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.
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
“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.
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 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 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.
“The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you like what you see, sometimes you don’t,” Jenn says.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
This thoughtfulness weaves its way into every aspect of Jenn’s work and personal life.
“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.”
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.”
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/