The crew rides into camp at sundown and promptly unsaddles, waters and feeds the horses in the dark. A little later, waiting while the campfire slowly cooks their hamburger patties, they scarf down corn chips, potato chips and peanuts. They laugh at how every man encountered some sort of wreck during the day. As the talk finally dies down with the fire, a few of them stare at the millions of lights of Phoenix below. An ever-encroaching metropolis, it hasn’t spread into their territory yet.
The Quarter Horses that Travis and his dad raise are sired by their stallion, who traces to Peppy San Badger. Travis owns four broodmares that he keeps on his Dad’s ranch between Superior and Globe, Arizona. Dave has six mares, as well as a herd of several hundred cows.
“Our horses are raised on the roughest place on earth, I believe,” Travis says. “But a horse that’s raised there can get around anywhere. You don’t seem to have as many wrecks with them as you do with other horses.”
Cinderella wasn’t raised by Travis, but the gritty mare has earned her owner’s admiration. With First Down Dash and Poco Tivio in her bloodlines, the 10-year-old mare caught Travis’ eye while competing in roping events.
“She had a three-foot-long mane and a tail that drug the ground,” he says. “I didn’t think I could get a horse like her. But I was able to trade a heading horse to Pace Freed for her when she was 5. It was kind of a Cinderella story, so my daughter named her that.
“I turned her out on the ranch for a year. Then I started using her. She has raised two colts so far. I’m praying that she turns out to be a good broodmare.”
With the next morning’s sun creeping above the hills to the east, Travis tacks on a set of horse shoes while Kyle cooks eggs and Wheeler searches for an Advil.
The horses stand tied to the trailers, cactus needles sticking in their legs and sweat stains along their chests. They all wear bell boots and sports medicine boots with duct tape wrapped over top. The crew attaches three or four ropes to every saddle before heading out of camp, pulling on the reins to keep their mounts at a slow jog. Travis ponies a grullo 2-year-old gelding.
“We may be late in leaving, but we’ll be late in coming back,” Travis tells me.
To get where they worked the day before, the group climbs a steep, rocky trail—so steep that they pause every 50 feet to let their horses blow.
“I never let them get out of wind because you never know when the chase is going to start,” Travis says.
Topping out, they spot several cows grazing on a hillside a few miles away. Kevil’s brother, George, who managed a cattle operation on this land for years before it became government property, has joined the crew. He and Travis discuss possible routes that will allow them to take the cows by surprise, but decide that any option is too taxing for their horses, so they ride toward the five cows caught yesterday.
Transferring a wild cow’s tether from a tree trunk to a saddle horn is no simple task, involving roping hind legs, tying fronts, dehorning and possibly setting a ring in the cow’s nose. Once a cowboy has it hooked to his saddle and ready to walk, another cowboy hollers and rides up from behind, spooking the cow into motion.
“If they’ve been tied to a tree all night, those cows are wanting to go somewhere anyway,” Travis says. “You never ever pull or drag them. You just give them a direction to go. The spooker has to be aggressive. And when the cow moves, you just go with it. And the main thing is to stop when she stops.”
Trying to pull cows causes them to brace against the pressure. Usually, after the spooker makes a handful of runs from behind, cows learn to walk or trot beside the horse. Eventually, they become docile enough that one cowboy can lead several head.
“We’ll lead as many as five, six or seven,” Travis says. “As long as you have a wide area, you can do that.”