Gumbo and Cow Tails

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It had been a wet fall with rain, cool temps and even an October snow storm that melted and soaked in. The end of October had the ground saturated with moisture. We were hired to go and gather a bunch of cows and ship the calves off of some genuine gumbo country. We’d ridden this country a great deal, so were familiar with it and how it was when wet. It was absolutely a quagmire of sticky, heavy, roll-on-your-tires, ball-up-on-your-feet, gumbo.

Our string of horses were legged up and tough from traveling in the mud that fall, but we still picked our big country horses to take that day. My husband was on his Thoroughbred mare Holly, and I was on my mostly Thoroughbred Lily mare. They were double tough, long strided, and could really travel, even in fetlock deep mud. Our choice to ride these mares was due to the cows we were gathering. They were geared just the same as the mares, as they were crossbred Santa Gertrudis and Saler. Smart, cunning, and in high gear most of the time. We’d handled them multiple times for the owner, and though they were better to handle each time, they were still nervous and edgy.

We set out with the owner to start the gather. He went off on his own to the north, as he didn’t want to have to make his horse travel with ours, so we headed to the far east side. The mares’ feet popped from that gumbo like corks from a bottle with every stride, but those big mares warmed up and shifted into a long trot before very long and we were covering country.

Separating at the east fence, we started back west picking up cows as we went, while the owner came from the  north. The cows, as usual, were pretty trotty, and left when they saw us on the horizon. Before long, though, they’d drop back to a walk. Mind you, their personal space bubble was pretty big, so we weren’t right up close to them at first. Their weird, start and stop, lurchy way of going was sure puzzling at a distance. It’s like their transmissions were slipping, some even into reverse for a step or two.

Finally, as I got close enough to see, the problem they were having became apparent. Saler cattle have a very generous switch on their tails, as do Santa Gertrudis, though not quite as thick and long. Those long, thick tails on the cows had gumbo built up into the hair on the switch. As the weight of the gumbo would make the tail swing, the hind leg would brush against it, until their tails were encased in round balls of gumbo. The small ones were plum sized, some of the big ones as big as a cantaloupe. The bigger the mud ball, the harder it was making it for the cow. When the cow would hurry, her tail would swing and wrap around one or both of her hind legs, essentially hobbling her until it swung back. It was quite a situation for them. I’d seen it before, but not to the level these cows had.


It was slow going for them, but they kept plugging away. They would have to work the tail loose occasionally by stepping around with the hind feet. Kind of like being heeled with a sticky rope and getting it loose.

We finally got them in the corrals and got the calves sorted off and loaded on the trucks. There was nothing we could do for those cows and their tails. There was no chute and alley at those corrals to work them down to be able to remove the mud balls, so had to let them deal with it on their own.

Having grown up on the gumbo, I knew that either the dock of the tail would eventually pull out or the ball would dry out and break up on it’s own. Meanwhile, the semi-hobbled trotty cows were sure slowed down. I think they were nicer to work that fall than any time before that or after.

That was also the day that the owner, who had questioned why we tied mud knots in our horses’ tails, finally understood it. His gumbo experience was expanded considerably.

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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....

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