Zeller’s Zeal: Living on purpose in South Dakota This cowgirl is no stranger to adversity, but her love of true horsemanship carries her far beyond the ranch.

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Living deliberately and intentionally is something anyone would aspire towards, and Jenn Zeller is doing just that as a working rancher in the rural community of “Old Armstrong” (formerly Armstrong County, now incorporated as part of Dewey County), an 850,000 acre-stretch of rolling green prairie. This cowgirl is the real deal.

Jenn checks on horses with interns.
Jenn checks on horses with interns.

Her entire life revolves around horsemanship, cattle, barrel racing and photography.  Not surprisingly, her favorite photo subjects are her horses and she’s been featured in a variety of national and local publications including Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine and Time. Her Instagram feed has repeatedly been hailed as a “must-follow” and she’s known in the social media world as “The South Dakota cowgirl.” Not only is she incredibly hardworking and fearless, she’s also deeply kind and humble and fully realizes that her life is not about herself.

Story and photos by Kristina Barker


Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.
Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.

“Horses and life…it’s all the same to me.” – Buck Brannaman

Born in Oklahoma, Jenn resided in Texas until 2008 where she was a stockbroker chasing success and accomplishment. She lived in an abusive relationship and feared for her life until she found the courage to leave.

Never again would Jenn chase empty, self-serving achievement. Never again would she tolerate an abusive relationship. Never again would she live unintentionally.

Jenn Zeller gets ready to go to a neighbor's branding.
Jenn Zeller gets ready to go to a neighbor’s branding.

1000 miles away she found her purpose and put down roots in North Central South Dakota. She had long dreamt of being a cowgirl. “A real cowgirl,” she said. “Not just a barrel-racing cowgirl.” In spite of being around horses the majority of her life, she wanted to work on a ranch, work with cattle and align her entire life with the equestrian community. She was excited to embrace a humble nature and be an eternal student of patience and thoughtful intent.

Her days in Texas now seem like a lifetime ago.

Jenn Zeller and her partner Zach Ducheneaux catch up at the end of their day at their home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Met Zach through work, was always striving toward achievement, Met in early 2008;
Jenn Zeller and her partner Zach Ducheneaux catch up at the end of their day at their home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
Met Zach through work, was always striving toward achievement,
Met in early 2008;

Jenn met Zach Ducheneaux in 2007 and their love started to grow after moving to South Dakota in 2008. Zach is a third generation rancher on his family’s current property. She says she borrows confidence from him but that her sense of self is all her own. She’s keenly aware of how she presents herself and how she might be perceived from the outside. Not in a self-serving fashion, but out of deep respect for those around her…Be it horses or humans.

Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family's non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck's style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.
Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family’s non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck’s style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.

Jenn echoes the philosophies of Buck Brannaman, a world-renown horseman famous for his style of horsemanship that champions the horse-rider relationship (Buck was the inspiration for the 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer”). Brannaman teaches that a horse is looking for peace and safety (biologically because of the threat of predators), and that the cowboy or rider can be the horse’s source of peace.

Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.
Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.

“The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you like what you see, sometimes you don’t,” Jenn says.

Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family's non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck's style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.
Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family’s non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck’s style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.

A horse is not a tool, they are active participants in the task at hand. A horse and its rider must have balance, and the horse will react accordingly if the rider has angst.

Jenn explains, “The horses will teach us a lot about ourselves if we just listen. The horse is never wrong, it’s never their fault.”

….

Jenn works at a neighbor's branding.
Jenn works at a neighbor’s branding.

The busyness of spring sets in when the family begins calving and continues a break-neck pace until the annual Father’s Day weekend branding. Jenn and Zach, together with Zach’s daughter, Kelsey and his brother, Guthrie have been the driving forces of not only the DX Ranch, but also their non-profit Project H3lp!, whose mission is to teach skilled horsemanship, the DX Ranch way, to Native American youth through human/horse interaction and the guidelines set forth by Buck Brannaman. Awareness, empathy and personal presentation are the values that Project H3lp! Celebrates. Those values have a tendency to spill over into students’ personal lives, Jenn says, giving them a foundation to face various challenges at school, home, work and in relationships.

Jenn checks on horses with interns. At the end of the day, the girls all grab a beer and Jenn brushes a horse.
Jenn checks on horses with interns. At the end of the day, the girls all grab a beer and Jenn brushes a horse.

Interning at DX Ranch is an all-in experience. Each summer, Jenn and Zach open their home and ranch to a handful of college interns from across the country. These interns are immediately immersed in the ranching lifestyle and tackle every task imaginable. Out of approximately 20 applicants only 4 are chosen.

Because of their involvement with daily ranch life, Project H3lp! and the duties of raising cattle and horses, the interns have a front-row seat for learning the DX Ranch way of skilled horsemanship. They learn that a rider must always be patient, alert, kind and resolute in these traits day after day.

Jenn works with one of her horses. She uses the flag to get the horse comfortable with a moving object and distracting sound.
Jenn works with one of her horses. She uses the flag to get the horse comfortable with a moving object and distracting sound.

“You’re always thinking about the outward expression of yourself,” Jenn explains. A horse mirrors how the rest of the world perceives us. “They make you more honest with who you are.”

Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family's non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck's style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.
Jenn gets ready for her last day of the Buck Brannaman horse clinic in Rapid City. Jenn and her partner Zach and the family’s non-profit all utilize the philosophies and practices of Buck’s style of horsemanship. The foundation of the practice is that horses are like people and should be treated as such.

….

This thoughtfulness weaves its way into every aspect of Jenn’s work and personal life.

Jenn works with one of her horses at the indoor arena at her home in Armstrong County.
Jenn works with one of her horses at the indoor arena at her home in Armstrong County.

“I’d say that while I love to barrel race, I’m turning down the competitor on one shoulder and turning up the horseman on the other, trying to do right by the horse instead of doing good at the expense of the horse.”

Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.
Jenn Zeller feeds mares in a pasture at her home in Armstrong County. The mares are favorites among fans of her photography.

Her love and appreciation of horses is immediately apparent in her photography as well. Her camera is another way of connecting with her horses and illuminating their soul.

In the world of Jenn Zeller, horsemanship might as well be called “lifemanship.”

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Because a horse reciprocates what it sees or feels, it can be a humbling experience to come face to face with 1,000 pound mirror. But when we realize that we are in control of our emotions and presentation, we can be the calming presence that a horse craves. And when that carries over to life outside the ranch, folks around us can thrive in the peace that we radiate.


 

Learn more about Jenn, Zach, Kelsey and their edeavors below:
Jenn Zeller’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thesdcowgirl/
Project H3lp!: http://www.projecth3lp.org/
The DX Ranch: http://thedxranch.com/

 

Intersection Journal

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