Sunday, December 25, 2011

I tried...

It is Christmas.  I've read where some other western authors made it a point to give their animals something special on Christmas day, and I tried.

But it's 50 above and the snow is almost gone.  When I took hay out to they just looked at me.

Ho, ho, ho...    I tried.

This warm weather is sure a blessing.  We had a week or two of sub-zero weather by Thanksgiving last year, and I had already put out a lot of feed for the cows by this time.  It's a long time until June, so we're not yet worried about snowpack.  We're just glad that we haven't had to dig very far into our haystacks so far this year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fuel Pump

It was a beautiful day!  The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there is only an inch or two of snow.  The cows didn’t need any hay at all, but I have been giving some to the heifers.  Today it was so warm that I was in my shirtsleeves as I loaded the pickup.

It was also a nice day for accomplishing another mechanicing job – replacing the fuel pump in the pickup.

The outfit has quit me several times in the last week, and I feared a long walk home.  But it always started again.  I figured it to be the fuel pump, and picked up a new one when I went to town yesterday.

I had started work on this repair a couple of days ago when I went looking for the fuel pump to determine if it was electrical or mechanical.  It took a while to find it.  Even though this pickup is 26 years old, the engine compartment is still packed with apparatus, and it took some tracing of pipes and hoses to find what I was looking for.

I found it, but I couldn’t reach it.  It took a couple of hours to remove two pollution control pumps – that had long since been disconnected - and a bunch of hoses to expose the fuel pump on the side of the engine.  Today I had only to disconnect the fuel lines and remove two bolts to get the old pump out.  Getting it back together took a little longer.

To reach the engine I was standing on a step-stool and bent deep into the recesses of the engine compartment.  Even with those two extraneous pumps and all their tubing out of the way there was still plenty of ‘stuff’ to work over, under, around, and through.  The real challenge in the re-assembly was the push-rod from the camshaft to the fuel pump drive lever: with the lever removed, that push-rod slid right down into the way of re-installing the new lever.

The hole through which that drive lever inserts is only an inch wide and a couple of inches high.  Whatever I put in that hole to raise the rod was in the way of whatever I put in the hole to hold it up.  And whatever I put in the hole to hold the push-rod up was in the way of installing the fuel pump.

I raised the rod with my fingers, but couldn’t hold it.  There wasn’t room for needle nosed pliers.  The curved-nosed pliers could raise the rod up, and a screwdriver could hold it up, but by the time I got the gasket into position on the new fuel pump and the fuel pump lever into the hole, things had shifted enough that the rod fell down out of position again and another tool had fallen into the dirt under the pickup.

I tried grease to hold the rod up.  I tried bending a piece of soft flat metal to hold it up. On my 23rd attempt I used the curved-nose pliers to raise the rod and a screwdriver to hold it.  I was able to slide the new fuel pump into place under the screwdriver, remove the screwdriver, and work a bolt through the fuel pump, through the gasket, and into the engine block.  Using a 3” extension and a wobble-drive adapter on the socket I was able to get the second bolt started.  Only minutes later the job was finished.

I let the engine idle as I was putting away the tools, and then took it for a drive up to the mailbox.  I think the fuel pump was the problem, and a new one was only $15.  I’ll tell you in a day or two if my diagnosis was correct.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Today I took my second ride on the new horse I’m starting – this time no buck.  We practiced starting, stopping, and neckreining, and it’s gratifying how soft and quick she is responding already.

The essence of a good cowhorse is that light touch on the reins – both held in the left hand – as the rider guides him through the dance of cutting out and roping a critter.  Most trainers spend weeks, months, even years developing that light rein, using a process that is unnecessary - and even counter-productive.  Let me explain:

The majority of horses in the world are trained using what the high-brows call a ‘direct rein’, and what we cowboys refer to as ‘plow-reining’.  This refers to pulling on one rein to swing the head in the direction you want the horse go – just like on a workhorse.  I don’t have any direct experience, but I am told that English-style riders want to maintain contact with a horse’s mouth at all times. 

Western riders, by contrast, need one hand free for their lariat or bull-whip.  Where an English rider steers her horse in the same manner as a bull-dozer, the Western rider handles his horse in the manner of a fighter-jet: by one hand on the “joystick”.  We ride most of the time with a slack rein, giving guidance to our horse only when he is unsure of our intention.  (Here I will refer you to my story that further describes the joy of riding a good cowhorse: )

As an example of the two systems of handling, try this little exercise on yourself: First, take your right index finger and push on your cheek until your head turns to the left; next, use your left index finger to pull your on your lip until your head turns to the left.  By which method would you prefer to be guided?

Nearly every trainer starts his horse using the plow-rein.  Western (and polo) trainers then spend weeks using both hands to transition the horse to a neckrein: pulling on the left rein while pushing with the right.  I did that also until a day thirty years ago when my daughter asked “Why, Daddy?”

Ever since then I have immediately begun reining every horse I’ve ridden with a nudge to the outside of the neck rather than a pull to the inside of the mouth – and ever since then I have also wondered why you would teach a horse to steer like a bull-dozer if you want him to turn like fighter jet.

It is amazing to most horse-people that neckreining can be taught in a matter of minutes.  But if you think about it, what sense does it make to teach a horse one method, then use both, and finally end up using the latter?  That’s like teaching a toddler French, then using both the French and English words together, so that you can eventually talk to him using only English.

The result of neckreining from the first ride on a green horse is an incomparably light rein.  Horses that have been started with a “direct rein” can simply never catch up.  And a whole month of training time has been lost in making the transition.

And as my daughter once asked: “Why?”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

First Ride

I finally made my first ride on the Arab mare.  In many years of training horses I have never done so much ground-work on a horse before climbing on.  Usually three days is sufficient with a horse that is familiar with people – five days for a horse run in fresh off the prairie with no handling whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be her age: most horses are broke as two-year-olds, or maybe three, and this mare is six.  And I have no idea of her background – she may have been badly spoiled.  Anyway she threw a serious fit the first few times I saddled her, throwing herself multiple times before she submitted to the indignity. And the first time I put some weight on the saddle and jumped up beside her she took off bucking seriously.  I’m no bronc rider and I couldn’t have stayed with her.

This is just not typical behavior – even for range-raised horses that have never been socialized with humans.  On the other hand, she is sweet and docile from the ground – not showing the fear of humans that you see in horses that have never been handled.

But it is winter and things are slow.  I have time to fool around with her.

Well I climbed on her back for the first time yesterday – there is only so much you can accomplish from the ground, and the whole point is to have a horse you can ride.  After her performance the first few times I saddled her I was confident that she would buck, so I waited until my son was around to pick up the pieces if necessary.

As I said, I’m no bronc rider.  Very few green horses buck if you’ve done your job right – even the semi-wild horses I used to get off the reservation.  But again, this mare isn’t typical.  She’s sweet and gentle and likes people, but isn’t impressed with the saddle.

As I expected, she went to bucking when I stepped in the stirrup and swung aboard - but only two jumps, and I was still aboard when she quit.  I talked to her and petted her as she got used to the weight and relaxed, then I shifted my weight around and let her relax again.

After awhile she settled down, accepted the whole deal, and began to walk around the corral, learning to stop, turn, and back.

The second time I mounted in the session she only jumped once, and soon we were striding freely around the corral with a slack rein, and she responded nicely when I asked for her head.

In my next post I’ll write about neck-reining.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Most people picture Riding and Roping when they think of cowboys.  But I’ve already told in my blog of the modern cowboy’s responsibilities in Fencing, Farming, and Feeding.

I’ve written about Haying, Welding, Irrigating, and Mechanicing – now it’s time to mention carpentering.

The calving shed is a “pole-barn” – that means it’s supported by a number of posts rather than a foundation.  Construction is faster, cheaper, and easier, but it doesn’t last as long.  The posts rot off in the ground, and need to be replaced every 50 years or so.

In June there are a whole line of tasks screaming to be accomplished at once: farming, spraying, irrigating, fencing.  But in the winter the jobs are limited by weather.  The ground freezes, and so do such things as paint.  It’s hard to accomplish much outside of feeding.

Inside the calving shed, however, the ground isn’t frozen yet, and it’s a good time to continue the project of replacing posts.  There are forty-some, and a guy will no sooner finish then he needs to start over again.

The weather continues to be warm by Montana standards.  We’ve had only one day at zero, and it’s been sitting around freezing for a week with more of the same in the forecast.  The cows are fine with grass and lick, the heifers take less than an hour to feed.

It’s sure fascinating to sit at a computer while looking out the window at a ranch that was established over 100 years ago.  Times sure have changed!  What wasn’t fabricated here on the ranch in 1900 was brought in by train to Big Timber and by team and wagon up the Boulder river. It would have taken half a day to get to town then, and would have been too hard on the horses to come back with a load yet in the afternoon.

I, on the other hand, have done all my Christmas shopping with my fingers.  The goods are delivered to the door within a week.  I frequently download documents, print them, sign them, and fax them back – all in a matter of minutes.  Even the feed supplement for the cows is delivered to the ranch.

Today’s world is far more complicated in many ways, yet simpler in others.  I’ve lived in the “good ol’ days”, but I prefer now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Drive shaft

How cowboy does this sound: I installed a rebuilt front driveshaft in the feed pickup today.  And it was only a week or so ago that I put in a new clutch slave cylinder.  Yes, I did get in a little training time with my new horse this afternoon - but only after I got the pickup back together.  Priorities you know.

A thus is the life of a modern ranch cowboy – he spends a lot more time with his equipment than he does with his horse.  But maybe that’s not all bad.  Maybe it’s the contrast that makes the time ahorseback more fun.

The romantic picture of cowboys following herds of cattle day after day comes from a short span of time over a century ago when steers were trailed through open range to take advantage of grass that greened up ever later in the season as the herd moved north.  Most of these trailhands were indeed boys – in their late teens and early twenties.  The job paid poorly, lasted only 9 months, and ended when the cattle were delivered to a railhead in Montana as winter approached.

It may sound romantic, but trailing day after day behind cattle grazing their way north sounds boring to me – and the prospect of camping out every night in every kind of weather is something I outgrew years ago.  Most of the horses those trailhands rode were truly broke rather than trained, and most of the riders weren’t any more skilled at handling cattle than were their mounts.

I love working a good team of horses, and am disappointed that I spent only one happy winter feeding a thousand head of cows with only the clop of hooves and the jingle of trace-chains to break the vast stillness.  But there is something to be said for a heated cab.  And as I pointed out a couple of months ago, the invention of hydraulic loaders sure makes life easier. ( )

There aren’t many people left who experienced what modern folks call “the good old days”.  Those old-timers are quick to point out that wood stoves, outhouses, one-a-week baths in a washtub, and kerosene lamps didn’t seem so good then.

I’ve tried it all, and I’m here to tell you that I don’t mind doing a little mechanic work now and then to enjoy this modern lifestyle.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The big winter storm scheduled for the end of last week sort of petered out. We had only about 4” of fresh dry snow before the sun came out again.
That was enough for me to start feeding the heifers.  I judged that their nutritive requirements for growing both a fetus and their own frame were teetering on the brink, and a deficiency now can result in poor breed-back next spring.  The cows are on fresh pasture now, and they should be fine on grass and lick as long as it doesn’t get too cold. 
The temperature dropped to zero on Monday for the first time this year.  We’d already endured a couple of weeks of well below zero by this time last year, so we’re grateful for the warm weather we’ve had.  I was considering giving hay to the cows, but the sun came out and the temperature rose – and it was above freezing today!
One daily task that is added when the weather turns cold is breaking ice on the water troughs.  These tanks hold 1000 gallons of water, most of it buried into the hillside, with only enough exposed for the cattle to get their heads in.  That thermal sink helps, but ice still forms in the exposed trough when the weather gets colder, and we carry an axe to chop the ice out.

At times the ice can get 2-3” thick in this trough, but that’s still a big improvement over the river.

Before we installed this tank the cows drank out of the river.  During extended bouts of subzero weather the ice got thicker while the water level dropped in the river.  At time the cows were on their knees on the ice near the middle of the river trying to get a drink.  There was always the danger of the ice breaking or a cow being pushed in.  There were times when I considered using a backhoe, or even dynamite to break enough ice to get the cattle to water.  I’ve gone so far as to chop a hole in the middle of the river and pump water out into a tank.  But it usually warms up again before long, and the problem subsides.

It’s always fun to see elk on the ranch.  There are big herds a few miles away on both sides of us and they range through on occasion.  Our hunters get a few every year, but the elk don’t generally hang here.

Training on my new horse is going pretty slow.  I don’t know her background, but she is still intent on throwing herself when I tighten the cinch.  In 50 years of horse-training I’ve never seen such a thing.  But I’m in no hurry and we’ll get through it.  She’s pretty well-mannered other than that bad habit, and it won’t be long before I can show her some country.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tire Chains

I got stuck again!  Two snowstorms and I’ve already been stuck twice.  In both cases I had backed into a compromised position where ahead was the only option.

 The problem in both cases was the warm temperature: there is plenty of traction when the ground is frozen and there are only a few inches of dry snow.  But when the snow is warmer it plugs up the tread with slick “schmear”.  When you are in a tight place and your tires start to spin, the expeditious thing is to throw on a set of chains.

Many people question my light attitude at putting on chains – but few people have my experience.  In my younger days I spent a few winters hauling hay.  At that time we put a set of three-rail chains on the dual wheels of the truck before we left the road to drive into the haystack, loaded twenty tons of hay by hand, took the chains off at the highway, and put them back on again when we left the road to unload the hay. 

There are two tricks that make putting on chains relatively painless: 1) fit the chains to the tires in the fall when the ground is bare and dry, and 2) put the chains on before you are stuck.

Every pair of tires and every type of tire chains is different, so pick a relaxed time fit the chains on a bare & dry surface.  You only want two extra links on each of the rail-chains - use a hacksaw to cut off the excess.  And you only want enough cross-links to fit down on each side of the tire footprint – use a tire-chain tool to pry off the extras to save for replacements later on.

Here is a set that needs to be cut down to fit the tires. These will clatter and bang when the pickup speeds up, and may be lost in a snowbank.

You can see that the snow is gone, yet the operator hasn't taken them off.  He was too lazy to fit them before he needed them, and to lazy too take them off when the need for chains passed. 

If you are not yet stuck, it literally only takes a few minutes to drape a set of chains evenly over the tire, slide under and hook the back-side rail chains – remember to drop the two extra links – then use the clasp to connect the two ends of the front-side rail chain.   Dust the snow off your back, and you’re off!

Of course sometimes the chains get twisted and tangled while they lie in the pile behind the seat – that can be a bit like a Chinese puzzle - and it can take a few minutes longer to get them straightened out and lying flat.

A properly fitted set of chains doesn’t need springs, twine, or bungee cord to take up the slack.  If you have gotten stuck first, it can take a little more work, as you have to shovel all around the tire.  And that’s when you may need those extra two links to get them connected.  You can take out the slack when you get back on solid ground.

The worst situation is when you need chains to get out of the mud.  I haven’t found a way to accomplish that without needing a shower and change of clothes afterwards.  Again:  put on the chains before you’re stuck.

Putting chains on a car is a little more work, as you generally have on inadequate clothes, and there is no room to slide underneath.  In that case, you will have to drape the chains over the wheels, then back up a foot (with a front-wheel-drive car) so you can reach the inside hook from the front.  It’s harder to get the chains tight this way, so you’ll likely want to stop and take up the slack before long.  Once again, you want to do this in good weather the first time to confirm the fit.

Chains wear out with use, and the constant thumping over the cross-chains can’t be good for the tires.  So I apply and remove chains frequently as conditions change.  It only takes a few minutes, and can save you a lot of time shoveling.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Winter's A-Comin'!

The forecast was pretty straight-forward: ”100% chance of snow tonight, with probable accumulation of 4 inches.  80% chance of snow tomorrow, with accumulations up to 6 additional inches.”  Snow was already falling at daylight – as was the temperature. It was obviously time for us to get prepared. I went back to my bedroom and put on my wool underwear, and put on my wool ear-lap cap as I went out the door.

It had been quite nice the day before, and we had burned off most of a field that I will plow next spring.  It was warm, but there was still some snow lying in shaded spots and I had gotten stuck while taking a fellow to look at our summer range in anticipation of taking in some pasture cattle for next summer.  We chained up the front wheels of my pickup to make it up to the top of the mountain, and had dropped the muddy chains in the grass near the house when we returned.  The first order of business was to find those tire-chains before the snow got too deep.

Ted ran in the rest of the horses while I bridled and saddled my new Arab mare for another lesson.  I would let her “soak” while we were out riding.

The cows were all out in the Clayton field where the fall grass had been excellent.  But the grass was getting sparse, protection was limited, and there are too many rocks to turn a pickup loose while you feed.  Ted wouldn’t be with me much longer, and it was time to move the cows up west.

The cows were pretty well bunched up, so it wasn’t much of a gather – and it was only a mile or so up west, so it wasn’t much of a trail.  We started out in what seemed to be an impending snow-storm that passed quickly.  What gave us a little more fun for the morning was a handful of strays that had found their way into our winter pasture.

We dumped out the cows in the field and watched them spread, then went searching for four head of black cows I had seen in our field a couple of days before.  We covered a mile or so of steep rough country before we found them bedded down in a brushy draw.
These cows jumped up and headed west - from whence they’d come - at a long trot with two of us and our dogs following at a respectful distance.  They split up at a deep, brush-filled coulee, and we all went after the bunch-quitter until we had her turned back.  I went searching for the other three while Ted and Izzy brought the fourth one back around for another pass.

I rode up and back looking down into the brush for tracks, then began hollering and whistling at the last place there was evidence of recent passing.  Max went down in the brush and I soon saw black shadows moving ahead.

Ted pushed his cow into my bunch, then opened a gate behind them while I turned them all back to him so he could turn them out into the neighboring field where they belonged.  Then a two-mile jog home across a rock-strewn hillside in time to make some lunch.

After noon we again cleaned all the fencing equipment out of the pickup and loaded it up with hay for tomorrow.  I spent half an hour hosing all the mud off my tire-chains – we were assured that the temperature would plummet, and mud frozen onto those chains would make them extremely heavy and nearly impossible to apply.

But the joke was on us.  As we accomplished all these tasks in preparation, the clouds had been breaking up.  The temperature remains moderate and we accumulated only a half inch of snow.  The cows are still eating grass, and the hay is still in the pickup.

Ah, well.  “Better safe than sorry.”