The right horse for the job

Books | A cowboy needs a good string of horses to choose from on the ranch
by John R. Erickson
Posted 3/16/19, 12:09 pm

John R. Erickson, well known as the author of the great Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books, knows cowdogs because he was first a cowboy. He worked on ranches in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles for eight years, and in 1986 wrote a book titled Cowboy Country based on his experiences along the Beaver River in 1978 and 1979. I’ve put excerpts from that book into four baskets labeled spring, summer, fall, and winter. We are publishing in our Saturday Series one “season” each month. In last month’s episode, Erickson told how he grabbed a job on a big ranch and with 22 other cowboys rounded up 800 cattle. Hope you enjoy episode two. —Marvin Olasky


The Horses

When I went to work on the LD Bar, I inherited a good string of horses that had been well trained by cowboys who had worked on the ranch before I got there. No matter which horse I chose for the day, I was well mounted. This made my work easier and more pleasant, and I owed my predecessors on the ranch a debt of thanks.

Cowboys come and go and move around from place to place. Over the years their names fade from memory. But they leave their mark on the horse herd. If they’re good cowboys, they will leave the horses better than they found them. If they’re not, they will leave behind horses that are soured and spoiled.

Nobody had to tell me that Pat Mason, Billy Joe Hansen, Jerry Coleman, and Ron Sallaska, cowboys who had worked on the ranch before I got there, were good hands, because they had left their signatures on the work string.

I had two ways of using my horses. The first was the rotation method. During the spring and fall roundup seasons, I rode every day for a month and a half or two months. These were long, hard days and I needed a fresh horse every morning. Under the rotation system, every horse would get several days of rest after each day of work. As a result, I never had trouble with horses going lame, losing flesh, or galling up.

During the roundup seasons, I kept the horses in a grass trap behind the corrals. Every morning around 5 o’clock, I whistled at them and they came into the barn, which had a stall for each horse. I fed each one a coffee can of rolled oats, with double rations for the horse I had worked the day before and double rations for the one I intended to ride that day.

While they ate, I went back to the house for breakfast, and when I returned to the barn, I kept up my mount for the day and turned the others out.

In the evening when I came home from work, I whistled them up again and gave them another feeding. Graining them twice a day kept them in top working condition, and it also provided me with a painless way of catching a horse when I needed one.

The second method I used was more selective. When I had a specific job to do in the pasture, I tried to select the horse that I thought was best suited to it.

After you’ve ridden a horse a few times, you learn his strong points and his weaknesses.

No two horses are exactly alike. Some are fast, some are slow. Some have good endurance, and some don’t. Some are stout and can pull a heavy load, and some aren’t and can’t. Some will buck on a frosty winter morning and some won’t.

After you’ve ridden a horse a few times, you learn his strong points and his weaknesses, and since there is no one horse on earth that has all the qualities you want, you try to use each horse in the kind of work he does best.

For example, in the summer of 1978, I was out prowling in the bridge pasture, riding the young mare called Ginger. Near the windmill on the south end, I noticed a cow with a full bag. I rode around her and studied the signs and concluded that she had delivered a calf within the last 36 hours, but that the calf hadn’t nursed.

Something was wrong and I needed to find out what it was.

When I made the sound of a bawling calf, she perked up her ears and looked off to the north. That told me where the calf was, so I got behind the cow and drove her in that direction. The farther we went, the faster she ran. Then she stopped in some tall grass and dropped her head. I rode to the spot and found the calf.

It was dead, and it appeared to me that it had been born prematurely, probably because the cow was old and in poor condition. We needed to get her out of the herd and sell her, and the best time to pick her out was right now, while there was no question about her identity.

I had known some cowboys and ranchers who probably could have memorized the cow and picked her out three months later, but I didn’t trust my memory that far.

There were no pens or loading facilities in this pasture, and it was a long way back to the headquarters corrals. If I wanted the cow today, I would have to rope her and drag her into the stock trailer.

Since I was working alone, loading a grown cow in the pasture wouldn’t be an easy job, and I sure wanted to have my best pulling horse to help. Ginger was a good little mare, but she didn’t weigh much more than the cow and wasn’t particularly good at pulling a load. So, I went back to the house and saddled up old Star.

Star’s main asset was his size, and his main liability was just the flip side: He had the size and strength, but he was pretty slow. Adding it all up, I figured he had enough speed to give me a shot at the cow, and then enough stouts to drag her into the trailer.

I loaded him in the trailer and drove back to the bridge pasture. I tightened all my cinches and set the gates on the trailer so they would stand open. Then I rode toward the cow, who was grazing near the dead calf. I built a loop, put the spurs to Star, and the chase was on.

The cow outran Star at first, but I ran her in a big circle around the trailer until she wore down, then I roped her and brought her to a stop. I gave her a few minutes to fight the rope and to learn that she couldn’t get away.

Star braced himself and stood his ground while she struggled. When the cow quit fighting, I slacked the rope, fell in behind her, and drove her toward the trailer. When she reached a point directly behind the open trailer gate, I eased her to a stop, flipped my rope over the racks, turned Star away from her, and told him to pull.

He put his 1,300 pounds into the task and pulled her into the trailer, all but her hind legs. While she was catching her breath, I stepped down, ran around to the back of the trailer, and pushed her on in with the gate.

It didn’t take me and Star long to do this job, but only because Star was stout enough to manhandle a grown cow. If l had tried to do it with a smaller horse, we might have gotten ourselves into a pulling match that we couldn’t have won, and the job might have taken an hour or more.

Old Star wasn’t a sprinter or a ballet dancer, but his ability to pull a load earned him a place in the work string. A man doesn’t need or want five big plowhorses in his string, but he does need one that he can call on for heavy work.

A man doesn’t need or want five big plowhorses in his string, but he does need one that he can call on for heavy work.

The next horse in my string was Little John, the bay gelding who weighed somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds. Where Star was calm, slow, and a little lazy, Little John had great speed and a nervous disposition.

He was the hot rod of the work string. He excelled at calf roping in the pasture, and for that reason I often used him when I knew that I would have to doctor pinkeye. Jerry Coleman, who had worked on the LD Bar several years before I got there, had used Little John in the arena as a heading horse and had won some money on him, and he was well trained as a rope horse.

When you took down your rope and pointed him at a calf, he knew what was coming. He would start prancing, and when you turned him loose, he would take the bit in his teeth and go on the attack.

There wasn’t an animal on the ranch that could outrun him, and he could catch up with a calf so quickly and put you up so close that it was a bit unsettling. It was nice to be riding a horse that gave you a good shot every time, but Little John went after cattle with reckless abandon, almost as though he wanted to eat them.

In the arena, that would have been just fine, because in the arena the stock has two good eyes and tends to run in a straight line toward the catch pen. And the ground is level and smooth. But out in the pasture, the conditions are quite different. The ground is never smooth and level, and most of the time I was going after calves that were blind or partially blind with pinkeye. You never knew which way they might turn, and they were as likely to run under the horse’s feet as to cut in the other direction.

Little John didn’t care. He loved the chase and didn’t worry about doing cartwheels. But I did. I always figured that the best part of ranch roping was going home at night without any broken bones.

As a rope horse, Little John was just the opposite of Star. Star had trouble catching, but he could pull a house down once you had something on the string. Little John gave you the easy shots, but once you had caught, he lost all interest. Even though he had good size, he couldn’t pull the bottom out of a wet paper sack. Maybe he hadn’t been trained to pull or maybe he just had no taste for it, and if you spurred him to make him pull, he would either sull or start bucking.

For that reason, I used him strictly for calf roping and went out of my way to avoid roping grown stuff on him.

Right or wrong, I never heard anyone on the river speak of a “chestnut” horse.

The next horse in the string was Ginger, a sorrel mare that was six or seven years old. I have spoken of both Ginger and Star as “sorrel” horses, which was the accepted description of their color in the Beaver River country. If we wanted to get technical about horse coloration and if we consulted that cantankerous expert on the subject, Ben K. Green, we would have to say that both horses were either “standard chestnut” or “bright chestnut.”

“Sorrel,” Green points out in his book The Color of Horses (Northland Press, 1974), “is usually considered to belong to the draft horse breeds,” and in the paintings that illustrate his text, he shows five Belgian horses as examples of the five shades of sorrel—no Quarter Horses at all.

So, to placate the ghost of old Doc Green, let us state for the record that Star and Ginger were chestnuts—and then go right on describing them as sorrels, because right or wrong, I never heard anyone on the river speak of a “chestnut” horse.

Ginger didn’t have great size or speed or endurance, but neither did she have any glaring flaws. She made a good all-around ranch horse that could do a respectable job in all departments. She was pretty good at cutting, pretty good at roping, pretty good at pulling, and had better than average endurance.

The fact that she had no major flaws became her strongest point. When I wasn’t sure what kind of work I might be doing, I could take Ginger and feel confident that we could get the job done. It might not be fancy, but we could do it well enough so that we wouldn’t be ashamed of ourselves. And that earned her place in the string.

Then there was Honey, Ginger’s mother. I never did like the looks of this dun mare. She was short-coupled and pot-bellied, and I just never did like a horse that was put together that way. Also, she had poor endurance and couldn’t stand up to a hard day’s work.

I never used her much in roundup season, when I might be in the saddle for 10 or 12 hours straight. But for short days and specific jobs, she could make a hand. She had good roping sense, didn’t mind pulling a load, and she was the best cuttinghorse on the ranch.

If you didn’t expect too much out of her, if you didn’t push her beyond her physical limitations, she was willing and capable. But beyond a certain point, she ran out of gas and that was the end of it. You might as well have your saddle cinched up on a log.

The last horse in my string was the Calipso mare, an Anglo­Arabian that belonged to me. She was out of Mark Mayo’s Egyptian stallion, Saturf, and a Thoroughbred mare that had done some running on the track. I had raised Calipso from a foal, broke and trained her myself, and no one else had ever ridden her.

She was a coming three-year-old in 1978 when I went to work on the Beaver River, and though she had been black at birth, she was beginning to show some grey in her coat. Among the cowboys, she was often referred to as “the little blue mare.” By the time she reached the age of eight, she had become a dappled grey, much like her pappy, old Saturf.

During my first six months on the ranch, I used her only on a limited basis. I didn’t want to push her too hard too fast. She still had a little bronc in her and wasn’t yet mature physically.

I rode her several times during the 1978 spring roundup season, and that summer I began roping off her in the pasture. When the fall work started in October, I used her on several long, hard days and began easing her into the work string. In the spring of 1979, I worked her into the regular rotation, and she earned her keep just the same as the other horses.

When I first started showing up on roundup mornings with the little blue mare, the other cowboys were amused. Anyone could see that Calipso would never make a cowhorse. She was too small and light-boned. She had the long legs of a running Thoroughbred attached to a small Arabian body, with cat hams and a narrow chest. Standing beside the big Quarter Horses, she looked like a toy, entirely too frail and delicate for the hard life on a ranch.

When I first started showing up on roundup mornings with the little blue mare, the other cowboys were amused.

The worth of any ranch horse lies in what he can do. Pedigree and appearance are important in the show ring, but they don’t mean much in the pasture. A horse that can perform and get the job done is a good horse—period. And little Calipso, skinny legs and all, could get the job done.

By the time she reached four years of age, she had become the best all-around ranch horse I had ever ridden. She had a soft mouth and a good handle. She was smooth and easy to ride in every gait. She had fairly good speed, she wouldn’t cheat me in a roping situation, and she had the toughness and endurance that have always been the strong points of the Arabian breed.

She could lope mile after mile through sand and sagebrush and never hit bottom, and though I have heard that some lines of Quarter Horses are known for their endurance, I never worked around a Quarter Horse that could stay up with Calipso.

Modern cowboys who place so much emphasis on size and strength tend to forget that until the second or third decade of this century, virtually all ranch horses were small by today’s standards. Most of them were probably near the size of Calipso—900 or 950 at maturity—and they did what had to be done. The West was won on small horses.

Which doesn’t mean that small horses are better than big horses, or vice versa. That’s an argument without end, and really, without much point. As a ranch cowboy who had many different kinds of work to do, I was glad to have both in my string.

Prairie Fire

By the first of July 1978, we had all the spring work finished. We had branded all the calves and moved the cows to summer pastures up and down the river, and I settled into a steady work routine on the LD Bar.

When I went to work on the ranch, John Little told me that he wanted his cattle ridden and checked twice a week, and so my summer routine was built around this. On Wednesdays and Saturdays I packed a lunch and a jug of water in the pickup, loaded my horse in the trailer, and headed north.

When I prowled pastures I had several objectives in mind. I checked the water and salt, counted the cows, looked for strays and sick animals, and observed the general condition of the cattle and the grass.

The summer of 1978 turned out to be the hottest one on record. We went through a spell in July when the temperature stayed above a hundred degrees for two straight weeks. We’d had a good wet spring that had brought on the grass, but when the heat struck, everything shriveled up and turned brown in the pastures.

During that spell, it was nothing out of the ordinary for me to be out ahorseback in 105- to 108-degree heat. It was terrible! I would get so hot and dehydrated that every time I came to a windmill tank or pool of water, I would get down, soak my shirt, and put it on dripping wet. By the time I reached the next waterhole, it would be dry, and I would go through the process again.

It was during that spell that I learned to drink out of stock tanks. If the wind wasn’t blowing, the windmills weren’t bringing up fresh water, so I would part the moss on the surface of the tank and start drinking. I slurped it up through my teeth, to strain out all the bugs and vegetation. Well, one day in July I got back to the house about 7 in the evening—hot, dehydrated, blistered, burned, and worn to a nubbing. The temperature that afternoon had reached 106. I ate supper, took a cold bath, and was in bed asleep when the phone rang at 10:30. There was a fire.

I didn’t need anyone to tell me where the fire was, because as soon as I drove out of the trees in the hollow, I could see the glow reflected on the dark clouds overhead.

I didn’t need anyone to tell me where the fire was, because as soon as I drove out of the trees in the hollow, I could see the glow reflected on the dark clouds overhead. The night was pitch black. There was no moon, no stars, no lights of any kind, just that undulating orange glow on the clouds.

About two miles north of headquarters, I topped a sandhill and saw the fire itself.

We went to work with shovels, throwing sand on the embers.

By 11:30 we had the fire whipped. We had been lucky. Had the wind come up suddenly or shifted directions, we might have lost it.

I got home around midnight and, since I smelled and looked like burned garbage, I had to take another bath. When I finally crawled between the sheets, nobody had to rock me to sleep.

John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

Read more from this writer


  • Tabitha
    Posted: Sat, 03/16/2019 02:08 pm

    I love the man John Erickson and his stories. They are simple but deep, serious yet infused with humor, and rich with insights.  

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Sat, 03/16/2019 02:28 pm

    Wonderful story about the real world and real people.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 03/16/2019 03:02 pm

    Ditto to the above. Reading John’s stories, I can feel the aches from days in the saddle, and feel and taste the gritty dust on my teeth. 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 03/16/2019 08:03 pm

    That Little John sounds like quite the character.

  • Glenn
    Posted: Sun, 03/17/2019 07:06 am

    Thanks for allowing us to share in what John experienced.  

  • Stalwart
    Posted: Sun, 03/17/2019 02:59 pm

    There are so many things to appreciate about World, from thoughtful to exposing to just plain enjoyable. This is the latter. Thanks again For decades of information and pleasure. 

    Posted: Mon, 03/25/2019 02:32 pm

    Thank you for publishing these "cowboy" articles by Mr. Erickson. They remind me of my late father, a man who was probably born a century too late. He was a horseman and loved ranching.