• May 10, 2014

Ami Vitale: Growing Up in Big Sky Country

Ami Vitale

Montana isn’t home to a lot of people but we do have millions of acres of wilderness, bear, elk, moose, and healthy numbers of horses, sheep, and cows. Incredibly, we still have the same species that were here when Lewis and Clark came through more than 200 years ago. It is the only state that can claim that distinction, and much of the landscape they saw then remains unchanged.

Layla Messerly sits on her horse Buster at the Matador Ranch in eastern Montana. She has been riding Buster since she was 5 months old.
Layla Messerly sits on her horse Buster at the Matador Ranch in eastern Montana. She has been riding Buster since she was 5 months old.

The folks whom I have gotten to know here are hardworking and honest. It is not an easy place to live, especially in the winter. It takes a special kind of person to survive our long dark and cold months. And if you are a rancher, every season after winter is backbreaking and filled with 16-hour days. By the time spring rolls around, everyone is up to something. The planting season is short and folks waste no time in working the land. Trailers are moving everywhere, hauling cows and horses to summer pastures, calving is in full swing, and families are preparing to come together with their neighbors for branding.

 Andy Anderson helps his mother Hilary Zaranek brand calves at J-L ranch in southwest Montana.
Andy Anderson helps his mother Hilary Zaranek brand calves at J-L ranch in southwest Montana.

Since moving to Montana four years ago, I have had the opportunity to spend time with several families living and working on ranches around here. They have a strong bond with the land and a deep connection to what lives and dies here. But what has fascinated me most are the kids. Almost from the moment they are born, they are taught to survive in a tough place and how to be handy around livestock and horses. Here people seem to measure worth by how comfortable you are around animals and they are around you. I have seen young toddlers on horseback nestled between mother and mane. By two, they are nuzzling calves—by four, they can rope one. And by six, they are in the middle of a coral carrying irons for their parents amidst the hoof and horn melee of branding. Kids here can throw rope before they can talk.

Elle Anderson snuggles Butch, an orphaned calf, in her front yard.
Elle Anderson snuggles Butch, an orphaned calf, in her front yard.

Andy is one such kid. One evening around midnight Andy’s mother, Hillary Zaranek had to rescue a cow who was having trouble calving. Andy responded like any responsible young man, pulling on his boots, grabbing a flashlight and slipping out into the cold dark night to lend a hand clad only in his underwear. Each time I saw Andy over the season he was either working with his folks throwing hay off the horse carriage or learning to drive a truck. Andy was about 4 years old then.

Andy Anderson helps his parents with a cow who is having trouble birthing a calf.
Andy Anderson helps his parents with a cow who is having trouble birthing a calf.

Later that year, I met Charlie Ulring, who was out on his pony Sparky helping his father herd cows. He was also just 4 years old. It seems that children here have very little interest in sitting inside watching television when they can be outside helping their parents. There is work to do and they want to pitch in.

 Libby Ulring checks on her son Charlie as he and his horse Sparky herd cows with his father Bryan. The interesting thing about Charlie and Sparky is that no one else can touch Sparky. Sparky runs away when an adult tries to catch him. The pony only trusts Charlie.
Libby Ulring checks on her son Charlie as he and his horse Sparky herd cows with his father Bryan. Sparky runs away when an adult tries to catch him. The pony only trusts Charlie.

Jolynn Messerly, who lives out on the Matador ranch in eastern Montana with her three daughters, notices how genuine all the children seem to be here and believes it is because its rare to be in groups in such a remote place. So when they get together, they are eager to share their stories because they don’t do it all the time. The culture is to work right alongside the adults.

Thatcher Marquis, 3, learns to rope with his friends on the Oxarart Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.
Thatcher Marquis, 3, learns to rope with his friends on the Oxarart Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.
aron Anderson, 9, pets a horse on the Barthelmess Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.
Aaron Anderson, 9, pets a horse on the Barthelmess Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.

I cannot escape the feeling that children here are shaped as much by their parents as by the land itself and they in turn help shape the land. There is a saying often used that applies well here; that it takes a village to raise a child. Here it’s not
just the community that pitches in but the land itself.

See more of Ami Vitale’s work on her website.

There are 38 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Cristy Tarr
    May 12, 2016

    Thank you Ami for doing a very good job of showing the world how my friends and I grew up outside of Glendive, Mt! If more children had been raised the way we were, the world would be a better place!

  2. Tricia
    May 11, 2016

    One more note to the comment about branding…it is the law here in Montana to brand. Montana is a “brand state”, like many others. There is a purpose for it, we don’t do it just to pick on animals.

  3. isabel Hernández Tibau
    April 30, 2015

    Me alegra saber que aún quedan algunos lugares donde criar niños sanamente, sin hambre y sin violencia., en contacto con la naturaleza y con animales que en otros lugares son maltratados o muertos…Repito, me alegra ver cómo los niños se integran a la vida en lugares como ese, en quen parece que los inviernos son difíciles y aún así, los disfrutan. Felicitaciones a los padres y a sus hijos. Que sean muy felices!!!

  4. Troy Westerbur
    July 25, 2014

    I was raised in Helena. Well outside of Helena. Only in Montana can you truly know your neighbors would help you in a bind. In 1989 we just moved in our new house. We had no firewood or much of anything. The worst storm I can remember came in. People still talk about it. It is listed as one of the most drastic weather changes in history. But to make a long story short. The power went out due to two trains colliding and exploding. So without electricity or heat we were cutting up our fence to stay alive. The neighbor saw this, a 70+ year old mountain rancher, and brought us firewood. He saved our lives. He taught me so much over the years about being a hard worker and good person. Montana people are a different breed. They would give you the shirt off their backs and never ask anything in return. This article really brought back a lot of great childhood memories. I live in Colorado now and the people here are nowhere near the same.

  5. Jessica From Los Angeles
    May 28, 2014

    What a lovely full circle, Ami. After a lot of thought and observation about what makes a person whole and fulfilled, I have determined that any person (which children most definitely are) who is afforded the chance to add to the collective well-being of a community will have a sense of value that can not be neutralized. Moreover, if the highest reward for children is pinned upon earning high marks in a very unjust system, children have little hope of gaining pride, let alone self esteem. This lifestyle and especially these families are the catalyst for making whole people. How wonderful to look at lifestyles not based on net financial profits in our planet’s future, but the net people profits.

  6. Sean R. Harrison
    May 23, 2014

    I live in Stockton, CA, the children here have no clue what it is live to this, they all could use a big dose of this and so could some of the parents. I love the images and the stories. Amazing, inspiring and motivating to me as a photographer. Thanks

  7. Charlie Messerly
    May 16, 2014

    A wonderful article Ami ! We love where we live and the life our children get to live. Thanks for sharing and thinking of us.

  8. Dawn
    May 16, 2014

    The objection to “branding” struck me since in the picture, the boy is helping his mother vaccinate the calves. I’m reminded of my own children insisting to the calves in their baby lisps, “Don’t be scared. We all have to get our shots. You don’t want to get a nasty disease. It hurts a little, but I don’t cry. You will be alright, and then you won’t get sick.”

  9. Brenda
    May 15, 2014

    Ami, you are awesome! Thanks for the awesome story about our country kids. This brought a tear to my eye. We teach our children that your word is as good as a contact, to always praise God for everything we have, and that if you love what you do it is not work. I love everything about Montana! Thanks again Ami

  10. Vicki
    May 15, 2014

    Thank you so much for the touching truth about a wonderful way of life. So often Ranchers are not portrayed as bad guys instead of hardworking people taking care of the land and feeding the world. And as you said raising kids that are an asset when they grow up. Great pictures.

  11. Marie Moore
    May 15, 2014

    Love this! Thank you for sharing! Good for you, your children will be stronger and smarter for the experiences you have allowed them to have.

  12. satish nandgaonkar
    May 15, 2014

    Dear Ami, what a warm, beautiful story. I loved the change of canvas, and landscape from your previous work and the moments you capture. I also read about the Daube project. I think that’s also going to be a similar change of canvas.

  13. Daniel
    May 13, 2014

    Branding is inhumane. Stop it.

  14. Seanoamericano
    May 12, 2014

    I was born and raised in Montana now in Arizona. I miss Montana and the changing of the seasons

  15. f8te
    May 12, 2014

    Could not let this wholesome article be without some degenerate foreigner (littledarling) ruin it with their smarmy, vulgar jokes.

  16. swati giri
    May 12, 2014

    Wish we could all live such a lifestyle even in this busy world … Its amazing to watch how humans connect such beautifully to the land and animals even today when we have forgotten these things being busy in our selves ..!

  17. Pamela Klerer
    May 11, 2014

    Beautifully told story. Loved your pictures.

  18. Ricky
    May 11, 2014

    Oh how I wish we had horsebackriding for pleasure, to our childre in South africa! How knowble u must b to understand this creatures mind! Horses know things and if the see u mean them no harm they see u as just somebody there! A good heart! As u proceed doing odinary everday “things”, their curiousity make them wander to you, and here is where GOD IN HUMAN, AND GOD IN ANIMAL combine in SPIRIT OF UNDERSTANDING, AND TRUST! A TRUSTWORTHY SPIRIT OF A CHILD FULL OF GODLY AWE ABUNDANCE OF TAKING CARE FROM HUMAN TO ANIMAL FROM GOD! A horse is sensitive and jiddy animal, to tame such animal, he must kneel for u to be his OWNER! AWW SO GODMADE! YADA!

  19. Terry Carlyle
    May 11, 2014

    Born and raised in the southern part of Alberta, that Big Sky Country was a part of our culture as well. City living me, loved to spend time on my uncle’s farm south of Medicine Hat. Chasing across the prairie after the cattle, exploring coulees, and ridges looking for antelope and deer are some of the best memories I have. People of Big Sky Country on both sides of 49th parallel, are reflected in this beautiful story. Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have real hard working and dependable people who love the land, manage it responsibly and look forward to keeping in their families for generations to come.

  20. Marge (Kuich) Kerekes
    May 11, 2014

    I was born and raised in Great Falls. I lived in Seattle but my summers vacations were scheduled for harvest of Spring Wheat. The wheat ranches were/are an important part of the life and economy of many Montanans. I was on a horse at the age of 9 months and a combine at the age of 2. I spent springs at friends ranches flanking and branding calfs. I truly believe Monanta is always home to those that for one reason or another had to move away. We always look for a way to get home. Love this story and attention it brings to the life of Montana.

  21. Dulce
    May 11, 2014


  22. Dianne Neuman
    May 11, 2014

    I grew up in Saskatchewan. This is very typical of the children in western Canada still today. These children develop a sense of personal responsibility early in life. They become aware of their environment and understand that they are a part of it. Children playing with animals that dwarf them, operating seemingly dangerous equipment, wandering around the countryside for hours, swimming in God knows what, develops character and appreciation for a lifestyle that few can understand. I now live in and work in a society where adults are treated like children because they grew up with every moment structures for them under so called supervision. So when these people become physical adults they have a difficult time to make responsible decisions both professionally and personally. This is not to say any of these situations are good or bad. There are too many variables. But I can say, the article and photos made me smile for these children as Understand the gift the have been give.

  23. littledarling
    May 11, 2014

    That amazing! Thanks your job. I love that. Those remind me about the most favorite is Brokeback Mountain. And Montana is a good place for tow gay cowboy live there. ^.^. I love smell of dirt, soft grass…and horse of course.

  24. Sandra Annear
    May 11, 2014

    Wonderful pictures, of healthy lovely children being part of a family.Learning at an early skills they will never forget, and hundreds of memiries for the scrapbook.

  25. Prof.(Dr.) Shrikant Rakhe
    May 11, 2014

    These amazing Photographs of Growing up in the Big Sky Country, reminds me Family of Man, difference is there is one Photographer. It is really heartening to see the bond shared by the families and the children with nature and with horses etc. A very moving poignant Photo Story, amazing pictures. Family Culture is back. In this millions of acres of wilderness, Families live with nature. Iconic American life Visuals.

  26. Thomas
    May 10, 2014

    The land we live on has a way of making us honest and rich in character. Living with land animals gives purpose and deep meaning to life.Mother nature says; get off u r ass and look after this planet if u want to enjoy life for we are the caretakers so take care.

  27. Matrixbaram
    May 10, 2014

    This must be the real wild wild west which we see cowboy movies its just cool

  28. Janet Woods
    May 10, 2014

    A great story and one mostly everyone dreams of for their family. But we basically have two societies; country and farmers, and then city folk. City kids don’t have any choice but to use technology to get by or they would be in gangs. With both parents working, the kids don’t have a chance to be cared for by a parent. It is sad to me. Even with animals, there is always one that stays in the den or nest, etc. to care for the babies and the other parent goes out to get the food. No children are left to strangers or to fend for themselves at early ages.

  29. Prakash Heralgi
    May 10, 2014

    Very sensitive photos and story. Can’t everybody choose such lifestyle. I like to visit this place.

  30. Vinay Goudar
    May 10, 2014

    The Power of People.
    Lovely story.

  31. Jamie
    May 10, 2014

    beautiful our children have been raised with us working for many such ranchers from the time they were conceived to the day they let me out of the hospital they have been with us in the saddle and on the ranch and I could not envision raising children any other way. I love the emotion you captured in the writing and photos thank you for sharing it.

  32. Danielle
    May 10, 2014

    I truly wish my family and I lived an existence like that. Simple, honest hard work. I always believe when you work the land and understand your surroundings feeling at one you reach inner peace

  33. chingyi shih
    May 10, 2014

    Living in Eastern Asia without any idea about what ranches are, though, I’m deeply touched by the loving photos and positive words. To my amazement, kids and animals love and trust each other. Thank you for sharing this story.

  34. Brian Horton
    May 10, 2014

    Thanks so much for the wonderful photos and insightful commentary. Sounds like a special place to live.

  35. YESID
    May 10, 2014


  36. Colleen Larabie
    May 10, 2014

    Very touching story. It is nice to know that kids are still being raised the way I was some 40 years ago. No WII, Nintendo or the latest gadget.

  37. Pam Weldon
    May 10, 2014

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful adventure with well written article and beautiful photos. Makes me wish I could visit for a while.

  38. Kelly McLaughlin
    May 10, 2014

    Fantastic story and photos, an interesting look into the everyday life is a tough lifestyle.

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