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Cowboys and horses

Hank the Cowdog explains why horses are essential for ranch life


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Cowboys and horses

Here’s the third of several excerpts from John Erickson’s five-volume “Hank the Cowdog’s Ranch Life Series.” Hank, known to the readers of the 76-books-and-growing series, sees himself as head of ranch security on a family ranch in the Texas panhandle. Published by permission from John and two partnering groups, the Ranching Heritage Association and the National Ranching Heritage Center, here’s an excerpt on how horses function as part of a ranch.

It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog. So you want to know all about cowboys, huh? Great subject, and you’ve certainly come to the right place. I happen to be one of the world’s leading authorities on cowboys. Not only do I work around ‘em every day here on the ranch, but I also happen to be inclined to the cowboy life myself. I make my living telling dumb cows where to go and what to do, and that makes me a “cowboy dog,” don’t you see?

So let’s talk about cowboys. The roots of the American cowboy go back to the years right after the Civil War, when large numbers of wild cattle were gathered out of the brush country in South Texas and driven north to railroad towns in Kansas and Nebraska. There, they were loaded into railroad cars and transported back East to feed people living in cities. This was known as the Traildriving Period. It started around 1865 and lasted until about 1880. During that time, thousands of young men (and some girls who disguised themselves as boys) were drawn to the business of herding livestock. The skills and equipment they developed in that short time have lasted into the present day. Even the word “cowboy” appeared at this time. Texas was the center of activity during the Traildriving Period, because it had such a huge supply of wild cattle, and it is often considered to be the place where the cowboy originated.

Actually, that’s only part of the story. Cattle didn’t exist in the New World until they were brought to Mexico by Spanish explorers and colonists. Some of those cattle escaped and drifted north into Texas, and those wild cattle became the seed stock for the cattle that were here when the early settlers moved into Texas in the 1830s and 1840s. Mexico had a cattle industry many years before Texans ever saw a cow, and the Mexicans had their own version of the cowboy: the vaquero. By the time the Traildriving Period came along, herders in Texas had adopted the methods of the vaquero, such as horsemanship and roping technique, and equipment such as saddles, spurs, chaps, bits, hats, and boots. Texas cowboys changed these things to suit their own particular needs. When they went up the trail, they carried their ideas on cowpunching into the northern states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming.

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish ranch cowboys from people who look, dress, or sound like cowboys. You have your rodeo cowboys, your rhinestone cowboys, your truck-drivin’ cowboys, and your urban cowboys. I’ve even heard there’s a football team in Dallas that calls itself the Cowboys. It gets kind of confusing, trying to figure out who in this crowd is the real cowboy. Well, the cowboy I’m talking about is the working cowboy. He makes his living taking care of livestock (usually cattle but sometimes sheep and goats too), and he has certain skills that set him apart from other folks. Most Americans don’t know a working cowboy and will never see one. That’s because cowboys work on ranches, spend most of their time alone or with animals, and don’t go to town any more than they have to. You don’t run into them unless you happen to spend time on a ranch, and most people don’t.

We’ve got a cowboy on our outfit. His name is Slim Chance. He’s a bachelor, which means that he’s never made the big step of getting married. How could he? Even if some woman wanted to marry him, she’d never find him. He stays hidden out on the ranch, works all the time, and rarely goes into town. You see, cowboys are kind of a different breed. Where most folks would choose a profession that promised inside work, no heavy lifting, and good pay, the cowboy chooses just the opposite. Slim’s life is full of adventure, but it’s a hard life. It’s mostly outside work with lots of heavy lifting, and the wages aren’t so good. So why do some kids grow up to be cowboys? And why do they stay out on those lonesome old ranches year after year, when they’re old enough to know better? A lot of cowboys ask themselves that same question.

We can only guess. Cowboys seem to enjoy solitude, hard work, hardship, and adventure. And animals. They enjoy the challenge of working around horses and cattle, and the opportunity to spend time with a highly conditioned, highly intelligent cowdog, such as … you can fill in the blank. Slim is a cowboy, and he works for Loper and Sally May, who are ranch owners. Cowboys work for ranchers, the people who own or lease the land, who own the livestock on the ranch, and who try to figure out how to make a living in the ranching business. In other words, ranchers and cowboys may look alike, they may wear the same kind of clothes, and they may work side by side every day, but they’re not the same.

People who own ranch land are pretty well tied down to one place, since you can’t pick up a ranch and move it somewhere else. And most ranch land is handed down through generations of the same family, so what you have is people who have been living and working on the same land for two, three, or even four generations. The cowboy, on the other hand, is not tied down to one place. He’ll work on one ranch for a while, move on to another, then another. Some cowboys work for the same ranchers all their lives, but most don’t. Why do cowboys move around? Well, sometimes they can’t get along with the boss. Sometimes they’re offered a job that pays more money. Sometimes they just want to see some different country. Cowboys tend to be restless and rootless—“fiddle-footed,” to use an old cowboy expression. It means they move from place to place.

Where the rancher is tied to the land, a cowboy is tied to his profession. Once again, let’s look at our model, Slim Chance, and the skills he brings to his job. To one degree or another, all of a cowboy’s skills relate back to one thing: taking care of livestock. The first is horsemanship. The horse is an important ranch tool, and I must tell you that it hurts me to say anything good about horses. Do you know why? First, they are vain, arrogant, cocky, and hateful. Second, they don’t take orders from a dog, even the Head of Ranch Security. And third, they take wicked delight in chasing dogs around the pasture—and bragging about how they’re going to bite off our tails! It’s outrageous, and I just don’t like ‘em, but people have been using them for a long time.

In the American West, the Comanche, Kiowa, Sioux, and Cheyenne Indians were experts at using horses as weapons of war. In other lands, horses were prized for their strength and their ability to do heavy work. They pulled plows and wagons, hauled trees and rocks and freight, and contributed to the building of a civilization that … well, really doesn’t need them anymore, because now the world has machines that do the work horses used to do. You might say that horses have worked themselves out of a job—everywhere but on ranches like this one. Around here, horses still have a job to do, and even though I don’t like ‘em, I must admit that it’s a pretty important job, even in this modern age with its pickups, computers and four-wheelers.

You see, most ranch land has remained in native grass because it’s too rough, rocky, brushy, or dry to be used for farming or any other purpose. If ranch land is rough, that means it’s hard on any kind of vehicle with wheels. The cattle don’t have any trouble getting around in rough country because they don’t have wheels, bearings, or metal parts. They can walk through heavy brush and climb up on the sides of mesas and go up into rocky canyons, and if the cowboy wants to ride through the cattle or gather them at roundup time, he’d better be driving something that doesn’t have wheels, something with four good legs. That’s the first thing that a horse can do. He can carry his rider to any spot on the ranch, regardless of the weather or the roughness of the country.

The second-most important thing a horse can do is deliver his rider back home at the end of the day, safe and sound. Slim has a working relationship with his horses. They’re not pets or pals. The horse is a tool, and Slim has to be skilled enough to care for his tools and use them in an efficient manner. It’s called horsemanship, and it involves many kinds of skills and knowledge. To most ordinary folks, horsemanship means that you can sit on a horse without falling off. Well, that’s good enough if you ride a horse for 30 minutes, once a month, but for a guy like Slim, it’s only the beginning. Some days, Slim might be in the saddle for 10 or 12 hours, riding through rough terrain, galloping after strays, roping sick calves, and sorting cattle in a pen. Horsemanship requires a sense of timing and balance, muscle tone, and athletic ability.

Another part of horsemanship is understanding the mind of a horse—how it thinks. Horses and people don’t see the world in exactly the same way, and there are good reasons for that. For one thing, a horse’s eyes are set on the sides of its head, not in the front. Animals whose eyes are located on the side (horses, cattle, deer, elk, moose, sheep, goats) spend their lives worrying that they might be attacked by predators, animals whose eyes are pointed straight ahead. Dogs, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions have predator eyes, and you know what? So do people. When horses are young, they have a natural fear of people, because people have predator eyes.

A cowboy like Slim has to understand this quirk in horses, and adjust his behavior to the horse’s way of thinking. He has to learn to be patient with horses, to win their trust, and to forgive them when they respond in peculiar ways. But he also has to be firm and demand that they accept discipline and training. Training a horse to be calm around people, to accept a rider on its back, and to concentrate on cattle work—those are part of the skill of horsemanship. Another part of horsemanship is caring for the physical needs of the horse, and of course the first and most basic needs are feed and water. An unwritten law of cowboying says that you tend to the needs of your horse before you tend to your own needs.

Some ranchers buy their horses from other ranchers or from a horse trader, while others raise their own. When you raise your own horses, you keep mares (adult females), breed them to stallions (adult males), and you get colts or foals (young horses). When baby horses come into the world, they have a natural fear of humans and very little understanding of the work they will be expected to do when they grow up. They have to undergo a long period of training that is aimed at building their trust in humans and teaching them how to work around cattle. It begins around the age of six months, when the colt is weaned off his mother’s milk, and the process continues over the next three or four years.

First, the colt is halter broke, which means that he wears a halter and is taught to lead. You might suppose that this wouldn’t be any big deal, leading a horse with a halter and rope, but in fact it is. A colt’s natural response is not to be led, and to fight against the pressure of a halter and rope. They have to be taught. Some ranchers use donkeys to halter break their colts, and it’s a pretty slick system. The colt is tied to the donkey with a halter and rope, and for a few hours, the colt drags the donkey around the pasture. But those little donkeys are slow and steady, and they always win this contest. When the colt wears himself out fighting against the rope, he gives up and starts following the donkey around. Before he knows it, he’s halter-broke.

Between the age to two and three years old, the colt begins to wear a bridle and bit, and is trained to respond to a tug on the bits (that means “whoa”) and to the pressure of the reins on its neck (that means “turn right” or “turn left”). The most important commands in horse training (stop and turn) are communicated through the reins and bit. At the same time, the colt begins to adjust to the feel of a saddle on his back. At first, the saddle seems strange, even frightening. But soon he figures out that the saddle won’t hurt him. Next, the trainer steps up into the saddle. Again, this is a little scary for a young horse. I mean, all at once he’s got the weight of a rider on his back, and he’s not sure what that human has in mind. The trainer has to be firm but patient, knowing that the colt is trying to absorb a lot of new experiences in a short period of time.

Once these early steps have been completed, the training begins in earnest. The process of training a colt is commonly known as breaking, as in “the horse was broke to lead, rein-broke, and broke to ride,” and the trainer is sometimes called a horse breaker. It’s an odd use of the word break, which usually means to snap or destroy. In horse training, to break means to break a colt’s natural inclination to be willful, disobedient, lazy, and frightened. If you wanted to explain horse breaking in one word, it would be education. Horse breaking is education, pure and simple. The trainer begins with a little beast that is ignorant and flighty, and transforms it into a disciplined animal that can perform valuable services for its human companions and for the ranching operation. The training also benefits the horse himself. Horses develop an appetite for ranch work, and enjoy it.

What qualities does a cowboy look for in a good horse? Well, since you asked, let’s make a list. The Perfect Ranch Horse would have these qualities: A gentle disposition. This means that he’s calm, not nervous or “spooky.” Hard hooves. Hooves are important because a horse walks on them all the time. A horse with soft hooves (usually white in color) will get sore footed on rocks, and might have to be fitted with horse shoes. Sound legs. A ranch horse is no better than his legs. If his legs are poorly shaped or have been injured, it will limit his usefulness as a work animal. A “soft mouth.” This means that he has been well trained as a colt and will respond to commands to stop and turn. Athletic ability. A good horse is a good athlete, which means that he has speed, quickness, and endurance. Size and strength. Most cowboys in our country prefer the American Quarter horse because this breed offers more size and strength than, say, the Arabian or Morgan.

Horses also need a thick hide. You wouldn’t think of this unless you owned a horse that developed sores on his back after a hard day’s ride. They need sure feet. Some horses seem inclined to stumble and trip over their own feet, and this isn’t something you want when you’re chasing a wild cow down a rocky slope. One of the nicest things a horse can do for his rider is to keep all four feet on the ground at all times, and never point them towards the sky. A horse should be a “good keeper.” That means he’s able to stay in working condition with a minimum amount of extra feeding. And, a big heart. When a cowboy says his horse has a big heart, he’s not talking about the organ that pumps blood. He’s talking about courage and loyalty and determination. A horse with “lots of heart” will give his master everything he’s got, and then give some more and keep going until the job is finished. (We cowdogs are famous for having “lots of heart.”)

A horse should have cow sense. This means the horse watches cattle and can anticipate the kind of work the cowboy needs to do. Sometimes that means following a calf that needs to be roped out in the pasture, “cutting” one out of the herd, or dodging the horns of an old cow that’s “on the fight.” I would add one more item to the list. The Perfect Ranch Horse would show some respect for the local dogs and quit chasing us around the pasture. We’ve never had the Perfect Ranch Horse on this ranch, and probably never will. Like people and dogs, horses come with different degrees of imperfection. The best you can hope for is a horse that is good and honest, but not perfect.

A good horse is one of the cowboy’s most prized possessions. He’s a tool that can make any job easier. You’ll never see a cowboy hug his horse or treat him like a pet, but he has great respect for what that horse can do. The relationship between the cowboy and his horse grows out of a shared purpose—the desire of both to accomplish a job of work and to take pride in what they do. It’s something neither can accomplish alone, but only as a partnership.


John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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Dave Waldrup

Great story and author. I remember seeing the National Ranching Heritage Center while I attended Texas Tech in the 70's. Always looked like a western town cut and pasted into the roadside in Lubbock. I'm grateful that this history is being preserved and that authors like John Erikson have captured it so well.

Strawberry Roan

Thanks once again for sharing one of John's pieces. He's so good. He's my favorite.
And thanks for shining a light on American agriculture!