A Native American kid set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Three decades later, he is one of just a few cowboys who can claim he has worked on all of the major outfits in northern Nevada, and is a respected cow boss with a waiting list of young cowboys wanting to join his crew.

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
Woody Harney, cow boss on the T Lazy S Ranch, drives cattle through the sagebrush on the dry, high-desert range of northeastern Nevada. Photo by  Jennifer Denison

January is a slow month on the T Lazy S Ranch in Beowawe, Nevada. The calves have been shipped and the cows put out on winter pasture. Calving won’t start for at least another month. But that doesn’t mean the buckaroo crew has nothing to do.

At a quarter past six in the morning all is still and dark until blinding headlights beam down the driveway toward the big white barn at the “TS” headquarters. Four cowboys hop out of the pickup, open the barn doors, turn on the lights, grab halters and lead ropes, and walk to the corral to catch the colts they will ride that day. Each cowboy has his mount saddled in time for one last gulp of Red Bull before the jingle of TS cow boss Woody Harney’s spurs is heard as he walks through the sliding double barn doors.

The dark-complected Native American, sharply dressed in a clean white shirt buttoned to the top, brown canvas vest, denim jacket and black flat-brimmed felt hat, leads in a stout, 16-hand bay gelding he calls “Conagher.” He brushes off the horse, throws a pad and slick-fork saddle on his back and tightens the cinch. All the cowboys sling their bridles over their shoulders and lead their horses to the trailer by moonlight. According to cowboy etiquette, Harney’s horse goes in first and then the other horses in order of how long the rider has been on the ranch. Logan Naylor has been there more than a year, Hayden Buckmaster a few months and Tyrell Waddington a little more than a month. It’s Justin de Braga’s first day on the job, so his horse is loaded last.

Harney, the TS cow boss since 2010, knows that it’s rare for a cowboy to stay at a ranch more than a year.

“Usually about this time of year and after branding season guys quit and start looking for other jobs,” he explains. “They get tired of working for the same place and want to see different country, ride different horses and work with a new crew.”

In more than 30 years of cowboying, Harney has never worked for an outfit longer than 4 1⁄2 years, but it appears he will surpass that on the TS. He has ridden for the most noted brands in Nevada, including the IL, PX and YP, and learned from some of the toughest, yet most knowledgeable, old-time cow bosses. Today, he is in charge of his own buckaroo crew, and takes it upon himself to hand down the skills and traditions that were ingrained in him as a young cowboy growing up on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada.

Roaming Cowboy

It’s a short haul from the TS headquarters to the Coyote pasture. There, Harney and his crew unload and bridle their horses, tighten their cinches once more, and trot off into the hazy sunrise to gather heifers and trail them about five miles to the TS feedlot for pre-calving vaccinations.

Riding with a rawhide romal and reins connected to a silver spade, Harney smoothly and subtly signals his horse with the hands of an expert bridle horseman. Though he promotes bridle-horse traditions, he refuses to call himself a horseman and says he’s never been handy enough to show bridle horses, except in ranch rodeos and team-branding competitions. The way he and Conagher work cattle together is as precise and fluid as a pair of ballroom dancers; however, the occasional heifer darting in a different direction than the herd changes the choreography.

Moving quickly, the cattle stir up a fog of dust, but occasionally Harney and his horse ride ahead of the herd, emerging from the thick curtain of dirt at a rhythmical long trot and pointing the cattle in the right direction. His air of confidence comes from years of experience.

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
Photo by  Jennifer Denison

Born in 1971, Wilfred “Woody” Harney was the youngest of three children of Shoshone Paiute parents. His father, a Vietnam veteran, died when he was a baby. His mother, a cook for the Owyhee schools, was left to care for him and his siblings.

Harney learned to understand and speak the Shoshone language, but horses and ranching were his main connection to the tribe. The Shoshone were always known as excellent horsemen, and Harney’s brother and uncles made sure he was horseback as soon as he was old enough to sit in a saddle. He learned to rope with a big loop and work cattle on reservation ranches.

“On the reservation, ranchers ran their cattle in common,” Harney explains. “In the spring, when the cattle came off the winter range, the ranchers put together a rodear for four or five days to mother up the calves, sort, brand and turn the cattle out on summer range. There might be 10 different guys working the cattle 10 different ways.

“It gave me a foundation for working cattle, but big ranches do things quite differently. They have a lot more structure and etiquette. There’s one guy in charge and you learn to do things his way. Things are usually done much more slowly and you don’t rope everything.”

Though Harney loved Owyhee, particularly the reservation’s traditional horse brandings and horse-roping contests, early on he aspired to make a life off the reservation. At age 12, he left home to work a summer on the YP Ranch in Tuscarora, one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious outfits in Nevada.

“Raymond Cinnibar, a cowboy I knew and looked up to from the reservation, worked at the YP and got me my first job there as the wrangle boy,” Harney recalls. “I was really close to my mom, but I never really asked her if she minded me working on ranches [as a boy], but I imagine she really didn’t like it. However, she would always haul me out there and drop me off for the summer.”

The T Lazy S is a historic Nevada brand established by Irish immigrant William Dunphy
in the 1870s.

As a wrangle boy, he went out on the wagon with the crew and wrangled a cavvy of 80 to 100 horses for them each morning before daylight. Then the cow boss would rope each cowboy’s horse from the cavvy.

“After they rode off for the day, I’d day-herd the rest of the cavvy on the desert and make sure the horses didn’t start trotting home,” Harney recalls.

On the reservation horses were grazed in common like the cattle, and Harney enjoyed roping and bringing in the horses. That experience gave him an edge.

“It wasn’t a hard job for a kid, but it did take a little while to figure out how the cow boss wanted it done,” he says.

After a few summers wrangling on the YP, Harney got a job on the IL, another well-known Nevada outfit, working for cow boss Bill Maupin. Usually the youngest on the wagon, Harney received no special treatment. After he graduated from high school, he sought a “straight-riding” job on one of the big outfits.

“I always liked jobs where I could be horseback all day, taking care of the cows or starting colts,” he says. “Cowboy jobs were easy to find. You could quit, go into Elko for the weekend and have a new job by the end of the weekend.”

However, the employee benefits were minimal. A cowboy usually received a few hundred dollars a month, a place to bunk and three meals per day served in the cookhouse. That wasn’t enough incentive to keep Harney and most cowboys in one place for long. He worked for several ranches in Nevada, including the PX, TS and Squaw Valley, and he did a short stint at the J.R. Simplot Company in Idaho.

Cow bosses such as Andrae, Nathan Kelley Sr., Maupin and Merv Takacs were tough on all the cowboys.

“We rode longer days than we do now and trotted bigger circles,” Harney recalls. “We had trailers back then, but we did more trotting than we did hauling. It’s the opposite today.”

Harney wanted so badly to be on the big outfits that he never minded the hard work, and he respected his cow bosses and tried to learn something from each one.

“Everybody pretty much did things the same way, but each cow boss had little things he’d do differently,” he says. “You had to figure that out.

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
Junior Harney has ridden with his father for as long as he can remember, and says he has taught him everything he knows about training and shoeing horses, working cattle and roping. Photo by  Jennifer Denison

“Some of the guys were good about sharing their knowledge with me, but I had to drag the information out of others or just watch them and learn. If you had the heart to learn and try, most of them left you alone or gave you a helping hand. I never really thought about how long it took to earn their respect. I just did my job every day, took the [butt] chewings I deserved and went on.”

Harney was young and liked to go to town and have fun with the rest of the cowboys, but he always showed up to work the next morning and tried to improve himself.

“He was smart enough to watch the old-timers and model himself after them,” says Andrae, who was a cow boss on the YP and manager at the IL and TS. “He’s very good at roping in the sagebrush and arena. He never liked to ride bucking horses but would if he had to do it. He took a lot of pride in being a cowboy and an Indian, and he liked to make a horse and himself look good.”

In the 1990s, Harney found himself staying on ranches longer because he had two children to raise. He worked his way up to jigger boss at the PX and IL, and cowboyed at the TS. In the mid-2000s, he moved his family to Elko and started working in the mining industry.

“I saw guys I worked with on ranches making a lot of money in mining, so I decided to give it a try,” he says. “I made more money in town, but was always broke. On the ranch I made less, but it always seemed like I had more.”

After a few years living and working in Elko, Harney wanted to go back to a ranch and was hired by cow boss Tim Draper on the TS in 2009. A year later, Draper left the ranch. Since Harney had years of experience working cattle and horses, had been the TS jigger boss for a year and knew the ranch’s routines and the country well, he was the logical choice for cow boss. Not a man who identifies himself by his title, Harney had never given much thought to becoming a cow boss. He was happy just cowboying on the big ranches.

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
As with every buckaroo, Harney’s goal is to train a horse to be ridden in a spade bit. Photo by  Jennifer Denison

“I never expected to ever become cow boss, but I wanted to give it a try,” he says. “I have more responsibility for the ranch overall now, spend more time in meetings and am usually driving the pickup while the crew is sleeping, but I still get to be horseback and around cattle every day, and there aren’t a lot of ranches like that left.”

Established in 1877 by Irish immigrant William Dunphy, the TS is one of the most historic and recognized ranches in Nevada. Ray Hunt got his first cowboy job there and later trained horses for well-known jumper Gene Lewis on the neighboring Horseshoe Ranch. Newmont Mining Corporation and its subsidiary, Elko Land & Livestock Company, now own and operate both the TS and Horseshoe ranches, which run between 3,500 and 5,000 head of cattle.

Harney is responsible for the ranch’s cattle and the cavvy. The ranch breeds its small broodmare band to three stallions that stand on the ranch: Madonnas Blue Bee, Little Elmer Fudd and Colonels Pistol. The resulting foals are eventually trained by TS cowboys and go into the cavvy.

“We start the colts as 2-year-olds in the winter,” Harney explains. “We put 10 to 15 days on them and then turn them out until the fall or following winter. Then we do some light ranch work on them. By the spring or summer of their 4-year-old years, they’re big, mature and ready to go to work. They are usually sold to the public when they are 12.”

Harney assigns each cowboy in his crew a string of seven to nine horses. The TS cavvy isn’t as large as it once was, so he allows his crew to also ride outside horses for ranch work. TS horses must have endurance for long days of trotting large circles and trailing cattle 15 to 20 miles in the spring and summer. They also need to be surefooted and have good feet to cover the rocky country.

In his role as cow boss, Harney looks forward to helping improve and grow the TS cavvy, as well as the cattle herd and cowboy crew.

“I’d like to have a cavvy of quality, well-trained horses the guys can go to ranch rodeos and do well on,” he says. “I’d like for the TS to become known for its cavvy.”

All In A Day’s Work

Harney and his crew ride into the TS feedlot with the heifers around 11 a.m. Soon they have vaccinated the cattle, pushed them back out to pasture and arrived back at headquarters. For some people that’s a full day of work, but the crew still has horses to shoe.

One of the hands gathers the cavvy and pushes it into a rope corral. Harney, following a traditional ranch practice he learned as a kid on the YP, ropes each cowboy a horse or two to shoe. Farriery, as well as riding and ranching experience, are skills Harney looks for when hiring cowboys for his crew. One of the most respected cow bosses in his area, Harney has guys from as far as Montana lining up to work for him.

“I have guys who call me about jobs all the time,” he says. “I quiz them pretty hard and can tell pretty quickly if they have as much experience as they say they do.”

Harney is accountable for the livestock on the ranch and, as much as he dislikes it, he sometimes has to correct a cowboy who has done something wrong.

“The guys today have it a little easier than we did, because they have a human resources department,” he says. “I sometimes have to chew someone’s butt, but I try to help the guys, talk to them and show them how to do things this way or that way. I try to make things fun. You know it’s been a successful day when you put in a long day of work and everyone comes home tired, but they’re still happy, joking and wanting to have fun.”

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
Photo by  Jennifer Denison

Harney’s management style seems to appeal to the cowboys. Ace Clark worked for Harney for 2 1⁄2 years, the longest of any cowboy so far, and the longest Clark had stayed on an outfit.

“The thing Woody helped me with the most was my roping,” Clark says. “I used to just go like hell and miss a bunch. Woody taught me that slowing down a bit and thinking is actually way quicker.”

TS cowboy Hayden Buckmaster has worked for Harney less than a year.

“He’s never in a bad mood,” Buckmaster says. “He’s the kind of guy that will chew you up one side and down the other, then tell you a joke five minutes later. I like working for him because there’s never tension.

“I have a lot of respect for him because he’s been there and done that, and he’s been able to stay in Nevada, cowboy for all the big outfits and work for some tough guys. He has darn sure worked hard and deserves to be cow boss, but he’s still out there eating dust every day with the rest of us.”

Andrae, who is now a brand inspector, sees Harney occasionally and says that he has come a long way.

“He takes a lot of pride in himself and doing the best job he can,” Andrae explains. “The guys that work for him like him because he’s an excellent horseman and cowboy and will show them how to do things. The only way those guys can become good cowboys is if they can work for guys like him and learn the trade. There aren’t a lot of guys like him left.”

Woody Harney set out at 12 years old with a goal of working on big ranches. Now he is a respected cow boss.
Harney’s daughter, megan, heels a calf at the TS branding. Now a dental-hygiene student in Idaho, she still likes to rope and help during branding. Photo by  Jennifer Denison

The Story Continues

Though Harney prefers to not worry about a title and just do his job, being cow boss has earned him respect from his peers and crew, and allowed him to provide a good life for his two children. His youngest, Junior, is a sophomore at Battle Mountain High School, lives on the ranch and is often horseback helping his father after school, during the weekends and on summer break.

Megan, 18, lives in Idaho and is studying to become a dental hygienist. Even though she isn’t on the ranch often, she values the time they spent together when she was growing up.

“There are so many fond memories of him, my brother Junior and me riding together on the ranch,” she says. “He is phenomenal with horses and cattle, and is constantly driven to learn. When he gets off of work, he’ll sit back and watch horsemanship videos to see if he could use any of the things [the trainers] have to say.”

Still wanting to learn and experience new horses and ranches, Harney isn’t certain about his future. However, he says he would like to continue being cow boss on the TS as long as he can or as long as his body will allow him to ride. No matter where he rides, however, you can bet he will have everyone laughing at his stories of being on the wagon and breaking tough horses from the cavvy. And, he will share his horse and cattle skills with a new crew that considers him far more than just a cowboy.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Western Horseman.

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