It happened again: a “neighbor” offered a horse for working cattle.
The offer was made at the local pub at McLeod. The reason I put quotes around the word neighbor above is that person offering the use of the horse was one of the folks who are summer residents of one of the 20-acre tracts down the river from us.
I’ve had that offer before, and always politely decline. Their horse would be absolutely no help in the job of working cattle. For most people, horses are simply a mode of transportation – like a motorcycle, or the 4-wheeler which is now ubiquitous in our country.
Most people simply sit on a horse as it walks along from one place to another. There are thousands of horses on dude ranches and hunting outfits in Montana that are judged by their ability to walk quietly behind the horse in front of them. It seems as though most people think of “working” cattle as following along behind as a herd is trailed to a new pasture. But I have six horses on our small ranch, and the only one in the herd that is expected to follow quietly behind at a walk is the pack-mule.
I tried to capture a little of what our horses do in the story “Pulling Leather” - http://www.montanacowboycollege.com/pulling_leather.htm - and that records only one of the jobs we ask of them.
In fact, we don’t spend much time walking at all. When we are headed out to a job we usually travel at a long trot. A horse – as well as a dog or a wolf - can travel this gait all day on the level, and can easily make 20 miles. We walk once we get to the cattle and have them moving, but we often kick into a lope to get around something that is trying to escape, or to get around another group of cattle to throw into the bunch that is already moving.
At a walk, a horse isn’t that much faster than a man afoot. But at a trot or a lope he can go much farther and much faster. A horse can jump sage brush and cross streams; with his four legs he can traverse mountainsides and bail down off steep hillsides where an “All Terrain Vehicle” would be helpless.
Cutting and sorting is a skill that takes time to develop. Most cattlemen do this afoot. But our horses are quicker; the view is better from atop a horse; and we don’t want to get manure on our boots. All our corral gates are made to open from ahorseback, and we rarely get off.
These horses let this three cows by, and jump in front of that heifer, responding to the slightest change in posture of their rider. And if a critter doesn’t pay attention, you can always rope her.
When an experienced cowhorse sees you swinging a loop, he knows to follow the calf on his left side and a little behind so you can dab on a loop. Then he knows to hold the rope tight as you throw the calf and doctor it.
No, horses are not mere transportation on our ranch. In fact they are the reason I am in the cow business. Fifty years ago I was content to be sitting on a horse walking down the road. But now I want to be atop a horse that is “whirling and spinning to the music of the West” – and the cows are just an excuse to be riding a first-class horse.