Skipped A Beat


I've been out of sorts lately, out of sync. You've heard of the golfer that "lost his swing?" Or maybe the guy that just 'lost it?' That's me lately.

Living means rhythm. Especially ranching and agriculture. We awake with the morning sun, feed and move animals, put up hay, go to graduations, weddings, and funerals. The steady beat pulls us along as it holds us back.

Sometimes when the beat changes, we skip a beat and need to pause. Like a young man learning to waltz after having done the two-step all night. Sometimes we need to step aside and listen for the beat.

That's where I am, stepping back, counting and tapping my toe.

Damn it Hurts

I was 60 years old before I understood the anguish in my grandfather's face and the vitriol of his scolding. It's the pain.

When I was in junior high, my grandfather would have my horse saddled, when I arrived home from school, in the spring. We would ride a couple of miles, round up a pasture, and sort off the cows ready to calve. I held the herd while he sorted. His horse would make a quick move and jolt to a stop as he turned a cow back. That's when it would happen.

His face twisted, and he lashed out, "Damn it, get out of the way!"

Now, I know that look, the scathing scowl accompanied with a growl. It's the ignored pain, buried deep and tamped down, clawing its way for release.

Dr. Grandi prescribed physical therapy. Danielle, my therapist, could not believe how tight my left hip was. We worked on exercises to bring flexibility. Danielle explained that one will not gain strength until you have flexibility. She pointed out that I had good strength, but it wouldn't last if I didn't bend, twist, and turn. I worked hard, biting my lip and squeezing back tears, as my hip popped and cracked, protesting the stretch.

After some improvement, Danielle took measurements documenting the limits of my movement and strength. She asked me to check back in 30 days to see if I had lost any ground.

"Sure," I replied, "But I want to know what is the root cause of the problem. How did I get in this shape?"

Danielle explained that our bodies are designed to live for about 45 years. She went on to suggest arthritis is a symptom of trauma during our younger years. She said ranchers are most likely to get some form of arthritis, due to our lifestyle, second to Forest Service employees who spend their early years carrying a heavy backpack through steep terrain.

"A Forest Service person will be in the shape you're in at 45 years old," implying that I should feel lucky.

Cowboys enjoy talking about how tough things are, but that conversation usually dwells on the glamorous and heroic, not the pains of age.

Denial takes a lot of work and concentration. As the pain spread from my hip to paralysis in my lower back, and sciatica down the outside of my leg, I couldn't load a hay bale, or carry a bag of feed. The only way I could make a full golf swing was with the grit and twisted face of my grandfather when his horse turned back. Then, in the evenings, the slightest upset released rage onto my wife.


I was walking, with help from a cane, when my daughter, KD, (an RN) came to visit. She stated matter-of-factly, "You think it's time to consider surgical options for that hip?" One of the kindest, thoughtful, people I know, KD can be brutally straight out too. And she was.

A fellow Holistic Management rancher, Jack Southworth, caught me at a break, during a grazing planning session in John Day, Oregon, "Tony, when are you going to get that hip taken care of?" He knew what he was seeing.

As I limped down the hall at a Lewistown, Montana, grazing conference, Lance Johnson and his wife came up behind me, "When are you going to take care of that hip, Tony?"

My neighbor, Duane, and my golfing mate, Jeff, both encouraged me to 'get ‘er done.' My condition was obvious to those that have been there. They had good reviews, agreeing, if they had it to do over again, they would have done it earlier.

I went back to see Dr. Grandi, and she asked if I could remember any specific trauma on my left hip.

I told her that forty years earlier, my Uncle, Jack and I were moving a handful of pairs. As we crossed a creek, one headed in the wrong direction. I spurred my horse, Salty to head her off, and jumped up a two-foot bank. My rope, with a loop built, hung on my saddle horn. Salty stuck his hind leg through the loop, and as everything came tight, it was like cinching up a rodeo flank strap. His bucking and kicking finally loosened the rope and he stopped, both of us sweating and panting.

Jack hollered, "By gawd, I believe that's the best bronc ride I've ever seen!"

I eased gingerly off my horse, got the rope off the saddle horn, and led Salty out of the loop. I began walking down the road behind the pairs to work out the kinks. My left leg followed behind.

"The rope was pulled down tight across my lap, and I couldn't have gotten off if I wanted," I explained to Jack.

Diablo without his rider

Diablo without his rider

Faking it Until You Can't

For the next 20 years, whenever a horse made a quick move to the right, stabbing his front feet to come back left, that hip would scream, and my left leg would follow behind me for about 3 days. When it became 5 days, I started seeing a chiropractor, which helped, but I had to get regular treatments.

When I married Andrea, she had me doing yoga and seeing a Rolfer, for structural integration. This kept me out of the Chiropractor's office and worked well, until it didn't.

Decades after my tied-on bronc riding fiasco, I met my match. Diablo exploded into the air, did a little twist, and I was on my back, watching his black hooves descend. One of them landed on my notebook and ripped off my pocket. I thought maybe my ribs were broken. They weren't, and my wife, Andrea, told me not to get on Diablo until we finished fall gathering and our ranch guest season."

I couldn't get him out of my mind. All day I relived the slapping down I got.

As I rode my trusty horse the next day, I noticed I was sitting slightly to the right of balance. That explains it, I told myself. I meditated on being centered the rest of the day. The next morning I caught Diablo again. We were running horses, and Diablo was fine until we made a quick bolt to the right and he broke in two. I was thinking, "be centered, be centered." He got away from me to the right and then turned back under. I may have lasted 3 jumps. Maybe not. I felt this warm sensation move up from my groin into my belly.

We later learned this was internal bleeding from blood vessels torn loose by a pelvis pushed six inches out from where it should be. The surgeon told me he tried to sew back these muscles, but they resembled the strings of a mop.

Lying there, I thought, "I can't ride this horse." I was over it.

Resigned, I went to get up but couldn't stand. I could only get to all fours, like a dog.

Getting a Fresh Start

New cottonwood at Cinch Buckle Ranch, Montana

New cottonwood at Cinch Buckle Ranch, Montana

We all desire, a new beginning, a fresh start. A famous bumper sticker in Wyoming's depressed oilfields of the early 1980s said, "Dear God, please bring another oil boom; I promise I won't piss it away this time."

The resurrection, forgiveness, rebirth, and grazing-planning converge as spring rains bring flowers and grass. Each year we find hope for deliverance from our past mistakes and vow to get it right this time. We all look to put our errors behind us and begin anew. This effort begins with our New Year's Resolution(s) and builds into the Easter season, as we grasp for redemption.

We vow to get it right this time. But getting it right means owning our reality.

Before we can develop a meaningful grazing plan, we need to acknowledge the condition of our livestock, the health of our land base, and the skill level of our crew making decisions at the soil surface. No matter how you cut it, our "new beginning," sits on the consequences of the past. My new beginning started with an abused hip and split pelvis. Once I realized this, I came to see that I didn't want the pain to own my personality.

It was a bit late for me to learn better groundwork techniques, but it wasn't too late to address the arthritis.

Knowing Your Resource Base

Andrea and I looked far and wide for the best surgeon. A doctor friend, Randy, told me, "A fine surgeon, Dr. Olsen, lived right near our home in La Grande." One of the drivers in our decision-making process was my good friend, Bill Ruby's statement, "Buy at home, sell at home, stay at home, and someday you will have a home." I scheduled a consult with Dr. Olsen.

He didn't pull any punches, "Your ex-rays show that you have acute arthritis in your left hip. It is bone on bone. Arthritis does not get better. We can try some different drugs and a cortisone injection, but it's just postponing the inevitable."

Dr. Olsen zeroed in on my pelvis surgery from ten years earlier, explaining, "When they screwed your pelvis together, it stopped a natural give-and-take, a fluidity and movement of your entire hip area. This most likely exacerbated the arthritis.

I was still in the process of selecting a competent surgeon and asked him if he had read the book Blink. He hadn't, so I explained that it lays out this premise of 10,000 repetitions bringing perfection. I elaborated that my brother and I spent our summer evenings roping a dummy. One summer, we elevated our goal to catching the dummy 100 times, without a miss, each night before we went to bed. We would even rope blind-folded. After 10,000 catches you needn't think about roping but simply riding your horse to get the shot that brought those 10,000 catches.

Dr. Olsen countered, "When I first started my practice, hip replacements were done with a posterior approach. Even though the anterior approach was proven less invasive and demonstrated quicker recovery, the old doctors kept doing it the old way. Would 10,000 repetitions the old way make it better? I've done a thousand the new, less invasive way."

Second Generation

As a young, agile, cowboy, I brought a colt to the round corral, saddled them, tied their head around to the right until they stopped fighting, then to the left, until they stopped fighting, then I got on. If I could turn them, I could get a lot done. I actually had a rule that I wouldn't ride a horse in the corral more than three times. After that, we did our work, and in time the horse got so we could get most anything done, especially on a big range.

I heard of the horse masters, Tom Dorrance and others, but I didn't take the time to learn a better and safer way to train horses. Today's decisions are grounded in my reality of a separated pelvis and arthritic hip. I can't go back and change today's reality.

Dr. Olsen's comment on a better way to practice hip replacements really zinged me. I recalled my old friend, Ron Cunningham, from the county extension service, telling me that many ranchers have 10 years of experience they repeat 5 or 6 times. That described my horse training. More rote than practice.

Holistic Management led me from a season-long grazing and ranch management rote approach. After 30 years, I see the 1st generation and founders in a rut. I often catch myself mansplaining Holistic Management, as a linear thinker, to a second generation practitioner that "gets holism." As I struggle to interpret my linear thinking to holism, the next generation practitioners kindly listen, maybe smiling a bit. When someone "knows" something, it "don't need 'splained.'

The Dalton boys, Antelope Springs Ranch, Montana

The Dalton boys, Antelope Springs Ranch, Montana

Beth Robinette, Zachary Jones, Doc and Connie Hatfield's grandkids, and other 2nd and 3rd generation practitioners know Holistic Management, beyond my ability to comprehend, just like surgeons moving beyond old medical practices and horse whisperers moving beyond bronc bustin'.

Dr. Olson explained the obvious, "We don't keep doing posterior hip replacements because that's what we have always done."

On April 10, I came out of surgery at 11 AM. My nurse, Jolene, greeted me. She had everything I needed before I knew I needed it.

Jolene told me the physical therapist would be there to get me out of bed in the afternoon, "My first hip replacement patient back in the '80s, stayed in bed for 6 weeks. It was a death sentence, blood clots, and bed sores. We've come a long way in 30 years."

Emily, the physical therapist, had me out of bed by 3 PM, 4 hours after I got out of surgery. I was ready to be new and perfect. I asked when I could be back on a horse or the golf course. Dr. Olsen cautioned that physical therapy and recovery would be more a marathon than a sprint. Point well taken.

If you don't have a second generation Holistic Management practitioner on your team, get one, before you die of bed sores.

If you're still bustin' broncs, go see Buck Brannaman or Curt Pate. Go see your neighbor, like Trevor Smith and Nolan Reil in the Northern Great Plains, or the Goddards in Florida, or Brenna Tyler in Oregon, or my sister-in-law, Terri Anne in Washington. There are a lot of good anti-arthritis horse trainers out there.

If you’re still grazing season-long or rotating, checkin with a Savory Hub, Holistic Management International, or Ranching for Profit. There are better ways.

Hipster Cowboy

A few hours after I receiving a new hip.

A few hours after I receiving a new hip.

Like Holistic Management, modern medicine relies heavily on history, assessment, planning, and execution. Both disciplines refer to "practicing," as the knowledge and skill evolve. Holistic Management gave me a fresh start in ranching 33 years ago, and modern medicine has given me a fresh start that my grandfather didn't have, a new hip. The key to these fresh starts means acknowledging the reality of the present. New beginnings have no room for denial.

The great scientist, statesman, and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said, "Few people have the imagination for reality." We would rather spend time making up stories, blaming others, and promoting false narratives. Success with Holistic Management and the medical profession begin with the reality of 'now.'

Second generation surgeons and holistic practitioners can take us to the next level. Improving our soil health, our financial means, and our community rests on owning our karma. In owning our karma, we can reimagine our future and once again hear the beat. Sometimes we need to skip a beat to get back in rhythm at the soil surface.