Trading the Welsh Countryside for a Ranch in Wyoming
My horse was ready to race, ears pricked, muscles tense. A few yards further on, a herd of wild horses stared at us; they had ignored us for most of our ascent from the valley below. Horned lizards crawled in the sagebrush beneath us, but my horse’s gaze remained fixed on its indomitable brethren.
Moments later, we were galloping at full speed under the rugged backdrop of the towering Absaroka Range. We lined up with the backs of the herd – alongside the foals jostling each other to follow their mothers – and were bombarded by bits of dirt slipping out of their thundering hooves. I narrowed my eyes to keep the dust out of my eyes. A herd of antelope seen from afar, well camouflaged among the gold tinted grasslands of the high elevation plains of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
In the summer of 2006, I traveled from my home country of Wales to Wyoming to spend a few months working as a horse trainer at Lazy L&B Ranch. There, as part of a team of seven wranglers, I took guests from all over the world on exhilarating treks through rivers, valleys, forests, canyons and mountains, straddling over 9 000 feet to find mesmerizing views that stretched endlessly in all directions, with no sign of human presence.
My time in Wyoming was the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy of working as a horse trainer on a ranch in the American West.
I grew up in a small hamlet in South Wales called Idol, where from the age of 4 my thoughts and dreams were consumed with everything about horses. As a child, I had always felt most at home near nature, drawn to the sand, the solitude and the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world and the adventures it had to offer. Years later, it was my love of horses and the great outdoors that prompted me to take a camera.
While I was studying politics at a college in England, I heard about a ranch half an hour’s drive east of Dubois, Wyo., A small town with less than 1,000 permanent residents.
There, down the gravel East Fork Road, is the Lazy L&B Ranch: a collection of log cabins and horse corrals dotted among the poplars that line the bubbling East Fork River.
Looking back, my time in Wyoming helped prepare me, years later, for the physical demands of working in a war zone. With over 90 horses to feed and care for, life on the ranch was much more difficult and physically demanding than I had anticipated. With little comfort at home, I spent countless hours in the saddle, navigating vast mountains and high altitude deserts, often in extreme weather conditions.
But once I adjusted to my role as a wrangler, I became extremely attached to ranch life and the wild, authentic cowboy culture that surrounds it – so much so that, for more than a decade, I returned to Wyoming almost every summer. , and sometimes more often, exploring its diverse and spectacular natural beauty on foot and in the saddle.
My experience working as a cowgirl was, of course, very different from the challenges and daily demands of real American cattle ranchers.
A stone’s throw from the Lazy L&B Ranch is the Finley Ranch, a small, traditional family ranch. Two generations ago Duncan Finley traveled to the United States from Scotland, settling in the East Fork Valley of the Wind River. Today Duncan’s grandson John Finley still lives on the family ranch, having only left once, to travel during his military service – an experience that made him realize just how place he calls home is wonderful.
Once with 300 head of cattle, the Finley Ranch has gradually been reduced in size since John’s childhood. To generate income in the 1970s, the family sold part of their land and the majority of their cattle, reducing the herd to around 30 head. In the 1990s, a decade-long drought hit the area, impacting grazing and leading the family to further reduce their herd. Today John lives at the ranch with his wife, Ramona – or Monie, as she is known – as well as four horses, 16 head of cattle, and his energetic and fearless ranch dog Strider.
John has also become something of a local legend within the herding communities near Dubois, particularly after his encounter with a grizzly bear in 2016 (his dogs, Strider and Merlin, helped save him – and the story seems become more dramatic with each story.)
John is not just the embodiment of authentic Western culture, raising cattle and living off the land. He is also a talented and accomplished artist. From leatherwork and life-size bronze statues to intricate paintings on wasp’s nest paper, scrimshaw and jewelry, his varied artistic creations reflect his unique talents and affinity with the natural world.
Since my first visit in 2006, and with each visit thereafter, I have grown increasingly attached to Wyoming – to its people, its culture, its nature and, of course, its horses. It also holds a special place in my heart to spark what has become my greatest passion: photography. It was there, near the iconic Teton Mountain Range, that I began to take a serious interest in capturing images of my surroundings.
As he sat on the porch after a long day in the saddle, drinking a cold beer, I showed Heath, the chief fighter, some of the photos I had taken with my compact camera. A man of few words, he nodded in approval and suggested that I invest in a “real” camera. The rest, as they say, is history.
Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises and social issues. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.
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