Sid Spencer, by Jeanne Thwaites

February 19, 2008

By Jeanne Thwaites


From Sheila Varian I had heard a great deal about a close family friend, Mrs. Spencer, who raises both Hereford cattle and Morgan horses on a large ranch in Lopez Canyon, and I was longing to meet her. She had respect and admiration for Mrs. Spencer as both horsewoman and trainer and it was from her – and her late husband “Doc,” that Sheila had got her first concepts of what training and caring for a horse meant, her first real understanding of “light hands,” a “soft mouth, ” the old Spanish method of hackamore training and the correct use of the California spade bit. Most of all I wanted to meet Mrs. Spencer because of the deep affection all the Varians showed when speaking of her.

Mrs. Mary Forsyth Spencer is known to her friends as ‘Sid.” One of her very close friends describes her:


‘Sid’ is the essence of the best of the ‘Old West.’ What she is, is the result of an early childhood in Santa Barbara, of close friendship with a group of horsemen who have become a tradition, of having a father who instilled his love of horseflesh into a young and admiring daughter at a very early age, and of having been the wife of a cavalry veterinarian who could spin tales of the old west from Texas to California that could match those of the “1001 Night.”


Header photo: Sid Spencer cutting the calves form the cows. A cattle horse should work quietly and be able to enter a herd without disturbing it.

Directly above: Sid keeps an eye on the young horse she is training. After she dismounts she turns the rope around the calf’s neck so it does not choke. Then she vaccinates it.

Both photos by Jeanne Thwaites.


Soon I met Mrs. Spencer myself. She has the chiseled features that seem to go with the great outdoors. She is soft spoken and deliberate of movement. Her blue eyes take in everything and laugh at much of it. But she is also reserved and shy. When you meet her, you feel instinctively she is someone who would hide her own troubles, but one to whom you could turn in time of trouble.

Sid Spencer raises the Morgan horse because her family had owned Morgans and liked the breed. This is the only breed to start from a single horse (the legendary Justin Morgan).

The annual roundup is an unusual event at Sid Spencer’s ranch. A rancher’s land may consist of enormous pastures which spread out over the hills. At the roundup horsemen must go out and collect the animals and drive them down to a corral. In the smaller enclosure it is possible to separate the calves from the cows. The calves are counted, vaccinated and marked. The “marking” is for identification with the rancher’s herd, and can be done by branding, or as at Sid’s ranch, by splitting the calf’s ears. The bull calves are altered so they will grow to be steers.

A roundup is usually a man’s job and neighbors come over and help one another as in the pioneer days. If women are present they are expected to stand by admiring the speed and efficiency with which everything is handled! Sometimes they are allowed to do a few boring jobs themselves (such as holding things until they are needed!) But the girls got tired of being a line of wall-flowers, so Sid had the idea of an All-Girl Roundup. For several years now this unusual Roundup has been a tradition at her ranch.

While men may make a roundup a serious and even dreary business, the girls turn it into a riotous picnic. They try their roping techniques without inhibition, race after and throw the calves, and with gleeful gloat that no man is present to witness their shrieks, giggles and other unprofessionalisms. They wail about their bumps and bruises and make a lot of their lack of brawn, but at the end of the day the job is complete and they are still full of fun.

Twice I have been invited as resident photographer, but mainly I think for laughs. On the first occasion there were Sid, her sister “Little” Westerman and one of the girls she was training – a twelve-year-old Debbie Miner – Sheila and Wenonah Varian, and Margaret and Jane Courtis. With my instinct for disaster I slipped into a field to get a better light-angle on the girls who were throwing calves while trying not to be thrown themselves. I suppose anyone who was at home on a ranch would have noticed that Sid had put a large bull in that pasture to keep him out of the way. The first I knew of him was when I noticed Sheila’s mother gesturing to me to leave in a hurry. By the time I had correctly interpreted her signals, it was too late. The enormous bull was between me and the gate. I waited to see where he would go and whether he planned instant destruction for me. Sid had warned me earlier the cattle were sued to horsemen but are frightened of people on foot. As I nervously prayed for salvation, I remembered her warning and tried to read his mind at the same time. But while I stood trapped, I decided to take as many pictures as possible, theorizing that if I would NOT be killed, it would certainly have been a waste of a good spot. Later, I noticed most of the pictures were not sharp. The photographer’s hand had been shaking! After a wait that seemed endless, but was probably about twenty minutes, the bull noticed some fetching cows in the next pasture and went to investigate. I was saved! Everyone roared with laughter except Mrs. Spencer. As usual her eyes twinkled but she said nothing!

I had been very squeamish about going to a roundup as it seems an awful imposition on the little animals and I hate to see any animal hurt even if it is necessary. The calves were actually much more concerned about being away from their mothers than anything else. Splitting ears is more bloody than painful – I speak with authority, having had my own ears pierced! The doctoring of the bull calves was handled with the application of a rubber clamp, not a knife – which is not only more humane but prevents any risk of infection. The calves were obviously more fearful than hurt.

During this roundup Sid was riding a young horse and training him as she went along. He was new to this work, but at the end of the day was confidently holding calves alone. As I have never had more than mediocre success at training my own animals, I was impressed that she could leave both her dog and the horse untethered side-by-side for her signal to move. Throughout the entire day, although she made no fuss or even raised her voice, it was always Sid in control, apparently without exercising any control.

The 1,900-acre Spencer Ranch adjoins the Lopez Dam Project which was being talked of at that time. This would provide much needed water for several small towns including our own. When I asked Sid how this would affect her, she said tranquilly that part of her land would be appropriated.

“Sid, you MUST be worried” I said, envious of her calm acceptance of what would have been a calamity to anyone else.

But she explained: “Twenty years ago when we bought this land there was talk of building Lopez Dam. I may have a few more years use out of the land they want before they get around to it.”


Obviously it will take more than a multi-million dollar Government project to disturb Sid Spencer!