The trio of rider, horse, and calf swerved across the southeast Kansas pasture in a blur of hair and leather, topped by a swinging lasso. Travis Duncan sent the rope sailing through the air, swiveling it around the calf’s neck. The horse strained against the weight of the calf as Duncan stepped off and tied the calf’s feet. And as a man pulled a trailer around to load his runaway calf, the first job of the day was done.
Duncan wears many hats, but they are all cowboy hats. He is a “day helper,” a man people call when they need help with their cattle. He shoes horses. And he wears belt buckles that show off his success on his ranch rodeo team. His way of life is an uncommon one in these times. A forgotten one.
The old ways of the cowboy are dying out. The Bureau of Labor Statistics listed farmers and ranchers among the fastest declining jobs in 2012 and the profession is projected to fall nearly 20 percent by 2022. Today, most ranches are large-scale ranches owned by big businesses or small family operations with full-time hired help. The takeover of tycoons in the ranching industry is a big part of this decline. But Duncan isn’t a rancher; he’s a cowboy. He doesn’t own the land he works on, and he isn’t a full-time hand. He does what people need him to do in a “have horse, will travel” business model. Some days he has a lot to do, and others he only scrapes by.
But for Duncan, 36, this way of life has always been a given. He was raised around cattle and horses and has been hiring out for help since he was in high school. He’s done everything from vaccinating young calves to breaking horses to ride.
“It chose me, I guess,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to town and get a real job, so I found a way to make it pay the bills.”
A Cowboy’s Risks
On the morning Duncan chased down the wayward calf, he walked out of the dimly lit doorway of his home at 6:30 a.m. and fired up his dusty, white Dodge pickup after waking up his two boys, 18-year-old Jared and 9-year-old Gus, for school. He loaded his horse and headed to his first job of the day.
“Me and this college boy are about to go rope a wild steer,” Duncan joked to his girlfriend over the phone as he pulled into Dale Rickerson’s driveway.
Rickerson owns a construction company, but he also owns cattle to make extra money. Rickerson doesn’t employ full-time ranch hands — but he also doesn’t have the skills with a rope or a horse that Duncan has. This is when the cowboy comes in. If folks need his roping skills or an extra man to round up a herd, they call Duncan.
Duncan slowly rode out into the pasture and gave the herd a wide berth so he could get into position behind the calf. The calm of the morning was a stark contrast to the excitement and speed that would erupt only minutes later.
“Being an old, broke cowboy with no insurance kind of makes you wonder what we’re doing out here sometimes,” Duncan said. “Anything can happen. My horse could fall down and break a leg.”
The true American cowboy doesn’t have health and retirement benefits. The pay can be spotty. And the job can be dangerous. The land in southeast Kansas is rocky and Duncan races across it on horseback at top speed. When shoeing horses, Duncan could be kicked and seriously injured. So why does he do it? “That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “It keeps me outdoors, seeing new places and new people, and it keeps me out of a stuffy, old office.”
On the Road
Once Duncan roped the calf, he headed back to Rickerson’s home and collected his payment. While he chased the calf, all of his worries seemed nonexistent. It’s his job. He does it well and without a second thought. “Well, I made a hundred instead of having to go to the hospital,” he said as he climbed back into his pickup.
He fired up his pickup and pointed his wheels toward his next job of the day, this time shoeing horses. While 90 percent of farriers, or professional horseshoers, are self-employed, the real money in the job comes from working at full service stables. Duncan says he’s not a farrier, though. He’s a “cowboy horseshoer.” He has never had any formal training — he just knew it was something he could do and saw it as a way to make some extra cash. It also keeps him moving, a requirement for Duncan’s “have horse, will travel” business model. “If I was at one place every day I’d just get so damn bored,” he said.
Duncan held the horse’s leg between his thighs and removed the first horseshoe. He wiped some sweat from his brow. This is one job where, sometimes, even the iconic cowboy hats don’t do Duncan’s job justice. “I ought to be shoeing with my cowboy hat on, but that just wouldn’t be authentic — it gets too hot,” Duncan said. He again wiped the sweat from his brow. He will do two more jobs today, shoeing another horse and checking over a herd of cow-calf pairs. And he will come home tired but content. Tomorrow, he’ll pack a bag and head off to Medicine Lodge, Kansas for a ranch rodeo. He’ll compete, maybe shoe a couple horses, and be back Monday, waiting for his phone to ring.