Classic Cowboys

Houlihan Man

DeVoll preparing to catch a horse with a houlihan.

The scene of a cowboss catching horses at daylight has epitomized life on the wagon for more than 100 years.

The first time he was assigned the duty of roping horses out of the remuda, James Gholson didn’t take it lightly. This wasn’t a job given to some bunkhouse kid or day-working cowboy. In the spring of 1992, Gholson had been promoted to cowboss of Pitchfork Land & Cattle Company, a historic ranch near Guthrie, Texas.

“I had roped horses before, but just out of a small group,” he says. “This was roping horses out of the whole remuda. And I considered it an honor.”

Gholson and his crew were staying out with the wagon during branding, and the remuda numbered more than 100 head of horses. Each morning before sunrise, a couple of cowboys would jingle in the remuda, bringing them into a set of pens or to an open area where the cowboys set up a perimeter by linking themselves together with their own ropes.

Each cowboy would call out the name of the horse in his string that he wanted to ride on the drive that day. Gholson walked into the remuda with his rope and tossed a loop on the desired mount. He made a houlihan throw, swinging his rope counter-clockwise with his right hand once or twice, and then tossing a loop high into the air that settled around the horse’s neck.

Morton throwing a houlihan loop to catch a horse at the Bell Ranch.
Gary Morton tosses his loop on the Bell Ranch near Tucumcari, New Mexico. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“It takes somebody that knows all of the horses by name, and then has the ability to rope,” Gholson says. “You’ve got 100 to 150 horses in the remuda, and you’re trying to catch the right ones at breaking daylight.”

Gholson says he usually selected someone else to help him catch horses, but everyone else would hang back and wait for him to bring their horses to them. Each cowboy would slip his bridle on the horse he called for, and then Gholson would walk back to the remuda and listen for another cowboy to call for a horse.

“After you led their horse to them, they would stay there until every horse was caught,” he says. “Only after that would they leave to saddle their horse. That’s just good etiquette.”

The scene of a cowboss catching horses at daylight has played out for more than 100 years, and it has been photographed extensively on big outfits throughout the West. Now retired, Gholson reflects fondly on those days and recognizes the romance of it all.

“It was a thrill,” he says.

“To throw that houlihan loop and see it fly through the air and then open up over a horse’s head, it was a pretty sight.”

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Western Horseman.

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