CARMICHAEL, Sask. — It’s hard to reach Rita Wells at home because most days, she’s outside tending her stock.
She embraces an outdoor lifestyle and freely admits to liking horses more than people.
“They don’t talk back and are forgiving. You do something wrong with them and they forgive you two minutes later,” she said, easing her chin onto the face of her Paint horse, Skip.
“You’ve got to have horses when you have cows.”
The 81-year-old pasture rider, cow hand, 4-H light horse leader and trainer from southwestern Saskatchewan looks back at a long life in ranching, which includes nine years at the Elkink Ranch, one of the biggest ranches in the country at the time.
She also worked seven years at the Millie community pasture and six years at the Minor Ranch at Abbey, Sask.
Her attire has changed little from those days. Her tightly curled hair peeks out from beneath a cowboy hat, and a red checkered shirt is tucked into blue jeans adorned with a belt and postcard sized rodeo belt buckle.
Area rancher and feedlot operator Rick Toney said her fondness for horses was evident from signs found in her home, such as “horses are like potato chips, you can’t just have one” and “if heaven doesn’t have horses, I’m not going.”
Toney, who often calls on Wells to help at roundups, has admired her since he was a teenager when she was his riding club leader, and he watched her compete in rodeos, where she won three saddles.
“She was just a good cow hand,” said Toney.
Wells met her late husband, Garlin, through a horse sale and they raised a son and a daughter, spelling each other off so the other could work.
“(The children) spent many a day in the stall while I was working,” Wells said.
“I took them on a horse, one on the front, one in the back.”
Both children learned how to be cow hands: her daughter lives on a cattle ranch at Irvine, Alta., and her son died in a highway accident.
Tyler Martens, who has stopped by her farm this day for coffee and conversation, said Garlin was probably a foot taller than the diminutive Wells. He was a big, tough cowboy, but Wells could also stand her ground.
“What I know about Rita is she can handle herself and because of her abilities, she was respected,” he said.
“She’s tiny but she’s tough.”
Toney recalled an incident in the Tompkins bar when Wells punched a woman who was mouthing off to her and her granddaughter.
“ ‘I cut my knuckles all to hell when I hit her,’ ” she told him later.
“She has a heart as big as the outdoors but you don’t want to make her mad.”
Wells recalls suffering few injuries while working with livestock.
“Most times, I stayed on top,” Wells said of her horse.
She always used a wonder drug for her animals’ ailments, a top secret family remedy.
Martens said Wells still rides and participated in as many as 13 brandings last year.
“They invite her because she works,” he said.
Wells received a lot of help from the herding dogs she trained and that are never far away.
Martens recalled how she and her horse carried as many as 36 sets of twin lambs into the barn from the pasture, a distance of almost a kilo-metre.
For many years, Wells coached the Skyline Riders, a horse club that performed patterns similar to the RCMP Musical Ride. She was inducted into the Saskatchewan 4-H Hall of Fame in 2006 for her volunteer leadership.
Linda Cook, her neighbour, longtime friend and a former 4-H parent, praised Wells’ work with 4-H.
“She taught them respect for things and how to do things on their own and take care of the animals the way they should be and have pride in what you’re doing,” she said.
Cook said Wells was comfortable among cowboys and working in a predominantly male workforce.
“I don’t know too many of them quite like her,” she said.
Toney said she was no nonsense both as a leader and a school bus driver.
“”You obeyed and didn’t step out of line,” he said.
Today, the grandmother and great-grandmother does her part to protect the burrowing owls on her property by not letting people disturb them.
Toney said Wells also continues to help at roundups, often pulling out her guitar to sing The Old Grey Mare around the campfire.
“She is a real character.”