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-From Dreads to Tuff-

by Preston Bates of N Bar Ranch

When Shannon with HTCAA's The Trail Journal asked if I had any horse stories to share about "cool women" for their Gals on the Trails issue I instantly thought of "Tuff"...

Back in the day, we had a year-round ranch crew, and in the summer, we’d hire college-age kids to help out. Every spring the letters and resumes would come in and I’d sort through and round file most of them.

18 years ago, one caught my eye because it was postmarked from my old town in Virginia. I started checking off  gold marks on things I liked, and black marks on things I didn’t, on the application…

 

It was from a girl, Anna Neumeister,  who had just graduated from High School  (Blackmark - I prefer late college age).

She only rode English (Blackmark - nothing wrong with English, I rode it for years also, but we didn’t have time to give western riding lessons).

She was a vegetarian (Blackmark - this is a beef ranch. Only cattle graze here).

I turned the page and there was her photo… “What the hell?!” A cute face but long almost to her waist DREADLOCKS!! (Black mark - It’s not what folks expect to see when they come to a western ranch for a cowboy adventure!)

I wrote her a short note thanking her for her interest but explaining there wasn’t a place for her.

A week or so later I got another letter from her. It was the first time a “rejection” had written back and tried again. (Gold mark for that).

She said she’d get some western lessons, so she at least had the basics and no matter what she rode she had light hands and a good seat. (Another gold mark).

Finally, she said she really, really wanted to work at the N Bar, and she had no problems cutting her dreadlocks off if that was an issue. (Well, another gold mark for that).

She said that if she didn’t work out, we could just tell her, and she would quietly go home. But added she knew we would be pleased with her work.

I wrote back, “OK Anna, cut the dreads and come on out.”

When she arrived several weeks later the whole crew knew her story and were interested in this gal from back east who pretty much begged to work with them. She was short and slight; her head was practically bald from the shave she had done (the dreads were donated to cancer patients).

The “How long will this one last?” bets ranged from overnight to no more than a week. But she started impressing us right away. She was quiet but able to make good conversation. She pitched in at chores, watching and doing as told. Asking questions when she had one and understanding on the first explanation. Another gold mark for that!

On her first day saddling and riding with us we had another hand show her how we saddled - every place is a bit different. From that morning on every saddle she set was perfect. I watched her ride and had to smile. She was light with her hands and moved fluidly with the horse even only at a walk. She was light on their back and light on their legs just by how she rode. She obviously knew how to ride with a horse and not just ride on a horse.

By the end of the day, everyone was pretty sure they were going to lose their bets.

I watched her in the corrals with the remuda. We had about forty saddle horses at the time and used fifteen or so every day. There was a large catch pen and several smaller saddling pens. There was a lot of dynamics out in that catch pen. It wasn’t a safe place to be afoot. Lots of ranches rope their mounts when they had a big bunch like that. I didn’t. I wanted to be able to walk up to any of my horses anywhere and catch them by hand. I sold a lot of great horses to a lot of our ranch guests and most of them weren’t going to be roping their horses.

But like I said, there were a lot of dynamics going on in that catch pen. The remuda ran a 5000-acre pasture all night and was brought into the pen in the morning. Out in the pasture they grazed in several different groups each with its own governing body. When we had them all in the catch pen it was kinda like congress coming into session. Some liked some and some didn’t like others and the bickering and fighting would start. The pecking order was mixed up.

You had to keep your eyes open, and you had to maintain the herd leader "top of the pecking order attitude” to be safe. Like most women, she could sweet-talk one of those geldings. But I saw that she also had the stout personality to stand up to a challenging horse or put one in its place to stop unacceptable behavior, which we wouldn’t tolerate.

She fit right in all around. With the crew, the guests, the horses - everyone loved her.

A few weeks after her arrival we all went to our one local rodeo. At one point Maggie, my wife, said that she was going to the concession stand and asked if anyone wanted anything. A couple of burger orders were placed. Anna said she wanted one too... All heads swiveled in her direction and we asked if she was sure she wanted to have a rodeo burger to be her first. She did. And later she announced it was delicious! Another gold mark for that one. From then on you saw her first in line at the meat table.

On the way home, she told us all she wanted to ride a bull... WHAT?! This gal was game!

A few days later we’re branding some big calves. Each time a big calf was thrown the ground the crew would ask her if she wanted to ride it. Each time she’d tell them it was too small.

The biggest one in the pen was roped, thrown, and on the ground.

“Gonna ride this one, Anna?”

“HELL YEAH!”

This big guy had been roped, dragged, had needles jabbed in him, a bit of one ear cut off, a tag stuck in the other, and had been relieved of his balls. He wasn’t in a good mood. In fact, he was really pissed off!

The guys ranch-rigged a strap around it and she straddled it as it lay on the ground.

“Nod when you’re ready!” She did with no hesitation, and they let that fire breathing man-and-woman-hating-son-of-a-gun up…

He rose to his feet taking her up with him and then he lit out across that big corral twisting and rolling all the way. We hollered and yelled her along as he made it to the far end, and he turned for a run back in the other direction. It was well over 8 seconds when the rigging fell free and she was on her own. “Roll off of him,” I thought, but she leaned down and wrapped her arms around his neck, and held on. What the hell is she doing?! “LET GO!” we all were yelling. Finally, she did and rolled and slid in the corral dirt about 15 yards and came up spitting mud and rocks with a big smile on her face.

“She’s tough!” I thought to myself. And that became her range name…Tuff. It has stuck with her ever since.

A week later we gathered in all the young horses out of the 10,000-acre pasture they had been in for months - learning how to get around in the rocks and rough stuff. There were twenty or so of them. The yearlings were in to be halter trained and the two's were in for first saddling and maybe a light ride depending on each individual.

I had my own way of starting young horses and showed Tuff and a couple of other hands how I wanted things done. It was soon clear that Tuff had “IT”. IT being born with equine in her veins. A special few people are born with IT. Some can learn IT. Most never get IT. But Tuff had IT.

She worked with both the yearlings and the 2-year-olds, handling all of them in a quiet way building trust and confidence in the student as well as herself. Each hand had a group to work with every day. Tuff’s group progressed the fastest and were the most solid of the bunch. When it came for first rides, she had no hesitation swinging up on a youngster she had been working with. Very few bucked the first ride after all the groundwork we did but sometimes a few rides into the school year one would break in two. I saw her stick to a few wild rides and only saw her come off once. It was a hard one - but she’s Tuff.

She became my favorite to ride with. I never had to look back and see if she was still there. And she didn’t talk too much!

We used to do a deal called Posse Week - a 24/7 weeklong horseback game of loot finding and gunfights. She was my sidekick on a couple. She had no problem watching over the horses all night while I snored away shaking the tall timbers.

In the branding pen, she was Tuff. She didn’t want to do the woman jobs of filling syringes and loading tagging guns. She was in there throwing calves and cutting nuts. Cutting nuts - she loved to do it and became as fast and slick as anyone.

She worked hard and she played hard. She was living the life of a cowgirl. If the work was done and she wanted a beer or two or do a shot of cactus juice I wasn’t her daddy. She was always clear-headed and gung-ho in the morning… youth.

Except for one morning. She was obviously not feeling well. I asked what the issue was, and she mumbled she was OK and went to go on her way when my head wrangler told her to show me her leg. I looked and it seemed all right to me then she slowly, gingerly raised her pant leg.

There on her calf as well laid as you could get was a fresh N- brand!

“WHAT IN GODS NAME HAVE YOU DONE!”

She and another young gal, (a guest from England who came for a week and stayed for several) had a bit too much cactus juice sitting around the campfire and wondered what it was like to be a calf and get branded. So, they branded each other!

The other girl ended up in the hospital with blood poisoning. Not Tuff. She was fine by the end of the day just a bit tender-legged. A few weeks later that brand had peeled, and she was legally mine.

Too fast the summer went by. The summer help left except for Tuff who stayed on to do fall work with us. She was there in the middle of it. Running and working gates, hollering cattle up the chutes, cussing and spitting dust that choked us. Working from Can-see to Can’t-see and then still out in the cold pitching hay to cattle and tending horses long after dark.

And then it was all over. The calves were shipped, momma cows on new pasture, no guests coming in the next Sunday. A frost and quiet settled in the valley and it was time for her to go home. We were all sad to see Tuff leave. She went down in the books as the best summer help we’d ever had! Male or female she was the best. She was cool. She was Tuff.

The Rest of the Story -

 

We didn’t hear from Tuff for a long, long time. Then five or six years ago we connected somehow on Facebook. She was well and busy going to school and working. That was about all - she was busy.

So, I messaged Tuff the other day and asked if I could write a story about her. I told her more about the story we were wanting to do about cool women, and she said she was honored. We chatted for a long while. She gave me the condensed version of her last 18 years…

 “Well, let's see, I'll try to sum up the last 18 years. After I left you, I worked with racehorses for a year in Virginia. Those people were crazy, so I left that to hike the AT (Appalachian Trail). I met a boy and followed him to Chattanooga where I got into dressage and "natural horsemanship" (Parelli and John Lyons). Kinda what you taught me but more formal.

I did a lot of starting young ones under saddle, teaching, and training. Then worked for a breeder in Florida for a year and a German trainer in Nova Scotia for a year. Meanwhile, my relationship fell apart and I decided to go back to school to be a vet tech. I still free-lanced dressage rides at shows while in school.

Then my brother died in a motorcycle accident a month into the two-year vet tech program - which was my motivation for getting a motorcycle and riding to Alaska after graduation. He and I had planned to do it, so I did it on my own. For him and for me. I did a couple of externships on that trip, Vancouver Aquarium, and the San Francisco Zoo. When I came back, I worked as an anesthesia tech in a specialty hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I decided in 2016 to pursue nursing since vet tech had no growth in the career and paid crap. Started nursing school after a year of prerequisites and graduated as a Registered Nurse in 2019.

I took the summer of 2017 off and biked the CD trail (Continental Divide Trail) from Mexico to Canada by myself. That was a hell of a trip!

I now work at the University of Virginia in the surgical trauma ICU. I was six weeks off orientation when Covid hit. I didn't think I was gonna make it as a nurse honestly, I hated it. But when the pandemic hit it was like a switch flipped. I mean I still don’t like people, generally, (Ha-ha) but I've had some pretty amazing rewarding experiences with patients and families in the hospital.

My soul will always wish I worked with animals and trained horses for a living, but nursing has really made me a better human. This year I applied to grad school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist). This was my goal from the beginning of pursuing nursing. It's been a long road and I won't know until June if I got in.

I give you and N Bar a lot of credit for how adventurous my life turned out. I know I have my own drive, which is what brought me there, it was my first time away from home really doing my own thing as an "adult". LOL. That job and that place are what made me Tuff. You named me, and it stuck...

Tuff was my trail name on the AT. Tuff is the name tooled on my chaps. TUFRDR is my plate on my motorcycle. Ruffntuff is my screen name for just about everything. I’m proud to be Tuff.

I feel so lucky for the time I spent at the N- I had sent my resume to like twenty ranches over the west. You were the only one that responded. I wanted that job so bad! The opportunity of a lifetime! I was 19 and when you said I could come out I felt like gold fell in my lap!

Man, I vividly remember the giddy feeling I had looking out the window from high up in the hotel after arriving in Albuquerque, looking at the desert that first Sunday, and being like, wow, I'm in New Mexico!! And then when I was getting ready to go downstairs and meet you, I was so nervous I thought I was going to barf. I wasn’t Tuff yet!

What excited me the most about that job though was starting the young horses under saddle. That was why you hired me, and it was the first time I had the opportunity to develop trust with a horse. Buttercup, she was my first.  She was so beautiful, so easy, so perfect.

But they all weren’t like her. there was the one that kicked me in the elbow. I nearly passed out and gave me a dead arm for a few days. He was in the corrals by himself and it was like 4 am, I was saddling him to go bring in the herd and it was really windy. Got spooked and spun around and got me right above the elbow.  I crawled to the cook tent to get help and I think I vomited. Hit a nerve, I guess. I wasn’t Tuff enough yet.

I think my favorite memory was being the first one to get up before light, and riding out by myself to bring the horses in. That just felt really wild and sometimes it took a long time to find them but learning and predicting where to find the herd in a 5000-acre pasture was pretty awesome. Always made me feel like a hero when I got back to the homestead with 40 horses galloping in front of me. Unless I didn't find them, which also happened. LOL

And learning to castrate with my own Leatherman was just badass! My brother loved telling the story of me coming home from New Mexico and still having blood on my knife from castrating bull calves. I think I was his hero then. I remember putting a scrotum on my saddle horn! It dried on there. I loved when the guests asked about it, and I told them what it was! Haha!

I remember Lyndsay and me taking a few horses to a cutting competition. Don't know who I rode but it was a fun day showing off. I also remember having a group of guests with me and a lightning storm came and we were on a ridge so I had to get everyone off the mountain fast! There was some crazy galloping downhill. No one came off!

I remember you taught me to drive a six-horse gooseneck trailer on those narrow mountain roads. That was a butt clencher! Highway traffic never bothered me after that!

I remember pushing a herd with a group of guests and this Brahma bull kept getting in the front and splitting the cows up dispersing them. If I had a gun, I would have shot him. Tried to chase him but he was too stubborn. I don’t think I’ve ever been madder in my life!

There's other important lessons you taught me besides horses and cows… How to peel the bark off trees for corral fencing the old-fashioned way using a drawknife. And how to splice and fix barbed wire fencing. I tried not to wear gloves. That was a bad idea. I wasn’t that Tuff.

You really did have a huge impact on my life, Preston. I feel honored to have the time I did at the N.”

As Tuff and I ended our conversation late in the night I thought, “WOW! The older she gets the cooler she gets.”

You know, I may have taught her a few things, but she taught me a few - one of those being the age-old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And never underestimate a 19-year-old vegan with dreads when she wants to do something.

 

I felt honored to be her friend.

And proud. Really, really proud.

 

-Preston Bates
Proprietor of N Bar Ranch

 

Check out Tuff’s blog about riding her ’86 Yamaha motorcycle from Virginia to Alaska to Mexico and back, alone. She’s a legend in the adventure motorcycle world with over 700,000 followers!

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