When a horse goes missing from Stevenson Sputnik Ranch, the cowboys’ quest to find it becomes a matter of life-and-death in a way they least expected.
Story and photography by Ryan T. Bell
A rumbling sound came from the direction of Shestakovo. Low at first, it became earsplitting as a MiG-29 jet appeared on the horizon. It flew a high G-force circle so close overhead I could see the serial numbers stenciled on its fuselage. Wayne Walter, my partner for the summer, and I sat our horses and watched the plane make four thunderous passes. Either the ranch was under surveillance, or the rumors were true that a regional MiG squadron would perform an air show at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The attempt at tracing Olympic rings in the sky looked like the loop-de-loops you draw on a piece of paper to get a ballpoint pen’s ink to flow. Good thing they had three years to practice.
Wayne and I were the last shift of Montana cowboys scheduled to work on Stevenson Sputnik Ranch. After we flew home in July, the Russians would be on their own. That gave us three months to show them how to brand calves, build pasture fence and artificially inseminate the cows. It was a tall work order and I worried there wasn’t much time for dealing with random crises that pop up during a ranching summer. I suppressed the concern and focused on the joy of riding horseback across the Russian steppes. The last time I’d been here was in January and the steppes were lunar white with snow. Spring had since rolled out its wall-to-wall carpet of green.
The human landscape on the ranch had also changed. All but one of the cowboys we trained during the winter had quit or were fired. Only Viktor Korovkin remained, and we lost him to a mysterious illness that hospitalized the cowboy for most of the summer. The ranch had hired a colorful group of workers to take their place. They included Leonid “Lenny,” a skinny man with a smoker’s voice like a radio disk jockey. Maxim, or “Max,” was a young man with a horrific haircut. The ‘do was buzzed Marine-short, except for the bangs that he grew out and combed forward, looking like a cross between Shirley Temple and General Norman Schwarzkopf. Finally, there was Tymur, a pip-squeak of a guy with a surprising intellect. At work one day he recited the Black Angus’s entire history, which he’d researched on the Internet using the village computer, located in the Post Office.
Our first task of the summer was to implement a grazing plan. The Russians had made a mess of it by cramming groups of two hundred cow-calf pairs into fifty acre pastures. It was their attempt at cell grazing, a concept they didn’t fully understand. Cell grazing works in wet climates where grass grows quick, but on the arid steppes the grass couldn’t keep up and the cattle grazed it to dirt. From a hillside overlooking the verdant Bityuk River valley, we saw trapezoid-shaped patches of bald ground on an otherwise green landscape.
“These pastures need to be three hundred acres, not fifty,” Wayne said.
We held a fence building class the next morning in the Smokestack Pasture. True to its name, a five-story smokestack stood in the middle of a grassland basin, all that remained of a Soviet-era brick manufacturing plant. All Russians were present for class, except for Tymur.
Он потерял свою лошадь – “He lost his horse,” Lenny rasped.
Tymur had a reputation for losing horses. Once, he’d been bucked off. Then, a horse pulled loose Tymur’s poorly-tied knot tethering its lead rope to a tree. On a third occasion, the horse simply ran off the moment Tymur dismounted. Each time, the horses fled back to the barn where they stood at the corral waiting to be unsaddled. One hour later, Tymur would walk into headquarters from whatever far-off corner of the ranch he’d been abandoned.
“Let’s get started without him,” Wayne said, slinging a bundle of fiberglass posts over his shoulder.
We finished a 300-acre pasture by noon. Maxim was so excited by the progress that he gave us the “thumbs up” and nodded eagerly, his bangs bouncing off his forehead. Fence building was the bane of their existence and we’d shown them that building large pastures was easier than dozens of small ones. Plus, it was better for the land and the cattle. On our way to lunch we stopped by the barn to look for Tymur and his runaway horse. Nothing. That was odd because he’d ridden Bucky, the most herd-bound horse, who would’ve hightailed it back to the barn the second he got loose.
We went to the bunkhouse and sat down for a lunch of fried carp served over a bed of steamed buckwheat. It tasted as bad as it sounds. Sergey Effremov joined us and told the story of what had happened to Tymur. The Russian cowboy had taken Bucky for night herding duty (Sergey insisted on guarding the cattle 24-7), tied the horse by the lead rope to a stake hammered into the ground and crawled into the herder’s cabin to sleep. When Tymur awoke at dawn, the horse was gone.
Sergey suspected foul play. After lunch, he called the police to file a report and sent the Russian cowboys to search for Bucky in the neighboring villages. Wayne and I weren’t sure how to handle the situation. It was unlikely the horse had been stolen. It would take a stealthy thief and a handy horseman to ride Bucky off the ranch, away from his home herd. The only Russians capable of the feat probably worked for us and if it was an inside job, Sergey had more to worry about than just a missing horse. We opted to sit back and let the Russians solve the situation. They’d be on their own in the future; they might as well start now.
Bucky’s disappearance highlighted the fact we were short on horses. Running 1,400 pairs on 13,000 acres warrants a large cavvy, with five-horse strings for every cowboy. We had five total, and they were being ridden into the ground. On the bright side, the Russians learned the importance of a good stock horse. Lenny, Viktor and Tymur had become proficient riders (Max was terrified). They saddled up every day, whether it was to sort cattle, drive herds between pastures, or just for transport around the ranch. They tried to rotate through the horses, but tended to overwork the docile ones like Big Joe, Bay and Bucky. Hot-tempered Red and Tumbleweeds were used less, but even they were so physically fit you could take a magic marker and outline every muscle group in their body.
We needed reinforcements, but the nearest ranch horse sale was thousands of miles away. Sergey suggested visiting Khrenovskoy Farm, a breeder of Russian Orlov horses. I was surprised such an outfit existed in Voronezh. After five months, I’d seen maybe a dozen horses – most of them pulling carts, and a few being milked (Russians milk everything).
Later in the summer, Kate Zimina, the Russian veterinarian, and I drove to Khrenovskoy to see the Orlovs. Our tour guide led us through a handsome barn built by an Italian architect in 1810. We entered through a set of oak double doors that were ten feet tall, ten inches thick, and hung on behemoth iron hinges worthy of a medieval castle. We turned down a wing to where I saw a quarter horse-looking gelding harnessed to a wagon. A farm worker in green coveralls stood in the wagon, shoveling grain into burlap sacks. I whistled. “That’s a good looking horse.”
“Uh, it’s not an Orlov,” Kate said.
She pointed to an adjacent stall occupied by a spindly-legged animal. “That’s an Orlov.” The beast had so little flesh on its body it looked like it suffered from a degenerative muscle disorder. It was the ugliest horse I had ever seen.
“Well, ask if the workhorses are for sale,” I said.
The guide shook her head, “no.”
“They’re too important for the farm to sell,” Kate said.
Of course they were. Khrenovskoy Farm was like any cattle ranch in the American West; a flashy horse didn’t hold value next to one capable of performing a job. We finished the tour and I snapped a few photographs to seem interested, when really I was disappointed that Orlovs wouldn’t solve our dilemma.
Twenty-four hours passed and still no sign of Bucky. Sergey was aggravated and took it out on the workers around him. He slammed a cup and saucer down on the kitchen counter. “This coffee’s weak,” he told Yula, the cook. Her eyes welled up with tears.
Tymur and the rest of the Russian cowboys entered the bunkhouse, summoned for a meeting by Sergey. They removed their sneakers at the door and put on slippers so as not to track mud across the floor. They’d been walking the ranch all day searching for the horse. Sergey motioned them inside his office. Закрете дверь – “Shut the door,” he said. We could hear them talking through the walls and Kate eaves-translated the conversation.
“He’s telling them that if they don’t find Bucky, Tymur will owe the ranch $6,000,” she said.
I hated to break the news to Tymur, but Sergey underestimated Bucky’s value. A well-trained ranch gelding starts at $6,000 in Montana. Tack on a $1,000 surcharge for Bucky’s color – everyone likes a buckskin – plus delivery to Russia and his value shot upwards of $10,000.
The difference didn’t matter, though, because Tymur would never pay off the debt on his villager’s wages. It was a sad reality that Stevenson Sputnik paid workers little compared to its investment in land, livestock and equipment. The villagers didn’t negotiate for better wages, either, because they were glad just to have jobs. It’d been twenty years since many of them had drawn a wage.
The Russian cowboys exited the office, changed back into their muddy sneakers and left to keep up the search. It hit me that Tymur faced financial ruin because of the lost horse. It wasn’t fair. He’d learned how to ride as a requirement of the job. He didn’t know what a horse was worth – if he did, maybe he’d have acted differently. Sergey may as well have written a check for one-year’s worth of Tymur’s salary, lost it on the ranch and told him to go find it. Tymur cowboyed-up to his responsibility, but the task was more than he could handle.
“Let’s go find that horse,” I said to Wayne.
“I was thinking that, too,” he said.
We drove to the barn to launch our search party. Wayne had a theory about Bucky’s disappearing act. Maybe the horse had pulled the stake out of the ground, dragged it on his way back to the barn and got it stuck in the trees. The searchers could’ve walked past him and never known it. That gave Kate an idea.
“Bucky cries a lot, right?” she said. “So does Red. We ride him and Tumbleweeds through the trees and separate them. Red will cry, Bucky will hear it and call out.”
It was genius; we’d play horseback Marco Polo. We grabbed halters from the tack room and went to fetch the horses out of the corral. I grabbed Red and was turning for the barn when Kate said: “Does Tumbleweeds look okay to you?”
The gelding walked like his feet were stuck in cinderblocks and he carried his head low to the ground. I’d seen a horse act like that before on a cattle estancia I worked for in Argentina. The horse colicked and died within twenty-four hours. I was pretty sure Tumbleweeds had the same thing, and asked Kate if she’d ever treated colic before.
“In dogs, but never a horse,” she said.
We put Bucky’s search party on hold because, if I was right, Tumbleweeds’ colic was a matter of life-and-death. Kate called Craig Moore for advice, the veterinarian who’d accompanied the horses and cattle across the Atlantic Ocean. It was 2:00 a.m. in Choteau, Montana, but he picked up on the sixth ring.
“Hello, Craig, it is Kate in Russia. How are you?” she said, being more polite than the situation warranted. “We are fine here, thank you. There is one problem with a horse that has colic. I’ve never treated a horse colic before.”
Craig told her to give the horse mineral oil to loosen whatever impaction was causing the colic. The procedure required passing a tube down the horse’s nasal passage and into the stomach. The crux, Craig warned, was to make sure the tube went into the esophagus and not the trachea. A horse can survive colic, but not drowning by mineral oil.
“Thank you for your time. Good night,” Kate said, and hung up.
Wayne and I held Tumbleweeds prone while Kate lubed up a length of one-inch diameter tubing and stuck it into the horse’s nostril. Its body went stiff as the tube disappeared into the head and when it hit an obstruction, Kate gave a gentle push.
“Am I in the esophagus?” Kate asked.
Wayne gripped Tumbleweeds’ throat, probing to feel the tube through the skin. The trachea is a ridged tube located at the front of a horse’s neck, and the esophagus a soft tube just behind it. Wayne didn’t feel anything. Kate pulled the tube out, frustrated. She was haunted by a conversation with Kraig Sweeney, the Montana cowboy who selected the horses to send to Russia. He was particularly fond of Tumbleweeds.
“Promise me something,” Kraig said.
“What is it?” Kate said.
“You have to promise, first.”
“Okay, I promise. What?”
“Make Tumbleweeds live forever.”
He was asking for the impossible, but Kate did her best to care for the horse. She rarely let the Russians ride him and she lavished him with attention, going so far as sneaking bread slices from the lunch table to give to Tumbleweeds.
“I’m calling Craig Moore, again,” Kate said, redialing the veterinarian’s number.
Craig told her about a trick he uses for inserting the tube correctly. A horse coughs when the tube enters their throat, he explained. The split-second after he coughs the trachea shuts, the esophagus open, and you can thrust in the tube.
Kate wiped the tube clean of mucus and streaks of blood, and slid it back up Tumbleweeds’ nose. The horse coughed, she thrust, and we stood there wondering if it went in. Wayne pinched the horse’s throat, but couldn’t be sure what he felt. It was the moment of truth. Kate poured a bottle of mineral oil into a funnel and we watched the fluid course down the clear plastic tube and disappear into the horse’s nose. Tumbleweeds stood quiet, without hacking mineral oil out of his lungs.
We couldn’t delay the search party any longer. Kate handed Tumbleweeds to a Russian worker with instructions to walk him around and watch for a bowel movement.
“If he poops, I want to see it,” Kate said.
She saddled Big Joe and we rode out of the barn and into the trees.
Wayne drove the car ahead of us to the north end of the ranch to stand lookout and listen for Bucky’s call. Kate and I rode into the trees, following the most logical route the horse would’ve taken on its way back to the barn. Problem was, there were dozens of tree rows where he could’ve disappeared. The Soviet-era collective farm managers had planted miles of trees to act as field partitions and as wind breaks. They were picturesque, but with Bucky possibly lost in their midst, the tree rows suddenly looked like a labyrinth.
We entered a row, split up and rode down either side of it. On cue, Red pitched a fit, but there was no answer from Bucky. We crossed an alfalfa field and started down the next row of trees. Through the curtain of branches, I heard Kate’s cell phone ring. It was Wayne.
“He found Bucky,” she yelled across to me. “He’s alive.”
Out of curiosity, Wayne had walked along the edge of a steep ravine located a mere quarter mile from where Bucky had gone missing. He glanced down into the bottom and saw the buckskin horse. The lead rope was still tied to the metal stake, which was grapple-hooked around a downed tree, just like Wayne had predicted.
Kate and I kicked our horses into a jog to go meet them. We broke through a tree row and crested a hill looking across the north pasture to where Wayne and Bucky stood. As if to prove the Marco Polo plan would’ve worked, Bucky spotted us and called out. The horse was dehydrated and his legs were banged up from kicking at the metal stake and the tree that held him hostage.
I took Bucky’s rope and led him home. But instead of taking the direct route, I detoured down the ranch road and in front of the bunkhouse. Sergey saw us through his office window. He stepped outside, lit a cigarette and watched us pass.
In the following weeks I grappled with what drove me to such an act of showmanship – parading Bucky in front of the bunkhouse for Sergey to see. Of course I was proud that Wayne, Kate and I had found the horse in two hours flat, while Sergey had launched a region-wide manhunt to no avail. Also, I wanted Sergey to know he could let Tymur off the hook. He couldn’t expect the workers to learn if the cost of failure was too extreme. There was also an apology in my gesture for taking so long to join the search for Bucky. We’d repeatedly taught the Russians that caring for animal health was paramount, so we were hypocrites to allow Bucky to go missing for two days, without food or water, so we could make a point.
Bucky’s disappearance encapsulated the challenge of teaching the Russians to cowboy – knowing when to help and when to let the Russians fail so they could learn from their mistakes. That’s how our ancestors did it in the American West. Like the adage goes, you can’t teach “cowboy,” you can only show it. Our role on Stevenson Sputnik Ranch venture was at odds with that wisdom. But there was good reason for it. Darrell Stevenson and his Russian partners had a shared vision: Russian cowboys would run Stevenson Sputnik Ranch. They could’ve sent a steady flow of American cowboys to work the ranch, indefinitely. But the intent of the government subsidies that helped fund the project was to develop Russia’s beef industry. Give a man a cow, and he’ll eat for a year. Hand him a rope and saddle, and he’ll cowboy for life.
I was fortunate to be among the ten Montana cowboys sent to Russia to show the villagers the cowboy trade. It wasn’t easy and we encountered near-daily difficulties in weather, culture clashes and those random crises that thwart ranches the world over. Mostly, we prevailed. Tumbleweeds survived his colic. When Kate returned to the barn, the Russian worker showed her to a rock hard pile of horse turds, meaning we’d resolved his colic. Bucky recuperated from his injuries and enjoyed a week off before going back into rotation. We never did resolve the horse shortage, but the next winter, December 2011, Darrell sent six quarter horses to Stevenson Sputnik (geldings and mares this time, so the Russians could start a breeding program), along with 2,000 more Black Angus cattle to stock another ranch in Voronezh.
It’s a boom time for Russian agriculture. Construction is underway on two new cattle ranches in Voronezh, including one that neighbors Stevenson Sputnik. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin got in on the action, too, purchasing 50 Black Angus cattle from Stevenson Sputnik’s sister ranch in St. Petersburg. It’s hard to say what the future beef industry will look like in Russia. There will come a day when Stevenson Sputnik is no longer thought of as a Western-style cow outfit, but simply as a Russian cattle ranch. And if that day comes, it’ll mean that we did our job.
Sergey didn’t mention the lost horse again. He never said “thank you” or “good job,” or gave a look of acknowledgement. The closest he came to appreciation was on my last evening when he asked, “When are you coming back?” I told him that I didn’t know.