Written by Steve Bell
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.31
It’s been said there’s nothing like an honest day’s work, and at Martin Black’s Clinic on the Alvord Ranch you can experience this satisfaction and much more from the buckaroo point of view.
In over a week you can gain a practical knowledge of ranching by actually riding out, holding herd, cutting cows, roping, and branding. Still, you’ll come away feeling relaxed and rested after feasting on some Dutch oven cooking, visiting with great people, kicking back in the local hot springs, and pulling up a chair on the porch to listen to Pedro Márquez pick and sing some cowboy tunes. To follow is my first cut at a report for Eclectic Horseman. After six years it’s time to swing a leg over, and I can only hope what I write is worth reading.
The Alvord Ranch, in southeastern Oregon, is at a location so beautiful that I’ll likely miss the mark in my description, but I’ll give it my best shot. It’s a spread so vast it would be in direct violation of the Code of the West to even speculate to its actual size, but a forty-five-mile access road should give you some idea. The main ranch house is nestled under a variety of old trees in a sweet spot below where streams form from the cascading falls of melting snow on Steens Mountain to the west. Alvord Peak, the crown jewel of the Steens, stands nearly ten thousand feet tall, a shear rock face towering over smaller spires and dome rocks that almost get lost in the late afternoon shadows. Below, the vast foothills of purple sage extend and descend gradually out to what the locals call “The Flats” to the east, and in the distance, shallow water and salt on the Alvord Desert shimmered in the heat where I almost expected to see a mirage. I wondered to myself, then was certain that the water from these melting slopes was never going to reach the sea this side of the mountain I had driven through from Portland; then it dawned on me that I was in the fabled Great Basin: The Big Empty; The Sage Brush Sea; Land of the Buckaroo. Regardless of the region’s many names, there’s just no denying its natural greatness.
At first sight it’s plain to see that there is some pretty old history there at the Alvord, with several outbuildings and walls raised by the region’s Basque from giant rocks and stones. Down toward an old red barn I saw someone walking along so I headed that way, parked, and got out of my car. I was greeted with a friendly “Howdy, I’m Matt” and a fast handshake from 12-year-old Matthew Davis. I told him I was there for the Martin Black Clinic, and he looked at me with a grin as if what I just said was information he’d known for a while. I asked, “ Did I beat Martin here…?” And again, with a Cheshire cat smile he said: “No Sir, he’s down at the house. Just head up there, I have some chores to take care of and I will catch up with you later.” So I drove back to the main house where I was greeted at the door by Tonya Davis, who walked onto the porch and with an extending handshake introduced herself with a demeanor that put this total stranger at ease. “I figured you’d make it back to the house here pretty soon,” she said, smiling as if driving by was a common occurrence for every new visitor. “Come in, come in…” she said, opening the screen door inviting me into her house. She ushered me in through the kitchen to the dining area where further introductions began.
Standing there with shorts and a T-shirt, I was first introduced to her husband Paul Davis, the owner of the Alvord. Martin Black, whom I already knew, was sitting next to him. Then Martin, in a way only Martin can, with an easy smile, leaned over and told Paul that I was: “One bronc ridin’ son of a gun—And not to let my appearance fool anyone.” By Paul’s nonchalance and half chuckle I knew that we’d get along. To follow, there were greetings from their kids; From Justin, 14, their oldest boy, quiet, stout, and obviously strong beyond his years; A smiley “Hi” from a freckled Cody, 12, an identical twin to Matt, which I had to double take; A hello from Kailee, their triplet sister who has a quick grin from ear to ear that flashes her braces and a 12-year-old’s freedom from any cares; Finally, a “Nice to meet you” from Elizabeth, their youngest at 11, who I’d later learn has ambition to one day run the ranch and can crack a stock whip better than many men. After visiting for a while around the kitchen table, I was given the grand tour of the grounds and assigned a stone cabin to sleep in. After some more clinic participants arrived, and more pleasantries exchanged, I then said goodnight and shuffled off to bed.
The next morning came early with a brilliant golden light rising quickly into the sky where the stars were still barely hanging on. The air smelled of sage and the only sounds to hear were that of rustling cottonwood leaves, horses, killdeer birds, and my boot steps up the drive. After a breakfast of toast, eggs, and a few cups of coffee, it was down to the stone-walled corral where I was paired with a four-year-old horse named Jane. Martin said she’d be a good match because she was a good babysitter, which was exactly what I needed. On the drive out I was thinking about how much time I’d actually spent on a horse, and what I concluded was probably less than the life cycle of a barn fly. So I was really excited, but admittedly a little nervous.
In my younger days I loved doing things some people would deem insane, like climbing rock walls taller than most skyscrapers, or tucking down mountain roads on a bicycle faster than even cars can risk. But never anything that involved another animal. It has always been just me holding things together with my own self-preservation. But now, pushing forty with tendons and muscles as tight as a b-bender string, I was in for a crash course in equine at the Alvord Ranch. And I’ll tell you, just getting my foot in the dang stirrup was a highly inflexible task. But eventually, I was on Jane, and after a few quick pointers of pure basics from Martin’s partner Jennifer, like stopping, backing, and turning, the group of us were off and riding east across the sage.
I guess I could point out the small things I focused on from the back of that horse, like directing our path through the sage brush, or jumping over the small irrigation streams. Or, I could describe the rhythm I felt with each footfall. Perhaps I could mention what I did to negotiate a turn around a cow’s carcass rotting in the sun, or edging bogs that could swallow up both my horse and me into some deep black hole. Maybe I could try to write about how she responded to subtle pressure from just below my knees. But to the more experienced Eclectic readers, that would just be trite, so I’ll skip it, and just say that this time transcended anything I’d ever done on the back of a horse. Moreover, my personal nervousness vanished and I was amazed at how relaxed it made me feel. Within an hour on that first day, I was part of a group holding rodear of more than a hundred cattle, helping real buckaroos cut pairs of black mother cows out with their calves to be branded and vaccinated on another day. Martin kept things light in classic Martin style with a few humorous anecdotes about staying out of trouble, spreads he’d worked on, and people he’d worked with. All between laying his nervous thoroughbred down, and taking calls on his cellphone. Off in the distance we could see a herd of wild horses kicking up dust, and I thought to myself: If only my wife could see me now. That night, with another Martinism, he said that I did nothing to embarrass her, which I shall take as a compliment.
On my second day riding at the Alvord, I was beginning to feel a difference between actually posting, and letting my boney butt just smack the saddle. “Put your heals down,” Jennifer told me, which made things much easier. “Isn’t that better?” she asked. I grinned like I’d discovered a map to some hidden treasure. My goals were small, and one was to keep up. Then finally, for once, I wasn’t the last person through the gate. I got an acknowledging smile and a nod from Charlie, one of the Alvord ranch hands, as he closed it behind me. We all trotted up to a clearing and stopped to wait for Mike Smits, the cow boss, Charlie, his son, and Monel, Charlie’s wife, to ride out and around to bring in the herd. It was surreal watching them come in toward us. What looks flat in the distance of tall green grass was not flat at all, and the uneven ground made the progression play out in stages. First small, almost indistinguishable moving dots on the horizon. Then riders, cows and dogs, with just a faint distant sound. Then, seemingly sudden, they were all right there on us in a swarm of bugs, stink, mooin’, bawlin’, dust and barking dogs. It’s at that point I really had no choice but to join the game. I could never have pictured myself in that spot in a million years, but there I was on a horse actually helping to drive cattle. It was a great day and I was gaining confidence with every step. When we approached the corrals, Jane and I went right in with the group pushing the cows through one large pen, then through to a second smaller pen with an open gate on the far side to encourage the herd through. My first thought was to hang back, but it was a fine line of wanting to gain some experience or help do a job. So I went on through to the second pen. Then it all fell apart.
A more qualified rider would have seen it happening from a mile away, but not me, as one yellow calf squirted free and darted behind the group. Three border collies were on it in an instant, and I quickly looked to my left and saw Mike with a pretty serious look on his face hollering to call off the dogs. Too late. I moved Jane forward and out of the way as the first wave came behind us at full speed; One crying terrified calf and three ecstatic dogs. In hindsight, I should have stepped her back, because as those dogs steered the calf back perfectly around toward the gate, they all came rumbling right beneath us in a big clouded wad like you see in cartoons. Jane came unglued, bounced to the left where I was able to hang on, before I felt her body jerk powerfully to the right. She reared a bit and bounded toward the fence. I bared down on my left rein trying to double her up, but I was just too damn green. I also failed to grab hold of my coiled rope, and I remember seeing the fright in her left eye just before my right toe lost hold in the stirrup. All of my weight then shifted dramatically downward, and I could actually see some detailed leather tooling on the slick fork saddle before flying off. Then I disappeared in a cloud of dust.
My rather ungraceful landing knocked the wind right out of me. To add to that difficulty, I fell on the side opposite my mecate, which posed some trouble for Jane struggling to get free. I felt it zipping through my belt, then suddenly stop. Still attached to poor Jane, yanking on her face from the ground, she stepped right in my gut. Then, with no wind, and a mouth full of dust I managed to move off the reins and let Jane dance around me and away. Zip! The mecate came free and I was out of danger. Oddly enough, my first thought was “Oh shit; my hat!” which I had just received custom-made and had worn only twice. I rolled over and got to my knees, caught a breath, then up to my feet. Mike came hustling over. I was dusting myself off, and as he put his hand on my shoulder I said, “Thanks Mike.” It was my lame attempt to add some levity to the situation. But my words must have sounded churlish, because I know that I made Mike feel bad. A testimony to the unpredictable power of language I guess. I wasn’t hurt, and I didn’t need to say anything. He wasn’t in a place he could help me, and the dogs were just doing their job.
With digression, I must say that it’s funny to me in an interesting sense that what I take from that experience was not the fall itself, or even the setup, or my feeble horsemanship skill, but the aftermath of an occurrence like that. How we treat one another even imperfect strangers. I got bucked off, then rattle off something smart ass sarcastic, and Mike gives me a bundle of the best beef jerky I’ve ever had in my life the very next morning. Something about that to me is just out of sorts. So with a lot of contemplation, I’ve decided I’m going to try hard to abide by the wisdom of Cowboy Rule Number 13 Mike had jokingly told me (a few days prior to my ground greeting) driving down a dusty road in his pickup truck, which is this: “Never pass up a good opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” I found out later that the quote is attributed to several people, including both Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but either way it’s sound advice. What’s more, the next time it might happen that a dog chasing a calf sends a horse I’m on to bucking, I’m going to grab my coils and hang on, perhaps just to leave a more favorable impression on a real cowboy like Mike.
The folks there were genuinely concerned for me, and I even got one compliment on my rather short bronc ride. But I didn’t really want to hear it, and certainly not for any damaged pride, but a sense of getting on with it. I was certain everyone there had come off at some point. No blood, no harm done, and I was smiling because I’ve survived much worse in my time. Martin, who had missed the event due to a story to be told another place, another time, shouted over the fence to make me an offer I just had to refuse: “Steve, you can get a ride back in the truck if you want.” “No thanks” was my answer. Taking that route would actually be humiliating, and a decision I would just regret later on. I grabbed Jane’s reins and climbed back in the saddle, held my chin high and started for the house. It was lunchtime and I was no worse for wear. My hat was fine too. I knew inherently what had happened to me was just part of a big adventure. I joked with Justin that since my first spill was over I could now stop counting, and then handed him my camera to take a snapshot to remember the day. There are no substitutes for experience. Yep, no substitutes, and a few good lessons learned that day about friends, horses, and myself. In fact, the next day out wrangling I put what I had learned the hard way to good use when another calf came bolting out behind us with a black and white dog right on its tail. My eyes were no doubt like saucers, but Jane and I prevailed.
Since meeting Emily, I’ve been auditing clinics of what Martin Black wittingly calls Empirical Equine Psychoanalysts. I have watched many of the very best, even learned a few things. But for various and multiple reasons, I’ve had no good opportunity to apply any of it, and I’ve grown tired of riding the bench as it were. After the Alvord Clinic, I caught a glimpse of what the addiction is about and why people are so horse crazy, and I now want to get on with my individual pursuit of horsemanship. It was a plain great experience, and I would encourage everyone of you to go. In closing, I would like to thank Emily for sending me faraway from this overblown bit cruncher to gain a new perspective on my life; with any luck, we can both attend next year. I would also like to thank the Davis Family and their working hands. They are the quintessence of an American ranch family, and it was my privilege to meet and spend time with them. A big thanks to Martin and Jennifer for inviting me along, and for their patience with this novice. Last, but not least, thanks to that horse named Jane, who out there on the Oregon flats revived some things inside me that needed reviving.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.31