American cowboy Shane Stotler points out his truck window at a herd of cattle just cresting a hill on the horizon. Normally, he’d be out there riding with the Russian workers he’s been hired to train by Miratorg, Russia’s largest cattle operation. Instead, he’s waited for me at ranch headquarters so we can drive out to the pasture together.
As the cattle come closer, I see there are about 100 “pairs” (cows with their calves). Today is weaning day, when the young generation will start their journeys towards either becoming breeding animals or chattel for the feedlot. (See: Inside a Russian Slaughterhouse, It’s a Far Cry from ‘The Jungle’.)
In addition to importing American cowboys, Russian ranchers have imported Quarter Horses. (Photo by @comradecowboys) This breed has special instincts for working with livestock. The imported horses are trained in the Western discipline of equitation, so Russian ranch hands must adapt how they ride. Read about how they do it in my latest for @natgeo and @the_fulbright_program. Link in bio and here: http://on.natgeo.com/1V0OAsC #comradecowboys #russiancowboy #russia #россия #bryansk #Брянск #photosociety #documentaryphotography #travelphotography #westernphotography #horse #horsebackriding #horsesofinstgram #westernsaddle #westernriding #ranchlife #happytrails #nofences #openrange #freerange #dontfencemein
On the cattle drive, I count four Russian cowboys, or “operators” as they’re called at Miratorg. Stotler watches one man in particular. He’s new to the job and looks nervous riding his horse, pulling back on the reins not direct the animal, but to keep from falling off. The horse is confused, not sure if he’s supposed to stop, turn, or back up. The rider is getting frustrated and gives the horse a few kicks in the ribs. If the horse were a car, the man would be stomping on the clutch, gas pedal, and brake at once.
“Some of these guys have a long way to go to learn how to ride,” Stotler says. “It’s what I spend most of my time doing.”
Some Russians know how to ride, taught either at home or in the military. But they ride in a style similar to English equitation, pulling the reins tight against the bit and riding with their knees hiked up beneath them, like jockeys.
If it were just a matter of preference, it wouldn’t be a big deal how they ride. But Miratorg owns a herd of Quarter Horses, imported form the U.S. where they were trained in the Western tradition. The horses can’t be expected to adapt to the Russians, but vice versa. Besides, Western horsemanship is largely considered the most humane technique for using horses to work livestock…
Read More: Russian Cowboys Learn to Ride Western
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan. He’s reporting about food topics for The Plate, and his travel adventures for Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Storify.