One gather with Mike Major taught me how to look for chances to work on my horsemanship.
Story and photos by Christine Hamilton
Trailing a handful of cows under a bright blue New Mexico sky, riding my little bay mare—it just doesn’t happen every day for me. Of course I jumped at horseman Mike Major’s invitation to ride along for the fall gather at his Lazy T Slash holdings west of Belen.
I expected the cool fall air and sagebrush in that country. I expected miles—his cows were scattered across sections of mesa top and down into the broad valley of the Rio Puerco.
What I didn’t expect was the clinic.
A multiple world champion in ranch riding, versatility ranch horse and stock horse events, Mike operates a training operation with his wife, Holly, in Bowie, Texas, but he grew up ranching all over New Mexico. His championship-earning horsemanship has always included a working rancher’s perspective.
In other words, he has a job to do, but every job is a chance to be a better horseman and make a better horse. What’s more, he seems eager to help the people around him see that, too.
It starts first-thing in the morning. The dawn breaks as we haul the horses out to our starting point with the crew packed in the truck cab. Everyone’s quiet. One man, Blake, finally breaks the silence to tell Mike about a colt he’s starting, along with a question. The conversation rolls.
Then, while everyone unloads, Mike hauls out a headstall for his nephew, Matt, to try on the busy-minded mare Matt brought along. We all pause while Mike shows him a few things to work on with her while we gather.
We hit a long trot and, after a few miles, Mike comments that my mare has either a big trot or a walk. The next thing I know is I’ve got an assignment to do once she’s a little more out of gas—a simple lateral flexion exercise to gradually encourage a steady, relaxed jog as she weaves around the sage and prickly pear patches.
Over three days of gathering and branding, Mike’s informal clinic-on-the-side continues. It’s infectious: Suddenly I find myself on the hunt for chances to be a better horseman in whatever we do. The beauty is the jobs seem to take the drill out of whatever horsemanship piece we work on.
So, rather than dread my mare’s herd bound tendency when everyone else disappears over the ridgeline leaving me to continue pushing one group of reluctant cows, I jump at the chance to try the cue that Mike showed me to get my mare’s attention and her feet moving.
In the midst of preventing one big yearling from repeatedly lagging back to duck out, my mare doesn’t have time to be herd bound. Instead, she remembers how cowy she is, and we have fun.
Mike’s regular day-working crew seems to appreciate it, too. Hauling back to headquarters, Justin speaks up from the back seat that Mike had once ridden his horse in the branding pen, adding, “He called my horse a post!”
“What?” Mike says, looking back at him in the rear view mirror. “I don’t remember that! I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, you did,” Justin says, and grins. “You said he had a neck like a fence post.”
No hard feelings. He’s just glad to get some help with his rope horse.
Me, too. Last time I rode out to the back pasture behind the creek, my little bay mare never hollered back to the barn and hit a softer jog that I can’t wait to try in a ranch riding class.
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