Thursday, October 13, 2011

Long Trot

When we vaccinated our calves a couple of weeks ago we came up short about a dozen.  That isn’t a big concern yet, as the neighbors will call us if they are mixed in with their cattle when they gather.  But we are shipping next week, and it will be better if we have all the calves on the truck.  So we elected to make the outside circle to see if we could find the missing cattle and throw them back into the bunch.

This would be a long ride, and we’d have some cutting to do when we found the strays, so we saddled our two toughest horses.  As usual, we left the barn at a long trot.

A trot isn’t the smoothest gait, but it eats up the miles without tiring a horse excessively.  Like a wolf or an elk, a horse can trot for hours.

In the first mile we had only to ride east across a hayfield and climb up onto the plateau of the field we call “the desert”.  (This field is so-named because my wife’s grandmother took up a “desert” claim on the land after her husband plowed in a ditch to bring in irrigation water.)

Leaving the desert we dropped steeply down into the aspens along the bottom of Sick'Em Creek, then began the long pull back up the east fork toward the pine ridge.  We made most of the second mile at a walk as it is steep and rocky, and we were dodging brush and limbs.  The horses were breathing hard and had up a good sweat when we hit the saddle of the ridge above Mendenhall Creek, but they stretched out into a trot toward the next gate with no urging.

Now we were heading into a neighbor's field, in country where we were not familiar.  We strategized as to how to cover it.  Ted would take the ridge-top and I would go on down the middle fork of Mendenhall Creek, hoping to meet up at the north end of our ranch.

The next couple of miles for me were pretty quick and easy.  The creek bottom was wide and open, and we trotted on until I hit the next cross fence, which we then followed back up until I hit our north fenceline again.

This was open country, but rough.  I didn’t see any gates out there in the neighbor's field which would allow me across, nor any smooth route, and I saw no cattle.  So we climbed back up onto the bench inside our fenceline and circled around to the gate in our far southwest corner and out onto Peterson Creek.

This was rough country too, and heavily timbered.  I found a logging road and followed it south, paralleling our west fenceline.  In two more miles I found a bunch of black cattle, with five red critters obviously out of place.

We’d already covered well over 8 miles, mostly at a long trot. But as soon as I turned Thunder into those cattle, he was up and ready.  We drove them up the swale towards our corrals at the top of the mountain.  Of course that took plenty of working back and forth to hold our cattle together and cut the neighbor’s back at every opportunity.

When we hit our fence corner I rode around the cattle and threw open the gate as they drifted away, then raced through the sage to get back around them.  After they were out the gate and back into our field,  I had to jump down and shut it, then race around them again to turn them into the corral.  And thus we made another mile, this time much of it at a run.

But one of these cows that I picked up was missing her calf.  I had turned back once already to look through those black cattle again, thinking the red cow could have a black calf.  But now I turned out the two-and-a-half pairs into our field with the rest of the cattle.

It was getting late in the afternoon – I was tired and my horse was slowing down – but we had a few more miles to go.  I actually had to rein thunder to turn back west up the fenceline away from home!

As  we rode along this fenceline I got some insight as to why these cattle were out.  In one place three of the wires were twisted together, leaving a large opening underneath.  Many of the clips were missing that hold the wire to the steel posts. 
And a wire was broken at the gate.

I had just rebuilt that fence the year before, with all new wire. It was obvious that cattle had hit this fence at a run.  Then I recalled a similar broken place that we had seen clear back at Sick'Em Creek.  It was now obvious that the cattle had been visited by a predator – probably a wolf.  It was then that I realized that we had only counted calves when we vaccinated and discovered the short count.  I had assumed that they and their mothers had simply escaped our fence.  Now arises the concern that maybe the calves have been eaten!

We’d only gone another half mile when I spotted a red calf.  Riding closer, I saw by his eartag that he belonged to the cow I had just put through the corral.  We circled around.

It would be nearly impossible to take that calf by himself, so I picked up the group he was with and started them toward the corral.  Thunder was not so eager as he had been when we left the house three hours before, but he kept the bunch together.  Back at the corner I threw open the gate, turned out my calf with a black pair from the neighbor’s, then cut the pair back and quickly shut the gate.  Then we raced across the sage to get around the calf and run him through the corral.

Out the other side of the corral we again broke into a run to turn the calf away from the fence and the sight of the cattle in the field from which we had just come.  Luckily the last bunch of cattle that I had brought through was just over the ridge at a salt barrel, and the calf was quickly reunited with his mother.  And thus we burned up another mile.

Again we headed out from the corral – westward and away from home.  For the first time today I actually had to squeeze Thunder into a trot.  But now I noticed that my dog Max was lagging behind.  While Thunder and I had put on at least 12 miles already, Max had done many more.  In the early stages of the ride he had run ahead and come back, and had been casting out to the sides.  His legs were an order of magnitude shorter than the Kentucky Colt, who is half Thoroughbred, making Max's footsteps on this circle 20 times that of the colt.

I called to Max and assured him we would stop and rest at the top of the next hill.  Those words were enough to reassure him, and he was soon back in his scout position ahead of my horse.

We made a circle at the top of the ridge, then turned and headed down the road and back to our west gate.  Once we were back on our home turf and headed toward the barn, Thunder really stretched out.  I’d like to have had a tape to measure the length of his stride as we trotted down the mountain!

I thought he had been getting tired, but I had to pull him back down a couple of times to keep him from breaking into a lope.  And I knew better than to relax.  Several times in the last couple of miles he feigned fear at the sight of an up-turned rock or clump of dirt and jumped sideways a few feet to see if I was paying attention.

Ted wasn’t far behind me.  I hadn’t seen him for several hours, as he’d been side-tracked cutting out some cattle in a different part of the pasture.  Following me in my outside circle he’d watched for my tracks to see what part of the country I’d ridden through, and then circled out to see a different part.

Like my horse, Ted’s mount had lost some of the fire with which he had begun the ride; and like my horse - even heaving for air and dripping with foam - his horse was ready to take on another cow.  But we’ve never run out of horse riding this pair.

And like me, Ted finished this ride at a long trot.

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