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“Wake Up and Die Right”

Wake up and die right - ranchhand stories of hardwork and friendship

Ranch hand stories of hard work and friendship in the American West.

“Wake up and die right.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant.

These words were often spoken by the owner of the amazing horsemanship farm for girls where I grew up riding.

Though they lacked meaning during my earlier years, I’ve kept those words with me for a long time, wondering what my life would look like when I felt like I finally understood. Never have they felt more right than in the time I spent building fences with usually none of the right tools, saddling horses at 4 AM, cutting tree after tree after tree to clear a path in the national forest, raking and baling hay at road speeds, chasing cattle on horseback through trees so dense I’d struggle through on foot… All while working alongside some amazing and hardworking girls.

Saddling under the stars quickly became one of my favorite memories.

At 26, I was bored with each career I’d tried since graduating college. I didn’t know what was missing, but there was a huge gap in my life. A friend said he’d had a great summer working on a guest ranch out West and suggested I try it. Sure, I thought, I could be a trail guide. But why not try my hand at a bigger challenge?

I started Googling working ranch jobs and found one that immediately felt like home. Lucky for me, they were willing to take a chance on a walk-trot-canter English rider with some dairy farm experience. The crew as a whole consisted of the two owners, four ranch hands, and a cook. The ranch owner said she’d hired another girl she thought I would soon be best friends with. I thought that was just something people say. She ended up being right about our lifelong friendship and just about everything else as well.

Two months later, I was on my 40-hour drive heading for her family-owned cattle operation nestled between two National Forests on the Colorado-Wyoming border.

In the six months that followed, I found a new lease on life. I found a new family in the owners, my coworkers, and the animals. I felt full of purpose again — a feeling that had been missing since stepping away from working with animals. The gap had been filled.

My days started between 4 and 6 AM and sometimes I was lucky enough to watch the sunrise from horseback out in the mountains. Some days I was on horseback — usually atop a pudgy and spunky horse named Pinto — moving cattle across green mesas and through oasis-like mountain draws. Some days the crew and I would hike for miles clearing fallen trees out of irrigation ditches. Some days still I was on foot in a series of pens, trying not to choke on dust or get run over by cattle. I was new at all of this and compliments don’t come easy no matter how seasoned you are, but after one particularly tough day sorting cattle on foot my boss said I was “one of his best cutting horses.”

Trail clearing days often meant hiking for miles with packs full of extra chainsaw supplies.

One of my favorite moments happened when a friend and I were moving a few head of cattle between pastures at dusk. A massive sand hill crane took flight and the cattle spooked, bolting in the wrong direction. As we moved to turned them around, I looked over at my friend – the sun setting behind her over my favorite mountain, the cattle running between us – and suddenly the moment seemed to defy sound, time, and gravity. I felt weightless, suspended in that beautiful sunsoaked moment. It was one of those memories you know will stay with you forever.

Sheep Mountain (right) always meant home.

Later that summer, we were riding to find some cattle and put them back in the right pasture. A random dog ran up to us and seemed friendly enough to pet so we jumped down to say hi and saw her name was Charlie. Charlie ran with us all morning, across a river and through the trees. When we found the cattle, she bee-lined right for them. We were horrified. The cattle would scatter and we’d have to spend all afternoon trying to find them again. But Charlie decided to move them exactly where we needed them to go. She slowly brought them down the hill and started them towards the exact gate we needed to go through. All without a single command. We said goodbye to Charlie at the edge of the National Forest and tried to shoo her home, wherever that was. She was an unexpected but great coworker that day.

Wake up and die right - ranchhand stories of hardwork and friendship
Moving yearling cattle between pastures in Medicine Bow National Forest.

But my absolute favorite days were shipping days. We would gather the horses and saddle under the stars, with just the warm glow of the barn for light. We’d go over to the ranch house for a cup of coffee and wait for just a sliver of sunrise to appear so we could get to work. We’d move the cattle from a pasture to the corrals. The trucks would arrive and we’d joke around with our driver friends. We’d team up on horseback and on foot to weigh the cattle on a large scale and load them onto the trucks, as quietly as we could. After, we’d head back down to the ranch house for a proper breakfast and a quick break. Then start a regular day of work.

Weighing a group of cattle on the scale before shipping.

No matter the task of the day, no matter how tired I was — those six months were the most energizing time of my life. There is something truly special about getting your butt kicked alongside your best friends and spending every moment trying to give the best and healthiest life possible to a group of animals. There still is no one in the world I’d rather be with while getting caught in summer snowstorms, getting chased by sheep guard dogs, or hand-digging irrigation ditches. I’ve never laughed so hard while working so hard.

Our crew of four handled all aspects of daily ranch operations — animals, machinery, irrigation, trail clearing, and more.

This might not sound like everyone’s dream job, but it sure was mine.

I think about the lessons learned every day, especially once I realized what it meant to wake up and die right:

  • Work hard
  • Live simply
  • Be a good neighbor
  • Never stop exploring
  • Create more than I consume
  • Live every day, all day

What does “wake up and die right” mean to you? What are your guiding principles for horsemanship and life? Let’s talk about it below.

February 4, 2023

Amy McGann 🇺🇸

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  1. Maureen Reidy says:

    Well done, Amy! I might like to share this with the new hires if ok with you. It is fun to read about your experiences and how they were a game changer for you! Sounds like you are doing well. Best wishes in all your endeavors.

    • Amy McGann 🇺🇸 says:

      Thanks Maureen! Absolutely, feel free to share away. I hope this season brings you everything you want and need.

      • Maureen Reidy says:

        Will send the link to a few of my family and friends you met that summer. I think they will enjoy it!

  2. Dave Ripple says:


    What a pleasure to read! I really enjoyed working along side you and the crew! By the way, our barn door still looks wonderful.

    Dave Ripple

  3. Wayne Beverly says:

    Hi Amy,

    Great Post! Not only are you a hard working ranch hand but a talented writer as well! I really enjoyed the week I spent with you and Raquel helping to clear trees in my favorite place!

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