Essay | The education of a cowboy and his equine companion
by John R. Erickson
Posted 11/16/19, 11:55 am
My friend John R. Erickson, author of great Hank the Cowdog books, relays a story told by famous cowboy Baxter Black: “A young boy walked up to him and said, ‘Mr. Black, are you a real cowboy?’ Baxter laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “It depends on who’s listening.”
Erickson was a real cowboy, but he’s also a real writer who has created real accounts of his experience with real horses. The stories first appeared in Western Horseman magazine in 2012 and 2013. This month and next we’re publishing several, with permission, as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky
Warm Up Your Horse
In the cowboy profession, it’s elementary knowledge, one of those admonitions that has been affirmed by centuries of human experience: before you rope and doctor yearlings, warm up your horse.
Even if you’re riding a gentle pup, even if you’re running behind schedule, always warm up your horse.
In the spring of 1980 Tom and I were looking after a bunch of steers on wheat pasture, and that spring our biggest challenge was to keep them from dying of bloat.
When the weather warms up and the wheat grows rapidly, some yearlings eat so much, they can’t digest it all. It begins to ferment in their paunch and the buildup of gas can shut down their heart and lungs. They drop dead, sometimes dozens at a time.
It was our job to ride through the steers every day, spot the bloaters, head and heel them, and run a rubber hose into their gut to release the gas. Sometimes we dragged them into a stock trailer and hauled them back to headquarters for special care.
Tom and I had normal levels of compassion for the sick and afflicted, but in our secret cowboy hearts, we loved to rope, and we probably enjoyed doctoring cattle more than we should have. I know it made the boss uneasy to see us looking happy.
We usually checked yearlings first thing in the morning, but on this particular day in April, we had to change out a broken spring on one of the stock trailers. As evening approached, we still had to haul two horses up to the flats (25 miles) and check for bloaters.
By the time we got to the Bryan place, the sun was low in the west. I noticed that the surface of the wheat field had gotten lumpy. We’d had some heavy rains and the steers had left deep tracks in the mud. The mud had dried and the field resembled the surface of the moon.
We were running out of daylight, and right away, we spotted a bloated steer. He was standing off by himself—pitiful, miserable, swollen up like a toad.
If I’d been working alone, I would have taken the time to warm up my mare, but I was riding with a man who was greedy and selfish about roping. When it came to using the twine, Tom lost all traces of civilized behavior. He would run over little children and push old ladies out of the way to get first loop, and with such a terrible example to follow, what could I do?
Naturally, I jumped out of the pickup before it stopped rolling, sprinted to the back of the trailer, unloaded Calypso, did a pony express mount, and started building a loop.
I punched the mare and we caught up with the steer in good time, ahead of Tom. I got everything lined out, stepped up in the stirrups, and started my twirls. Tom was mounted on Happy, a Quarter Horse with good speed, and they were closing the gap. My mare was slacking on me, so I ran some iron into her little half-Arab gizzard … and she broke in half.
She was a small mare, far from being a National Finals bronc, and most of the time I could stay with her, but this time she’d caught me out of position. She blew me out of the stirrups on the second jump and sent me on my way. I came down across the saddle, with the horn in the middle of my rib cage, and got launched again.
Ordinarily, wheat fields made pretty good bedding—plowed ground and soft wheat—but I’d already noticed those mud craters and petrified cattle tracks, and wasn’t too keen on getting wrecked on a moonscape. I began looking for something to grab onto.
Jim Shoulders, the legendary bronc rider, said the formula for his success was, “Keep a leg on each side and your mind in the middle.” I ended up with an ear in each hand and my chin in the middle, draped across Calypso’s head and facing backward. I was so glad nobody was there with a camera.
Gripping her ears like joy sticks, I got her shut down and escaped a shattering fall. Tom quit the steer and came back to check on me. Between yips of laughter, he asked if I was okay. I said my ribs were messed up, it hurt to breathe, and I never wanted to sneeze again. He said, “Good. I’ll be right back.”
Holding my ribs, I had to watch my rope-crazed, counterfeit, fair-weather companion as he built to the steer, one-looped him, and stuck him in the trailer. That hurt worse than the ribs.
Always warm up your horse. I knew that, but what we know is rarely the problem. It’s what we don’t do about what we know that gets a man in trouble.
A Boggy River
There were things about the Beaver and Cimarron Rivers that a young man needed to know, and I got my first tutoring on the subject from Hobart Hall.
Hobart was probably in his early sixties, the oldest cowboy on the crew. He was small and gruff, had narrow squinty eyes, smoked Viceroy cigarettes, and tended to speak in grunts. He packed a bad leg and rode small horses that were easy to mount.
The first week I was on the crew, he didn’t speak to me. I thought he didn’t like me, but another cowboy explained, “No, that’s just Hobart. He flunked out of charm school.”
One afternoon, I found myself at the drag-end of a big herd, riding next to Hobart. I’d been aware that he’d been watching me with his greenish lizard eyes, sizing me up to determine if I was worth talking to.
My first book, Through Time and the Valley, had just been published. He said, “Is that book worth reading?”
He grunted a laugh. “How much do you know about quicksand?”
“Well, you’d better learn.”
He told me about a cold day in December when he had to cross the Beaver. The river was up and rolling, and the water came up to the chest on his small Paint horse. In the middle of the river, the horse started bogging in quicksand. Hobart went over the dashboard and into the water.
The horse was floundering and somehow managed to step on Hobart with a front foot—pushed him to the bottom and stood on him. If another cowboy hadn’t come to his rescue, he might have drowned.
I got the message. Rivers of the plains could be treacherous, and the appearance of the sand didn’t always tell you the story. Hobart’s advice: “Pick a spot where deer or cattle have crossed. Follow their tracks.”
About six months later, I came up short on my cattle count and had to go looking for a couple of strays. I saddled one of the horses in my string, a bay gelding named Little John. We had to cross over to the south side of the river, and I followed Hobart’s advice, rode along the edge until I found a trail where cattle had crossed.
This was summer and the river was only a foot and a half deep in most places. Little John was a little edgy going into the river, but he stepped out and we had no trouble.
We rode south to a pasture that lay on both sides of Duck Pond Creek and found the two missing steers. They put up a struggle when I tried to sort them off from a bunch of cows, but Little John was a good cutter and we got them back where they belonged.
It was hot that day and I’d put quite a sweat on Little John. When we got back to the Beaver, I decided to ride a ways down the channel. I’d heard that the best way to cool down a horse was to put water on his feet.
Hobart might have been more cautious, but I figured it would be okay. We’d already crossed the river once and the bottom had been firm. We’d traveled about twenty yards when Little John lost his front end in quicksand. I went over his neck and, remembering Hobart’s experience, rolled to get away from his front feet.
I made it to the bank, but Little John had bogged his left front leg all the way to the shoulder, and he was seriously high-centered. I watched as he kicked and thrashed, and hoped he would pull free. Instead, he wore himself out, uttered a groan, and stretched out, heaving for air.
I didn’t know what to do. Pull the saddle? Run two miles back to headquarters and get a shovel? Then I noticed that Little John’s nostrils had slipped under the water. The horse seemed to have given up.
I didn’t know if he would actually drown, and didn’t want to find out—and explain to the boss that I’d let his horse drown in eighteen inches of water. I waded back into the river, grabbed the reins, and pulled up his head so he could catch his wind.
He lay there, blank-eyed and gasping, for what seemed an hour. Most likely, it was only ten minutes, but I felt every tick of the clock. At last, he caught his wind and seemed ready to give it another try. I pulled on his head and urged him on. He struggled and pulled, thrashed and splashed, and finally we staggered out on dry land.
The horse was shaking all over. So was I, and it took me a month to get all the river sand out of my boots and clothes.
Listening to the advice of wiser men is not always the first instinct of a young cowboy, but the next time Little John and I crossed the river, we followed a trail of cow tracks.
Machines and Horses
From the very beginning, the cowboy has been a centaur, a man of the horse. In the modern world, as pastures grow smaller and cattle more docile, there is a trend to replace the horse with motorcycles and four-wheelers.
This trend has the approval of accountants who argue, correctly, that machines are predictable, don’t have to be trained, and don’t eat oats or hay.
But cowboys have always been at odds with economic reality. As a group, they have survived through force of will. What drives them, what keeps them a part of the living present is a commodity that isn’t easy to express in numbers. Call it pride. Pride in horsemanship lies at the center of their working lives.
I have long been fascinated by the bond between cowboys and horses. It’s not a simple relationship, and attempts to describe it often swerve into sentimentality, the kind of emotion we often see in movies.
A cowboy’s horse is a tool, not a pet. The two of them have a working relationship based on mutual respect. Invariably emotions creep into the equation, and at some point the cowboy awakens to the fact that his tool has become his friend.
We hear stories about cowboys who sit dry-eyed at a funeral, but cry on the death of a horse. It’s a natural consequence of years of sharing hardship and working together as craftsman and tool.
But if a horse is a tool, so is a four-wheeler. If a machine can do 70% of the work a horse can do, and do it cheaper and without bucking or biting, why shouldn’t ranchers sell all the horses and replace them with machines?
The answer I’ve come up with is that horses and cowboys have the opportunity to dignify one another, to achieve a kind of nobility that neither can acquire on his own.
People who don’t live around animals sometimes idealize them. The purpose of a horse, they might think, is to be free and beautiful. A human who forces them to work is somehow corrupting their nobility as animals.
I see just the opposite. Alone, a horse is a spirit that can’t fulfill itself. Left to itself, it slides into the same deplorable habits that afflict the human species: sloth, torpor, gluttony, selfishness, and greed. A horse won’t force itself to do anything but eat, breed, and bully its neighbors.
Only when a human takes the time and the care to force discipline upon a horse can it acquire the knowledge that will unlock the potential of the sculpture of muscle and bone we admire in photographs and paintings.
Cowboys aren’t accustomed to thinking of themselves as educators, but they are. Every time they step into the saddle, they’re stepping into the role of teacher. Every horse is a pupil, every ride in the pasture is a teaching session.
Through discipline and training, humans force meaning and purpose upon their horses. At the same time, the riders acquire insights into their own human relationships, particularly those that involve children. Over the years, I have been amazed at the parallels between training horses and raising children.
Humans teach horses, then horses begin teaching humans. Together, they go out and accomplish tasks that neither could do alone. Horse gives rider the speed and strength to control large animals. Rider gives horse a reason for using its natural gifts.
Most horses improve with use. The more we ride them, the better they get. It’s an investment of time that yields compound interest, and ultimately the yield acquires a spiritual dimension.
It’s not that way with machines. Four-wheelers and motorcycles have their place in the livestock business, but they will never take the place of a horse. When a four-wheeler goes to the junkyard, nobody cries.