Only here for the steer: How I learned to be a cowboy

The Quien Sabe Ranch, Texas.
The Quien Sabe Ranch, Texas.
  • Photographer Peter Byrne watched plenty of Westerns as a child, but it was only when he spent a year in America that he really learnt what it means to be a cowboy. He talks to Sarah Freeman.
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A few years ago, driving along Route 66 just outside Oklahoma City, Peter Byrne stumbled upon a rodeo. He didn’t know it at the time, but the experience would later bring him back to the States where he would spend a year shadowing the country’s cowboys on ranches from New Mexico in the south to the plains of Montana in the north.

“That first rodeo wasn’t the kind of professional event you see on the television where the riders are competing for big prizes,” says the York-based photographer. “It was just cowboys from local ranches competing for fun. I got talking to a couple of them who said I should pay a visit to a ranch in Texas which had been established by a man called John Adair in the late 19th century. I was intrigued and by the time I got back to England I’d pretty much decided that I would return to America the following year.”

Ryan Oland, Babbitt Ranch, Arizona

Ryan Oland, Babbitt Ranch, Arizona

In fact, Peter decided to spend 12 
months in the States, but before he began plotting his route and contacting potential ranches, he knew that if he was going to win the respect and trust of any self-respecting cowboy he would have to learn to ride.

“I went every week for about six months to a place in Bradford. I wasn’t what you’d call a professional by the time I was ready to leave, but I didn’t disgrace myself, I at least knew how saddle a horse. It was important because I didn’t want to be stuck at the ranch house, I wanted to be able to follow these guys as they went about their work.

“During the working day I was careful not to get in anyone’s way. I was there to observe and let them get on with their jobs, but at nightfall they were as keen to know as much about my life back in England as I was about theirs.”

While Peter says he went with no particular preconceptions about what life would be life on the ranches, he admits that it’s hard not to be influenced by the myth of cowboys promoted by endless Hollywood films and Boys’ Own adventure novels.

Photographer Peter Byrne

Photographer Peter Byrne

“Ever since writers penned exaggerated accounts of the exploits of William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody we have all been fascinated with the Wild West. The hard-drinking troublemaker or romantic wanderer, riding into the sunset with just his six gun and his trusty steed for company is a great image and I think we all want to believe in it.

“The reality, of course, is a lot different. For a lot of young boys who leave school in rural America without any qualifications, working on the ranches is the only option. It’s either that or pouring concrete.

“You have to remember that these small towns are miles away from anywhere. Job opportunities there are very limited. Being a cowboy is hard graft, often dangerous and dirty, the hours are long and there is very little free time.”

While Peter didn’t want to debunk the myth of the cowboy, he did want to show the realities of life on a modern-day ranch, often miles from the nearest civilisation. His collection of images, which will be on display as part of the York Open Studios event later this month, shows them at work, but it also captures them on more off-guarded moments enjoying a drink or quietly playing a guitar.

“One thing I was really keen to do was capture the seasons. I arrived in November, bought a 1970s VW camper van and headed for Montana. It was a decision that I slightly came to regret. 
The winters are harsh out there. It was -20C and I was wearing pretty much every piece of clothing that I’d brought, but for everyone else life kind of goes 
on.”

In all, Byrne visited 45 ranches spread across 12 states, often being recommended places by word of mouth as he zigzagged across California, Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado.

“The landscape of the American West is incredible and it’s absolutely true what they say about the great open plains and the big skies,” he adds. “It goes on for as far as the eye can see, with no sign of urbanisation, no towns, no cityscapes on the horizon, just mile upon mile of sagebrush or mesquite trees with a smattering of mountains in the distance.

“The landscape is part of the cowboy life which has remained constant throughout history. There is a real sense of absolute peace and it is impossible not to be affected by it, but the land is also there to be used and it has to be looked after and maintained.

“Many cowboys have spent years working on the same ranch and 
they have an intimate relationship with the landscape. They know how to judge the weather patterns, predict incoming storms and drought. It provides the perfect backdrop and in many ways is where the real myth of the Wild West holds true.”

• Peter Byrne is one of the artists taking part in York Open Studios which sees artists across the city open their workplaces to the public. The event runs from April 17 to 19 and April 24 & 25. For more information visit www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk