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Russian Cowboys Learn to Ride Western

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’.)

A Russian cowboy chases down a stray calf. Many of Miratorg’s workers have learned to become proficient horsemen. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@COMRADECOWBOYS)

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. (See: Humane Animal Treatment Fields a New Generation.)

The difference is more than just the saddle horn, used for roping cattle. Cowboys ride with a “slack” or “loose” rein, putting only minimal pressure on the bit. And the stirrups hang low, forcing the rider to sit deep in the saddle, a posture that can make novice riders bounce around in the saddle. It takes practice.

Western horsemanship is counterintuitive to Russians trained in English-style equitation. Here, a novice rider tries using the longer reins of a Western saddle. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@COMRADECOWBOYS)

The cattle drive comes within earshot and Stotler whistles to get the novice rider’s attention. He pantomimes with his hands for the man to loosen his tension on the reins. The other three riders race around the man, doing most of the work. They’ve become fair horsemen. Now, Stotler says, they just need to learn that slow and steady wins the race in cowboy work.

As the drive nears the weaning corralls, some of the calves start turning back, scared by a group of people standing beside the gate.

“Those people shouldn’t be standing there,” Stotler says. “Of all the places they choose to watch, they stand at the gate the cattle need to go through. Of course.”

The spirit of the comment is that of a play-by-play commentator. There’s time enough for us to drive the truck ahead and tell the people to move. But that might scatter the cattle even more. The Russians are already having a hard enough time keeping the herd together.

Besides, Stotler’s learned during his two years working at Miratorg that too much micro-managing can turn the Russians against him. It can be better just to let the disaster unfold and then help the workers learn from the experience.

Utah-based cowboy Shane Stotler is in the second year of a three-year contract. Miratorg hires Americans to work more as consultants than boots-on-the-ground cowboys. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@COMRADECOWBOYS)

As if on cue, pandemonium erupts when the cattle reach the mouth of the weaning corral. Calves turn and bolt, running past the horseback operators. The onlookers pile over the fence to help afoot and, together with the riders, they manage to corral about half of the original herd. The others have scattered into the pasture, needing to be weaned another day.

At times, Stotler’s not sure how best to allocate his efforts: focus on the big picture,  day-to-day operations, or the minutiae of teaching a specific person how to do their job better. The answer is never the same. Right now, he’s worried about the horse that the novice rides, because a horse can learn bad habits fast when exposed to poor horsemanship. Stotler saddles up and rides across the pasture, putting the horse through its paces. He’s reminding the horse, as much as himself and any Russian watching, of the cowboy standard Miratorg hopes its workers can achieve.


Ryan Bell is traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.