In my job I meet and interview a lot of horsemen–some part of popular horse culture and the arena, and others content staying in the brush, out of the public’s eye. Denley Norman fell somewhere in between, but more toward the latter category.
I first watched Denley compete on the Haythorn Land and Cattle Co. team at ranch rodeos sanctioned by the Working Ranch Cowboys Association about seven years ago. He was never the big hero or top hand on the team, but he was a dependable team player, consistently there to help get a job done efficiently. And he always had a smile and seemed to have fun in the process. You couldn’t help but cheer for him.
In 2006, I was assigned to write a story on Denley’s wife, Lisa, who is an artist and photographer and had just published a coffee-table book titled Haythorn Land & Cattle Co.: A Horseman’s Heritage. (You can see that article, “Chronicle of Cowboy Life,” in the March 2007 issue). I stayed two days with the Normans at their home on a section of Haythorn ground near Keystone, Nebraska. Their life was so wholesome, simple and pure, almost storybook in an old-fashioned sense. There were no televisions in the house. Denley and Lisa’s young daughters, Kate and Carly, played outside and did their little chores after school, as kids should. When Denley returned home from working cattle, the girls were happy to see him, running into his arms and asking when they could ride their horses next. Dinner was eaten at the table together, and the family spent the rest of the evening reading, singing and making music, working on arts and crafts, or just being together as a family. I remember feeling so content and creative from a lack of technological stimuli, and thinking how this lifestyle was a reflection of both Denley and Lisa’s upbringing and a testament to their strong faith and value in family.
After more than 14 years working on the Haythorn, the Normans moved to the 4-3 Ranch in Lusk, Wyoming, where Denley trained horses for the public and was starting his own cattle herd. On Thursday, July 27, Denley sustained fatal injuries in a ranching accident. He was sorting cattle in the pens with three other cowboys. While moving the cattle up an alley into the pens, his horse reared up, lost his balance and fell backward on Denley. One of the other cowboys, Darin Hanson, was an EMT and immediately administered CPR, but could not revive the fallen cowboy. Funeral services were held in the Lusk High School auditorium on July 30, and Denley was laid to rest in the local cemetery.
Raised on ranches in New Mexico, Denley became a cowboy like his father. Only 44 years old at the time of his death, he lived a full life as a son, brother, horseman, husband and father. Before landing at the Haythorn, he worked on the Bell Ranch in Oklahoma, and the Kendrick and Padlock ranches in Wyoming. He and Lisa met in Wyoming, married in 1991 and went to work for Buster Welch in Texas.
- Mikel Donahue also did this drawing of Denley Norman called “Denley’s Crease.” (For more on Mikel, visit mikeldonahue.com.)
Denley was a soft-spoken, humble man, who always wore his shirts buttoned to the top and sometimes had his jeans cuffed on the bottom. He’d just as soon listen and observe than speak and show off. Horses were his livelihood, and he was a perpetual student of horsemanship, always working to refine his techniques and find better ways to create versatile, handy ranch horses. His quiet mannerisms and hours of study and observation didn’t go unnoticed on the ranch or in a ranch rodeo or Ranch Horse Association of America competition. He also enjoyed teaching his daughters to ride. He was compassionate, expressing concern for others, including myself when I went through a trying time last fall.
Respected by ranch hands throughout the West, Denley will be missed but never forgotten by those whose lives he touched. I remember the last time I spoke to Denley. He told me how difficult it was to make a living as a horseman, but it was really what he felt he was meant to do. I grieve for his family and the loss of a great horseman. But I take comfort in knowing that Denley rode away to greener pastures, quietly and peacefully, as any cowboy would want to do.
Condolences and memorials can be sent to Lisa Norman, 251B Greasewood Road, Lusk, WY 82225. A trust fund has been established for Kate and Carly through Wells Fargo Bank. For information on contributing to the fund or to leave a message for the family, visit denleynorman.blogspot.com.