The summer I job-shadowed cowboys

I thought I wanted to become an outfitter until I experienced the daily grind.

Aug 20, 2015

Growing up I wanted to be Annie Oakley, the rootin’, tootin’, toughest, sharp shooting-est cowgirl around. Unfortunately, 'Protector of the Wild West' didn’t seem to have a lot of job openings, and 'Suburban Superhero' didn’t have the same ring. So I decided if I couldn’t have the fast-paced, exciting cowgirl career I had always dreamed of, I’d do the next best thing: I’d be an outfitter.

The thing is, I knew next to nothing about outfitting. I knew it involved horses, which I liked. It had the outdoors, which I liked. And it had cowboys, which I liked … a lot. It was destined to be a match made in heaven—or so I thought—until I spent a summer job shadowing for an outfitter.

First Day on the Job

When my mom dropped me off at McKenzies’ Trails West in Nordegg, Alberta for the summer I was in awe of how much it looked like the old western movies I love. The horses stood tied to the hitching post, tails lazily swatting flies in the afternoon heat. The old dog lay sprawled out on the front porch happily chewing on an antler shed, and the handsome cowboy was hauling water to the house. I was in paradise.

The lead wrangler showed me my accommodations for the summer and it didn’t look too bad from the outside: nothing special, but livable. Then I opened the door ... it was like a cockroach hotel. Though I like to think of myself as the tough, no-fear, cowgirl type, I am absolutely terrified of bugs. I let out a blood-curling scream, dropped my bags, and booked it into the corrals. There was no way I was sleeping in there. I expressed my horror to the other wranglers, thinking this was some cruel joke. They only laughed and said, “Look around princess, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Princess. That nickname stuck with me the whole summer and should have been my first clue that outfitting was not the career for me. However, my mama didn’t raise no quitter and I was determined to finish out the summer.

The Daily Grind

Our days started at 5 a.m. feeding, brushing, and saddling 20 head of horses. This should have been no big deal as I care for horses of my own. What I didn’t account for was the difference between the type of equipment I use for goofing off at home and the stuff you use out back in the bush. My fancy little barrel saddle weighs about 18 pounds; the beast of a saddle I was putting on these mammoths weighed 30+ pounds. My arms had a permanent ache.

Then we had breakfast, but not the kind of breakfast you have at home. In the middle of nowhere there isn’t a grocery store that’s easily accessible. Think powdered milk and lots and lots of potatoes…

Then we rode. That part was amazing. I got to see all sorts of the back country most people only dream about. Have you ever swam across a river on horseback, inches away from a moose? Or watched a brand new baby fawn come into the world? I liked to pretend I was a modern day Kid Cassidy. The downside is that when you’re outfitting you’re normally not alone to quietly take in those moments. I spent a lot of time guiding trails for foreigners who’d never been on a horse before. I also spent a lot of time picking them up off the ground. No, you cannot pet a bear; no, there aren’t any outhouses out here; no, you can’t ride your horse backwards to take pictures.

Not Exactly my Dream Job

Once we made camp for the night or returned home, I would scoop poop and do general repairs. Do you know how much poop 20 horses make? Scooping poop is probably the most time consuming thing you will do working for an outfitter, and just when you think you’re done, one of those damn horses will make more for you to scoop.

I struggled with how we doctored the animals. Accidents happen on the trail, especially when you’re dealing with that many horses and inexperienced riders. When you work for an outfitter, in a fairly remote location, it's simply not cost effective to call the vet for every issue. Don’t get me wrong, if a horse needed serious attention we got them looked at, but for the most part it was "slap some bacon grease on that wound and call 'er good."

The hours required by the job also proved challenging for me. Because outfitters are considered “farm workers” under Alberta’s employment standards, employers don't have to provide days of rest. I worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your professional and personal lives are one and the same. Also, just because you work crazy long hours doesn’t mean you make crazy good money! Once again wage rules are different for farm workers. Most wranglers made $800 a month. It was fine for a single person since accommodation and food were included, but not enough to raise a family.

Ultimately, I think the showers were the straw that broke the camel’s back on my outfitting dream. Out in the middle of nowhere means no hot water. Call me a princess if you’d like, but I’d like to see you take a co-ed outdoor ice shower after a long day of scooping poop. No thank you, this girl would rather haul her butt home.

Was Job-Shadowing worth it?

That summer at McKenzies’ Trails West was the best of my life, despite all the blood, sweat, and tears (and trust me, there were plenty of tears!). I don’t regret job shadowing even for an instant; I also don’t regret deciding not to make it my career. The saying “you never know unless you try” really applies here.

Do I still dream of being Annie Oakley? Absolutely. But I’d rather do it from the comfort of my own home, surrounded by modern amenities. And who’s to say good ol’ Annie didn’t ride her horse through Starbucks after a long day on the range? I like to think she did.  


University of Alberta

Think being a student is hard? Try being a full time single mom too! I juggle potty training, working, and a full course load.

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