Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Horrible nags (part 1)

A view of the old barn

By the time I was older, around 10 or so, I was heartily sick of riding the nags we had at Date Creek Ranch. Mom and Dad had good horses. My older sister, Kim, had a good horse, but I was still rotating between Lady (who, as I’ve mentioned before, was completely evil), Misty and Beauty. I’ve already filled you in on how awful Lady was, so let me pause for a moment to tell you about Misty and Beauty and what made them such a joy to ride.

Continue reading “Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Horrible nags (part 1)”

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Horrible nags

By the time I was older, around 10 or so, I was heartily sick of riding the nags we had at the ranch. Mom and Dad had good horses. My older sister, Kim, had a good horse, but I was still rotating between Lady (who, as I’ve mentioned before, was completely evil), Misty and Beauty. I’ve already filled you in on how awful Lady was, so let me pause for a moment to tell you about Misty and Beauty and what made them such a joy to ride.

Misty was Lady’s offspring, born back when my family lived on the MF Ranch up near Globe, Arizona. (I was born in Globe. We moved to Date Creek when I was about one.) The MF was a rough ranch, filled with manzanita, oak brush and brutally steep, rocky hillsides. Misty spent the first couple years of her life there and, as a result, she was incredibly sure-footed in the rocks, which is a real benefit when you’re trying to get a stubborn cow off a mountainside, since rolling wildly downhill underneath a horse isn’t a great way to spend your day. Unless you like hospitals and dying and such.

But Misty was “broken” by a cowboy who used to work for us and he wasn’t just old school, he was downright cruel and he basically ruined her. See, he used what’s known as a spade bit on her. The bit on most bridles is just a round piece of metal that goes through the horse’s mouth. A spade bit has a piece of metal on it shaped roughly like a spade. The problem with this type of bit is that if you’re not careful, you can really cut up a horse’s mouth with it.

Which this cowboy apparently did. As a result, Misty’s mouth was all scarred up inside and she was nearly impossible to turn or stop. She just didn’t have much feeling left in there or maybe she just wasn’t that fond of people anymore and not keen on following their orders.

On top of that, one time when she was in the corral overnight (not a common occurrence for our horses) she ran into a wire or something and put out one of her eyes.

Unlike her mother, Misty liked to run and she was fast. Which was all well and good, but once she got up a head of steam she was like a car with no brakes. And no steering wheel.

Once she got going, I simply couldn’t turn her. I just wasn’t strong enough. The only way I could turn her was by leaning way down and forward and grabbing the reins right down next to her mouth and pulling. Which, as you might imagine, isn’t the most efficient way to turn a horse, nor the safest.

Nor could I really stop her, since she’d take the bit in her teeth and clamp down on it. Getting her to stop required roughly the same time and distance as a runaway locomotive.

Now, like all our horses, Misty liked nothing better than heading back to the corral and ditching the heavy saddle and that annoying gnat of a rider on her back. I was also rather fond of getting back to the corral. One time when we were heading home I made the foolish mistake of letting Misty have her head.

As it nears the house, the road to Date Creek Ranch leads alongside the orchard for a couple hundred yards, then makes a ninety degree turn and goes down a bit of a hill. A hundred or so yards from there are the barn and shop with the main horse corral between them.

Misty started to pick up speed while running alongside the orchard. She had some quarter horse in her and she truly liked to run. We made it around the turn and started down the final stretch and she really laid it on.

About seventy-five yards from the corral I suddenly realized my error and pulled back on those reins as hard as I could. I mean, both hands, leaning back, giving it everything I got.

Misty completely ignored me.

I got desperate, jerking those reins just as hard as I could. The corrals loomed closer. We were going to crash through the gate, I just knew it.

At the last second Misty went to full brakes, tearing up chunks of dirt as she slid to a stop.

At which point poor little Eric, obeying Newton’s first law of motion, continued moving forward.

Right into the saddle horn.

I think I was actually airborne by that point and, with both hands pulling hard on the reins, I had nothing to save myself with.

A particularly vulnerable part of my anatomy bounced off the saddle horn. Misty completed her stop.

And I just kind of collapsed sideways and fell on the ground. Where I remained, while Misty wondered impatiently why I wasn’t opening the gate and removing her saddle yet.

Definitely time to get a new horse.

(part two coming soon)

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – My little Short Stuff

Not Date Creek Ranch, but we have lots of Joshua trees there and the landscape is similar

The first calf I ever raised with a bottle was a little heifer. I was about nine or so and we were driving some cattle back to the corrals. As I recall, I was riding in the drags (that’s at the back of the herd) with Dad and there was this little red calf with a white face, only a few days old and all wobbly on her skinny little legs. It was obvious that she was orphaned, a “dogie” in cowboy parlance. The other little calves were all chasing after their mothers and this little girl had no one. She was trying her best to find a new mom, running after cows and trying to nurse whenever they slowed down, but every time they drove her off and it was clear she wouldn’t make it all the way to the corrals. She was getting weaker and weaker, even to the point where she had quit bawling for the mother that was never coming back.

I asked Dad if I could have her and he said okay. He got down and picked the little girl up and put her across the saddle in front of me. She struggled a bit at the change of scenery but soon gave up and just lay there while I petted her and generally forgot all about the job I was supposed to be doing.

Once the cows were in the corral I got help getting her down off my horse and I put her in a little pen by herself and went to get her a bottle. We had to hand-raise orphaned calves from time to time and there was a whole big sack of powdered milk formula in the feed room in the barn, along with a couple of quart plastic bottles with nipples.

I wasn’t sure she would eat. Some calves wouldn’t, especially when they were already pretty weak and she didn’t even stand up when I put her in there. I ran to get that bottle and shook it up while I ran back to the pen.

Then I sat there on the ground and took her head in my lap and started trying to get her to eat. At first I couldn’t even get the nipple in her mouth—this was a scary new experience for her—and I had to kind of pry her jaws open. Then she didn’t want to drink so I stroked under her chin while talking to her gently, telling her she had to eat or she’d die and I didn’t want her to die.

It seemed like a miracle when she took that first suck. She only drank a little bit of it—I’m sure it didn’t taste very good compared to mama’s milk—but at least she got a little in her stomach.

As soon as I was free of working in the corrals I ran back to her pen and managed to get a little bit more down her. It was a couple of days before she really started to get the hang of it and I didn’t have to coax her. A couple days where I was really worried about her. I’d brought in baby chicks that fell out of the nest and even a baby rabbit one time, tried to feed them with an eye dropper, and every one of them died after a couple days. Burying them was hard and I didn’t want to have to bury her.

But finally she started to drink and to thrive. I named her Short Stuff and taking her that bottle every morning and every night was the highlight of my day. I got really attached to her.

After a month or so she was big enough where I could let her out of the pen and she could wander around the ranch headquarters and drink out of the creek. All I had to do when I wanted to give her her bottle was go out, cross the cattle guard that separated the yard from the rest of the place, and yell her name. Wherever she was, she’d come running pell mell as fast as she could for that bottle. She’d just about knock me down, butting against that bottle in her eagerness to drink. The milk never came fast enough and I finally cut off the end of the nipple to speed it up and she could drain that thing in less than a minute. Then keep sucking until I wrenched it away from her. It was the neatest thing. I didn’t have a very happy childhood and she was a real bright spot for me.

In due time she grew up and got bigger than me and I had to quit with the milk. I gave her water in the bottle sometimes just for the fun of watching how excited she’d get running for it, but she always looked at me as if she was a little annoyed at being tricked like that.

Finally it was time to put her out to pasture. When the next roundup came I called her into the big pen with the other cows. Her name was sure appropriate because she was definitely a runt compared to the others, only about two-thirds their size. But she did have one advantage: horns.

Back then we cut off their little horn nubbins when we branded them as little calves. Then we’d put a hot iron on the spot to keep them from growing back. It made our lives a little easier in the corral, knowing they didn’t have horns to stick us with.

But Short Stuff never got her horns cut off. I had to brand her so no one could steal her (I paid for and got my own brand, registered with the state in my name) but that was all.

Over the years that followed I saw her use those horns a number of times. Being small, the other cows would shove her around, especially when we tossed hay out into the corrals when we had to keep them in overnight during roundup. When that happened she’d just hook them in the ribs—her horns were sharp—and they’d back right off.

The next year at roundup Short Stuff showed up with a calf of her own, the spitting image of her, though her calf grew to be bigger than her. I branded that calf and because she was a heifer I didn’t send her to the sale when she was a yearling but kept her as a cow. I had my own little herd going.

Short Stuff got older and I got older. She became a cow and not my pet any longer and I went to middle school and started thinking about motorcycles a lot. But she never forgot me completely. I could always go out to the corrals and yell, “Short Stuff!” and she’d turn and look. I usually brought her a flake of hay and I’d watch her eat it and back the other cows off with her horns.

The time came when she didn’t turn up in a roundup and I never saw her again. Maybe she got sick, maybe she broke a leg and starved. I’ll never know but I’ll never forget her.

My little Short Stuff.

The next post

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Junior the sadistic sheep

This is not Junior. Junior had devil’s horns

At one time or another, we raised all manner of animals on Date Creek Ranch. Chickens, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, rabbits, goats, sheep, pigs. If Old MacDonald had it on his farm, at one time or another we had it too. This is about the time we raised a lamb.

Sometimes, in the spring, when the rains were good, we’d end up with that happiest of all rancher problems, excess grass. When that happened, we’d often pasture sheep. A truck would show up with a few hundred sheep to graze for a month or so and a couple of Basque sheepherders to take care of them. (Basque is a region in Spain. Apparently sheep are quite the thing there. I don’t know for sure though and I’m really too lazy to look it up.)

Anyway, one year, when I was about seven or eight, the sheepherders gave us a lamb. Its mother had died and they weren’t really in a position to raise it so they passed it on to us. The job of actually raising it fell to me.

I named him Junior. I fed him calf formula (we raised orphaned calves from time to time) from a glass 7-Up bottle with a nipple on the top and he was just as cute as the dickens. He lived in the front yard and when I showed up with that bottle he’d come running just as fast as his little legs would carry him and then drink ravenously, butting the bottle as he did so. I’m telling you, it was adorable.

Then he grew up and you know what? He stopped being cute. He became dirty (sheep wool is just a magnet for all kinds of crud) and obnoxious. Sure, he was helpful after parties, eating the peanut shells and cigarette butts off the lawn, but we really only had one party a year.

But there was one family member who actively hated Junior, and that was my brother, Scott.

Now, why would a little four-year-old kid hate a young sheep, you ask?

Because Junior tormented Scott.

Junior, it seems, had a sadistic streak. His favorite game was to lie in wait in the front yard (I guess a sheep’s life gets kind of boring after a while) for Scott to come out of the house. When Scott came out of the house, Junior would run and butt Scott and knock him down.

Well, Scott wasn’t one to go down without a fight. He found himself a big stick and leaned it on the wall of the house by the front door. Every time he came out the front door he’d grab the stick, shake it at Junior and yell at him to go away and leave him alone.

Which Junior never did.

Instead he’d stalk Scott, one slow step at a time. Scott would back away, eyes fixed on Junior, the stick held up threateningly, and Junior would follow, matching him step for step.

It was a good plan, really it was. It just had one flaw. Inevitably, about halfway across the yard, Scott would lose his nerve, throw the stick down and turn and run for it.

Whereupon Junior would race after him, lower his head, hit him in the butt, and knock him down.

Scott would cry and rage impotently at his tormentor while Junior stood there, waiting for him to get up and run so he could knock him down again.

Junior thought it was great fun. Scott hated it. The rest of us thought it was hilarious, which Scott also hated.

No one was happier than Scott when a friend of ours took Junior home with him to Las Vegas, bound for the petting zoo there.

I’ve often wondered how long Junior lasted at that petting zoo.

The next post

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Roundups – 3

Another major part of corral work was separating, or “cutting” the cattle. Yearlings and cows that were not producing were cut out to be shipped off and sold. Sometimes there were cows that were slated to be moved to a different pasture.

Some cutting was done in the corrals from horseback, but cutting cattle on horseback necessitates something that was in pretty short supply on Date Creek Ranch: good horses. For sure none of the nags I got to ride when I was younger were any good at it. You need a horse that’s got a soft mouth (easy to turn) and that moves quickly when you need it to (see Lady).

That meant most of the cutting was done in the alley and no, I’m not talking about a narrow, garbage-riddled street behind the local dive bar. In corral parlance an alley is a long, narrow pen separating a number of regular pens. The gates for all the regular pens open outward onto the alley and they’re designed to be just long enough that when halfway open they reach across the alley, sealing it off.

We’d put a half dozen or so animals in the alley and push them all down to one end. We kids would each take one of the gates opening onto the alley. Dad would walk down toward the cows and as he got close they’d get nervous and bunch up. Even closer and eventually a couple of the more desperate ones would bolt by him. When it worked right he’d only let cows meant for the same pen get by him. Then he’d yell out who needed to get their gate open, the cows ran in, and everybody was happy.

Note that I said, when it worked right. In the real-life application, it hardly ever went that way. For one thing, the aforementioned gates were terrible, rickety things made of broken, splintery boards that had been poorly repaired with baling wire. In other words, you couldn’t swing them. You had to lift them and carry them. They were heavy and splinters were just a done deal.

For another, Dad always planned way too much to do and not near enough time to do it in. That meant lots of hurrying, and also working into the night time. And these modern ideas about treating the cattle gently and calmly, well, Dad had no truck with them. Dad was old school. Animals, like children, were expected to behave exactly as he wanted them to, when he wanted them to. Any animal that didn’t do that triggered the inevitable yelling and cussing. That led to cows—and people—that were generally pretty stressed out and cows tend to do a lot of charging around when they’re stressed out.

All of which means that the corrals were generally a chaotic, somewhat terrifying place, filled with large, panicky animals and massive clouds of choking dust.

What often happened was that a mixed group, destined for different pens, would all panic and run by him at once. At which point the logical thing to do would be to let them all run to the far end of the alley, then push them back with the others and start over. But that took too much time and we had an impossible schedule to keep. What actually happened was more like this:

Three cows are running at me. I’m only supposed to let the first one into my pen. I open my gate about two feet. The cows, seeing an escape from the dreaded alley, all bolt for the opening. The trick is to wait until the first one’s halfway through the gate, then slam it and slam it hard on her hindquarters. (They’re in a pack, so if I want until she’s all the way in to close the gate, I’m getting all of them.) If I’m lucky and quick enough, I’ll end up with her in the pen and shut out the two who are following.

Oh, and as soon as I slam the gate I have to jump quick and get my ass up the side of it, because those two other cows have a full head of steam and they’re just going to run over me if I don’t get out of the way.

Unfortunately, sometimes I was too slow with the gate, or the cows wouldn’t be denied their shot at freedom. Maybe the second one in line got her head in there and the gate rebounded on me.


Cue Dad shouting and cussing.

Cutting the cows was really one of the more exciting activities on the ranch. Honestly I don’t know how we didn’t all end up in the hospital on a regular basis.

One time we had two bulls in the alley and they started fighting. Now, most of the time the bulls were pretty mellow. They regarded us human beings as little more than annoying insects, so they didn’t waste energy even threatening us. But when they started fighting, that was a different matter. (Our bulls were Brahma crosses. Brahmas are the breed with the large, rounded lump of muscle on top of their shoulders. They are big animals.)

When bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to get them separated as soon as possible. I mean, these were large, heavily muscled titans and against them a wooden corral is just so many toothpicks waiting to snap and fall on the ground. Heck, our corrals were so dilapidated that some of our fence poles would fall down if you just looked at them wrong.

The upshot was that once bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to separate them or they were going to tear the place down. Even more problematic was what happened once one of them started to lose. When that happened, all that bull wanted was to bug out, go stand under a nice thick mesquite tree, and nurse his wounded ego. No mere corral was going to stop him.

I once saw one submarine the main entrance gate and just basically force his whole body under it, ripping most of it away in the process. Another time I saw one try to jump over the fence. It was pretty impressive. He jumped about six feet in the air, high enough to get his front quarters clear up and over the fence.

High enough, but not enough distance. He landed on top of the fence, just crushing it.

So I was working a gate and these two bulls started fighting in the alley. The fight started to spill my way so naturally I scooted inside the pen and got behind the gate. Then Dad starts yelling at me to open my gate. I picked up the end of the gate and swung it open as fast as I could, at the same time moving around the end of the gate so I can keep it between me and the bulls.

Right as I got the gate halfway open, where the end of the gate just touches the opposite side of the alley, I was sliding around the end of the gate. At just that point, the bulls slammed into the gate. The gate mashed into my chest, pinning me between it and the side of the alley.

I remember hearing this loud woof! sound, which only later did I realize was me, having the wind knocked out.

Then, thankfully, the bulls carried their fight into the pen and let me go. I didn’t have much time to nurse my wounds since right away Dad was hollering at me to close the damn gate already before some animal went where it wasn’t supposed to. I had some pretty good bruises afterwards, but no broken bones.

(See part 1 and part 2)

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Roundups – 2

Once we got the cattle into the corrals, then the real fun began. And by fun I mean a couple days of hysterical bellowing. Oh, and I imagine the cattle were frightened too.

The first thing we needed to do was separate, or “cut” the cows away from the calves. You had to do this before you could brand the calves, unless you wanted a pissed-off mama cow goring you.

2009 Oct DCR, Flag 124

a view from the main corrals, looking at the barn

Once we had all the unbranded calves alone in a pen, we could start the branding process. To heat the branding irons, we used a metal box with the front cut out and an opening cut into the side. The front opening was where we set the branding irons to heat up. Our heat source was a propane bottle attached to a sort of metal nozzle that turned into quite the blow torch when you lit it up.

As I mentioned earlier, none of us had roping horses or knew crap about roping from horse back so we mostly did the branding on foot unless we had hired some real cowboys to help us. Some of the little calves you could just grab, but most of the time we had to get a rope on them. The best way to do this was to “heel” them, which means getting the rope around their hind legs. Once you do that it’s pretty easy to drag them away from the others for branding.

The problem with heeling was, once again, that we mostly all sucked at roping and heeling is kind of hard. You don’t just throw the loop of your rope on the ground and hope something comes along and steps in it. You’ve gotta throw the loop down in such a way that it rests partway on the ground and partway up against the calf’s legs. Then, when the calf moves, he can’t help but step into your loop. When that happens, you jerk the rope up and tug on it at the same time and voila! you’ve caught your prey by the legs.

Unless the calf moves away from the loop instead of stepping into it. Or you mistime your tug on the rope. Or, most commonly, you just can’t get that stupid rope to go where you want it to.

Often we just had to settle for trying to rope the calf around the neck and even there we were pretty pathetic.

Once you had the calf on the rope and dragged over to where you wanted it, you had to “flank” the calf. Flank just means throw the calf on the ground. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? After all, most of the calves were less than a month old.

Yeah, except that after just a few days those calves are surprisingly strong and they can kick the snot out of you. There’s a real technique to flanking a calf. One of our favorite forms of entertainment on Date Creek Ranch was watching a novice flank a calf. (We fairly often had visiting friends who wanted to be part of the glamor of roundup.) Half the time they’d end up clinging to the calf for dear life while it dragged them around the corral and we laughed. Good times.

Basically, flanking involves bending over the calf, grabbing it with one hand by the flap of skin just in front of the hindquarters, and with the other hand either the front leg or just behind the leg. Then, you give the animal a quick jerk upwards while simultaneously pushing forward with your knees. This gets the animal off the ground and flips them on their side.

As the calf hits the ground you have to quickly put one knee on its neck, while grabbing its front leg, bending it up and pulling it toward you. Do this part wrong and the animal throws you off or kicks the crap out of you with its hind legs. Do it right and the calf can’t get up or kick you.

To fully immobilize the calf, someone else has to jump down and grab the hind legs. The trick there is to grab the top leg with both hands and lean back, while at the same time hooking the heel of your boot onto the back of the bottom leg, just above the joint in the middle of the leg. An experienced team can flank and immobilize a calf in just a few seconds.

Inevitably, there were a few calves that had been born late enough that we missed them on the previous roundup, which meant they could be as much as six months old. A calf that age is big and a heckuva lot stronger than a person. That’s when technique is absolutely vital. I remember flanking calves that came up to my chest, so big I could just barely reach over them and get a hold. But if I could get that hold, the calf was going down. It was something all of us kids could do and do well. We didn’t really have much choice as Dad had no tolerance for excuses when it came time to get the work done. That calf is three times your size? Quit complaining and get in there and put it on the ground. And hurry up!

Then it’s time for the branding. The irons have to be just right. Too cool and the brand won’t take. Too hot and you can burn through the skin. While we had them down we also gave them a vaccination and an earmark. The brand is legal proof the animal is yours. The earmark is notches cut into the animal’s ears for quick identification out on the range. If an animal is in a herd with others or the side with the brand is turned away from you, the earmark is a handy secondary form of identification.

Finally, if they were bull calves we castrated them. This was the dogs’ favorite part. They skulked around the corrals waiting, knowing Dad would toss them those tasty morsels once he cut them off. We ate them ourselves a few times—cooked, of course—they call them Rocky Mountain oysters. They weren’t bad, but a little chewy.

We castrated them so they would put on more fat and less muscle. Also, without all that nasty testosterone flooding their systems they were much more docile.

(Author’s note: If all this sounds cruel to you, I agree. My father was old school, which meant that considerations about the animals’ feelings did not factor in. There was a job to be done and it would be done, by whatever means necessary. But there were also times when a cow had clearly outlived her usefulness but for whatever reason he’d developed an attachment to her and so she didn’t get sent to the auction to be butchered for dog food. Also, I believe that the worst part of the branding process for the calves was the fear. Their skins are much thicker and tougher than ours. What would be a really traumatic experience for a person wasn’t for them. Within a couple minutes of letting them up, they seemed back to normal. I never saw any indication that they were favoring the brand. And, finally, we had no real choice. Without those brands anyone could snatch them up and claim them for their own.)

(For part 1 click here.)

The next post

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Roundups

I want to try and explain what roundups were like on Date Creek Ranch. Everyone’s watched Westerns and so everyone has some idea of what roundups are like. Lots of cowboys dressed in proper cowboy hats and other cowboy-related attire. Chasing down cows and roping them, maybe dragging them back to the herd. And a chuck wagon. There has to be a chuck wagon, right?


View of Date Creek Mountains from near the creek

Ours were like that. Well, minus just about every one of those details. We hardly ever wore actual cowboy hats. I generally didn’t even own one. A cap was lots easier to keep on your head when chasing a cow. None of us could rope worth a damn and we basically never roped off horseback, especially since it’s a seriously risky, dangerous undertaking. (You want 800 pounds of angry cow on the other end of a rope trying to pull you and your horse down while you’re on the side of some steep, boulder-infested hillside? It’s a good way to break your neck.) Instead of a chuck wagon we carried sandwiches and apples in our saddle bags.

But other than that, ours were just like you see in the movies. The major roundups typically happened twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. They were planned to coincide with the calf crops. (You want to hold your roundup after most of the cows have had their calves. Too soon and you miss much of the crop. Too late and you have a bunch of calves running around loose out there with no brands. No brands make them easy to steal and yes, rustlers still exist, just now they have horse trailers to make off with their prey.)

So a great deal of the reason for holding a roundup is to get brands on the new calves. They’re also done to wean the calves from their mothers. You want to wean them when they’re about a half a year old. That way the cow can be bred again, hopefully yielding one calf per year.

Roundup is also a time to move cattle from a pasture that they’ve been in for a while to a pasture that has been sitting empty, where the grass—what there is of it—has had a chance to recover. It’s also an opportunity to give shots to the cows, treat any that are injured or sick, cull out the ones not producing calves, and just generally give the herd a once over.

Roundups typically lasted about four or five days on the ranch. We’d get all the horses into the corral the day before so we could get a good, early start. We’d get up about an hour and a half before sunrise—3:30 to 4:00 in the summer—grain the horses, eat breakfast, pack lunches and get out the door. The goal was to be in the saddle heading out before first light.

But wait, you’re thinking, what good is riding in the dark? How do you see the cows? Easy. We painted them all with a special glow-in-the-dark paint and…

Just kidding. No paint. We started early because whatever pasture we were riding that day we had to get clear into the back corners of it before we started gathering. There were some places on the ranch that we could haul the horses and get them within a couple miles of those back corners, but other places, like the creek pasture, it takes a good hour or hour and a half to get there on horseback. And that’s if you hustle, meaning keep your horse at a fast walk or a trot the whole time.

Ideally, we’d be at those back corners a little before the sun came up. Of course, Date Creek Ranch and ideally didn’t live on the same planet very often. Something was always going wrong. Vehicles wouldn’t start. Tack was broken. Something had gotten out during the night.


The creek pasture

I remember one morning in late fall. It was pretty chilly and we were all bundled up. (A body can get mighty cold sitting on a horse. Many times I got off and walked for a while to warm up.) It was predawn and we’d hauled the horses in the big truck down to Black Hill. Black Hill has this low hill made up of black, jumbled volcanic rocks beside it and it has a dirt tank. A dirt tank is just a place where the rancher builds an earthen dike across some small water course. Come the rains, the dike catches the run off. If it’s built in a spot with a high clay content in the soil not much of the water sinks into the ground and it will hold water year round, though the water can get pretty nasty after sitting there for six months, what with cows crapping in it while they drink and dead birds and such floating in the water.

Anyway, we’re on our horses, about ready to ride out but we want to water them first, so they can make it through the day. That means riding over to the dirt tank, letting your horse ride in a couple of feet and tank up. You don’t want your horse to go too far in, on account of the mud being generally super thick and quite deep and sticky.

So, for some reason, Dinah the Wonder Horse decides the shallow water’s not good enough for her that morning. She’s going for deeper water. While she’d doing this, Dad’s yelling and cussing and jerking at the reins and she just flat-out ignores him. She wades on out into that water almost to her shoulders and then she stops to drink.

A couple of minutes later she’s done and she comes splashing out of the tank. Dad’s legs are soaked and he’s so mad he can’t see straight. We’re all sitting around, pretending to look elsewhere and dying to laugh, but not daring to, knowing Dad will come unglued on whoever does.

Dad gets off Dinah without a word and ties her to the nearest mesquite tree. Then he stomps off to the truck and drives home to change his pants.

Once he’s gone, then we laugh. And laugh. We started about an hour late that day and no one mentioned the fact that if it had been any of us whose horse doused us, we’d have had to just suffer with wet pants until they dried. Dad brooked no delays. He’d have laughed, then we’d have gotten an earful about controlling our horse and that would have been that.

That it was Dinah—the Horse That Could Do No Wrong—that soaked him, just made it all that much funnier.

Once we reached the back corners of whatever pasture we were gathering, we’d spread out in a long line and begin sweeping all the cows back toward the corrals. The idea was to get as far apart as possible while still keeping within sight of each other so that no cows would slip through the net. Which some always did, but we’d get most of them.

As we drove them ahead of us, we also tried to stay more or less in a line. That part was always difficult for me when I was young, since I was always stuck on a crap horse like Lady that had no speed above a plod except for those rare occasions where I could coerce her into something resembling a trot for a short distance. Between that and the fact that I liked to daydream, I usually fell behind. Falling behind meant being yelled at. (Actually, just participating in roundup meant being yelled at. Things never went according to plan. Dad always planned more work than could actually be accomplished in a day. Which meant he had lots of things to yell about.)

The fact that cows are herd animals did make the job easier. Start driving cows in one direction and others will see them and figure, hey, I think I’ll head that way too. Unfortunately, this herd mentality didn’t apply to the bulls, big, thick lumps of testosterone-addled muscle that they were. If there were a few cows heading somewhere together, and the bull was feeling frisky, he was happy to tag along. But if he was feeling sullen and grumpy, or if you encountered him all by his lonesome in the wild, he was having none of it.

Let me pause to explain some fundamental differences between cows and bulls. Unless a cow has a calf to defend, she’s pretty much afraid of you and wants to move away from you. Which makes herding possible. But the bulls aren’t afraid of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on horseback or on foot. You’re pretty much nothing more than a minor irritant to the bull. He’ll go when you try and push him if he feels like going. If he doesn’t, like as not he’ll just go stand in a patch of mesquite and ignore you until you go away.

(Part 2 to follow)