Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference. Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives. They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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