Growing Up on the Rocking P

This Canadian ranch nurtures kids, calves and colts.

From America's Horse

It's a crisp June morning in 2003, and Monica Schlosser springs into the saddle ready to go help her family gather cattle for a branding. Her husband, Blake, hands her a pillow, then hoists up their 2-year-old daughter, Reata. “If I get to go, she gets to go,” Monica says. Sitting on her cushion, Reata relaxes to the horse’s cadenced walk and is asleep by the time her mom makes it to the pasture. She won’t see much of the gather that day, but she’ll have plenty of other chances. Growing up on the 10,000-acre Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alberta, Reata and her brother, Stran – who’s mature far beyond his 4 years and rides his own “big” horse – are likely to have an idyllic childhood much like their mother’s.

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“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” says Monica, who grew up on the ranch with her younger brother, Justin, her older sister, Shawna, and 11 cousins nearby. When they were young, the cousins would saddle up and ride to one another’s houses, where they’d play cowboys and Indians until they got hungry. Then they rode to Grandma’s house around the hill for homemade cookies and hot tea. The kids always helped with brandings and roundups, and today, as adults, many of them still do. By the time Monica and her family have penned the cows and calves to be worked, another herd has shown up – relatives, neighbors and the few people hired to hold the calves for doctoring. Ropers ease into the herd of calves that have been separated from their mothers, and swing a loop around a pair of heels. The calves are dragged to the end of the pen, where hands go to work with branding irons, syringes and castration knives. The work is done quickly and with seemingly little stress to the calves. Ranch owners Mac and Renie Blades – parents to Shawna, Monica and Justin – take turns roping calves and working on the ground. For them, this family friendly style of ranching is a way of life that goes back several generations. Mac’s grandfather, a Scotsman named Rod Macleay, homesteaded the land just east of the Canadian Rockies in 1900. He bought out others in the area and built up substantial holdings that he passed on to his two daughters. Mac’s mother, Dorothy Blades, later split her portion of the ranch among her five children. Today, Mac and his immediate family run 600 cows – mostly Hereford and Angus – on their land. The cows start calving around the first of April, and by June, it’s time to brand. Afterward, the cows and calves spend their summers grazing on rangeland that’s 27 miles – a two-day horseback ride – from ranch headquarters. Yearlings are sent to 180 sections of government-owned forestry land that’s another day’s ride away. Moving the cattle is part of the range management plan that ensures there’s enough native grass on the ranch to get the cattle through the winter without supplemental feeding. It’s also an excuse to take a pack trip. The family packs up – kids included – to drive the cattle to their summer grassland. It’s usually another pack trip when it’s time to gather the cattle back up in the fall. The forestry land butts up against the Continental Divide, and it’s home to lots of grizzly bears and wolves that pose a threat to the 800 yearling calves. “Last year, we lost five to the wolves,” Mac says, but that’s just a part of ranching in the Rockies. Roundups on the forestry land entail a lot of time horseback, Blake says, because “it’s a lot of country to cover to find a few cattle. But nobody complains too much.” The family built a cabin on some deeded land in the forestry reserve, and Renie says sometimes there are 15 or 20 people who go along to help. Monica first began taking her children on the pack trips when they were less than a year old. She simply packed up diapers and formula and made sure they had plenty of warm clothes. “They had a blast,” she said, “cooking marshmallows on the fire.”

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As you might expect, covering that much country and working with that many cattle, good horses are a necessity. Monica and Blake head up the ranch’s breeding program, using a stallion named Zans Perscription, a grandson of champion halter and roping horse Zan Parr Bar. Blake, who has been a pickup man at the Canadian Finals Rodeo five times and has also trained extensively with natural horseman Ray Hunt, breaks the colts. Most of them are sold private treaty as 2- and 3-year-olds. His father-in-law is quick to brag on the soft-spoken Blake. “When people hear that Blake started a colt, they’re not hard to sell,” Mac says. Nineteen yearlings await their turn under saddle, and 19 more babies are due to hit the ground in April and May. They’ll grow up – much like their human counterparts – in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, roaming over acres of unblemished grassland. On that day in 2003, Monica reflected on the future that’s in store for her own children. “As far as I can tell,” she says, “there’s nothing else like it.”