Sarah ’20 shares lessons learned working on her family's ranch in a Sixth Form Chapel Talk
As part of their Sixth Form year, students are invited to present a Chapel talk to their faculty and peers. The opportunity provides them with a chance to reflect on their time at the School or to share a piece of their story that would benefit the SPS community. Sometimes these talks provide inspiration, highlighting what is best about our School; sometimes they challenge us, helping us to live more into our School values. In this reflection, Sarah Hughes ’20 shares her insights into life on the ranch with her Montana family and how her life at SPS has changed her.
“Do you go cow tipping? If you ring a bell, do all the cows fall over? Is it dangerous to wear red around your cows? Do all your cows have names?” These are just a few of the cow-related questions I’ve been asked since arriving at SPS. The answer to all of them is: no. My favorite has always been the cow-tipping myth. Everyone: you cannot tip a cow. Cows don’t sleep standing up, and the average cow weighs about 1,200 pounds. It’s just basic physics.
To reiterate what Troy Marshall said in the reading, ranching is a special way of life. We respect the land and appreciate our livestock, and we’re grateful for the life we live. We have learned how to manage the land in order to support our cattle while preserving it so it can grow each year. We understand what it means to truly love the ranching way of life, even with all its difficulties. We deal with the elk eating our hay bales, the coyotes, or coyotes as you might know them, pestering our animals, and people trespassing on our land continually. It’s a complicated life, but the love for it has been instilled in families for generations.
Growing up on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere, Montana, has provided me with a unique background and many interesting stories. I’ve seen more rattlesnakes then I can count and dealt with more stubborn bulls then I’d have liked. I’ve fallen off horses and been kicked by calves. I’ve been chased by cows and ridden through blizzards. Such is the life you live on a 12,000-acre ranch with 400 cows. My family of five operates it without the help of hired hands and it’s been in the family for the last four generations. We breed our cows and raise their calves; then they are weaned from their mothers and moved to the Midwest to be fed. Each year it’s the same process: the calves are born during spring. They are branded in the summer and moved from pasture to pasture. Haying season begins in July and ends in August, and before we know it, the calves are shipped off in October.
Calving season is my favorite. We don’t help deliver every calf, but sometimes assistance is needed if the calf is being born backward or the mother is having trouble. It’s a wonderful feeling – helping bring new life to the world. Witnessing a newborn calf’s first breaths has made me truly appreciate the process of life and has played a major role in my love and compassion for animals.
Ranch life is hard work. There’s always something that needs to be done, and it’s difficult to get away on vacation. Weekends aren’t really a concept, and Labor Day is ignored. Many days are filled with constant movement. Sometimes it takes seven hours to move cows from one pasture to another. Raking windrows of hay, field after field, can take seemingly forever, and putting out buckets of salt and minerals for the cows can mean going to the opposite side of the mountain. It’s a tough and stressful responsibility to be able to manage everything. The yearly paycheck relies on the weather, the livestock market (in addition to the stock market), and the health of our animals, so the life of ranchers can be merciless at times.
But the ranch isn’t all work. When I was younger, my little brother and I used to spend hours building forts in the willow trees. We would sharpen the ends of sticks and pretend we were knights battling dragons. Some days, we’d pack a lunch and have a picnic by the creek while we fished. During winter, we would hook up the sleds to a four-wheeler and be pulled across the snow while breaking our tailbones on frozen cow pies. While riding horses, we’d pass the time by dreaming up new inventions or giving the cows personalities.
My life in Montana wasn’t just the ranch. Each day, the school bus would pick me up in front of my house at 7 a.m. and get me to school an hour later. I rode the same bus alone with only the bus driver for two hours each day for 10 years. When I was little, I used to sing songs to help pass the time. My bus driver called me “the singing cowgirl.” I went to Stanford Public School from kindergarten to my first freshman year. People came and went, but by the time I left, I was in a class with only five other students. We were all very close as we’d known each other since we first started school. Our favorite activity was playing dodgeball during gym class. We always played boys vs. girls (which happened to be one vs. five). He still beat us every time. Leaving such an intimate classroom scene and coming here was a huge deal for me. I remember everyone boasting how small and intimate class sizes are here, yet nothing about this place has ever felt small. My hometown has a current population of 388 people. So, no. SPS is not small.
My life revolved around our cows and my small town for years, but that is not the case anymore. Nor will it ever be. Now I know I talk about my home and my cows all the time, and I truly love talking about it and answering people’s questions, but I have a confession to make: it’s not the life for me. I think I was about 14 when I started to realize I want something different.Though my dad and the rest of my family enjoy the physical labor and long days, I’d much rather push myself mentally, which is why I’ve always enjoyed school. Coming to St. Paul’s has been hard on my family and me. I no longer relate to the ranch life, and when I am home, I often have the feeling that I’m being left behind. Now, during the time of college apps, I’ve written a lot about the ranch and who I am because of it. However, all this has caused me to really think about who I am. I am not the person I was before St. Paul’s, I know that. I’ve grown soft and accustomed to the life we have here. But there are many things that the ranch has given me. Riding through the mountains on my own to find stragglers has taught me independence. Walking a fence line to make sure all the wires are in place and unbroken has taught me responsibility. Feeding bottles of milk to energetic orphaned calves has taught me compassion. Sorting the heifers from the steers each year has taught me focus. Above all, my supportive family, especially my dad, have taught me that I am capable of so much more than I think I am, and I remind myself of that fact whenever I begin to doubt my abilities.
Though I may not do any of the activities I once did, I still hold the memory of the hard work that I put into them. The qualities I’ve developed over the years will always stay with me, and I’ve applied them to so many aspects of life here at SPS. Independence is the reason I was able to gain enough courage to apply here. Responsibility has driven me to do well in my classes. Compassion is what makes my relationships with my friends so strong. Focus has kept me going through the ACTs, the SATs, and the many others. And now, with the college process, reminding myself what I’m capable of has been a necessity. Everything the ranch has taught me, I apply every day.
I have big plans for my future and plan on using what I’ve learned over the years to succeed. I will never forget my roots and will always be grateful to my family for believing in me and to the ranch for teaching me all that I am.