Longhorn cattle at Flying U Ranch; photo courtesy Flying U Ranch

Hello. I’m a longhorn cow, and I’m harder to catch than you might think. Photo courtesy Flying U Ranch

For most people, wrangling cattle is something done either strictly in the movies or during a bachelor party. In either case, the actors or drunken bros are supervised by real cowboys who have a particularly watchful eye, obedient cattle dogs, and rugged and powerful Quarter Horses. All you need to do is watch “City Slickers” a few times and you know the appropriate whoops and hollers, and just where to store your chewing tobacco. Maybe you've even seen “The Man From Snowy River,” and want to slap a bullwhip around with a satisfying CRACK to move the herd. Well, I've cracked bullwhips and I've moved herds of both cattle and horses, but when it comes down to it, I can tell you only the most genuine of cowboys can do the job well.

Horses used to wrangle longhorn cattle; photo by Whitney James

Horses used to wrangle longhorn cattle; photo by Whitney James

This summer, my best friend and I got the opportunity to test how true our grit really is at the Flying U Ranch in British Columbia. We've been guests there for 12 years and counting. The U is the only free-riding ranch in North America where you get your horse and just go on 40,000 acres of wilderness—no guide, no real rules. A few weeks ago during our annual visit, as we were enjoying a breakfast of pancakes and coffee, we'd heard that there was going to be some kind of longhorn round-up. To our utter delight, we were invited to come along.

The posse was made up of two cowboy-looking men somewhere past their 50s, along with their traveling partners. All in all, a group of eight. Letting the obvious leaders of the group know we had just seen the 60 longhorns the day before, we proceeded to follow them in the wrong direction for the next 45 minutes. The group energetically looked for fresh cow pies while my friend and I gazed southeast, where we knew we'd find the freshest cowpies of all.

longhorn cattle

The U is the only free-riding ranch in North America where you get your horse and just go on 40,000 acres of wilderness; photo by Whitney James

We stumbled upon the herd a few miles down the road, grazing smack dab in the middle of a marsh—exactly where we thought they'd be. The plan was quickly made: move the cows back to the dirt road, then guide them to a barbed-wire gate an unknown number of miles away, delivering them to their new grazing zone. But after Cowboy No. 1 let out his first "Yahooo!," everything fell apart. The cattle had taken off in the wrong direction.

Like any good cowgirl, I told my friend to go above the herd, while I'd stick to the right. We needed to stop them before they crossed the road and ran off into god-knows-where on 40,000 acres of pine-beetle-infested forests so thick they block out the sun. Seconds later, I was bolting my horse through a clear-cut, dodging fallen trees, stumps, and new growth on a path straight to hell. You never ride a horse like that in a place like that. But by God, the cows were getting away.

longhorn cattle

It was clear the longhorn knew the terrain (much) better than the author did. Photo by Whitney James

I arrived at the road seconds ahead of the longhorn in front. With no other riders in sight, I cut left to attempt to halt the herd. Where was my bullwhip? To make up for the lack of a CRACK, I hollered sounds straight out of Hollywood. Ooooo-wheeee! Apparently the cows found me interesting enough to pause their charge. Then it was just me and 60 longhorns, the hot July sun, and my horse covered in black flies, horse flies, deer flies, mosquitos, and a thick lather of sweat. I was fairly certain I was the only one who would ride that hard, and guessed I wouldn't be seeing the others for at least five minutes, if they found me at all.

Through the bushes came Cowboy No. 2, his hat cockeyed and horse covered in just as much sweat. Once my friend showed up at the top of the herd, we carried on, keeping the cows at a manageable walk. Soon enough things were going well. Plod along, plod along.

longhorn cattle

The author, pictured with her best friend, got a nice big gash on her arm thanks to her longhorn cattle wrangling; photo by Whitney James

Then—bolt. The longhorns knew the area better than we did, and took off at a steady jog through a cattle trail nearly undetectable through the underbrush. Certain that no one else would attempt to ride through the mess of fallen trees, gnarled branches, and thick cobwebs, I asked my horse to give it a try. She delivered. We were off, and it was pure madness: my head was down, arms crossing my face, crashing through the mess. We got stuck in a fallen tree trifecta, and my horse leapt from a standstill to clear the hurdle. Quarter Horses, man. It's all I can say.

This time Cowboy No. 2 stopped the herd right as the dead jungle opened up to yet another marsh. Impressive, really. I'm not sure how he beat me. We turned them, pushed them back just the two of us, and arrived once again at the road. If you had asked me at that point, I'd have said the day was an absolute disaster. I was sporting a bloody 8-inch scratch on my arm and was legitimately worried about my horse's endurance—as well as my own. We had no idea where we were or where our destination was. The cows were obviously not in our control, and if anyone thought they were, they were kidding themselves. City slickers, all of us.

Somehow, things improved. The remainder of the ride was a surprising success. We steered the doggies clear down the road, hooted like a righteous bachelor party, and laughed at the sight of 60 poop-smeared rear-ends plodding along just the way we liked. The barbed wire gate came along, and my best friend opened it, trusting it was the right one, and we hoo-rah'd them through.

Lying in a hammock between two birch trees, horses tied and dozing off nearby, had never felt so deserved. The owners of the ranch would never know we even helped, but if anyone asks, I've got the scar to prove it.

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