saddle

Saddle and Stirrup

 

Saddle and Stirrup

Saddle and Stirrup

Historically, the birth of art might be thought of as the moment that human thought moved beyond the need for simple pragmatic use of an object, the instant that humankind realized beauty was a function unto itself. We’ve debated its meaning and limits ever since, but one thing is clear: we need art.

A simple look at the American saddle, with its intricate patterns, scrollwork, textures, lines, and shadows reminds us that even in the most sparse and the most rural conditions, the human mind still turns to decoration, to beauty, to the aesthetic. So while it serves as an icon or symbol of the West, the saddle retains a personal and separate set of connotations for the American ranch hand.

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Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

In the wake of a chilling summer storm, and with the prospect of a muddy evening of ranch rodeo in front of them, teams lined up for their rules briefing at Crawford, Nebraska. Yet, the ranch horse is a smart horse, and these appeared to be as intent on listening as the riders.

Quirt and Saddle

Saddle and Quirt

Quirt and Saddle

Textures are an important part of Western culture: metal against leather, denim against hide, felt against ribbon. Heidi Reissland is one of Nebraska’s best barrel racers (and also my sister), and kindly she lent me one of her saddles and quirt to explore some of those textual relationships.

Tough Hands No. 9

Tough Hands No. 9

Tough Hands No. 9

It was only 35 degrees on the late-May morning as we rode the sandy waves of the road that traveled over the treeless northwest Nebraska High Plains to the Meidell’s place. A long line of trucks and trailers greeted us as we pulled up, while riders and their horses milled about excitedly as the work of the branding loomed in the barely-light, windy morning chill. Soon after, the riders left to round up the cattle, and as the first group was brought to the corral, Tricia Meidell and another rider watched vigilantly for any strays that might escape.

June Holeman, O’Neill Rodeo

June Holeman, O'Neill Rodeo

June Holeman, O’Neill Rodeo

Oh, June. A rodeo legend unto herself.

June is in her 70s, and still competes–no, not just competes, but is competitive–in the  Mid-States Rodeo Association. As of this writing, she’s in first place with $7,386.73 in winnings. And counting.

My sister, who is also very competitive and successful in rodeo (so far this year, she’s in 16th place), thinks June is amazing, and this is no fluke of opinion.

So in the 100-degree heat of the O’Neill rodeo in July, June prepared to compete in the barrels, and I took the opportunity to capture the hands of an icon.

 

Tough Hands No. 8

Tough Hands No. 8

Tough Hands No. 8

I would adopt the entire Meidell family if I could; after all, my book was as much about these five people as any others. Each member of the family is a class act, and photogenic in the extreme (though Tricia and Eric would argue that point). What’s more, all of the Meidells are, in the words of a man Eric once met in Washington, D.C., “Real Cowboys.” Those of us lucky enough to grow up with this life in the Great Plains often forget the legend into which we are born, and the Meidells have earned the hype. Need proof? Look no further than one of several saddles Tricia has won in rodeos.

The Meidells are indeed “real.”

Tough in the Saddle: Cathy Holding Her Saddle, Buffalo County

Cathy Holding Her Saddle, Buffalo County

Cathy Holding Her Saddle, Buffalo County

This is one of my favorite images from my shoot with Cathy Hervert, a treatise on the surfaces, patterns, textures and shapes in the artwork that is the American western saddle.

Tough in the Saddle: Cathy Hervert and Her Saddle, Buffalo County

Cathy Hervert and Her Saddle, Buffalo County

Cathy Hervert and Her Saddle, Buffalo County

Cathy Hervert and I have known each other for a long, long time, and it was only right that she be the first subject in this new book. I met her in the sandy hills of central Nebraska where I grew up, and we spent an hour in a plains-grass pasture (there are a lot of pastures where I’m from) making a few shots of her and her tack. Needless to say, she’s an easy subject to photograph, and that’s the best kind–they make the photographer look good.

Tough Hands No. 7

Tough Hands No. 7

Tough Hands No. 7

I think it’s inevitable that faith is an indispensable factor in the equation of ranching. After all, your life is tied to myriad forces out of your control: weather, disease, markets and luck. Trust and faith become more than a trivial matter, for you are left no choice but to admit the land and nature are larger than you.

Moreover, you’re reminded every morning and evening (on the back of a horse, if you’re really lucky) that the West is a magical place as the giant sun rises and sets amidst fiery-hued clouds on the horizon of one of the most breathtaking places on Earth, the American High Plains. One sunrise, the sunbeams breaking through the dark clouds onto a wide-sweeping vista, and you’re hooked.

Faith? Indeed. But a celebration of majesty as well.

Tough Hands No. 6

Tough Hands No. 6

Tough Hands No. 6

“His saddle was his most prized possession; it served as his chair, his workbench, his pillow at night,” wrote Geoffrey C. Ward, author of The West. Today’s ranch hands have more to their names, including trucks, trailers, smartphones, and computers. But the tack of the trade–saddle, blanket, chaps, bridle, and other gear–remains as the central object of pride in ownership for the American rancher, and the details of that pride are easily evident here.