My horse was ready to run – its ears pricked up, its muscles tense. A herd of wild horses stared at us a few yards away; they hadn’t noticed us for most of our ascent from the valley below. Horned lizards shuffled beneath us in mugwort, but my horse’s gaze remained on his untamed brothers.
Moments later we galloped at full speed under the rugged backdrop of the towering Absaroka Range. We stood behind the herd – next to the foals struggling to keep up with their mothers – and were bombarded by chunks of earth from their thundering hooves. I screwed up my eyes to keep the dust away from my eyes. A herd of pronghorns watched from a distance, well camouflaged between the golden grasslands of the high plains of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
In the summer of 2006, I traveled to Wyoming from my home country of Wales to work as a horse wrestler at the Lazy L&B Ranch for a few months. There, as part of a team of seven Wranglers, I took guests from all over the world on exciting rides through rivers, valleys, forests, canyons and mountains, riding over 9,000 feet to find fascinating views that stretched endlessly in all directions without any sign of human presence.
My time in Wyoming was the fulfillment of a childhood trauma of working as a horse wrestler on a ranch in the American west.
I grew up in a little hamlet in South Wales called Idole, where from the age of 4 my thoughts and dreams were devoured by all things horses. As a child, I always felt most comfortable in the vicinity of nature, attracted by the hardship, loneliness and the impressive beauty of nature and the adventures that it had to offer. Years later, it was my love for horses and nature that forced me to pick up a camera.
While studying politics at a college in England, I learned about a remote guest ranch half an hour’s drive east of Dubois, Wyoming, a small town of fewer than 1,000 people.
There, down the gravel road East Fork Road, is the Lazy L&B Ranch: a series of log cabins and horse corrals scattered among the poplars that line the bubbling East Fork River.
Looking back, years later in Wyoming prepared me for the physical demands of work in a war zone. With over 90 horses to be fed and cared for, life on the ranch was much tougher and more physically demanding than I expected. With little comfort, I spent countless hours in the saddle, navigating through vast mountains and high deserts, often in extreme weather conditions.
But once I got used to my role as Wrangler, I loved the ranch life and the harsh, authentic cowboy culture that surrounds it so much that I returned to Wyoming almost every summer for more than a decade, and sometimes more common to explore its diverse and dramatic natural beauty both on foot and in the saddle.
My experience as a cowgirl was of course very different from the challenges and daily demands of the real cattle breeders in America.
Just a stone’s throw from the Lazy L&B Ranch is Finley Ranch, a small traditional family owned cattle ranch. Two generations ago, Duncan Finley traveled to the United States from Scotland and settled in the East Fork Valley of the Wind River. Today Duncan’s grandson, John Finley, still lives on the family ranch after leaving only once to travel during military service – an experience that made him realize just how wonderful the place he calls home is.
The Finley Ranch, which once farmed 300 cattle, has been gradually downsizing since John’s childhood. In order to generate income, the family sold some of their land and most of their cattle in the 1970s, reducing the herd to about 30 heads. In the 1990s, the area was hit by a decade-long drought that affected grazing and prompted the family to further reduce their herd. Today John lives on the ranch with his wife Ramona – or Monie, as she is called – as well as four horses, 16 head of cattle and his energetic and fearless ranch dog Strider.
John has also become a local legend in the ranching communities near Dubois, especially after his encounter with a grizzly bear in 2016. (His dogs, Strider and Merlin, helped save him – and the story still shines with to be told more dramatically to everyone.)
John is not just the embodiment of authentic Western culture, ranching, and country life. He is also a skilled and accomplished artist. From leatherwork and life-size bronze statues to intricate paintings on wasp nest paper, scrimshaw and jewelry, his diverse artistic creations reflect his unique talents and connection with nature.
Since my first visit in 2006 and with every subsequent visit, I have taken Wyoming more and more to my heart – to its people, culture, nature and of course its horses. It also has a special place in my heart to spark my greatest passion: photography. It was there, near the iconic Teton Mountains, that I became seriously interested in taking pictures of my surroundings for the first time.
Sitting on the porch with a cold beer after a long day in the saddle, I showed Heath, the chief editor, some of the photos I’d taken with my point-and-shoot camera. He was a man of few words, nodded in agreement and suggested investing in a “real” camera. The rest, as they say, is history.
Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises, and social issues. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.