Seven days a week to make a burger

Terry Allen photo In the shadow of the Wind River Range, Lonny Johnson and Boone Snidecor fork hay to wintering cattle.

I jumped at Lonny Johnson’s invitation to go out on an old-fashioned hay sled to feed a few hundred cows at Boone and Jeni Snidecor’s ranch on Forty Rod Road. It was 11 degrees on a foggy and mostly cloudy morning as I put my truck into 4WD and drove into the snow-drifted barnyard. Gib, the hired man, was feeding hay to a couple horses and a one-horned goat. I tried to make friends with the goat, but he leaned in against the horse, so I accepted the odds, gave up on friendship, trading it for a culinary vision of herb-rubbed leg of goat, roasted over a crackling fire.
The heavy rustling of leather and steel harnesses drew my attention to the barn where Boone and Lonny were throwing heavy tack over the backs of huge American Belgian Draft horses. At 17 and 20 years old, Debbie and Dallas are taller than either man, even with their heads in horse grain buckets. Boone gave some attention to a rough spot on a historic leather horse collar, and brushed out a sore shoulder on Dallas before rubbing in some salve. The sled might weigh a ton, and when loaded with 3,000 pounds of hay, the horses have to pull about 5,000 pounds through snow. Most of the time these statuesque horses are decorating the horizon, but today the tractor that pulls the sled broke down, so their value meant a lot more than beauty to the cows that were already waiting for breakfast a quarter-mile away.
At the hay bale loading area, disaster struck as a misloaded 1,500-pound bale broke off the back end of the 70-year-old hay sled. A good old cowboy @#$% blizzard blew in for a few minutes, and then blew out again as we all headed back to the yard to dig out another older and heavier hay sled. As we went, I turned and looked back at the hungry cows that were now a solid black line pushed up against the fence watching their hay chefs drive away. They weren’t saying anything, but I saw “what the hell?” in their eyes.
Long story short, the other sled couldn’t get adapted to work before the cows would riot, break through the barricades and devour the hay stack, so Boone called a friend who had been borrowing his third sled and said he needed it back. Lonny looked at me to see how I understood things, and said, “It’s a struggle of life, and it’s a good life.”
Cows only get fed once a day, and they depend on cowboys for eating every day of the week. It doesn’t matter if a rancher gets sick or hurt; the cows have to eat and be watered. If you run across a sick or lame cow, they depend on you to be a doctor. There is no such thing as being too cold, tired, hungry, sick or waiting until tomorrow to do anything. It is an obligation and a duty.
The next day, Debbie and Dallas pulled two sledloads out to the feeding pasture. Lonny said he’d like to take some pictures of me feeding and driving, because no one ever takes pictures of the photographer. He jumped off the sled with the camera and Boone gave me some quick and effective coaching. He noticed I was holding the reins like in Hollywood movie and immediately said, “You can get hurt that way. Hold the reins like this, and if you don’t, I won’t let you do it.” I know good coaching when I hear it, and so do my poor old diminishing brain cells, so that was just the right thing to say to get me focused and do it right. It was nice to be on the sled, and Lonny took some nice shots. But, taking my turn peeling off hay and throwing it to the cows was an unexpectedly difficult workout! We had left Lonny in the distance but he finally caught up and said he’d like his old job back. According to him, running after a sled to get good pictures was harder than throwing hay.
Casey Manning came over to the ranch and harnessed up his team of young Belgians for the third load of bales. Kim and Chloe, at age 2 and 3, are not fully mature, and are still learning so one load was a fair workout for them.
With the day almost done, the horses were being groomed and fed, when we heard a yelp from the tack room. Gib said the plug that goes to the heater in the water trough was throwing sparks. I opened up the box and took it apart and determined half the box was toast, but you could still plug in the other side and keep the water trough from freezing over, until new parts could be installed.
“Hey, you guys,” said Boone, “the photographer is also an electrician.”
In doing research for this story, I used Jonita Sommers book called, “Green River Drift.” On page 255 there is a toddler in a saddle with Harv Stone, I think. It is Boone. As Boone ranches on land claimed by his great-great-grandfather in 1850, it is probably a good bet that a few Snidecor toddlers got their ranching start just like that.
Thank you to the Snidecor family, Lonny Johnson, Gib, and Casey Manning for trusting me to tell a bit of your story. Any errors in the telling are mine and will be apologized for.