Showtime on the range

Sometimes the best show in the rural American West, is outside the dining room window.

For a fall day, this one was hard to beat. The sun was breaking over the eastern horizon. Autumn leaves in the aspen groves and blooming rabbit brush were at their peak. Woodsmoke collected in the mountain valleys.

Pickups, pulling stock trailers, jockeyed for parking near the corrals. Quickly, a half-dozen cowboys, brightly colored wild rags wrapping their throats in the morning chill, unloaded horses and checked their saddle cinches.

Today was the day, time to gather cattle from a thousand acres of rolling mountain pasture in a zone transitioning from sage and juniper into towering ponderosa pine.

Hearing a commotion up the road, the neighboring couple peered out their dining room window to see what was happening.

There was no doubt when the absentee owner of the cattle arrived. Conversation stopped, the cowboys grabbed their lead ropes and walked their mounts through the gate—waiting for the boss. He rode his horse, spurs a-jingle, amidst the group and gathered everybody in a circle for instructions.

Next door, the neighbor and his wife made themselves comfortable with a cup of coffee—there was going to be a show.

Meanwhile, surrounded by his cowboys, the boss completed his assignments. Briefly, he bowed his head then quickly looked into the bright sky and ‘whooped’ at the top of his lungs.

At his signal, the cowboys spun their horses and spurred madly off in all directions.

The neighbors smiled, knowing that whooping and hollering cowboys racing after cattle isn’t about getting work done. It’s entertainment from the American West of myth and movie, much like a Louis L’ Amor novel, and has little to do with the working cow business. On the ground, greenhorns like these, tend to make life more difficult for the cows, horses and themselves.

The cows in the field heard the cowboy’s “yip…yip…yip” from better than a mile off. They scattered in all directions, like a covey of startled quail, each looking for a place to hide. Even when caught in the open, they did their best to outrun, tail sticking straight in the air, their horseback pursuer.

At the end of the day, they had gathered about a third of the cattle—mostly slowpokes like the oldest, youngest and least intelligent. The cowboys were in the same condition as their horses, beat-up, tired, lathered and dust covered.

Meanwhile, the neighbors didn’t say much as they fixed dinner that night—they knew what was coming next.

Two weeks later, the morning was crisp when the old man pulled his pickup and stock trailer next to the corrals. He stopped and quietly saddled his horse. Then he jumped two mixed breed stock dogs out of the pickup. Slowly, the old-timer rode into the field, dogs flanking either side of his horse.

Cattle are herd animals. When their personal space is violated, they respond by stepping away from the violator, in this case, a horseback rider. With experience, and a couple of good dogs, it’s possible to slowly push relaxed cows in a desired direction.

The old timer rode the perimeter, without hollering, yelling or chasing, using his horse and dogs to nudge the cattle towards the center of the field. After making one loop, the old timer returned, tightening his circle and bunching the cattle even closer. When they were gathered in one spot, he placed himself behind the herd, dogs still flanking, and pushed them toward the corral.

Three hours after he’d arrived, the old man closed the corral gate behind the cattle. He walked his horse into the stock trailer, then jumped his dogs into the back of the pickup and drove home without a sweat having been broken on man or beast.

For the nosy neighbors, it was still entertainment, but of a different sort. It’s a pleasure watching a rider teamed with his horse and dogs quietly working with, rather than against, cattle.

“That’s a lot less work,” the husband said to his wife, “who needs a TV when you have this kind of entertainment?”

She nodded and went to fix lunch.

-Bing Bingham ©2015 – is a writer, rancher and storyteller. If you’d like to read more stories of the rural American West, check his website…


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