like clockwork, ending in a jolly atmosphere. The horses were brushed and sent into the fields, and the meal began as Joan proudly served her prairie oyster, the calf testis that tasted something like a hardier version of deep-fried mushrooms.
If there was one cloud looming over this feast, it was the weight of the future of the ranch. If any young person’s most important decision is choosing a life partner, that same choice seems even more daunting if you are a young Reesor. Although she still wakes up later than her parents and might spend her days doing light fence work, moving around cattle, or riding trails with tourists, behind the daily routine it’s the decisions that she will make in the coming years that she seems most aware of.
“I actually think about it a lot more than I should,” admitted Leanne, “I’m only eighteen, and I don’t think I should be thinking about who I am going to marry. It’s easier for a woman to marry into a rancher’s lifestyle than it is for a man, because most women will be in the house and the kitchen, so they wouldn’t have to know a whole lot about ranching.
“A rancher, a guy, can marry a girl from a small town or a city, and she will be just fine. But compared to me, I’d have to marry somebody who grew up in it and knows what he’s doing. So I do consider that quite a bit.”