Ranch Diaries: What life’s like as a female rancher

Some ranchers still say women ruin horses and a rancher and his wife can be paid at two-for-the-price-of-one.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Someone recently asked me what it’s like to be a woman on a ranch. After mulling over that question in the context of a decade spent in this industry, I thought I would share my responses with you all:

It’s like being a male rancher: I have more know-how than some men and less than others. Like many professions ranching has historically been a male-dominated field, but that’s changing. At the Quivira Conference last week I was thrilled to see an equal number of women in the audience, including young women with impressive qualifications and diverse experiences seeking more meaningful work on the land.

  • Author, far right, with Triangle P crew and Mescalero cowboys.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Wedding day multi-tasking.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Cowgirl manicure.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Teaching Dot the foal to lead, 2014.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author with Fe in 2010. Fe had her leg amputated this year, following an accident on the ranch.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Hanging out with the Triangle P cows.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Long day selfie.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author on New Year's Day, 2013

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Wedding shoes.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Being a woman rancher has made me value the ability to do multiple things, from mending jeans to doctoring a cow for pinkeye. Women have long been expected to balance domestic and ranch duties, without getting recognition for the economic value in such diverse skill sets. The two-for-the-price-of-one notion of hiring the cowboy and getting his wife’s help for free is becoming obsolete as women realize their own value.

Yes, I’ve experienced criticism and disparaging remarks about being a female rancher. Someone told me women ruin horses by spoiling them; a man driving through my yard loudly asked his buddy, “is that a man or a woman?” confused by my short haircut; after helping my husband on a ranch where he’d day worked before, the single check we received reflected a pay cut for him. It stings to feel inferior, and succumbing to that myth is what has kept me from being my best self. I’ll never forget the morning I was having a tough time catching a mare, and an older cowboy offered to finish the job. Instead of saying no thanks, I let his criticism of my skills effect my performance, and I caved to what I thought at the time was his superior ranch experience. He was the same man who told me women ruin horses. But my five-year-old bay, Hoot, is one of the best ranch horses we have: I’ve been handling him since he was two months old, was the first person on his back, and only after 30 rides did I turn him over to Sam.

I’m often the crew’s only female member. In the past, I succumbed to the cultural expectation of both riding alongside my man and preparing a hearty meal right afterwards. Once, this backfired. I tossed some ribs into the crockpot before heading out to help drive 500 cows 12 miles. My plan would have been a time-saver, had I remembered to plug the crockpot in. Instead, it was impromptu spaghetti whipped up in a panic as I watched the men unsaddling from my kitchen window.

When I married Sam, I specifically said I wanted no part in traditional gender roles: I wanted equal participation in both ranch work and domestic duties. He pitches in by washing up the dishes after a meal I’ve prepared, or cooking breakfast for crew so I can write, which was the case this morning. I’m also lucky one of our partners is a good cook: He’s going to make sure we all get fed when I help pregnancy test the cows this weekend.

I’m as much the face of modern ranching as the fifth generation cowboy is. Ranching is a culture steeped in individualism. Confidence in your abilities is your biggest asset, whether male or female. But it takes courage to learn new things, and to allow yourself to fail in the process. It’s challenging on a day-to-day level too. Trucks and equipment are geared to handlers that are taller and heavier. I’ve cussed tight gates and lamented the lack of good quality work gloves for women, struggled to load bales of hay heavier than I am. Traditionally, women in the West are lauded for their fortitude and stoicism, treated more like survivors of their environment rather than people thriving within it. I’m working against this narrative, proving by my intentional life choices that a woman can exist happily in ranching. It’s not easy, but to me, it’s worth it.