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  • Lauren Rennaker

The Stars of the Show

The Cows. In our minds at least.

Moving the cows to the set of Yellowstone during season 4 filming.

 

When you see black Angus cows on that Paramount TV show, Yellowstone (the Kevin Costner headliner that’s broken all kinds of records), and they are in Montana (not Utah), those are the stars I’m talking about.


They belong to the ranch we live on. It’s always pretty exciting when we get the call a few days before they need us, which always leaves my husband scrambling to have our friends, aka “wranglers,” help us. “Wrangler” is a name Yellowstone gave us by the way. It’s not like we ever say, “let’s go wrangle those cows.” But I guess they use “wranglers” on the show, so it seemed to fit. Since my days are typically spent working off-ranch on a different career, I immediately take the time off to help “wrangle” because there’s no way I want to miss out on this. I have to admit; it is pretty fun to be a cowgirl.


I remember the first time we brought the cows down to the set at Chief Joseph Ranch, aka the “Yellowstone Ranch” – it felt like it was the first time we had ever moved cows in our lives. My husband was really nervous. We all were.


I assume most of you reading this have not had the good fortune of moving cows. So here’s the thing: cows have a mind of their own and are much faster than they look. Especially when they don’t know where they are going. If they have never been there before, it’s a completely different level of excitement. It brings out their inner track star. I mean it’s got to be pretty boring being a cow most days. So when you are introducing something new, it’s so fun to watch the commotion grow. It’s like telling my 4 year old twins we’re going to the playground (pre-Covid), or the grocery store (yes, they are ranch kids so the grocery store yields a lot of excitement in every aisle). Who knows the real reason the cows get so excited...maybe they are feeding off of the nostalgic thrill and nervous tension of the people who are moving them, who themselves really can’t predict the level of disaster that’s about to happen with these freakishly fast 1,500 pound animals. What we do know, is when it’s new, something will go wrong.


For our first day, the Yellowstone producers needed the full herd – 75 mama cows and their calves- so about 150 head in all. To add to this first time drama, we had two 180 degree turns to make with these 150 head. Pretty much insanity. We were about to be on set for the first time on a multi-million dollar tv show. Filmed right next door. Let’s just say all of us “wranglers” excitement levels were at an all-time high. I kept thinking, holy crap, Kevin Costner could be there. As one of the most famous people on the planet, THE crush of my youth AND the thought he could even be watching us, it’s sufficient to say, excitement=ALL-time high!


We scouted the cow route several times ahead of the Big Move. Remember those two 180 degree turns? We all laughed nervously. It was going to be a shitshow for sure. We joked about who was going to get bucked off. My husband is a planner. He tried to plan it to a tee. But we all knew that’s not how things go.


The morning of the move, I’d never felt such a spotlight. Since I was the only woman pushing the cows down to set, I was worried, did I need to replace my pink and purple saddle blanket with a more manly one? But damned if we weren’t playing the whole cowboy part for these Yellowstone Los Angeles city folks. Although a cowboy hat is the regular attire for my husband and many of our friends, I reserve mine for special occasions. This certainly qualified. I wore my too-clean black cowboy hat with a rawhide band, my fancy cream-colored leather chaps (let’s get one thing straight – it’s not like any of us wranglers walk around with chaps on every day), my nice Wrangler jeans usually worn out on the town, and an ironed, brightly-colored button down western shirt. My old cowboy boots reserved for riding the last 14 years weren’t going anywhere. There was no way I was going to risk an issue with different boots – I did not want to fall out of the saddle that day.


That morning all the horses were hot, meaning they had a lot of go. A real go-getter horse is great, until they decide they don’t want you on their back anymore. To their defense, it had been a really long time since all of us “wranglers” had rode together. The horses sensed this new adventure, the novelty in the air. Several of us did some ground work with our horses – exercises where the rider is standing on the ground instead of sitting in the saddle – to try to calm them down. I was trying to calm myself down too. My horse, Trigger, a blue roan quarter horse, was exceptionally hot that morning.


Early that morning, I groomed Trigger like I was 10 years old going to my first horse show. Seeing the other horses he didn’t know, sensing we were moving cows (which he loves), and feeding off my nervousness, all played into his extreme agitation. He was ready to go. Not exactly confidence-inspiring, especially as I tried to ignore more jokes about who was getting bucked off. Despite the tension building, my husband finally got the call. They were ready for us to bring the cows. I tightened the girth on my saddle one last time and remember thinking: holy crap (they were stronger words I don’t want to type), is this really happening?


The five of us started spreading out around the herd. You could tell we were all having trouble controlling our horses – the horses’ heads were too high, death grips on the reins, horses prancing sideways. Then, we started pushing the cows towards a direction they had never been. The loud cow chorus started. Mamas bawling for their calves. Cows bawling at each other. Bawls of confusion. Bawls to just bawl. I swear some of them just like the sound of their own bawl.


The cows were slow moving for the first couple of minutes. They didn’t know where to go, they didn’t know this new route. As is every time you move cows, you just need one cow to find the right (or wrong) way and the rest will follow. The first cow found this new, open gate, went through running at full speed and we all thought: here we go! As expected, all the cows took off running after her. We were ready for this first gate. Cowboys on either side, ready to herd them in the right direction. But after that – we were just too far behind.


As soon as all 150 cows were out of the gate, all hell broke loose. They were all running at a break-neck speed and we had the first 180 turn coming up. We were all galloping on our horses to keep up. To add to the complexity, but more so, the fun, we were on a large hillside. My husband broke off as fast as his horse would go to cut off the lead cow and turn her in the right direction. My heart raced watching him. I’ve seen him do that many times before. He was kind of known for it actually – dangerously racing at the highest of speeds to get a rogue cow. That’s how I fell in love with him. Watching him do that in remote, uninhabited mountains – back when we used to ride miles through the timber looking for missing cows. It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.


He got there just in time to turn the lead cow. But as she was turning, she didn’t know where to go. I watch the herd running toward her as Trigger and I are running to keep up. My job was to stay behind them and make sure no one got left behind or tried to break off from the herd, but as fast as they were going, I didn’t need to worry about that. All of us wranglers were just trying to keep up and stay in position. Two cowboys slipped through the next gate to be positioned to turn them at the next 180 turn. The lead cow saw this and now knew where to go. Oh s*** I thought, there was no fence to help with this next 180 turn - the opposite direction this time. Since I was supposed to stay in the back to keep them going in the right direction, I would have never made it in time. Two cowboys were on their own to turn 150 stampeding cows in a direction they had never been. If all 150 head make that turn it’s going to be a miracle, I thought. But it’s like the cows knew this was their big moment. They were ready to be television stars. A different lead cow this time made the turn, and miraculously, the rest followed.


As the last cow ran into the Chief Joseph Ranch (aka “Yellowstone”) arena, I was surprised to hear loud cheers and clapping. I was so focused on the cows; I hadn’t realized what was happening. I looked up and saw a lot of cell phones pointed at us. There was a massive crowd, probably 100 people, watching. (You might think massive? 100 people? I live in a town with 700 people by the way). Many were taking photos and videoing us. US?? I heard comments like, “that was so cool” and “did you get that??” One yelled out “good job cowboys!” and then quickly added “and cowgirl!” I laughed nervously. Mostly out of relief that I hadn’t made a complete fool out of myself, and thankful we made it without any real problems. The five of us on horseback looked at each other a little wide-eyed, the horses sweaty and breathing hard, and you could tell we had all lost our breath too. The whole charade probably took 10 minutes, but it felt like only 30 seconds. With grins on our faces, you could guess what every single one of us was thinking - when are we doing that again?


The show was over. Our show anyway. The crowd started to break up. They were heading to their posts to get ready for filming. My heart was still pounding from the full-speed ride, and we had only just arrived on set. For us, the show was about to begin.



The cows now know where to go (season 4).


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