Big Country Horses
- December 13, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
We had gotten the call to come and help sort out a bunch of cattle about 40 miles from home. A big summer thunderstorm had dropped hail and rain in copious amounts and had washed out watergaps for miles and had cattle mixed up all over the region. This particular bunch we had to get sorted out involved yearling steers, which belonged to the guy who called us, and a big bunch of high headed, snorty dark red Saler cows and calves that had come from west of the steers about five miles. They had traveled along the path of the flood and were mixed in with the steers on a chunk of gumbo creek bottom country that would bog a snipe with a little rain, much less a lot. I chose my Lily mare for the day as she was double tough and could out travel anything I’d ever ridden in mud.
As the group of riders got to the main bunch of the cattle, the Saler cows and their calves left at a high lope, taking the goofiest of the steers with them. There were downed fences and water standing everywhere, so heading them and bringing them back to where we could sort them was going to take some riding. The owner, Dan, pointed at me and another guy named Cal, who was riding a mare that could match Lily stride for stride, and said, “You two go get them and bring them back. We’ll hold what we’ve got.”
I hit a lope and Cal wasn’t a stride behind as we headed west. We picked our way through the wires as we went, and kept going at a long trot or a lope. When we got away from the watergap, I shifted into third gear on Lily and she stretched out into a mile eating lope, her feet popping as they pulled from the mud. Cal’s mare Caddy was stride for stride with us. We stayed off to the side of the cattle as we went by them, and looking back, could see them slowing down as we passed. Way off to the west, though, there were cows disappearing over a ridge ahead of us.
Afraid that the cows we’d passed might turn south instead of going back east, Cal and I decided that one of us should fall back to be sure they didn’t. Cal offered to do that, as he was starting to feel the pace a bit on his bad hip. Lily and I left him and Lily had her ears up, watching for the cattle ahead.
As we crested a ridge and finally saw the leaders, Lily, on her own, pulled out the stops and made a hard lope to head them. As we passed those AAA lead cows, there weren’t but a couple of steers still with them, as the other chubby boys had fallen back. We pinched them off on the fence line, then had a little cutting contest to convince them that they needed to go back.
Finally, they turned back east at a trot, tongues lolling out. I let Lily trot along as slow as we could and keep up, and in a few minutes, she was breathing normally again, in spite of our two or three mile dash across the muddy gumbo. She was sweated up, of course, but sure hadn’t been hurt any by the race.
Cal and I gathered them all up as we went along and trailed them back to a spot where the others were sorting steers into a different pasture away from the creek and holding the cows on a flat. When we had the steers all sorted off through the gate, we sent the cows west again, figuring they’d lope all the way to Montana and give Dan plenty of time to get the fence fixed before they might return.
Before heading back to the trailers, Cal and I were sitting together on our 16 hand, mostly Thoroughbred mares as Dan looked us over. Neither mare was showing anything but dried sweat from the miles they’d gone. He said “Dang I’m glad you two had those mares today. We’d have never headed those cows with anything else.” No one in the crew disagreed, and I’m thinking their horses felt the same way.
About Jan Swan Wood
Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....