Cottonwood Creek Chronicles: Tired Horses

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

Many years ago my grandmother told me that getting old wasn’t for sissies. Also many years ago, my family doctor told me that if I kept abusing my body like I was, doing what I did for a living, that I was going to be old before my time. Of course, at 21, we’re all bullet proof and will be young forever, right?

The past several years, especially, have reminded me of the folly of my youth. I was never a wild risk taker who did things just to see if I could. I just worked for a living, doing what I knew how to do and what I liked doing. I cowboyed. I rode some trashy horses, but ironically, few of them were the ones that I got hurt on. I handled some nasty cattle, but again, they weren’t the ones that got me hurt. It was just the day to day work on a horse handling cattle, some in some pretty rough country, that started wearing away at my youth. I’ve heard it said that as we age we make interest payments on loans taken out in our youth. I can sure see that. This summer was a pivotal summer for me. After a winter of chopping ice, plowing heavy boots through deep snow, heavy lifting while feeding cows, and myriad other day to day chores, my body was protesting more than usual. The pain in my lower half from back problems kept me from sleeping, so I was unusually tired. The numbness in my right hand, especially my thumb and first two fingers, made me prone to dropping things. I was a mess.

But, I just kept gritting my teeth and telling myself that it would heal up like most things do. They didn’t and finally came to a head. In July, the pasture cattle got hit with foot rot. The pasture is fairly rough and quite a ways from any corrals, so the obvious and cowboy way of dealing with the problem was to rope and doctor the cows and calves in the pasture where we found them. No problem. I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years, right? I’ve doctored many a yearling in the pasture alone, plus cows and calves, so I was confident that this was going to work fine. I had good horses to ride who knew the job well. My son had come back to the ranch when he saw me having trouble last spring, so with his good cowboy skills, this doctoring cows was going to be a piece of cake. Good horses, two ropers, easy on cattle and us. He caught the first cow. I had my rope down, ready to heel her and was waiting for her to settle down a little. I rode around to get a shot at her heels and my hand simply let go of the loop. I gathered it up again and really concentrated on keeping ahold of it. The sad fact is, though, I couldn’t feel the rope. I had no idea where it was in my hand. If I can’t feel it in my hand, can I dally safely? The voice of reason who had the cow headed, forbade me to try to heel her. He was right. Suddenly, I went from being who I had been to being who I’ve become. It came as such a shock. I’m too slow on the ground due to my legs to be much help there, so Colin was pretty much on his own with the cow. Being a good hand he handled the situation and the job got done. But, on the breeze that day was the dead smell of a past life.

For days after, I fought a black hole. I even cried some, and felt my heart breaking into pieces. Who am I? I’m sure not a hand anymore. I don’t dare try to rope for fear of losing fingers or a hand. My legs work well enough to get me around, but being quick on the ground to tail something down or even strong enough to put a knee on a neck while tying the front feet is no longer there. I am a “used to was”. I dislike it intensely.

tired horses

I do remind myself of just how blessed I was to be able to do what I did for so long. I am also blessed to be able to do as much as I still can. I can still read and handle cattle. I can still manage their care. I can still ride a good and gentle horse. But am I still a cowboy? I don’t know if I can claim the title. I look back on over 40 years of living and working in the cattle industry and think of all the wet saddle blankets I’ve pulled off of tired horses. I’ve kept going when injured because I had cattle to care for and a job to do, thus making a living. I’ve had six or eight horses ridden into the ground at times but I still had to get up and go every day. I could usually get ahold of fresh horses, but it was the same me every day. Thus the accrued interest. The memories are mostly good. I wouldn’t have missed the life I lived for anything. But the injuries I never let heal because I couldn’t are haunting me now. The horses that fell on me, bones I’ve broken, ligaments stretched and torn beyond redemption, and daily wear and tear are the price I paid for living as I did. There won’t be many more really tired horses for me, but I’ll keep doing as much as I can for as long as I can. It will have to be enough.

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

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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