Why I Quit A Cushy Law Job To Become a Wrangler on a Dude Ranch

by Ami Cullen /

Published on

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was in my mid-30’s when I completely changed the course of my career and my life. I gave up a lawyer’s salary and cushy life in the city for cowboy boots, sunrises, and a herd of 200 horses. Today, I make less money and work longer, harder hours, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

I was like every little horse crazy girl. I had every Breyer horse, every Olympic rider plastered on my wall, watched every horse movie over and over. I took lessons, got my first horse, and had a somewhat successful career as a junior hunter and amateur hunter and  jumper rider. I stayed close to home for college so I could continue to show and ride as much as possible. After college I went to law school, got a job at a law firm, and began practicing law in the areas of tax, trust and estates, and medical malpractice defense litigation. I made good money and had status at a young age, but the greater my achievements were at work, the less time I had for horses.

I felt so stuck. I had to keep working in law because that was what I got my degree in and I had student loans to pay. I liked it well enough, and figured everyone has some disdain for their jobs. At that point in my life I felt I really didn’t have a choice in what I was supposed to be doing. I was dating someone who I thought I should, I was in a career that I thought I should be in, and I just kept waiting for things to improve. But nothing really improved. I figured this is what it would be for the next 40 or so years until I was able to retire.

Finding My Oasis

I had been practicing law for a few years and was really in the grind and the mindset that I had made a huge mistake becoming a lawyer. I was depressed but really didn’t know it. I just knew that things weren’t how I planned and that I was completely stuck with my choices. I missed horses terribly, but I was so frustrated with my riding and lack of money and time to compete at the level that I wanted that I just wanted to throw in the towel all together.

Ami rides on the far left. Photo courtesy of Ami Cullen.

One day my best friend, Julie, called me up and said her dad was going to send her and I to a dude ranch for a week one summer. I didn’t even want to go. Going on a vacation to a dude ranch seemed lame to me since I still wanted to show so badly. I didn’t really understand what a dude ranch was and had a vision of us riding in a line, nose to tail on skinny, malnourished horses. I clearly wasn’t associating horses with happiness at that time. When I thought of horses, all I could think of was everything I wasn’t able to accomplish. Julie pulled me out of my own head and said that out of anyone she knew, I would love the ranch and the horses more than anything. She was right.

"I had selected a career and started on a path I thought I was supposed to follow, but the horses kept calling me back."

I will never forget the first time I went to C Lazy U Ranch. Driving under the archway and down the ranch road was like driving through time. It was absolutely beautiful. There were fat and happy horses everywhere grazing among the beautiful aspens and wildflowers. We were greeted by the happiest people and provided with elegant and cozy accommodations. We met Bill Fisher, the Head Wrangler at the time. He was your quintessential old cowboy, and didn’t seem overly impressed with Julie and I telling him all about our years of showing hunters and jumpers.

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I was paired with a little buckskin horse named Gunsmoke. We rode twice a day, every day, and I could feel my spirit repair. We were guided to the most beautiful terrain where we were able to experience the most thrilling lopes. We saw incredible wildlife, including moose and bald eagles and herds of elk, pronghorn (antelope), and mule deer. Gunsmoke was soft and responsive – an absolute joy to ride. My idea of a “dude horse” was diminishing with every ride Gunsmoke and I had together. By the end of the week, I didn’t want to leave and all I could talk about was coming back next summer.

Photo courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch.

Julie and I booked a vacation to the ranch every summer thereafter. It was the one week every year that I looked forward to. I remember waking up early to watch the wranglers jingle in the herd and thinking to myself how badly I wanted to be a part of it. (The jingle is when the wranglers ride out in the morning to gather the herd. The story goes that back in the day some of the horses used to wear cowbells around their neck so that you could find them in the dark or when they choose to hide among the willow bushes). Watching the wranglers ride among 200 horses and seeing how much fun they were having was something that I wanted to be a part of.

"Riding horses without worrying about competing and winning was something that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child."

But I was in my early thirties. I was an attorney with a successful job on the East Coast. Excuses, excuses. During the annual ranch vacation in 2011, I started telling everyone that I wanted to be a wrangler. No one was really taking me seriously, especially Julie. In fact, she thought the whole idea was pretty funny, but was encouraging. I remember her saying something to the effect of, “You’re an East Coast lawyer who rides and shows hunter/jumpers. You will never survive. But, if you do it, I will have an excuse to come out to the ranch even more.”

That was all the motivation I needed. I went back to Washington, D.C., and started researching what I needed to do to waive into the Colorado bar. People couldn’t understand why I would leave my cush job and salary to wake up at 4 a.m., work a 13-hour day doing physical labor, and get paid only $10 an hour. But like many girls that find themselves drawn to horses, the more I was told I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted it.

Photo courtesy of Ami Cullen.

I was lucky at that time to meet a great guy (now my husband) who thought my insane plan was brave and inspirational, and he supported me and my crazy adventure. Once he was behind me, more and more of my friends and colleagues started telling me that they wished they could leave their jobs or their current situations and change their lives. I was fortunate at the time that I didn’t have kids or many commitments, so I was able to take that leap. The timing was right for me and I knew I had to jump on it before another raise or promotion came my way, or a bigger house, or a family with kids.

I set up an interview with Bill at the ranch and he offered me a job. I left my law firm in May 2012 and never looked back.

Getting Unstuck

The drive cross country was thrilling. I don’t think I was ever more excited about anything in my entire life. I arrived at the ranch and was given my staff accommodations. I received my uniform, shined up my brand new cowboy boots and was ready for work, which started early the next day.

Photo courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch.

My first summer working at the ranch would prove to be the greatest summer of my life. Waking up at 4 a.m. to jingle in the herd and watch the sunrise became part of my everyday routine. For the first time in my adult life, I was truly happy with my job and sincerely loved going to work every day. I felt my riding and my natural intuition returning to something that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Riding horses without worrying about competing and winning was something that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. I no longer needed to ride the fanciest or prettiest horses, I was finally happy just getting to ride and experience all types of horses. And for this, my riding continued to improve. My feel deepened and my connection to many horses became indescribable. The long, tiring hours and physical labor work was exhausting, but I felt so fulfilled at the end of every work day, that was all the motivation I needed to keep going.

C Lazy U is a magical place and the longer I stayed and worked, the more it had my soul. I couldn’t imagine leaving for any other type of job, nor did I want to, but the real world was calling. I still had student loans and financial commitments. Making $10 an hour was great for a few months but was not permanent by any means. The thought of returning to law was getting harder and harder. I had come this far. Was I really going to give up the ranch and go back to my old life, to which I felt no connection?

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Photo courtesy of Ami Cullen.

What happened next solidified my future. The ranch called me and asked if I was interested in interviewing for a position as one of their operations managers. I jumped at the chance to interview and was offered the job, which I accepted without a second thought. I would be working for a quarter of the salary I made as an attorney, but I would be home.

Through my time at the ranch, I have progressed my career and overseen many departments. I have recently been offered (and accepted) the position of Director of Equestrian Operations and I’m excited to be in this position as we celebrate the ranch’s 100-year anniversary in 2019. In my new role, I will oversee our herd of 200 horses, our boarding program, our guest equine operations, our member equine operations, and our children’s program (with plenty of amazing people to help me). It’s a lot of work, but it comes easy to me because I absolutely love my job.

Before the ranch came into my life, I was depressed and unfulfilled. I had selected a career and started on a path I thought I was supposed to follow, but the horses kept calling me back. It wasn’t easy, and it was scary, but I listened to my gut and pursued opportunities. I got unstuck, and my life is forever changed for the better.

Feature photo courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch.

Written by Ami Cullen

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