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The Cowboy

& the

Small Town Girl

Pt. 1: A Real Horse Versus a Stick Horse


The sky is ablaze with red and orange streaks of fire as the sun begins to set. Fingers of violet and deep blue reach out to touch the last remaining light of the day. The skyline silhouettes two figures on horseback against the beautiful panorama as the man in the perfectly shaped Stetson turns in his saddle and peers down at his wife.


With a sigh and a shrug of his shoulders he says, “When are you gonna get off that dang stick horse and ride off into the sunset on a real horse with me?”


I honestly had dreams of doing just that with my new husband. But our backgrounds put a slight damper on that idea. Jack began riding horses when he was three years old. I could say horsie when I was three. At age five, Jack would show off for the passing school bus by riding his horse through the field and jumping the irrigation ditches. I rode the school bus and swam in the irrigation ditches. From the time Jack was twelve years old, he was doing a man’s job working cattle on a ranch all summer. I was just beginning to notice men when I was twelve years old, and I did see cattle occasionally. Jack was on the rodeo trail in high school and continued to work cattle on the side. I went to a rodeo once or twice and ate beef regularly. In college he was president of the rodeo club. I just went to college. I was never around cattle and horses growing up, and I was scared of them.


After college Jack sold feed and worked as a pick-up man for a rodeo company, and that’s where I entered the picture. I was so relieved to learn he was not riding rough stock any more and was doing something that sounded much safer in this new job. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea what a pick-up man was—it sounded like it had something to do with auto-mechanics or at the very least—driving a pickup.


The first time I saw Jack in this role was at a buck-off in my college town. Greenhorns would tackle him and almost tear off his head as he helped them off the bucking horses. When he attempted to grab the single rein of a saddle bronc, which had just thrown his rider, the horse reared up and came down across Jack’s lap, pinning his arms down. Fortunately, Jack’s horse stood firm and the bronc worked his way off Jack’s lap. Another horse jerked Jack out of his saddle by his little finger when it got tangled in the loosely woven rein before he could dally it. Why in the world wasn’t he outside working on that pickup?


Jack retired from the rodeo company after we were married, thank heavens, but he continued to work cattle on occasion when he wasn’t selling feed. I thought that sounded safe enough. But the times I went along on a roundup, I learned that the cowboys rode through the brush at break-neck speed, coming atop washes and down into creek bottoms before they could stop. Sometimes the horses tripped and fell with them. Why weren’t they doing all their running back in that nicely plowed rodeo arena?


I even helped on occasion. I shudder when I think about the time that Jack and I loaded an ornery bull onto a trailer without any pens or loading chute out in the middle of a remote pasture. Yep, we survived that one. But that's another story.



Buck-off, n. 1. A rodeo term where the only events are bull-riding, bareback riding, and saddle  bronc riding. 2. Where cowboys practice riding rough stock. 3. Where a pick-up man works overtime.

Dally, v. 1. To twist a rope around a saddle horn in roping an animal. 2. To

waste time. 3. What cowboys do in-between the times they are roping        something. 

Greenhorn, n. 1. A raw, inexperienced person. 2. In this case,

inexperienced riders of bucking horses. 3. Or, a clueless, non-cowgirl

girlfriend of a cowboy.

Pick-up man, n. 1. A rodeo term for a man on horseback who helps get the riders safely off bareback horses and saddle broncs. 2. Most times they do. 3. Sometimes they assist the  riders in busting their butts. 

Roundup, n. 1. The driving together of cattle, horses, etc. for inspection, branding, shipping to market, or the like, as in the West. 2. Or in the North (including Canada) or South—I’m not sure about the East. 3. Not a safe desk job.

Stetson, n. 1. A felt hat with a broad brim and high crown, especially worn as part of a cowboy’s outfit. 2. The trademark name. 3. In this instance, it is not the aftershave on a pretty New York male model.

Stick horse, n. 1. A horse head (stuffed or painted wood) attached to a stick that a child pretends to ride. 2. About the only thing I could ride without fear. 3. A metaphor for a compromised version of my dream.

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Someone who knew what he was doing on a horse


Someone who didn't.  

This is the only time (mid 1980s) I rode a horse during our marriage. 


Jack Van Cleve III                   Photo by Wm. Kirkendall


Spring 1983 - Working cattle at the Arroyo pasture on a place 20 miles from Laredo, Texas. Our kids, Vanessa & Van, had a front row seat to this dusty, hard work that was quickly disappearing from modern day life..

Photo by Donnie Van Cleve


Vanessa (2) and Van (4) watching their daddy work cattle.     Photo by Donnie Van Cleve

Author's note: For years, I didn't know where I fit in. I knew I wasn't a city girl or a country girl, but I eventually realized I was a small town girl, which meant I was pretty clueless about city or country life. But I, like many folks in a small town, learned to become a jack of all trades and master of none. I wrote this series over 20 years ago, but I added a glossary this time around, which tells more of the story.


It didn't take long for me to realized after marrying a cowboy that my own growing up years were very mild and safe compared to Jack's. I never got over my fear of  horses and cattle (the big ones, anyway), but I tried not to pass it on to my kids.

Donna Van Cleve

August 2020



What would small towns do without Olan Mills coming through every few years?

 Jack had the leggings made just for Vanessa & Van, just like his Dad did for him.

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