The Horse Rider's Journal

Confessions of a cowgirl

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Yee-haw! Kate Matheson – one of our most favourite Instagrammers – chronicles her journey from the fashion industry to life as a manager on a Colorado ranch.

Text Kate Matheson Photography Nick Hall & Dewey Nicks

Taken from the SS16 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal

Self-effacingly, Kate Matheson will tell you she’s technically a terrible photographer. But one look at her aptly named Instagram @kateloveshorses, and you’re mesmerised by the way the former Glamour magazine photo editor captures her day-to-day life in the saddle as a manager on Zapata Ranch, a Colorado jewel steeped in history. From herds of bison moving across hazy pink sunsets to escapee cows running wild, mountain landscapes glittering with frost and non-stop horse action, these are epic images, served up with witty running commentary and an A+ caption game. As editor and The Horse Rider’s Journal contributor Dean Mayo Davies has noted of Matheson: “Her cinematography is better than Scorsese.”

Like many of Matheson’s thousands of followers, we were wondering how she’d made the unusual career leap from fashion to working from horseback under endless skies and turning in at night in a log cabin with her horses grazing outside. (Luckily, you too can do that as a guest at Zapata.) While Matheson’s job certainly isn’t undemanding – and she got there through unpaid, hard work in exchange for a ranching education – it’s a dreamy lifestyle that spells something authentic and true. Plus where else would you get to keep a pet rabbit running around on a porch? “I’m in danger of looking like the mad cat, rabbit and dog lady!” Matheson says of her menagerie of animals, her British accent now infused with a faint American twang. Here, the coolest cowgirl ever shares an essay on her life on the ranch and why she upped sticks.

As a former magazine photo editor in London, it’s almost impossible to try to describe how different my life is now working on a bison and cattle ranch in rural Colorado. I went from an office on Old Bond Street to co-managing a ranch with a hospitality programme, 2,500 bison, 200 cows and 47 horses and promoting the preservation and awareness of the large landscapes they roam on, swapping my daily Tube commute with tacking up my horse. People often ask how an Englishwoman like me ended up here in the middle of nowhere and I usually say it all started with horses. They’re what tie together my childhood in East Sussex and living here.

Growing up around horses, I’d always felt a connection to the countryside, and here at Zapata Ranch that feeling is amplified in every way. You live and breathe the whole place – 103,000 acres in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Park – and get in sync with it, like the weather dictating your day and how it might affect the animals. It’s a very real, genuine way of life. I used to hate dressage as a teen eventer, but I’ve grown to really appreciate it here with Western riding, where every movement relates to something practical, like working livestock or opening gates.

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Zapata Ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, the largest non-profit conservation agency in the world, and is managed in a one-of-a-kind partnership with Ranchlands, our progressive, conservation-minded mothership. It’s a completely unique setup and potentially the future of ranching. Everything is kept as natural as possible. We don’t interfere with our bison or supplement feed or hay but instead use grazing plans to prepare their meals for the whole year. That way, if it snows, there will be a pasture with long grass poking out to see them through the deepest winter. Long before sustainability became fashionable, ranching has always been about this: Living within your means in terms of resources and keeping the land healthy, and Zapata is a combination of all the wholesome ideals.

While I’ve been here, I’ve collected my own small herd of animals, including Pepe, my blue heeler cross, and my two roan quarter horses, Queenie and Shiner. Watching horses move is an obsession of mine, and taking pictures of them with my phone works for me because it really captures a moment. They’re so magnificently athletic and cool, even when they’re just standing around in the herd, and I love the freedom that horses provide and share. They become our pals and our workmates and just give their all. Our horses work from the moment you put the saddle on, and after they’re done they can be wild and free.

That yearning for freedom is what brought me here to the ranch. When I first moved to London in my twenties and worked on magazines doing shoots with teen heartthrobs (and taking much-needed naps in the fashion cupboard to ease the hangovers), it was a dream to finally land the job as a photo editor at Glamour. I loved everything about it, especially the brilliant people I worked with, many of whom have become my closest friends. Back then, my typical day would start around 10am (which seems ludicrous in comparison to my now regular 6.30am starts) and it would be filled with organising photo shoots, commissioning photographers and researching images for the magazine.

But after a number of years in London I was missing horses terribly and feeling restricted in my city life. I was finding it hard to be in an office more often than not, commuting on the Tube and conforming to the routine I had created for myself. Once a month, I’d drive for hours to go riding, but in the end it just wasn’t enough and felt like just a slither of what I needed to be connected to. So after nervously approaching my editor, I was fortunate enough to be granted a sabbatical. I knew horses had to be part of the change I was about to make and I began researching ranches. I was immediately obsessed. All the imagery and romance that us Europeans grow up with about the West was coming alive and I wanted to be in it. Wide open spaces, horses, cattle, vast meadows and rugged landscapes.

I found a ranch in Montana that was willing to take me on and, after a few initial “What the hell am I doing?” tears, I settled in and almost immediately found everything I was looking for. It was a small, authentic family homestead, and that’s what I fell in love with: The lifestyle, the work, the community. I had never seen or been a part of a community in such a way, and it was enlightening to say the least for a city dweller who didn’t know any of my neighbours to get to experience the crucial role that neighbours, fellow ranchers, and their families play in the success of your own lifestyle and work.

I worked hard and was rewarded with space, horses, freedom and the beginnings of a ranching education: I rode young colts, learned a different style of starting young horses, gathered and moved livestock on horseback, learned how to rope and brand, fix fences, used horses to get work done for the first time, experienced harsh winters feeding cows and learnt a whole other way of working: Do it until the job is done. All the initial imagery and romance was still there, but what had developed for me was a deep passion for the land and for preserving these incredible large landscapes.

Before I came out here I didn’t realise how much ranching is about calculating numbers: Of animals, their weight, their feed levels, how much water they’re going to drink, and variables like weather and drought. When I left the wonderful Dahl family on that first ranch after five years and accepted the job offer from Duke Phillips, CEO of Ranchlands, to manage the Zapata Ranch, I was quite intimidated by all the number-crunching at first – especially since I studied photography and not maths. But now, as weird as it sounds, I’m hooked on the methods that help us to plan grazing year round.

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Zapata’s purchase by The Nature Conservancy was a critical moment for the San Luis Valley and for the conservation of its unique environment, so in joining the team I was taking on an important role overseeing a vast operation that has many moving parts. This new role required me to be to be fully immersed seven days a week, for my home life and work life to have no divide to learn to do everything from the ground up – not only to understand the process and get it done myself, but so that I could teach those things to others.

In a strange way, the skills from my former job in photo editing have carried on into what I do here, where putting teams together with different skill sets and interests has been one of the most rewarding elements of my job. It’s the same excitement from my days at the magazine, where you’d choose your ultimate dream team for a shoot: Hair, make-up, styling, photographer. I haven’t left that world behind completely and I wouldn’t want to. When Harper’s Bazaar came out to shoot two big stories on the ranch, it was one of the best weeks ever – the ultimate example of my two worlds colliding.

Zapata itself is a very creative environment, not least because of Duke Phillips. A progressive fourth-generation rancher and poet, Duke has as much interest in art, photography, literature and music as he does in cows, land, conservation and the ranching lifestyle, and he sets the bar for the spirit of the organisation. My creative, hardworking colleagues make living in the middle of nowhere completely fun and adventurous. Like when a snowstorm comes along as you’re moving cows in minus 30 degrees and you can just about crack a smile in the painfully cold wind and you see your teammate smiling too, and you know you’re both half mad but that there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing. Or when you’re chasing an escaped herd of horses in the middle of the night in your pyjamas into complete darkness.

A lot of people come here with a proven interest in conservation or environmental or equine science, but as ridiculous as it sounds, for someone to send in a job application that goes on about how much they love horses is just not a prospect to me. We all love horses. We have to be driven and have a passion for the bigger picture: The conservation, the birds and the grass. Horses are just one element here. I’ve hired a lot of people through Instagram, but you’ve got to be extra careful because you’re talking to people who are sold on the pretty visuals because the reality is often far from that: It’s long hours, hard work and not-so-glamorous routine checks. Still, it is a dream job. But I’ve also sacrificed a lot to be here. You’re far away from your family and friends, and your social life suffers quite drastically. But I’m happy to be more removed and then enjoy a concentrated dose of city trips.

Alongside our livestock operation, Zapata has a growing hospitality programme that helps us raise awareness and enables us to keep ranching through times of drought. We have a beautiful 100-year-old lodge and we specialise in tailor-made ranch stays. Our guests are able to be on horseback all day long with no trails or nose-to-tail riding. And when the grazing plan permits, they have the opportunity to take part in a bison or cattle move, transferring hundreds of animals between pastures. There are rides into the back of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, with the option of finding coyotes with our naturalist, hiking 10,000 feet to mountain lakes or even learning how to rope.

It’s a uniquely intimate experience for anyone that comes to stay and a rider’s paradise across our 103,000 acre ranch and more than 100,000 acres of wilderness preserve. What better way to feel every single bump and lump, go over every creek, than on horseback? You can’t help but feel connected to the land and be filled with a sense of freedom that city living just doesn’t provide. Although we obviously have Wi-Fi, it’s about switching off. You’re transported to another world and it’s magical. Within days of people arriving, you can see them transform: Just recently, two guests galloped alongside a 600-head elk herd – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’re fulfilling people’s dreams and it’s unreal.

I feel unbelievably fortunate to manage a ranch that is so utterly beautiful and diverse, to live in a place of never-ending learning and to work alongside such a passionate crew at Ranchlands. We are stewards of the land and it is our job to share this special place with people from around the world. I’ve not only found the balance that I sought so many years ago in the work I do, but there’s a huge bigger picture here. I’m just contributing to a tiny piece of what goes way beyond this ranch, and that is the future of these wild, amazing, large landscapes.

For more info on Zapata Ranch, see zranch.org and @ranchlands on Instagram