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Irons in the fire: The Lessons of Zebra Dun

Paul Marchant Published on 24 December 2010

My first job out of college, oh so many years ago, was to manage a fair-sized cow outfit in northeastern Nevada. For the most part, we were pretty short on good help, and thus relied on the generosity and willingness of good neighbors to see us through the major projects like branding and the big three- or four-day drives.

Most of the help came from the neighbor to the north, who actually was a quasi manager and spent as much time running our place as he did his own. Whenever we had a gather or branding scheduled, he’d load up a couple of his kids and ramrod the whole event. He had a daughter and a son who were several times as handy as most of the “wannabes” and winos who often called themselves employees of the Double Check.

“…Well he looked so very foolish when he begun to look around

For he seemed just like a greenhorn just escaped from town…”


Our hiring process left a lot to be desired and usually included such sifting techniques as taking the guy sober enough to make it out of the Big Four or the Green Lantern in Ely and walk to the pickup outside. That, however, is a whole different story or two!

Hank had several rough edges, himself, but he was, nevertheless, a renaissance man, of sorts. He and I were both college graduates and he could go on for hours about politics in pre-World War II Japan or Ford’s pardoning of Nixon – while simultaneously extolling the virtues of Skoal and Pendleton (not the town) or riding a buffalo at the Burns rodeo. Many of his habits were not the kind I’d like my kids to emulate, but it was he who introduced me to Zebra Dun.

Back then, I knew Zebra Dun as a poem because that’s how Hank used to recite it, but have since come to know that it was a popular song recorded by Cisco Houston, back in the day. It tells of a stranger who, down on his luck, wanders into a cow camp looking for a meal and a spare horse. The real cowboys in the outfit are offended by this dude’s air of superiority and education and aim to put the guy in his place when he “asked if he could borrow a fat saddle horse.”


“…So Shorty grabbed his lariat and he roped the Zebra Dun

And we give him to the stranger and waited for the fun…”


This always reminded me of my time at college and the hours and days I spent with my fellow ranch kids in the Block and Bridle Club. You see, while though we were relatively few in numbers when compared to the general student body, we were our own sort of elitist society. We were a touch more, shall we say, irreverent than the other 99 percent of the students and were proud to wear our boots and hats on campus amongst the 1980s preppies from Southern California and Seattle.

We were a close- knit group and we held fast to the belief – no, the knowledge – that every guy wished he were a cowboy and every girl wanted a cowboy. We were proud of our backgrounds and our heritage, and to that end, sometimes became a bit exclusionary.

I eventually came to learn, and have re-learned many times since, that there is much folly in such an approach. After a time, I realized that it was much more beneficial to “our cause” to allow as many outsiders as possible into our circle, rather than to try to keep them out. It was remarkable to actually come to the realization that, if someone from Houston or Boston or Baton Rouge or Milwaukee was able to see past the cowboy hick myths and fallacies, they could become much better allies and defenders of agriculture than most of us could ever hope to be.


“…And when he had dismounted and once more upon the ground,

We knew he was a thoroughbred and not a gent from town…”


Too often, those of us who make our living feeding the world tend to be too hasty in our circling of the wagons and fail to understand, or even look at, the perspective of those outside of our realm. We need to be able to see beyond our normal boundaries and rationally analyze ourselves and the way we do things. Then we are better able to get our honest message to the masses and, if necessary, defend ourselves against unfair judgment and criticism.

I, like many others in the cattle industry, am lucky enough to be the fourth generation, on both sides of my family, to make my living in the cattle business. And while I am extremely proud of my heritage, it is not something that I chose. I was born into it. How much more noble, then, is it for someone raised outside of agriculture, to understand our struggles and defend our way of life and what we do? We couldn’t ask for a better advocate.

It behooves all of us to educate ourselves about the issues that affect us and then educate our urban neighbors.


“…Well there’s one thing and a shore thing I’ve learned since I’ve been born.

Every educated feller ain’t a plumb greenhorn.”


So, we can all learn a lesson from Hank and the Zebra Dun. We have more friends than we think.  end_mark

Paul Marchant is a rancher from Oakley, Idaho.