Pairing Out the Hard Way
- May 8, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
An area ranch had hired me to come and help them get their cows and calves to summer grass. They asked me if I could swing by and pick up another guy and his horse on the way and I said I would. When I got there, this guy, Cody as I recall, had his horse saddled and was ready to go. His horse was one of the homeliest BLM mustangs I’d ever seen, so you know he was not pretty. His head probably outweighed his hindquarters by a significant amount. The horse was hard to get loaded, but we managed and we headed to the ranch headquarters about an hour away.
On the way, Cody admitted that he’d never worked cattle before or ridden much, and that he’d just bought the horse at the monthly horse trader sale. Cody and the horse were both green as grass, so I guess they fit each other alright. Cody was a pleasant young man and sure enough interested in the job we were to do.
At the ranch, we got mounted and went out to gather the cows and calves. Cody was not a cowboy by any means, and the BLM horse was green and not likely to get much better. We gathered the cows and the owners, a husband and wife and their grown son, took over the pairing out to make sure we sent pairs to grass. Cody and I just kept some pressure on the cows while they worked.
After loading the semis with the cows and calves, Cody and I got horses loaded up and followed the trucks out to the summer range about 30 miles away, much of that on a trail road. We got the pairs unloaded into a big lot where they could get mothered up again. At this time, the owner asked me to take a trot around the fences to make sure the water gaps had weathered the last little flood and that the gates were all shut before pairing the cows out.
That wouldn’t be a problem, so he was going to head home and leave it up to me to get the rest of the job done. I think he knew Cody wasn’t going to be much help, just company. Just before he left, he reached to his shirt pocket for the little book with all the numbers in it. He went through all his pockets, climbed up in the cab of the truck and looked, then came back, sheepish as can be. He’d forgotten to get the book from his wife that had all the tag numbers. None of the cows tags matched the calves. Not even for color. These were registered cattle with a dozen numbers and letters on each tag, but none that corresponded with the pair as far as we were concerned. He was embarrassed.
Well, it was a busy time and the truck was needed at home to haul yearlings, so he needed to get back. No one could be spared to get the all important calf book and bring it out, so it was going to be “old school” pairing up. The owner told me he knew I could get them paired up, and I assured him that we’d stay until they were.
It would have worked out much better if we could have started pairing them out right then while they were mothering up, but with having to get around and check the water gaps and gates, the cows would have paired up, calves nursed and laid down, with the cows waiting by the gate. I knew that. But, there was no other option.
Cody and I hit a trot and got around the fence as quickly as we could, and got back to the corrals to see it was just as I’d anticipated. No one was paired up anymore. As soon as we appeared at the gate, every cow came and stood there, ready to go out onto that wonderful green grass. They did it every year and knew that gate was the way to lush pasture. They clearly didn’t recall that they needed to have their calf with them to go out that gate.
I explained to Cody what we had to do. It was all new information for him. His horse was a cold jawed, thick necked, no turning clod, so wasn’t going to be putting on any fine cattle working demonstrations with his green rider either. Thankfully, I was riding one that was as good as they can get, Lakota, so I had that advantage. I just needed several more of Lakota and me. I rode through and got the calves on their feet, trying to encourage the cows to pick them up. This lot was probably around five acres, ran long east and west, had a big mound in the middle, and the gate was on the northeast side near the corner. There may have been a worse setup, but I don’t know how.
Cody and his horse weren’t quick enough to work the gate and he was too green to pick out the pairs. A few of the cows had picked up their calves at the ride through, but most were just standing on the east end ready to dive out the gate without their calf. There wasn’t another intact pen that we could pair into either, just straight out into a rough pasture. We drove all the cows back to the west end and picked up a couple that were paired. I coached Cody and we worked them over toward the gate and I could open it off of Lakota and drag it (no, it didn’t swing) open to let them out. We got a few pairs out, but seeing them leave revved up the cows left behind and it got tougher and tougher.
I was explaining everything to Cody, as he was a willing student, and trying to teach him what to watch for when a cow indicates a calf is hers. The subtle body language is hard for some seasoned cowboys to see, but I was impressed with how quickly Cody started catching on to it. He had the makings of a hand. His horse, however, had the makings of nothing and I don’t think ever actually saw a cow. Poor Cody’s arms must have been tired from plow reining that numb, stiff necked horse around. I know my arm was sure tired of opening the dragging gate!
After many hours, we were down to about 15 pairs, and oh boy, they were tough ones. They knew where their calves were and figured they could come back later for them, so wouldn’t show a thing. Or, they’d fib and pick up a random calf, which was even more aggravating. The owner had specifically said to make sure the gate into that lot was closed when we left, so I couldn’t just leave those last calves for the cows to come back to.
Despite being late May, it was getting toward sundown by the time we finally let the last two pairs out. I had told the owner that they would be paired out, every last one, and they were. I never had a doubt that they were correctly paired as we’d worked hard at it. We closed the dragging gate for the last time and headed for the trailer.
We’d taken a short break in the afternoon to let our horses graze, drink and rest, and for us to have a sandwich. But otherwise, we’d been plugging away at the pairing up of those cows for nearly seven hours. I’d watched Cody bloom into a guy who could “see” what I was telling him. He had gotten handier than I’d imagined for a total beginner. His horse was a handicap, but he’d persevered. I suppose if you’ve never ridden a really good one, you don’t know how bad the one is you’re riding.
On our way home, we stopped at the headquarters to let the owners know the cows were on grass and for me to pick up my check. It was a long, long day and Cody and I were both pooped out, as well as our horses. I dropped Cody and his horse off at his place and told him I was proud of him. He thanked me for taking the time to teach him how to better handle his horse and how to work the cows.
Usually I would have been a little peeved at the circumstances, but one guy with a lot of try made up for day’s disadvantages. That calf number book would have sure been handy and quicker, but the job still got done, old school. I enjoyed Cody’s company and willing heart. I never saw him again as he moved to Oklahoma shortly after that. But, I don’t doubt that he’s succeeded in life at whatever he’s done. He was the kind to do it.
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....