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Know the West

Advice from a rancher: The risks make it fun


The other day I heard a newsman refer to "these perilous times" for businesspeople. No kidding, I thought. The gloomy picture featured rising costs, increased property taxes, deepening recession, employee demands for more insurance and benefits, market risk -- the list went on.

I thought of the risks we've faced in ranching, with more to come. Big sigh. Suddenly, I laughed out loud. I remembered being 50 miles from home in 1979, at the Labor Day Horse Race in Tensleep, Wyo. We were in business for ourselves then, too, and our financial picture could charitably be described as bleak. Land-rich, cash-poor, is the way the bankers put it. The livestock market was at rock-bottom, and nobody was buying ranches, even if we'd wanted to sell.

The races, though: Held on a dirt track at the edge of town, the annual races featured mostly ranch horses brought by people who just wanted to have some fun and see which horses could run. Despite the gloomy business setting we were in, we gathered up some friends and a couple of fast horses and rattled off to Tensleep in a beat-up old pickup and trailer, ready for the horse race.

The sunny autumn day attracted a jolly crowd from nearby towns and ranches. The entry fees were small; our horses won their races and we made a little money. We joked about being a small-time syndicate as we placed some bets, laughing and enjoying our good fortune. Fun is where you find it, especially during hard times.

In the late afternoon, we'd gathered at the bar in town noisily celebrating our victories, when a local fellow started bragging that he had a horse back at his ranch that was faster than any of the others, and he'd bet $1,000 cash to prove it. Somehow, we heard ourselves saying, "Well, then. Go home and get him. You're on."

When we pooled our money to cover the bet, our syndicate only had $300 of the $1,000 we needed, so somebody had to write a check for the remainder. There were no ATM machines back then, and cashing an out-of-town check on a holiday wasn't easy. Nobody had money to spare, and many of us ranchers were heavily in debt.

A thousand dollars was a lot of money 29 years ago, borrowing at 16 percent interest rates. But somehow, we got the money together and went back out to the track at dusk, each of us secretly wondering if that horse really could outrun ours, and what we'd do if we lost. With a lump in my throat I stood thinking of groceries, school clothes for the kids and how we'd pay the bills. 

We waited nervously for the guy to show up. Our friend Delmer, who owned "our" horse, was sweating bullets. "How'd we get into this?" he asked. "I've never been much of a gambling man."

After a quiet minute, my husband roared and slapped him on the back. "What? Delmer, you've gotta be kidding. You've gambled more than this every day you've been in the ranching business. You've been bucked off horses, run over by cows; you've walked home when your truck broke down, worked jobs, made a living against all odds. You've gambled on cattle prices and the weather and the price of hay. This horserace is nothing at all compared to being in business for yourself. So if we're all gambling anyhow, let's at least have a little fun at it!"

We did. At the starting line, a cowboy had the cash money snapped in his polyester shirt pocket for safekeeping; winner would take all. When the flag dropped, the horses jumped out neck and neck, their hooves pounding in the dirt. The dust flew; we could barely see the finish line and we didn't know at first who'd won or lost. We did win, though, and we gathered up our money and left town as quickly as we could, feeling more relief than triumph. We knew that $1,000 meant a lot to the loser, too.

Looking back at what we risked that day, I want to give heart to young friends who are struggling to succeed as ranchers, or in any business. "Win some, lose some," I want to say. Of course it's perilous. Of course there's risk, but there's also reward and sometimes even profit, and certainly adventure, satisfaction, achievement.

Definitely it's a gamble, but oh, the fun of the race.

Mary Flitner ranches and writes in Greybull, Wyoming.