Alright, let’s face it. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it.
We all, at one point or another, have fantasied about being a cowboy. A gun-toting, pistol-slinging, cattle rustling cowboy. Fighting off banditos at high noon because ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.’
Bar fighting, saloon brawling, denim jean wearing cowboy; sitting there smoking a cigar with a whiskey in hand as the tumbleweed rolls on by into the sunset.
We’ve all dreamt it. And I have some excellent news for you folks – it can become a reality. Well, the nearest thing possible to the old Western movie fantasies. You can stay on an active, working ranch with some modern-day cowboys which is exactly what I did in Guyana, South America.
Saddle Mountain Ranch
We rolled into Saddle Mountain Ranch, fresh off the back of a multiday ATV and 4×4 off-road tour. We were hot, sweaty and covered in dirt from our ride over. We were greeted with warm smiley faces and welcomed into the cool shade inside the main kitchen/dining area of the ranch, with some freshly made juice on the table.
There aren’t many moments in which you know exactly what your life desires are. You know, the one thing to make everything better. But at that point we did, and it was a cold glass of juice away from the 35c+ heat.
The ranch is owned by Tommy and his wife Joan, where they raised their now adult children. Most have now left the ranch to lead their own lives, however, we did get to meet their son, Judah. Judah is the x2 Rodeo King of Guyana and all round badass. But that’s another story…
It was time to start our official training on the road to becoming fully fledged ranchers!
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Our Cowboy Training in Guyana Begins
First step: lassoing.
The lasso is made of stretched out and intertwined hide, with a metal ring on the end that pulls tight once the target is hit. The ring also adds some weight which helps with the throw. We had a bull skull set up on a post to aim for so we got straight to it. I missed my first couple, but after following up with 3 in a row, I considered myself the next John Wayne. The secret is to make a big throwing loop and to stand close. Makes sense.
Now it was time to meet our trusty steeds. The horses were rounded up and saddled. Beautiful horses, some of which had been once wild and broken in, now surprisingly responsive when ridden. We were all pretty much beginners, but the instructions of, ‘pull left to go left, pull right to go right, kick to go faster and pull back to stop’, were fairly easy to follow.
The horse riding was done in the evening and first thing in the morning. The sun beats down too hot during midday, so it was much more agreeable to go at those times. That was also the best time for wildlife spotting. They too try to avoid the heat so are mostly active in the early or late hours. We, unfortunately, didn’t see anything from our horses, but anteaters are not uncommon and jaguars have also been spotted not too far away.
Each person we met seemed to have their own jaguar encounter tale. Joan is a lovely older woman, softly spoken with a warm smile. She recounted a time when she scared off a jaguar from the ranch whilst wielding a machete… Because of course, she goes everywhere with her machete.
Here in Guyana, horses are the ultimate in off-road transportation. We went up rocky hills, through the mud and rivers. And boy can they go quick. We galloped through the savannah, the rays of sunshine illuminating the dust as it trailed behind us.
The horses easily changed up a gear and pounded over the rough terrain. We were moving quick. The shirts, hats and ‘yee-haaaw’ing may have fooled us into thinking we were cowboys now, but I got a harsh reality check as my stirrup snapped and my already clenched fists could hold on no longer as I hit the deck.
And yes, I did get back on the horse. I was later told that to become a true horse riding master, you first need to fall off 50 times. Only 49 more to go.
The best way to wash yourself and your dusty clothes after a sweaty day ranching was to take a dip in the ‘lake’. It wasn’t actually a lake, but the way the river widened and slowed at the bend gave it that feel. The water was warm and refreshing, and the way the palm trees hung over, it felt like we had been transported to somewhere far away from the dry savannah. Almost like an oasis. If this wasn’t enough to scrub the dirt off, our room had an open top shower. So you can watch for shooting stars as your dirt-tan fades away.
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Ranch Life in Guyana
The ranch itself is an active, working ranch. There’s no show put on for the tourists, everything we did had a reason to it and everything on the ranch has a purpose. They are fully self-sustained. The meat feeds the family, the hide is used to make whips and lassos and nothing is ever wasted.
Fruit hangs from the trees, and even the early mangos can be used for juicing- if the iguanas don’t get to them first! Ranches are fairly open plan. Livestock wander around freely so the horses are required in order to round them up.
Now to put us to practical use. We were going to enter the corral. A corral is a fenced off area used to hold livestock. There could potentially be hundreds of animals in one, all running in various directions kicking up dust. The ‘vaqueros’ – Portuguese for cowboys – rounded up as many cattle as possible into the corral. There was never a straight answer of how many cattle were on the ranch; due to the openness in which they roam, it’s very hard to tell. But they got as many as they could find in there in order to be branded.
The branding of young cattle is a reality of any working farm or ranch in the world. In some countries, a tag is put on the ear. Here in Guyana, a number is branded on to the hide. The reason is to prove ownership.
You can start to build an officially recognized database and account of what is yours. This is also vital in deterring cattle rustlers. With Brazil being within eyesight, Tommy’s ranch is the first that would be hit. In a place like this, people do not keep bank accounts. Their savings are in their livestock. And they will do whatever they can to protect that. Branding their cattle is a start.
The idea is that we jump into the corral with our lassos and search for an unbranded cow, around 6 months old. Once we spot one, we have to lasso it, get the rope secured to the fence, wrestle the cow to the ground and pin it to be branded by Judah. The plan seemed simple enough. Until you get in there are realize the size of the bulls.
They breathe heavy, there’s thick dust rising up all around, but not so thick to miss the size of their horns. The guys on the side had been given orders to watch our backs and shout if we need to GTFO. By some sort of divine intervention, miracle or just sheer luck, Jule’s (from Don’t Forget to Move) manages to land one with his first throw.
I wouldn’t believe it either, but we have it on film. Under the direction of Judah and the other vaqueros, the cow is brought to the ground. We hold it down whilst it’s branded. The cows are obviously stressed by the process; however, it is done as fast as possible. As soon as they are let back up they run to their herd and soon settle down.
I was now determined to lasso one and prove myself as a cowboy. As soon as I got my lasso swinging, Judah had another one caught. That would mean dropping our ropes and helping with the cow management. This seemed to repeat itself. Judah was good. Too good.
I wanted to ask him to go take 5 so the rest of us could get one. And eventually, I did! I lassoed a moving target and got it secured and brought down. Tommy shouted, ‘Hey, do you want a job?!’ and although he was almost definitely joking, I have already added it to my résumé, told everyone I know and will have it engraved on my tombstone. I made it as a cowboy.
Overall, it was a super unique experience and I am happy that we got the chance to try it out during our trip to Guyana.
Note: This article was written in partnership with Guyana Undiscovered, however, as usual, all words and opinions are ours.