Jessie Hotchkiss: This Cowboy’s a Woman
Ranching traditionally has had multiple generations on ranches, keeping the ranch going and raising families on the land being important objectives. The younger generation that stays to help and carry on the ranch brings new ideas, energy and strength to the operation. When one thinks of that young person, often a young man comes to mind.
In the case of the Hotchkiss ranch in the Slim Buttes of northwestern South Dakota, the cowboy staying on the ranch full-time is a young woman. Jessie Hotchkiss, 25, has never wanted to be anywhere else. Growing up 65 miles north of Newell, SD and about nine miles south of Reva, SD, she knew from childhood that she was where she always wanted to be. After finishing the sixth grade in the country school nearby, she was home schooled thereafter, much to her relief. Somehow, with her life centered around horses and cattle, she just never felt very comfortable in school. Home-schooling afforded her the time to spend helping on the ranch as well.
Jessie and her older brother Ty, 27, grew up working alongside their folks, Dan and Sandy, Uncle Marc and Aunt Jill Hotchkiss, and with her grandparents Howard and June Hotchkiss on the ranch. Family ties are important and this tightly knit family is a shining example of how to work together in love and respect. The loss of Howard several years ago was a hard blow and he is missed every day by Jessie.
The Slim Buttes are an L-shaped, rough set of ridges and buttes that extend for miles – the Hotchkiss ranch lies on the northern side of them, on the eastern end. Excellent grass, with brush and timber, makes it a cowman’s paradise. The weather is a bit more temperate in the Buttes and typically, there’s a little more rain than in the surrounding country. The terrain is varied, with meadows, hills, deep draws, pine clad ridges and pinnacles that thrust straight up toward the sky. Saddle horses are a necessity and good dogs make handling cattle easier.
“I never wanted to do anything else,” Jessie says. “I love everything about it and I’m happiest when I’m around cattle and horses.” Her ranch work isn’t restricted to just what she does from a horse, as this capable woman runs the haying equipment, fences, and whatever else needs done on the ranch. It’s all part of the life, with no one part more or less important than another.
Good horses, used for caring for the cows, add a great deal of satisfaction to Jessie’s day-to-day work. She enjoys seeing the new foals arrive every spring, and looks forward to them becoming a using horse on the ranch. Feeling a young horse progress toward a finished ranch horse thrills her, and the many miles on the ranch makes that transition quite seamless for the youngsters. She admires the bridle horse tradition of riding and has worked with some good bridle horse people, such as Dwight Hill of Idaho, who she runs some horses with. “One of my goals is to get a horse straight up in the bridle,” Jessie said. Her desire to learn and improve her horsemanship works well with her love of seeing the country from the back of a horse.
The cow dogs on the ranch are also an important part of Jessie’s life. “I love it when the dogs actually work like they’re supposed to,” she says, laughing. With 11 dogs total, keeping them all busy and listening would be a test of patience, but Jessie takes it in stride. The dogs are home-bred Hanging Tree/Border Collie cross and have a lot of grit and try. The dogs travel well and get over the country alongside her saddle horses with ease. She uses them to get to places it’s hard to get to with a horse, thus the dogs save her many miles when gathering and moving cattle.
Spring seems to be Jessie’s favorite season and she says, “I get excited for calving season every year. When that first baby hits the ground I’m so happy.” She goes on to say, “I love calving out heifers and seeing the miracle every time one of them calves and knows exactly what to do.”
Besides getting joy from watching the calves and colts playing, she is very interested in the genetics of the cow herd. “It’s fun to see how each generation improves. Our heifers are so nice this year,” she said, adding, “they’re gentle and nice to handle and really good mothers.”
“Jessie always knows each cow and can see one over on a ridge and tell which one it is,” said Sandy, Jessie’s mother.
With the good comes the bad though, and Jessie says, “Losing a critter really bothers me. Whether it’s a cow or a horse, it’s hard. You take care of them and it’s hard if they die.” It’s all part of the life though, and she just pulls her hat down and goes on.
Following calving season is branding season. Jessie says, “I love branding time. Fall works are good, but branding is best.” Seeing the cows and calves all gathered together is satisfying, plus the gathering of the neighbors and friends is a highlight of the year. “Seeing everyone and roping are the best parts. I do like to rope,” she said with a shy grin.
Besides her strong family influence throughout her life, Jessie credits neighbors who have influenced her greatly, such as Connie Weishaar, a ranch woman who lives north of them. “Connie is just a wonderful person and has always been so good to me,” Jessie said. She also acknowledges that she has a lot of “uncles” who she’s not related to by blood. “I couldn’t have grown up in a better community.”
The ranch and cowboy life isn’t for every woman, and Jessie knows that. “You have to be willing to work hard and never give up if that’s what you want to do,” Jessie explained. “Some of it’s not very glamorous, that’s for sure. Being arm deep in a cow and covered from head to toe isn’t that great, but it’s all part of the life.” The positives of the life far outweigh the negatives where Jessie is concerned. “The sense of accomplishment after getting a couple thousand little bales put up and stacked is wonderful,” says Jessie.
Jessie doesn’t have a very large peer group or many woman friends her age. Most young women aren’t as interested in being on the ranch full-time and being so far from town. Many can do it, but it’s not what they live and breath. Jessie would prefer to never go to town at all, but if she does her favorite stop in town is the sale barn. Her favorite “jewelry” may be a nice wild rag with a pretty, engraved silver scarf slide, a good hat, or a new piece of equipment for her horses. “I have a weakness for nice gear,” she says with a smile.
The cowboy life isn’t the life for every young person, and cowboy women are far outnumbered by the men. In Jessie’s case, it’s absolutely the only thing she’s ever wanted to do, so where she is, is exactly right for her. She’s a good hand and a fine person – the Hotchkiss ranch and the region are blessed to have her there.