Rawhide outfit in a modern time
Story and photos by Jolyn Young
The O RO Ranch is located only about 50 miles from the city of Prescott in northern Arizona, but it may as well be 5,000 miles away from the rest of modern America. There are no power lines or telephone poles on the RO’s (that’s what everyone calls the outfit), and unmarked dirt roads connect the remote cow camps to headquarters. Cell phone signals are scattered in the brush-covered mountains, and one-horse power remains the most efficient method of travel.
“It’s a rawhide outfit in a modern time,” said Jason Kirby. A lifelong “cowpuncher,” as cowboys are called in the Southwest, Kirby is the RO’s wagonboss.
The RO’s isn’t clinging to the old ways simply for tradition’s sake, though. Most of the land it encompasses is too rough to accommodate semi trucks or even frequent horse trailer use. Located in the arid Southwestern desert, the ranch is blanketed with cedar trees, prickly pear, oak brush, and cholla. Mount Hope rises up near its center, and a myriad of other mountains, rocky washes and jagged cliffs comprise the rest of the ranch’s 257,000 acres.
“There’s not many roads. It’s just real inaccessible to vehicles,” explains Kirby. “It’s still a horseback deal.”
Mules packed it all in
Cowboys who hire on at the RO’s like the old-time nature of the job. The ranch is divided into five camps: Sandstone, Bear Creek, Francis Creek, Triangle N and Mahon. The latter is the most remote cow camp in Arizona, possibly the nation. Until as recently as five years ago, all groceries and camp supplies were transported to Mahon via pack mules. It is now accessible by a primitive dirt road, provided the driver has a high-clearance vehicle and a sense of adventure. All the materials for the house, including the six-burner wood cook stove and attached water heater, were packed in via mules.
Each camp has a small house, barn and set of corrals; solar panels for electricity; a windmill or gas-powered pump for water; and a generator for backup. One cowboy (and his family, if applicable) lives at each camp, and he is responsible for taking care of the cattle in his country. This includes packing salt and mineral blocks, range-branding calves, moving cattle, and riding fence lines.
Each morning, the camp men saddle up, step on their horses, and ride out to start their day’s work. The country is so rocky that they all carry spare horseshoes, a handful of nails, and a short-handled hammer to replace a pulled shoe if necessary. In addition to riding, roping, and on-the-range horseshoeing, an RO cowpuncher must also know how to track cattle and read sign.
“You use the old cowboy skills that are going away every day, like trailing cattle, tracking cattle, and having to handle fast cattle in bad places,” shares Kirby.
Much of the geography qualifies as “bad places” in the average person’s book. But to an RO cowpuncher, running full-tilt down a rocky canyon slope holding a rope in hot pursuit of a cow is just another day at the office. Think Man From Snowy River with a horn knot.
Making good cowboy horses
To work this rough country, the RO’s pulls both a spring and a fall wagon each year.
“There’s not a lot of places that have to run a wagon out of necessity,” Kirby notes.
The cowboy crew, a cook, and the remuda of horses travel around the ranch to brand, wean and cull cattle for eight to ten weeks per wagon. The traditional method appeals to young cowpunchers eager to sleep in a tipi, rope calves, eat chuck wagon cooking, hear (and tell) lies around the campfire, and rope some more calves. Older, more seasoned cowboys are typically less enthusiastic about living away from bed frames and indoor plumbing for four months of the year, but it’s just part of a cowboy’s job.
“It all goes away when you step on a horse in the morning, because you’re doing what you love,” admits Kirby.
Cowboys also love to ride good horses.
“Everywhere you go, people know the RO horses and how good they are,” says Kirby. “They get around the rough country real good. They’re good cowboy horses.”
The ranch’s breeding program dates back to the inception of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and beyond. Their bloodlines trace back hundreds of years into Mexico, and the AQHA selected some of the ranch’s bloodstock for inclusion in their registry’s formation.
Strong roots must support new growth, though.
“There was a need for some drastic modification,” O RO Ranch Manager Chad Smith reflects. “We’ve selected sires for the traits that we absolutely need and the proven athleticism, too.”
At their core, ranch horses must have good bone and be tough, athletic and cowy. The ranch now offers a limited number of horses for sale to the public, and they have altered their breeding program to better serve that market. They have added some bloodlines that consistently produce horses with more docility and trainability than horses in years past.
Current bloodlines include A Smooth Guy; One-Time Pepto; Pepper Joe Hancock; and Chargin Frost, a stud owned by the Begay family and whose pedigree traces back to a legendary Babbitt Ranch mare. In years past, the RO’s provided the Babbitt Ranch with bloodstock.
The ranch’s top genetics are enhanced by a laidback approach to raising colts.
“They’re pretty much raised outside completely,” says Smith. “We raise those horses in the rocks and the rough stuff.”
Learning to navigate the rocks, washes, cactus, hills and canyons from birth makes a sure-footed saddle horse that a working cowboy can depend on to do his job. Acclimating to the ranch’s desert conditions from birth is a necessity for other health considerations as well. The ranch’s remuda is turned out on grass and not supplemented with hay.
“They have to be good keepers and have the metabolism for it, too,” Smith explains. “You cannot buy horses and make that happen. And we’ve tried it. The percentage is not very good there.”
Rugged country calls for a ‘slightly different type of cattle’
Like the remuda, the cattle herd lives outside and grazes year-round. Historically, the ranch has run Hereford cattle, but in recent decades have added other breeds as well.
“They got a little bit of everything,” says Kirby. “Probably 50% are horned cattle.”
Although most commercial beef operations genetically select for polled cattle, horns are a necessity for mother cows who calve and winter outside from the time they were heifers. Horns afford them both the ability to defend their young calves from mountain lions, bears and coyotes, and they also help them better utilize the bottom of the ranch’s many deep, brushy canyons.
“They can move that brush around with their horns and get that good green grass,” Kirby says.
Nowadays, the management team is working hard to improve and streamline its herd into a more uniform type of animal.
Smith explains, “We have tried to get that herd uniform into a cow that’s super baldy or maybe an Angus Plus-type cow. We feel like just a little influence of ear really helps us in that rough country and being able to get around.”
Adapting to the modern cattle market is a must for a ranch to stay afloat, but the rugged Southwestern country that is home to the RO’s requires a slightly different type of cattle.
“It’s a difficult balance between what the market wants, what the feedlot wants, and what works for us as well,” Smith adds.
The RO’s has long had notoriety as a wild cow outfit, but that reputation is quickly changing. The ranch doesn’t purposefully raise wild cattle, and the full-eared, unbranded mavericks who live in the brushiest canyons are holdovers from previous management programs. The current management team and cowboy crew are working hard to eradicate all the wild cows. Cowboys spend time making cattle better to handle by holding them up when they’re prowling around, and especially after they’ve made a break to escape. Each member of the crew tries to conscientiously ride through his cattle with a calm demeanor so as not to unnecessarily stir up the bunch.
A more stringent culling system has been implemented, and the ranch is producing more docile cattle than in years past. Still, the famed RO’s cattle herd will never turn into a petting zoo.
“It’s a fine line between docility and having them too gentle where they still don’t work the country,” Smith adds.
Jane Droppa, who owns the RO’s along with her family, shares the philosophy of maintaining tradition while staying current with modern trends. Her dedication to raising beef while preserving the rugged, horseback nature of the job makes for a unique outfit, and cowboys recognize and appreciate the opportunity to work at the RO’s.
“There is a lot of tradition here. There’s been a lot of good cowboys that have been made here and there’s not a lot of places left a guy can go and do this,” Kirby conveys. “The owners have kept this deal going. They deserve a lot of credit for this place being how it is. I suspect this would have been a very different place if the owners and management weren’t willing to make some sacrifices to preserve many of the traditions of a rough-country ranching outfit.”