In Kansas, even the cowgirls need cojones

It's a ranch holiday designed for women, not wimps. Anne Kostalas takes the bull by the, er, horns

I'm staring at the back end of a bull. Everyone's waiting for me to move. Like a typical city girl I'm asking if it's going to kick me. "I can't tell you that, honey," says the ranch owner, but did I sign the waiver about the risks of injury or death? We laugh. Undaunted I brace myself and cup the bull's testicles in my hand while slipping a thick elastic band around them. So far so good; they're warm and furry and my bull isn't objecting. I think he might be enjoying it. Next, I attach the metal banding device and start ratcheting up the tightness of the band. He doesn't like this quite so much and starts to kick big-style. A quick flick of the knife and everything's securely in place – my bull has a smart new band around his balls and in a couple of weeks the whole lot will drop off.

I'm staring at the back end of a bull. Everyone's waiting for me to move. Like a typical city girl I'm asking if it's going to kick me. "I can't tell you that, honey," says the ranch owner, but did I sign the waiver about the risks of injury or death? We laugh. Undaunted I brace myself and cup the bull's testicles in my hand while slipping a thick elastic band around them. So far so good; they're warm and furry and my bull isn't objecting. I think he might be enjoying it. Next, I attach the metal banding device and start ratcheting up the tightness of the band. He doesn't like this quite so much and starts to kick big-style. A quick flick of the knife and everything's securely in place – my bull has a smart new band around his balls and in a couple of weeks the whole lot will drop off.

A round of applause. I've just performed my first castration, on a cowgirl ranch in Kansas. This banding technique seems cruel to me but apparently it's a lot kinder than the old way, which left the practitioner covered in blood and the bull parted from his testicles a lot sooner. Among my fellow cowgirls are Karen, a bank analyst from Wichita, and Jeanette, a lawyer from Indiana. We were at one of the few ranches in the States owned and run by a woman. Jane Kroger, a gritty, weather-beaten rancher in her late forties, is the fifth generation in her family to work this land in the Flint Hills of Kansas. She runs Prairie Women Adventures. Housewives, police officers, lawyers and nurses spend weekends here doing ranch work. I've come for the branding weekend.

"I've gotten to meet women from everywhere. It's been a way for me to stay here but not limit the size of my world," says Jane.

Our day started with cow sorting. Two enclosures were allocated and the animals sent our way via a T-shaped run. I was on gate duty; I had to open the gate when Jane shouted "Cow!", and when she shouted "Calf!" I was to close my gate and Jeanette open hers. Suddenly, three large cows were running towards me through the dust with a calf trotting alongside. "Calf! Close the gate!" yelled Jane but it was too late – a black calf had sneaked in with its mum into the cow pen.

I was wiser next time. When a calf tried to get in, I slammed the gate shut in front of him and the ranchers whooped with approval. I was beginning to feel like I might have a natural aptitude for cow sorting.

Next came the real work down at the squeeze chute, a sort of car assembly line for bulls and heifers in which we each had our own tasks. As well as taking away their manhood, we were branding and inoculating the calves – skills we never knew we had. It was a bumpy start: needles were bent, misshapen patches were shaved on their rump, but once we got going we were a finely honed production line. Mary and Ginifer led the cattle into the squeeze chute; Jeanette the attorney gave them their shots; I was the whiz at shaving and Elaine pressed down the freeze-dried brand for exactly 55 seconds. Karen, happy to be away from her desk at the bank, was lying in wait with the elastic bands.

There's a certain kind of humour that comes with castrating bulls. We compared our stroking technique when it came to putting them at their ease as the band was applied.

"If only I had this effect on men."

"It's weird how they're all different sizes."

"But size doesn't matter, right?"

"This one reminds me of my husband."

I asked why we had to do this.

"If you didn't, all your heifers would end up pregnant," said Jane. Makes sense, I suppose.

All the adventure holidays here include a stay at the bunkhouse, which is fully stocked with books about cowgirls. You can soak your saddlesore limbs in a hot-tub while your dinner is being cooked for you and – if you can bring yourself to eat your new friends – the ranch beef is heavenly.

Back at the squeeze chute the atmosphere was so much more supportive without men around. Every one of the 44 brands would elicit a "Nice work, beautiful" when you finished. There was a certain female approach to the animals, too. I can't imagine men stroking the bulls' heads and talking to them while someone is tying a band around them at the other end. And when the jabs produced some blood, someone would always give the wound a little rub, as if it were a child's scraped knee.

Rancher Jane has a relaxed approach to tending her 75 beef cattle: "I don't want to sound too Buddhist, but the local folks here don't believe that animals have a soul. They use an electric prod to move the cattle. If any stray, they round them up, rope them and drag them into the field. We're not in a hurry – we open a couple of bales of hay and get the cattle to just walk in. It's not a power thing with me. I don't regard them as dumb animals." Far from intolerant of our city ways, she wanted us to enjoy the experience. After all, as she put it, we were paying for the privilege of doing her ranch work.

No cowgirl weekend is complete without some time in the saddle. Luckily we had an opportunity to spend a few wonderful hours riding round the property with horse expert Ginifer, who once met Elvis Presley.

Kansas is prairie country, the most endangered ecosystem in the States. Only 1 per cent survives of an area that used to cover a million square miles. Out here you're likely to see hawks, jack rabbits, white-tailed deer and meadow larks, and at night in the bunkhouse a cowgirl can hear the call of coyotes. Out in the fields we were too busy to check out the wildlife. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

It was the end of the day and our work was almost done. We were all looking a lot more dishevelled and a little dirtier than when we started. The final calf entered the chute, urged on by Ginifer. "We saved the prettiest till last," she told us. Now no cowboy would have said that.

The Facts

Getting there

Return flights from Heathrow to Kansas City with KLM (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) cost from around £420.

Trailfinders (020-7937 5400) is offering return flights to Kansas on British Airways and American Airways via Dallas from £305 return from 1 January until 31 March.

Being there

Prairie Women Adventures (00 1 620 753 3416; www.guestranches.com/homestead) run for three to four days from April to October on set dates. They include branding, riding, wildflower weekends, pasture burning and a working cow horse rodeo. Prices start from $162 (£100) per night.

Alamo (0870 599 4000) offers car hire in Kansas from £179 per week.

Further information

Kansas travel and tourism division (00 1 785 296 2009; www.travelks.com).

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