At 5:30 am, the sun is still lurking below the horizon as I walk into the dining room of the main house at the legendary 6666 Ranch. Some cowboys are moving about getting their breakfast plates; others are seated quietly sipping coffee from plain white mugs. They sit bare-headed, their hats lined up on the oversize rock windowsill in the hallway. The hats are a testament to their work on the range-not the clean, perfectly creased kind I wear in the show pen. These hats have lived and been weathered by the elements. Sun, sweat and occasionally rain have given them an identity which is partly that of their owner… For the rest they just stand on their own, symbols of an endangered way of life.
A few more cowboys roll in, preceded by the clinking of their spurs on the flagstone floor. The ranch cook serves warm scrambled eggs and tortillas. Before long, the men are heading back to the main barn where they saddle their horses for the day of work ahead. They will be gathering 600 head of cattle in one of the larger sections of the ranch this morning. The section spans a mere 15,000 acres. Once the herd is assembled two days of branding will ensue.
A few industrial lights hang high in the short barn alley. The iconic red barn that many know from the 1960’s Marlboro ads is stamped with the famous 6666 brand; the same brand that adorned the 100 head of cattle that Samuel “Burk” Burnett bought when he started the ranch in 1868.
In front of the barn, four cowboys await their mounts. The horses are ready and the men chat while one of them lights a smoke. Another adjusts his chaps. They are the last of the cowboys to load their horses and set off. They will gather cattle for most of the morning, possibly into early afternoon. As the trucks and stock trailers pull out, the ranch goes silent again.
Over the next couple of days, a film crew will be shooting various ranch activities and interviewing the resident horse trainer, the vet, and others. It will all fit into a larger project: the creation of a documentary about cutting, the origins of the sport and its roots in ranching. The 6666 is just one of the stops along the way and several other historically significant ranches will be featured.
By now the sun is hitting us hard, I join the film crew at the breeding barns and vet clinic. There, people are busy and things are in full swing. In the vet clinic, ''brand new babies” are being brought in for their dose of plasma. It will increase their antibody levels and help their overall health and immunity. Others are seeing the dentist or getting their feet trimmed. One side of the vet clinic opens up to a network of traps, catch pens and alleyways that extend almost as far as the eye can see. Beyond it, acres and acres of pasture.
Two cowboys, Phil and Curly and a black dog are responsible for funneling horses through the alley ways to the vet clinic and back to the pastures after. They gather mares in large numbers throughout the day, a process they call “punching mares”. The mares come barreling through the alley into one of the catch pens, led by the black dog, kicking up an amazing amount of dust along the way. It has not rained in 200 days, Curly tells me as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his chap stick while closing one of the gates. Phil reaches over the top of his saddle to give his horse a treat he has picked up from a feeder, then readjusts his bridle.
This documentary wouldn't be complete without the presence of a cutting horse legend and true cowboy at its center. Buster Welch, who just turned 90, observes the camera crew set up their gear and prepare for their last interview of the day. This is an interview Buster was particularly interested in attending and he sits quietly as he listens to the head vet, Dr. Blodgett discuss the various facets of the 6666's successful breeding program. At one time, the 6666 employed Buster to break colts and when talking to him, it is apparent that this is a point of pride. He was barely 16, starting out on the path of becoming one of the world's greatest horsemen.