Sunday, November 19, 2017

Jack of the West

            I was required to take off my boots to go through the TSA scanner – even in the tiny airport at Glasgow, Montana.

            “Where’s the boot-jack”, I inquired.

            “Boot jack?” asked the gal at the desk.  “What’s that?”


            A boot jack is a tool I use every day – to remove my lace boots; to change out of my irrigating boots; to pull off my winter pacs; to pry off my riding boots.  This woman had never even heard of one.

             “Where you from?” I asked.

She admitted that she was from the East, and another crew-member explained to her that boot jacks were a Western thing. 

Like Jack-Coke, he added, referring to a common drink consumed in large quantities in the bars of Montana.



It wasn’t long until we added ‘Farmer Jack’ to our list of common Western terms.


Every farmer and rancher in the West has a Hi-Lift Jack – or two or three – and uses them regularly.  These jacks are also necessary equipment for off-roaders.

And in keeping with that ‘jack’ theme, the term “jack fence” soon came up.


Jack fences are used where the ground is too rocky – or too wet – to drive fence posts.

            Finally we added “Jack of all trades”, to the list – and this one really hit home.

            Over the last 50 years in Montana I have made my living in a number of different jobs: ranch hand, contract fencer, elk guide, mule-skinner, trucker, horse-trainer, horseshoer, ranch manager, camp cook, carpenter, deliveryman… 
I’ve done plumbing, wiring, roofing, butchering, shearing, artificial insemination, welding – and a lifetime of mechanical repair.

            I returned to college mid-life, and graduated the same year as my oldest daughter.  I’m currently working an interim assignment as a nursing home administrator – and returning to the ranch on weekends to shoe my horses, move cattle, work calves, gather, sort, and ship.

            Yep, I’ve used bootjacks, drunk Jack Daniels, jacked up more pieces of equipment than I can count, built miles of jack-fence, and worked at many different trades.  I guess you could call me a “Jack of the West”.

Read about some of my adventures in the book Ain't This Romantic!?!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On the Prod

On the Prod

Merriam-Webster: “transitive verb:

1 a :to thrust a pointed instrument into

b :to incite to action

2 :to poke or stir as if with a prod

intransitive verb: to urge someone on

Over the years on the ranches of Montana I have heard the term “On the prod” to describe an animal that is in bad temper – as is a man who has been subject to constant nagging.

            That description fits a bovine that is stressed by pain – as with an injured or inflamed joint  or having recently calved – but is most often is applied to a bull who may also be described as ‘on the fight’.  This is the story of a bull, so I’ll give you a little background there.

            One might think of the life of a bull as idyllic: the grass is green, the sky is blue, and lots of the most willing brown-eyed females everywhere he looks.  But all isn’t fun and games – even in paradise.

            There are other bulls with their eyes on the females, and they are big: as big as a ton.  The hills are steep and rocky; the sun is hot; the flies incessant.  After a few years of that, bulls get tired.  By the time they are five years old, most bulls are either lame, or they have discovered that there is nothing that can stop them from doing whatever it is they have in mind: not a fence, not a gate, and not a horse.

            A cowboy can’t really make a bull do anything.  All he can do is make it so miserable in every other direction that the bull finally “chooses” to take the route that requires less pain and effort.

            There are a few tools in the cowboy’s arsenal: a horse, a dog, a bullwhip, a load of .22-caliber birdshot, and last-but-not-least – a lariat.


            On Saturday we had a foot of snow, with colder weather in the forecast.  The field in which the cows were residing had too many rocks to make feeding practical.  It was time to move them to their winter range “up west”.  First we had to cut out 6 calves which had crossed the river and two fences to return to their mothers after having been separated.

            That wasn’t much of a ride, as the cows were bunched only a half mile from the corrals.  We rode out, raked through the cows, took the six pairs on out through two gates and across the bridge, and into the corral, where we quickly separated them. 

            We returned to the cow-bunch, and discovered one of the neighbor’s bulls among them.

            Now was the time to cut out the bull, as we were only a few hundred feet from the neighbor’s fence, and we were about to move those cows a couple of miles west.

            But he wouldn’t cut.


            When I tried to turn the bull back, he just ran until we were even with him, then he shouldered through my horse and kept on agoing. 

I tried to throw a few cows together with him – but he was determined to head west away from his home.  I was alone with just a horse and a dog, and couldn’t hold a small bunch together with the bull.

We could have left him with the cows, but we were headed a couple of miles west – making it harder for the neighbor to retrieve him.

We could have turned the whole cow-herd back into the neighbor’s near-by corrals - but if we couldn’t cut him back with the horse in the pasture, how could we cut him back in the corral where we had no space to evade his charge?

Roping a bull out on the prairie is not a task to be taken on without some prior planning, and I’ve written a story about that.  But this was a young bull that didn’t outweigh my horse by much, and the corral was only a quarter of a mile away.  I stopped to tighten my cinches, then shook out a loop.

After having lost a couple of critters because my rope was too short to dally, I was now carrying a 45’ rope.

The rope was long enough to dally this time, but I was too late in jerking my slack: he had already stepped through with both his front feet - and when I pulled tight, the rope was around his chest.  I was slowing down.

Taking one front leg in a neck-loop can be a good strategy: it keeps a critter from choking down.  But with both front legs in the loop, I had a minimum of control.

The wolf advocates of our country think it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to shoot a wolf who is tearing apart one of our cattle.  They instead insist on the strategy of making the wolf “feel unwelcome”.  With a rope around the neck of this younger bull, I could have controlled him; but with the rope around his chest, I could only make him ‘feel unwelcome’.

That strategy worked in this case. I didn’t have enough control to take the buIll back through the gate into his own pasture, but Eric was able to push the cow-herd on west while I held the bull back, and made him feel unwelcome among our cows.

The bull was now separated from the cows, but my good rope was still on him.  I couldn’t force him back to the corral to pull the rope off in the chute.  I couldn’t choke him down and tie his back feet while I pulled off the rope.  Robby was due to arrive any time now, however, and we could ride out together to head and heel him to get this lingering rope off the bull's chest.

It was late and cold before Eric and I had dropped the cows up west and returned to headquarters.  The bull couldn’t get into any trouble with just a rope on his chest.  Tomorrow would be a bright new day.  Tomorrow we could go out and put that bull back in the field where he belonged, and retrieve my good 45-foot rope.

If you like this story, you'd enjoy my book Ain't This Romantic!?!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Winter Shoes

It’s that time of year again.

My horse needed to have his shoes reset, and it’s that time of year to include rim pads under those built-up shoes.

We range on the West Boulder River in the Absaroka foothills, where rocks are everywhere.  I seldom shoe my horses at any time without having first built up the toes and heels of their shoes with hard-surface welding rod for two reasons: extra traction, and extra wear.  After six weeks of wear, I usually run another hard surface bead on the shoes to replace the layer that has worn off.

In addition to the layer of hard-surface on the bottom of the shoes, this time of year I place a set of rim pads under the shoes.

These rim pads are designed to keep the snow from balling up on the bottom of the feet.  Even a barefoot horse gets snowballs when conditions are right, and horseshoes form a rim that holds those snowballs onto the foot.

That snowball makes walking awkward, and also elevates the show away from the ground so the cleats can’t dig in.

We’ve already had some snow, and there’ll be plenty more over the next 9 months.  I want to have as much traction as possible when my horses scramble after a critter.  

Set of snowball pads - $25
My legs - priceless

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Slowing Down

My good old horse is slowing down. 

 That was especially apparent yesterday when we went to the far north corners of the ranch. He walked the whole way out to the job.

In years past, the default gait of my “Kentucky Colt” was a long trot. He would hold that pace without any urging, until such time as there was a reason to speed up: to turn a cow – or to slow down: to cross a stream or a log, or to follow a critter. Even at a walk he had to be reined to the left or right as we zig-zagged behind the herd.

But today he walked.

It's a tough pull up out from the barn and up Mike's Coulee to the top of the mountain – gaining 1000' in elevation in only a mile – and we weren't in any hurry. But when “The Colt” was younger he once made that entire 8-mile circle without ever changing speed. 
And he didn't change his pace today - just that steady walk - until I needed speed, that is.
We were at the far north fence when we began our gather. Rather than head straight south, however, the cows for some reason turned down Bull Coulee toward Mendenhall Creek. I had only to lean forward a bit in the saddle, and the Colt was off – over, around, and through the rocks and knee-high sage to turn them.

Once the run was turned, the Colt was willing to stand quietly as we waited for my granddaughter, Taylor, to show up over the ridge at the tail-end of the bunch, before we turned back to continue on to the next corner of the field.

We found another seven head, and turned them to follow Taylor's bunch – which was by now a good half-mile away.

It is four miles from the barn, up and over the top, back down the other side, and across the head of Bull coulee to the north fence. Even after we turned them, the cows dropped down toward the brush in Bull Coulee, and had to trail back up across the flats above. We followed this little group back up the hill until we could hear the bunch ahead of us. Then we turned off and headed back down off the bench and into the Mendenhall Creek bottom, to follow the creek up to the stock tank where Taylor's bunch would collect.

For a dozen years, riding the Kentucky Colt had been like sitting astride a Harley Davidson: you were straddling pure, raw, power. He had needed no urging to dig in with those powerful hindquarters and bust up, down, over, around, and through whatever country unfolded in front of him – one just released the clutch!

He had been ten years old before he could slow down enough to sort cows in a corral without getting frustrated and angry.

But after we dropped our little gather of cows with Taylor's bunch, the Colt had fallen back down to a walk again. And I had no interest in jogging. I was slowing up too. Perhaps the Colt wasn't getting physically old and tired. Perhaps he was finally getting sense.

The question was settled as soon as we dropped our gather through the gate and turned toward home. After some six or seven miles of up and down, through the brush and across the creeks, the Colt broke into a trot. And then a lope. Before long we were at a flat out run as Taylor's horse raced up behind us.

Even at 17 years old, the Kentucky Colt has plenty of life to accomplish whatever job is at hand. Maybe he's just maturing, and learning to conserve that energy for when he really needs it. I know I am.