Saturday, December 8, 2012

Horse Poor

The phrase “Horse Poor” describes the condition of having more horses than you can ride, and more horses than you can feed.  Such describes the Ellison Ranch today.  But it was only a month ago we were Almost Afoot .

It all started right after branding when Buddy came up lame.  Buddy has been Ted’s top mount for several years now, and our top cutting horse.  But it appeared that his age had caught up with him, and he was “stove up” for most of the summer.

Then the buckskin mare was lame for a couple of weeks.  And finally the Kentucky Colt came in with a bad wire cut across one of his heels.  These were our three broke horses, and all of them were down for awhile.  When it was time for fall work, we had only the buckskin to ride between the two of us.

We got through with some borrowed horses, but it was a strain.  It takes lots of riding to make a cowhorse, and no one with a good cowhorse will loan him out. 

I let Ted take the Kentucky Colt to move cows one day while I rode a borrowed horse, and was sick with jealous envy to watch the pair of them glide out across the sage to turn a bunch-quitter, while I was plodding along on a “good, solid” trailhorse. 

Riding this horse helped me to understand why so many modern ranchers use 4-wheelers.  If I had to ride a horse like this to work cattle every time, I’d ride an ATV myself.  A good horse can spin on his hocks and change directions instantly; he can cross creeks and gullies, and navigate rocks and brush, he can sidle up to a gate to open it from horseback, and he can rope a recalcitrant critter.  But this horse handled as clumsily as a 4-wheeler, without the acceleration when the going was open!

It was late in the fall when Ted got away to attend a horse sale.  He came home with three horses that we considered to be green-broke.  One was such a sow that we hauled her back to the next sale.  The second was a red roan that would need some riding to make an average kind of horse.  But the third one was a good, big, solid, buckskin that had a nice rein, and real promise as a ranch horse.  We started riding him at every opportunity.

There is only so much you can teach a horse in a corral.  To make a good cowhorse takes a lot of time with cows.  We already had the bulk of the cow-work behind us for the year, with the next real opportunities awaiting us next spring during calving.  So we could only use this new horse for gathering cattle, and not for the real cow-work of sorting and cutting.

By the time we had finished our fall work, Buddy, The Colt, and the Buckskin Mare had all healed up.  And we still had the red roan, the new Copper Buckskin, and a mule running with the bunch.  As I said in my last post – “ninety-nine percent of the time a guy has too many horses, and the other one percent he doesn’t have enough”.  We are now in that 99% of the time with too many horses.

Over the next few months we may need horses only once a week.  We now have four horses between the two of us.  If they all stay sound, that equals only one ride apiece every two weeks.  We need to keep riding Buddy to keep him in shape, so we don’t have a repeat of last year.  But we also need to keep that Copper going at every opportunity. 

At twelve years old, the Kentucky Colt is at the top of his game.  We can save him for times when we need a top-notch cowhorse, and ride the others the rest of the time.  But the handle of even a well-broke horse declines within weeks if he isn’t ridden, so we can’t neglect him for too long.

So, we continue our strategy of one of us riding a greener horse, and the other on a well-broke horse.  We use the greener horses whenever the job at hand allows it, and use a solid older broke horse when we need some serious cow savvy. 

On a bigger ranch there is more riding to do, and more opportunity to both train, and to hone the response of a few good horses.  We do the best we can on a smaller place – but at least we haven’t abandoned our horses altogether.

We aren’t like my friend Pol who confessed:
            “First you buy a four-wheeler to do the irrigating, then you figure out how good it will work to run in the horses.”
             “Then one day you realize that you could be there and back on the four-wheeler in less time than it would take to get your horse in and saddle it.  That’s the beginning of the end.”
            “And then when you really need a horse, he’s so fat and out of tune that you can’t get the job done any way.  Then it’s all over”.

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