Cold Weather Cowboying
- January 16, 2024
- Jan Swan Wood
Back in my day working years, there was a guy who would wait until the coldest day of winter, or so it seemed, to gather his cows off of several big pastures, hayfields and breaks, and trail them home several miles for the winter. We always joked, sort of, that once we had his cows moved home, it would warm back up again. It usually was the coldest day of the winter at that point.
Gathering the cows kind of kept a person moving and part of the time one’s back would be to the wind. One could stand up in their stirrups and trot a little between bunches, so it would pump a little blood to the extremities. Once gathered though, the cows would plod along through the snow, quartering into a wind usually, so in no hurry. They knew they’d get there eventually. That’s when it got cold. Knees, hands and feet would be the worst.
I was well dressed and prepared for those kinds of days though. I’d had a set of bullnose taps made on extra large stirrups, like the outfitters use. The insides of the taps were lined with sheepskin. Those taps broke the wind off of my feet and I could ride in my snow packs with heavy socks in them to keep my feet warmer. The oversize stirrup didn’t make getting hung up likely if a horse fell or something.
I’d have on layers of clothes, then my insulated coveralls or bibs over the top of them. Over that would be a down vest with a sweatshirt over it (that, incidentally is warmer than the sweatshirt under the vest), my wild rag, and a long, heavy coat over all that. My Scotch cap would have the flaps down and I had a knitted thing that went down around my chin, covered my ears with another layer, and fastened on top of my cap. It looked like I had bunny ears that flopped a bit when I trotted my horse. On my hands would be heavy insulated gloves with some of those neat liners made from silk and some sort of metal mesh in the weave. They reflected the heat of the hands back into the hands. I’d like to find those again, but I haven’t seen any for years.
With all those clothes on, I was as graceful on the ground as a newborn calf, but I was warm.
The most critical part of my getup, though, was the horse I chose for the day. I would pick the gentlest, most reliable one I had and at that time, it was Lily. It didn’t get cold enough or icy enough that she would ever make a bobble. Never was there a hump in her back or even short steps when I rode her off. She was just dead honest and broke. She’d stand at the back of the trailer while I stepped in and then turned around and got on her, having that added 16 inches or so to help me waller up onto her 16 hands of height. I’d ride her in a hackamore as the mecate round rein was easier to hang onto in heavy gloves.
I remember one year we had the cows gathered and trailing west into a raw wind when one of the other cowboys rode over by me to say hello. He looked me over and grinned, then said “You know, you’ll never make the cover of Western Horseman in that get up.” It made me giggle. I assured him that I had never had that as my life goal. My goal was to not be any colder than I had to be.
My desire to impress anyone or make a fashion statement has always been weak or not there at all. In winter, that was even less. If one is dressed warm enough to stand the wind and weather, they’re likely to be in the right place a lot more often and able to do their job. Those who are cold might be staying out of the wind or trying to lope circles to get warm and they aren’t often in the right place.
This morning, here in western South Dakota, it was -31 degrees. According to the weather station, with the wind that was blowing, the wind chill was around -68. Wicked, mean, bitter, dangerously cold. I wonder if Chuck moved those cows today? If he did, I’m glad I didn’t have to help.
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....