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Writers on the Range

Shoveling out: Finding fear and rage through a barn job


I was in the middle of a divorce when I applied for the barn job. I walked into the local rodeo arena, introduced myself to the owner and was attacked by a rooster—claws up. My automatic response was to kick the bird across the barn, too late remembering this was a job interview and my potential employer’s rooster. I apologized. She shrugged it off and hired me.

As Montana summer erupted, I found there were both regular and temporary barn creatures. The tiger cat that would not be house-trained was permanent. The rooster was not. The two studs were regulars, and then there were the sick and injured—torn by barbed wire, a well placed kick, a difficult foaling. I cared for them, fed them, gave them names—Shrek, Scarlet, Butthead, Blue.

But mainly I shoveled manure, a half-ton or more each day. Shoveling poop through a divorce seemed a comparison obvious but nevertheless relevant. My heart felt like a crippled arthritic hand, grotesque and useless, but at the barn I gripped my pitchfork passionately, as though it were my ex-husband’s neck. There I could scream and kick things; break bales open with an axe. I could tell the horses’ every aggravation and deception, real or imagined. Sometimes Blue rested his long nose on my shoulder as I raked, nibbling my shirt.

After work my clothing and hair reeked, my eyes rimmed red from hay and dust. But I felt the relaxed tired that only heavy physical work can confer. In the barn my mind and heart could wander without constraint. Pitching and raking the ground clean, spreading fresh sawdust, moving the horses and watching them roll and grunt with pleasure, dumping wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of manure; my healing progressed by the half-ton.

With fall came the mahogany bull. He was huge with the muscular hump and low drooping ears of a Brahma. Horns thick as my lower leg. He was so long he could barely turn in the stall. I forked hay down the line and when I got to him he stepped forward, drooling in massive silence. One look into those soft brown eyes and I called him Bambi.

But there was no way I was going into the stall with him. A bull killed my great-grandfather. That was my frame of reference. Yet I couldn’t leave him in his own filth, and after a few days I decided to try ushering him into a clean stall. I set up barricades of wheelbarrows and rakes to direct him, shook grain into the new stall, then opened his door. He could kill me and not even notice. For an instant we looked at each other in mirrored terror. Then he trotted to the grain and I slammed the door.

It was later I learned his real name was Wander and that he’d been a rodeo bull. For him being released from a stall was equated with electric prods, shouting and spurs. Only one man ever rode him. Outside the arena his personality shone; he was friendly, sweet, like an enormous hamster. When the arena owners sold all their bucking bulls they still kept Wander, a gentle spirit, a real-life Ferdinand in a world of power, fear and rage. I could relate.

Now he lived in a stall because no pasture fence held him. He was a bucking, leaping athlete and cleared any height, knees and hocks curled in tidy as a muscle-bound doe. And now I was shoveling his bull manure. I could laugh at that, without the constricted feeling in my throat. Fall turned to winter and the below-zero weather froze everything to the barn floor.

I scratched Wander’s rough head before I moved him, then chipped bull-pies free, tipped them on edge and rolled them out the door like extra-large frozen pizzas. If only I could do that with my troubles.

At Christmas a heifer and early calf were brought in. I named them Mary and Jesus, and brought my kids to see them. Wander lowered his massive head and brutal horns, so my children could scratch him. I described the mortified, wide-eyed moment we shared when I first moved him and we laughed. Wander bobbed his head, eyes bright.

Then one day he was gone, sold back into the bucking life. A pet bull just didn’t make sense and it was cruel to keep him caged. I smiled as I rolled one last pie out the door. He deserved a chance to fully embrace his quirky spirit. We both did.

Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in Bozeman.

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