Cowboys work while ranchers play

By Glenda Price: CNJ columnist

The terms cowboy and rancher are not interchangeable.

The cowboy knows the cattle. He can tell you which cow missed having a calf this year, and which cow lost her calf to coyotes. He knows how to tell if a cow is barren (never going to give birth to a calf) by looking at her.

The rancher will know how many cows he has, but he doesn’t necessarily live with them. He might even live in town, in which case the cowboy works for an absentee owner.

Every cowboy hopes to own a ranch someday, but the unfortunate fact is a ranch owner is one who “married” into it, “inherited” it or made enough money in some other business endeavor to purchase it.

In the past, ranchers often were not even Americans. Wealthy Europeans, enamored of the American cowboy mystique, purchased ranches. Cowboys operated them, and the ranch owners brought their friends for visits. They looked at the cattle, hunted deer, fished in the streams and had a wonderful time.

Later, oil executives became ranch owners. In some cases the oil companies themselves purchased ranches, an example being Vermejo Park Ranch in northeastern New Mexico that belonged to Pennzoil before Ted Turner (television money) bought it. Computer gurus now have joined the ranch owner club.

My father was a manager for absentee ranch owners. One owner had a daughter and she came with him on his visits. The cowboy’s daughter (me) was assigned the task of taking the owner’s daughter for a horseback ride.

When you grow up a ranch kid, you’re horseback when there’s work to be done. We think riding horseback just to ride with no job to do is boring. It wasn’t all that bad, though. At least during the horseback rides I wasn’t having to help fix fence.

Meanwhile, Hollywood made the cowboy life romantic. I never have seen a real cowboy riding horseback, strumming his guitar and singing. Still, I loved ranch life, and of course I married a cowboy. He didn’t own a ranch and I didn’t either so we found ourselves a gazillion miles from town with very little money but a lot of fun.

After a couple of years having fun, we realized that at retirement age we would be broke, stove-up and turned out to pasture — not a pleasant future to contemplate. So we went to college.

My husband Gene couldn’t deny his raising, though, and he definitely looked the part.

Apparently, many Europeans still cling to the cowboy mystique. We were in a lounge in town one evening when a proper man with an English accent left his nearby table, walked up to us and said, “Pardon me, sir. Are you a real cowboy?”

Gene, taken aback, replied, “I don’t know what kind of question that is, but yes I am.”

“Where are you from?” the Englishman wanted to know.

“Santa Rosa.”

The English fellow turned triumphantly to his wife. “See? I told you all the real cowboys are from Santa Rosa.”

We never did figure that one out.