Time constraints and mechanization can get in the way of horseback cowboying traditions.

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Photograph by Paul Homsy

By Tim O’Byrne

Ranch people, those who own cattle and have a horse or two, often say they’d love to spend more time cowboying their own cattle or maybe helping with their neighbors’ herds when the opportunity arises. Such people want to use their horses more, work afoot in the corrals less, count on their roping skills, and work cattle in the open.

They want to cowboy. And they want those around them – family, friends and neighbors – to share the satisfaction of working cattle quietly, efficiently and from the back of a horse.

For horsemen, these reasonable requests are fundamental to healthy souls. The ability to use horses in harmony with the land and cattle, and the people we hold dear, is a liberty few are lucky enough to enjoy.

So, if cowboying is so important to them, why can’t they make it happen? The answer is simple: They’ve lost touch with the Cowboy Way.

What Is It?

The Cowboy Way might be best described as several large volumes of information, mostly tried and tested procedure and methodology, that’s accumulated through the years. The information’s origin might be obscure at times, but the many contributors span centuries, oceans and cultures. The Cowboy Way is about recognizing right from wrong, and establishing relationships with live animals that depend on the cowboy for almost everything. Working horseback is a key part of this philosophy.

Getting back in touch with horseback cowboying involves considerable work. The first step: understanding why some traditional cowboy skills are on the endangered species list.

  1. Time constraints of today’s beef industry. Ranch owners running cattle for revenue now find that the complexities in remaining competitive with today’s beef industry eat up large portions of their days. All the little things – marketing calves, running to town for parts, irrigating the hay crop – cause daylight hours to evaporate quickly. The stress that comes with the turf can be brutal, and often there’s not enough time left in the week to hang out with like-minded folks.
  2. Our fascination with timed events. Rodeo is great, and most of us revel in it. For competitive reasons the clock was introduced into roping events, creating a sense of urgency to complete the run. But any good cowboss will tell you that urgency for the sake of a quick time belongs in the arena, not with the herd. Forget the clock and concentrate on functioning to the best of your ability in a given situation.
  3. Mechanization and modernization. A drastic shift in the way ranches function occurred in the 1950s. Before the tractor arrived on the scene, workhorse teams filled stately red-board ranch barns dotting the countryside. We recovered from that, somewhat, and even learned to live with the introduction of trucks and horse trailers. But we never forgot that a ranch colt’s mind and body benefit more from trotting miles than from trailering miles.

It’s a New Day

When agricultural practices changed dramatically in the 20th century, fencing increased, and additional fences created a shift in traditional cowboying methods. Free-ranging cattle with one’s neighbors became less common, and supervising company-owned cows’ rotational grazing on company-owned land became more common. Spring and fall wagons started to disappear, and those that remained were fitted with rubber tires and ball hitches on the tongues, so they could be towed by the ranch pickup instead of a horse team. Trailering entire cowboy crews to worksite emerged at this point, forever changing the working cowboy’s daily ritual.

Trailers and rubber-tired wagons didn’t kill the Cowboy Way. In fact, they enhanced it.

Today ‘s cowboying is based on a challenge to produce a safe, wholesome product in a humane and environmentally acceptable manner. The bar’s been raised, and it takes a pretty decent hand to jump his horse over it.

Improvement

It’s always been cool to be a good hand. And a good hand knows where he needs to make improvements. Here are 10 horse-and-cattle skills that should be revisited.

  1. Ride and care for a horse. Take advantage of the amount of available information designed to make you a better rider. Commit to learning one new horse skill a month for a whole year.
  2. Ride a horse and interact with other riders to accomplish a cattle work. An entire cowboy subculture exists that’s based on respecting your fellow riders and working with them while maintaining your cool. That means no yelling at the family, or cutting in front of anybody during the works.
  3. Work cattle in the open. Many ranchers are more comfortable working their cattle afoot, in pens, but there are outside methods that are fun and easy on the horses. Learn to build, hold and work a rodear. Then teach the cows how to behave themselves while you, your family or neighbors perform the work. You’ll have a great time, even if the experience is somewhat chaotic the first few tries.
  4. Work cattle in a set of pens. Cowboys often work cattle in pens if they’re handy. The first thing the cowboys do is set up the pens for horseback work, so the gates swing and latch without the rider dismounting. Adequate traction in heavy traffic areas is extremely important. There needs to be enough room to work and certain methods must be used in order to avoid chaos.
  5. Recognize a CID (critter in distress) and learn what to do to help it. Expert cowhands are always on the prowl, looking for a critter to help. The cattle that need assistance communicate their needs through subtle actions or barely discernable physical symptoms. Learning to read this complex language is the cornerstone of becoming a good hand.
  6. Learn how to work a large piece of country in sync with a crew. A decent hand with patience and a sense of humor can take a lopsided crew of two kids (one on a pony), the neighbor’s elderly-but-alert grandfather, and a gung-ho teenage team roper and make a gather in a piece of rough country. The trick is to manage the crew, direct them and watch over them like a duck with her hatchlings. Learning to work a gather as a team is one of the most rewarding parts of cowboying on a big crew.
  7. Ride pens in a feedyard. A feedyard pen-checker’s responsibilities are extensive. Riding pens properly is somewhat of an art form. The rewards, however, exceed the challenge.
  8. Advance your horsemanship to the next level. Give your horse something to do, listen to your mentors as they coach you, and practice with conviction.
  9. Advance your cattle-handling skills to the next level. Keep in mind that the cows need to be trained, too. An unruly cow must be taken aside and sternly lectured until her disrespectful attitude is abandoned forever.
  10. Share the Cowboy Way with the next generation. It’s exciting to encounter a student worthy of being included in this honorable society. How? First we must improve our own skills. Then, we teach and lead the next generation by example. Cowboying, in its finest form, is a quiet and subtle craft based on intricate interactions with living entities. Show the kids that cowboying is often easy, sometimes hard, mostly fun, highly respectable and above all, honorable.

Do it right, and ride with pride.

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