Two cowboys describe the qualities they need in a horse when roping and dragging calves to the fire.
Roping in a crowd of bawling cows and calves, cowboys appreciate a level-headed, hard-working horse at a branding. The wrong type of horse can stir up the herd, prolong the job or even get someone hurt.
“I remember riding one of those horses that wasn’t very gentle,” says Monte Funkhouser, who manages the camas creek Ranch in Idaho. “He bucked me off and kicked me in the leg while I was in the air.”
It’s understandable that Funkhouser, who now breeds and trains his own horses, favors a horse that stays calm and keeps its mind on the job. Jimbo Humphreys of the Guitar Ranch in West Texas agrees.
“I just want an old, solid, broke horse that’s going to listen to me,” he says. Both men rope and drag calves to the re with their mounts, and they need a horse that has the strength and grit to pull scores of calves. Size doesn’t matter.
“I’ve had some small horses that could drag all day long,” Funkhouser says. “The main thing is that they want to do it. And I never want them to learn that there’s a calf they can’t pull. So even if I catch one that they can’t pull, I’ll let my dallies run so they can keep moving forward. That way, they don’t know any different.”
Funkhouser and his crew head and heel calves, then stay dallied while the ground crew brands and vaccinates. It’s necessary for the horse to keep the rope taut and steady.
“You don’t want them fidgeting there,” Funkhouser says. “If they’re bouncing up and down, it’s jerking that calf. If they hold steady, it’s easier on the calf and on the ground crew.”
Humphreys and the Guitar Ranch cowboys simply heel calves, bring them to the fire, then let the ground crew hold and brand the calf while the roper returns to the herd for the next calf. Still, a good horse makes the job easier for the ground crew by continuing to pull while they flank.
“Some horses just quit when they get to the ers,” Humphreys says. “But you want them to pull all the way through; otherwise, the rope goes limp and that calf gets to squirming.”
Humphreys and Funkhouser also want a horse that stays quiet in the herd and sets up the roper for a good shot.
“He’s got to listen to you,” Humphreys says. “If you have to move sideways a half step, he should do that. Some of them get to ducking to the left after you catch, but that isn’t good. We tie on hard and fast here, so you’re liable to turn to the left or to the right when dragging that calf out of the herd.
“Also, he shouldn’t disturb the herd. That’s where you can get into trouble on a really cowy horse that’s trying to do stuff that isn’t necessary.”
A laid-back horse and a calm herd lead to a smoother workflow.
Both Funkhouser and Humphreys have used young horses, but only if the horse is ready.
“I’ve got a 3-year-old I’ve been riding, but he’s not ready for this,” Humphreys says. “If I got him in a wreck and he got scared, I’d have to war with that for a long time. I remember someone bringing a young horse one time that wasn’t prepared. After the calf was roped, the rope somehow got tangled with a cow, and the horse got jerked down and broke his leg.
“When I was a kid, those older men always drug on their old horses. Their thinking was, ‘Use your best horse for the best work.’ ”