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The making of a cowboy

By on February 24, 2016 in Articles, Outdoor Fun, Sports & Recreation with 1 Comment

John Lehmkuhl gallops Willy, racing to get the steer through the gate.

story and photos

by Katherine March

I called my husband, John Lehmkuhl, The Barn Slave.

When he had no interest in horses, John built me two barns, put up fences, okayed the purchase of the big truck and horse trailer, and has never asked how much I paid for a horse or a saddle, or why the UPS truck comes so often.

So, I was not surprised when John asked me to find a horse for him. After all, the infrastructure was already there.

When John’s first horse found us, we unknowingly began the evolution of the slightly nerdy, very quiet guy from the Los Angeles area, to the cattle-chasing, yelling cowboy.

All we need to do is open our eyes near a map to realize that central Washington is the answer to all our wildest dreams. The endless trails a short drive away, and many we can hike for hours without seeing another two-legged animal, was one of the attractions when making the decision to work here in Wenatchee.

John, a scientist, did not need to do much research to find that he could cover much more ground on four legs with hooves than on two legs attached to five toes.

John’s approach to learning to ride a horse was no different than riding a bike — once you stop landing on the ground you have it conquered.

His first horse, Sadie, a paint mare, had not spent a lot of time under a saddle, but she had mastered the art of standing around looking pretty.

There is a saying, “Green on green makes black and blue.”

John and Sadie — each green but with beginner’s luck — got along rosy while they learned the trails together, usually lagging behind their pals because in spite of Sadie’s efforts she was bred to stand around in the show ring, and her mind and body were not suitable for all-day rides in the hills.

She was a sweet, smart horse, and she only sent me to the emergency room once, but she told lies to my Appaloosa gelding, Harvey, making him think he was the legendary white stallion.

Willy, John’s second horse, is a little red quarterhorse bred to competitively cut cattle, with a pedigree so fast your head would spin trying to read it, is the quick and nimble trail horse of John’s dreams.

All was going well in the hills until a well-meaning friend invited John to a cattle-cutting weekend.

The first time he cut a steer with Willy, the horse’s hot genes kicked in like a number 5 on a Mexican restaurant menu. John smiled like he never had before, and that may have been because he stayed in the saddle, but also because he felt like he’d won the lottery, or maybe an Olympic medal.

The next move was to competitively cut cattle. We began bleeding the money for training, and paying $100 a minute to cut a steer out of a herd —something that the traditional cowboy got paid for a week of work. The horse was often left with a trainer for cutting practice, leaving John with no horse to ride on the trail.

John realized he was spending so much time and money on cutting, and missing out on the trail riding that was his primary reason to have a horse, and he needed to change his horsemanship goals. He could not shake the taste for working the cattle, so he found a way to chase cattle, and hit the trails as well.

Our riding club, Appleatchee Riders, keeps steers for roping. These steers were standing around waiting to be moved from one pen to another by some cowboys and cowgirls, and the cost is 5 percent of the cutting competition.

Moving numbered steers one by one from a pen into an adjacent one, might seem like as much of an art as checking your emails; but when the beasts’ herding instincts take charge, they prefer to stick together.

The result is a 90 second scramble while a team of two or three horse and rider pairs works to pick 10 steers in a given order.

The challenge is to cut the steer without blowing up the entire herd making the others next to impossible to cut, and there is a 90 second time limit. That’s 10 steers, in order, 90 seconds.

John and Willy have reached a competitive level of sorting, and have found the key to moving cattle — yelling. Yelling very loud.

Never, except maybe when he stepped on a rattler, has John raised his voice at anything or anyone.

We try to train our dogs and horses to respond to a whisper, but cattle demand high volume control. A gentleman cowboy does not curse, but I will never cease to be amazed at the repertoire of yips, yeehaws, and heys, with a range of nearly two octaves, that John leaves in his saddlebags when he comes home.

When I was young, I never dared to dream I would have a cowboy in the house, but the hat, dirty jeans and boots are qualifiers.

I still get some time to ride too, but things are busy at home, and my current saddle horse, Winston, a Friesian thoroughbred, has threatened to spend the day in Kittitas County if I pushed him to touch a steer.

The fishing boat is dry, there is no annual ski pass, and the golf clubs have gone to Goodwill, although they never worked right anyway.

As the trailer pulls away with John, and the nice widow lady next door with their horses, he does not yell when he reminds me that he is allergic to hay, those bales don’t weigh as much as I do, the feed room needs work, the manure should be dumped just so when the stalls are cleaned, the wasp nests are building up in the barn, the electric fence is shorting out and should be fixed, and to carry a cell phone to call an ambulance in case I get run over.

He calls me his Barn Slave.

John Lehmkuhl and Katherine March are each wildlife biologists. John retired from his position as a Research Scientist for the Forest Service at the Wenatchee Forestry Science Lab, and currently is Chief Scientist at Wildwoods Consulting. He also is a leatherworker who owns and operates Squilchuck Saddlery. Katherine worked for Washington State Fish and Wildlife in north central Washington. They live near Wenatchee with their horses, and stay busy working and training their three wirehaired pointing griffon hunting dogs.


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  1. Mark collins says:

    John, what a stud

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