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Happy Trails with Dawni O’Bryan: I Wanna Be a Cowboy

By Dawni O'Bryan

April 19, 2024

Even dating back before the days of the Marlboro man advertisements on television, there has been a mystic allure for young men to become a cowboy and do cowboy things. If a young man was raised a cowboy, it is a natural progression to step into those roles if he so desires. What is intriguing to me is the youngster that delves into this lifestyle with no real prodding or enticement on the home front.

Coming to work on the O’Bryan Ranch in January was a young man of 20 years named Andrew Tong from Marietta, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. Tong was raised in a great family of two brothers and three sisters, a stay-at-home mom, and a father that works in a management position of a software company. He graduated from a large high school in Marietta and played lacrosse while he was there. He attended college at the University of Northern Georgia for a year. He was studying business management but was unsatisfied with what he was chasing. “I wanted to live my life in a different way.” He described his days as too predictable. He had a longing to work with his hands and to work on a ranch.

Andrew Tong (standing in vest) is getting ready to get on a saddle bronc at a rodeo.

Through a family friend and family priest, a connection was made with Randi and Mario Baleztena of Loma, CO. Baleztena was a former Lamar Community College student and rodeo athlete under the coaching of Shannon O’Bryan. The Baleztenas invited Tong to come to their farming/ranching outfit in Loma for a month. While there Andrew got on his first horse, roped a calf, got on a bucking horse at a rodeo, and attended several rodeos with the Baleztena brothers (Mario and Mike). In just 30 days, Andrew experienced the western lifestyle in multiple facets. After the month in Colorado, Tong again enrolled in college for the fall semester (2023). It was a rough semester, as he had a longing for the western adventure. He made calls to every connection that he could think of to help foster the idea of being a cowboy. The call to Baleztena was music to Andrew’s ears, “I think I know a guy.” Tong wanted more of an experience with the cattle and horses and made the “interview” phone call to O’Bryan.

So, with nervous, yet excited, emotions he drove out west. He secured a living arrangement and started work January 21st. Having been in this area for over 3 months now, I had him reflect on living in a small town, the western lifestyle, and some of his takeaways. He will be leaving and heading back to Georgia in the middle of May. It is amazing to him to see 1% of the population providing sustenance for the other 99%. He loves the friendliness and sense of community as he witnesses how our folks wave at people that they don’t even know. He has been humbled by the welcoming experience he has received here and the patience of people that have helped teach him the ranching skills necessary. In the big city, he said you rarely see someone twice. He said it seems that people want to get to know you here. He said something very profound to me. He said of rural America, “It seems that people’s struggles and victories are much louder here.” Ponder that.

Andrew Tong working on a ranch during calving season.


I asked him to describe some of his likes and dislikes about living here on the plains. He misses the trees, the green, and the Appalachian hills of Georgia. He enjoys the sunsets that we often take for granted in the West. He likes that being a ranch hand involves different experiences every day. He loves to experience adventures to the fullest and doesn’t mind being thrown into the fire, such as pulling a calf by himself. He has enjoyed the alone time of driving and feeding cows. He had to learn the two hardest things in ranching: closing the gate and shutting off the water.

He has enjoyed his cattle industry experience and will take time this summer to process the last four months. Looking back, so many things lined up for this all to take place. “I am where I am because of the grace of God. It was divine intervention, and I will see where God leads me.” Several times after a day on the ranch, I heard him say, “I feel like a real cowboy today.”

Happy Trails.