Riding for the brand

In some states, a brand is still a legally enforceable sign of ownership of livestock and a good deterrent to theft. South Dakota is one of those states. Around this time of year, ranchers are “calving”, and pastures become filled with playful babies and fiercely protective mommas. (If you don’t believe me, stand between a cow and her calf when the calf starts bawling. You’ll learn exactly how fast you can run when a 1500 pound animal charges you.) A few months from now, all the ranchers in the community will start planning their brandings. From sunup to midafternoon, an entire community shows up to help, and then they’re fed and boozed and sincerely thanked. All the ranchers take turns, until every calf in the county is branded.

Branding day

A branding is, in my opinion, a lost form of community that was once a necessity. Now there are very few reasons for people to rely on each other the way a rural community does when a huge task needs to be accomplished. And believe me when I say that rounding up an entire herd of cattle, separating the calves from the cows, vaccinating all the cows, and branding all the calves is a huge task. It would take a family a week to get it done. But it takes a community half a day. People are always glad to help because they’re appreciative of the help they receive when it’s their turn. And while it’s hard work that sometimes leaves you bruised and sore, it’s also a lot of fun. Good conversations are had on horseback, kids learn to rope and have a rare chance to play with the neighbor kids outside of school, and the men take every opportunity to make each other the butt of a joke. Someone inevitably falls in fresh manure or gets tripped by a rope that the horse is pulling a calf with. And if you’ve never been in a rocky mountain oyster fight, you haven’t lived! (Gross!)

Dad's and Grandpa's brands

Livestock branding dates back to several thousand years B.C. In the 1500’s, branding made its way to the Americas by way of the Spaniards. In the time of the Old West, the phrase “ride for the brand” was coined. Brands are legally registered and available for purchase. Both the symbol itself and its location on the animal are part of the brand. The best ones are simple, easy to read, and easy to apply. Good brands are often handed down through generations and can be sold with a ranch. My grandfather’s brand was “lazy B U on the left hip”. Dad uses it now, but his used to be 7NL, which looks the same upside down, so it was easy to apply. My brothers and I all had a brand for the handful of cattle our dad and grandpa gave us. Mostly it was to make us feel special. Mine was “rafter SS”, which looks like two S’s with a roof over them.

A brand is a ranch’s (or rancher’s) trademark and it represents pride and duty. Ranch hands (or cattle hands) in days of old were expected to “ride for the brand”. That meant that they were expected to hold themselves to the standards of the ranch. It meant they could be trusted to treat the ranch as their own; to care for every bull, cow, and calf and make sure they were all accounted for; and to put the welfare of the group above their own personal gain. In return, the rancher treated them like family. There was a fierce sense of loyalty, but at the same time, no contracts were ever signed. The ranch hand was there by choice… he chose to ride for the brand… and could count on being rewarded fairly. In the words of Louis L’Amour, riding for the brand was “an expression of loyalty to a man’s employer or the particular outfit he rode for. It was considered a compliment of the highest order in an almost feudal society. If a man did not like a ranch or the way they conducted their affairs he was free to quit, and many did, but if he stayed on, he gave loyalty and expected it.”

But those days are over, and sadly, some of the virtues of the times have gone with them. The Code of the West was a good one though, and even though its origin is foreign to most of us now, I see no reason why young generations shouldn’t strive to uphold it. Shouldn’t we still “ride for the brand” for the company we work for? Like the ranch hands of that time, we are free to leave a company whose mission we don’t believe in or culture we don’t like. If we choose to stay, though, don’t we owe our loyalty to a company that treats us fairly and respectfully?

In relationships as well, shouldn’t we “ride for the brand”? How many times have you heard someone complaining about their significant other? Why? We’re free to go aren’t we? But if we’ve chosen to be involved with someone… especially if we’ve chosen to marry the person and start a family… don’t we owe our loyalty to them? And that includes the times when they aren’t watching or within earshot. The only person you’re hurting is yourself if you choose to live a double life—to be involved in something that you don’t believe in.

No one is perfect, and every day is a new struggle to live a life of integrity… to like the person we see in the mirror every morning. But today I challenge everyone to “ride for the brand”… whatever your brand might be.