by Janice Sibilia
The Hudson Valley has been my home for most of my life. Although I travelled a lot for work, my home never strayed very far from the town where I grew up as a kid… that is up until 6 years ago. From the time I could talk, I begged my parents for a horse, had a room full of Breyer models, horse posters and books (like many other little girls), and worked at local stables to learn as much as I could until I was able to get my first pony.
It was a serious addiction that continued, enough so that the priest giving my wedding vows at the alter told my husband-to-be that “you know that horses will always be the priority in her life”!
Time went on and as it happens sometimes, dreams take a back seat to other things that life presents. Regardless, my passion for horses continued on unwavering, and even though owning a horse came and went, I never stopped thinking or studying about them.
Fast forward to 2011- After seeing a documentary about Buck Brannaman, I knew there was no turning back in my quest for this study. It was everything I thought horsemanship and a relationship with a horse should be and something I had been searching for, for a very long time.
I began attending Buck’s clinics up and down the East coast in 2012, bringing my recently purchased green Morgan horse along with my green self (as I quickly realized!), to learn as much as I possibly could about this style of riding. As his website accurately describes, Buck is known as one of the world’s leading practitioners of handling horses based on classical concepts from the California Vaquero tradition. He works with the horse’s nature, using an understanding of how horses think and communicate to train the horse to accept humans and work confidently and responsively with them. This Vaquero style uses a progression of starting a horse in the snaffle bit, moving to a hackamore, then the two rein and finally straight up in the bridle with a spade bit.
Having learned from Ray Hunt, and Tom and Bill Dorrance, even after all these years, Buck continues to develop his riding and teaching to a classical dressage refinement, and applies it to his lifestyle of ranching and roping. However, this understanding of how a horse operates can be applied to any discipline which is what made it so appealing to me.
As a kid, I competed in speed events, reining, hunters and jumpers and really loved getting out into the country for day long trail rides, so I wasn’t really married to any particular discipline. I simply loved riding and working with horses. It is hard to believe that only 35 or so years ago, I could ride my horses all over Dutchess and Putnam Counties on dirt roads, be out all day and never cross paths twice. It was a horse crazy teenager’s paradise!
After going through some unexpected life changes in 2014, I saw an opportunity to fully immerse myself in the study of the horse. At the time I was barrel racing, and dabbling in western pleasure and trail classes.
It was through this journey that I came upon a ranch out west. I have always dreamed of living in the west and thought, what better time to check out two things that got me fired up- riding with Buck, and Montana! I was lucky enough to get into his clinics at McGinnis Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch and as the saying goes, “I never looked back”.
From those two weeks of clinics I ended up returning to McGinnis Meadows the following summer to take part in their newly developing horsemanship intern program. It was an intense learning experience in everything from stockmanship with cattle, to how a guest ranch operates, and an in-depth horsemanship study.
If anyone had told me earlier that at age 57, I would be working on a ranch, teaching guests fine horsemanship, gathering cattle on remote mountain allotments, and wrestling with 600 pound steers, I would have shook my head and said, “you’re crazy”! But there I was, riding 6-7 hours every day and having an opportunity to study at the finest horsemanship ranch in the country.
The move, and these changes in my lifestyle did not come easy. Newly divorced after a very long marriage, having recently lost my job due to budget cuts, and far away from home, friends and family, there were definitely lonely times. Well-meaning folks didn’t understand why I would be leaving everything behind that provided me with comfort, to take on something as big an endeavor as this, at my age. I certainly had my doubts at times, but I guess I take after my dad in that he was a bit stubborn. When he set his mind to do something, he jumped right in and worked out the details later! I figured what did I have to lose really? I may never have another chance to do this, so off I went.
And what a journey it has been! On the ranch, we have about 220 head of yearling black Angus steers that arrive in April and stay until the beginning of November. We take pride in continuing to follow tradition. While some ranches have switched over to using all ATV’s and working dogs to manage their cattle, all aspects of stockmanship here are done from horseback. In the spring, we gather up the cattle, rope, inoculate, ear tag and brand them with the ranch brand. (Branding of horses and cattle in free range areas of the country is still very much a necessity to prove ownership and protect livestock from theft). From here they are moved across several pastures and mountain grazing allotments where they live a free life “on the range” until they are gathered off the mountain in the fall.
Learning horsemanship here encompasses a lot of equitation and how to get a horse balanced and comfortable. But the aspect that has had the most impact on me came about from having to do a job with my horses. This is where you can really see if what you think you have achieved in your horse’s education, has really helped your horse, or not.
The terrain we ride in is not typical ranching country. It is mountainous, timbered, challenging terrain. The cattle are good at hiding in the brush and heavily treed areas. If your horse is at all herd bound it will definitely show up out here! Can he be separated out of sight and earshot of the other horses when you are searching for cattle? How does he react when he can hear steers bursting out of the trees but he can’t yet get a visual on what is creating the racket?
Can you move your horse at different rates depending on what is needed in the moment? Cattle are very sensitive to horse and human presence and sorting or gathering them requires a mix of very little energy (sometimes just a turn of your horse’s head or flexion) or it could mean galloping out to head off the lead steer who decided to go in a direction not according to plan.
At first, I was wondering how was I going to ever use these things I was learning, in anything other than ranching? But I have since come to realize that all of these things require a level of horsemanship that can be applied to any type of riding.
The main component here at McGinnis Meadows is that we teach these methods of horsemanship to all of our guests. It is what makes the ranch so unique- it is not a dude ranch, where guests ride their horses head to tail.
These geldings can all work cattle, cut, be roped off of, trail ride, and perform advanced movements from rates within all three gaits, to flying lead changes, jumping, all working off of your legs and seat while being balanced and gentle. To make it into the guest string, these horses have to pass many tests, including work with a rope, flag and tarp, and be able to “jingle” in the herd each morning, which consists of gathering our horse herd from pastures up to 2 miles away to bring them into the corrals from horseback. Having 70 horses galloping away from you through the meadow while you ride at the gait of your choosing, making sure they are headed in the right direction, is just an amazing experience!
Being here has given me a chance to teach riders in all settings in the arena (both indoor and outdoor), on the trail with real time adventures, working cattle, and on foot with extensive ground work. Because our horses are known for their education and gentleness we get riders of all different abilities. Some are hard core students wanting to continue improving their horsemanship; others are newbies to riding, or older folks who are just getting back into riding after a bad experience and want to gain their confidence back. There is nothing more rewarding to me than to be able to work with a person who arrives afraid, and see them leave a week later with confidence and a rejuvenated passion for riding.
Yup, the hours at the ranch are long and hard. With 100+ head of horses to care for, plus my job managing the office and guests, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. But at the end of the day, when you have completed a tough job on horseback, or had a great session with a guest learning new tools, or pushed yourself to work through a fear that you have been battling (for me it was riding out alone on 7000 acres of remote country with no cell service, two way radios that don’t work well, and a not so great sense of direction!) and you can enjoy the comradery of staff who all have a like-minded interest. Well, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. I have been pushed harder to improve myself here, than at any other time in my life, and for that I am grateful
Things will be moving full circle for me now. I will be heading back to the Hudson Valley to spend time with my family, all of whom are much older than I and having some struggles with health. (As I myself get older I realize that life is short and you’d better be adaptable, and ready to rethink priorities as needed). I look forward to seeing my East coast friends again, and to take all of the tools and experiences I have been so fortunate to have had, back home with me. Mostly, if nothing else, I hope that relaying my experiences with you, will remind everyone that you are never too old to try something new! Perhaps I will see you out on the trails sometime.