I Gave Up Grad School to Be a Real-Life Cowgirl

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Ivy Givens at work. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

It’s noon in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, and I’m searching for some sort of shelter from the menacing thunderhead looming behind us. Trailing after me are eight guests, adequate riders but clearly alarmed — much like the horses they are now struggling to control — by the lightning that is drawing nearer. I lead us from a high ridge into a thick lodgepole pine forest, and by the time we’ve dismounted and donned our bright-yellow slickers, dime-sized hail is pouring down. We left the barn this morning under blue skies, the sego lilies, harebells, and Indian paintbrushes enjoying the abundant sunshine. But this is Wyoming, and I should have known better. The driving hail roars now, replacing the absolute silence of this remote, wild place. Even under the relative shelter we’ve found, we’re exposed and vulnerable.

Related: The True Story of How 2 City Girls Found Paradise in Wyoming

My morning commute began just before 5 a.m. With a coffee-filled thermos in hand, the brisk daybreak air hurrying me along, I walked through dew so heavy it soaked my boots to the barn of Paradise Guest Ranch. It was still dark, though just light enough in the east to drown the stars and make 100 distinct silhouettes out of the horses in the corral. Despite the low light, I spotted my favorite co-worker, Levi, a saddlebred-quarter horse cross whose whinny sounds more like a honking mule than a horse and will do anything for an alfalfa cube. It’s time for what westerners call jingling, or rounding up the herd (named for the jingling bell on the herd’s lead mare). As a wrangler at Paradise, it’s the first chore of another summer day spent leading ranch guests through these isolated and intriguingly dynamic mountains.

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The morning jingle. (Photo: Justin Kluesner)

The horses are put out to pasture each night, which means the morning is spent rounding them up.

Saddled, caffeinated, and ready, two other wranglers and I ride out. It’s light enough now to see that we have our work cut out for us — the horses are scattered throughout the valley’s bogs, hillsides, and aspen groves and seem to pay us no mind. Once through the creeks and catpost gates, we go our separate ways, each to a different corner of an immense pasture where our herd grazes every evening and night. After long days of dutifully carrying guests across this volatile, rugged, and beautiful country, this is where our horses get to be horses. I make my way up a high ridge and notice the peaks, rising above our foothills and turning pinker by the second — Bighorn, Darton, Mather, their austere, granite faces reflecting the East’s blood-red, piercing light. For one ephemeral moment, I feel minute, like the only person alive. Until my horse whinnies at a few stragglers along the tree line, and I remember I’m at work.

Related: Get Up Close and Personal With Wild Horses at This Sanctuary in Santa Barbara

After yelling countless, “Hey, boys!” and chasing down the more stubborn ones, we run the herd into the corrals where, as they well know, their breakfast awaits. Out here, the animals eat before the hands because they, too, have jobs to do, and ours can’t exist without them. 

This is what distinguishes this job from any other, even within the service industry in general: I have 190 equine co-workers. To be sure, as a wrangler on a dude ranch, my primary purpose is to keep our guests comfortable and safe on horseback, rendering me some rough combination of a waitress, a teacher, and, when children are involved, a babysitter. But at Paradise, our horses are our livelihood, our silent partners, and, when combined with guests who don’t know reins from a cinch, our saving grace. So we toss a few bales from an old flatbed Ford with a shoddy transmission and the turning radius of the Wells Fargo stagecoach before our own, much-needed breakfasts.

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Trekking through Bighorn National Forest. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

I grew up, like many little girls do, with what my dad called “the bug,” or some strange and chronic illness that has no cure and can only be stifled by owning a horse. My parents gave me my first one for Christmas when I was 9: a blue roan Appaloosa mare. For the next 12 years, she was my 1,200-pound pet. Only her diet — hay and a scoop of sweet feed everyday — likened her to any sort of livestock. I never would have asked my mare to cover 20 miles of rugged Rocky Mountain terrain in a hailstorm (though in retrospect, I’m sure she could). But that’s exactly what my saddlebred and I are setting out to do today with a string of eight ranch guests behind us, and 9-year-old me is in disbelief.

Related: An Inside Look at the World’s Longest, Most Dangerous Horse Race

I first sought a job like this as a freshly disillusioned graduate of a prestigious university, enchanted by the West’s open spaces (and needing to fill some of my own) and the solace of passing my days on horseback while my iPhone stayed at home. I figured it would last one season, just until my riding itch was satisfied and I continued on to some PhD program and a life in the ivory tower. What I didn’t expect was to be entirely consumed by Wyoming’s absolute emptiness, more fascinated by horses than ever, and humbled by my co-workers’ strength and dedication to this ranch. I’m now in my second year. Grad school is no longer in my immediate future, and, even in surprise hailstorms, I couldn’t be happier.

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Looking out at the peaks of the Bighorn Mountains. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

By late afternoon, the skies are once again as blue as they are wide, and with 20 miles under our belts, we’ve returned to the barn unscathed. The horses rest in the corrals for now, patiently waiting to be turned out to pasture, where they’ll graze until the same routine begins at daybreak tomorrow. Feeling much like the horses, too tired to complain about the dust and the sweat, we open the corral gate. The horses lope eagerly to their daily reward — quite like the mad rush to the showers that will soon ensue in crew housing — and our reward is watching it.

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