Friday, April 24, 2009
Pickin' your hoss.
Cowboys on working cattle ranches had a string of horses they picked for their use while working a ranch. The same horse couldn't be used every day chasing critters and traveling great distances, so they had a string to take care of and use.
A "choosin' match" would be held at the beginning of the season. The foreman had first pick, then the older hands down to the last person hired who had the final choices or what was left.
Taking a horse from a man's string was the same as asking him to quit. A newly hired hand would be given a string without a word being said as to the temperaments. If he was a good cowhand, he'd figure it out. Any cowboy who rode someone else's horse or conspired to cause trouble for another was looking for trouble. If a cowboy quit or was fired his string was kept until a replacement was found and his horses turned over to the new employee.
The boss of the outfit counted the remuda or horses every day and took notice if a horse was being abused in anyway. If a horse showed signs of saddle sores or spur marks, the wrangler was asked to take his private horse and leave.
Most cowboys treated their horses well and bonded with each animal. No one wanted to get stranded on the trail or chasing cows without a horse. The hardest part at the end of the trail ride was having the boss sell their string of horses when the cattle were delivered.
Remudas usually contained geldings. They made the best cow horses. Most authors tend to put their cowboys on stallions but they fought and disturbed the peace of the remudas. And mares were too temperamental and a constant disturbing element.
In the fall when the work was done only a few mounts were kept on the ranch. The rest were turned out on winter range. Before letting them loose, the boss checked their ages, conditions, and feet. Every horse in the remuda had a name and was well-known to the longstanding hands. Their names were usually descriptive of their coloring or attitude.
Roundup work was hard on horses and they were changed three times each twenty-four hours. Horses had specific jobs depending on what they were good at. They had circle horses, cutting horses, rope horses, and night horses.
Circle horse- These were horse used to keep the cattle bunched up as they moved. They had to be strong, fast, agile, and not easily intimidated as they may have to ride into or around a herd of stampeding cattle.
Cutting horses- These were the top-ranking horses in the outfit. They were trained to cut a specific animal from a herd. The cowboy would point the horse at the animal and it would know that's the one to cut out. These horses anticipate every move of the cattle, have speed and quickness to spin and turn faster than a cow. It took a good horseman to ride a good cutting horse.
Rope horses - A good roping horse was a must during branding or just checking the herd. A good roping horse knows the minute the cowboy unhooks the lariat that they are ready for business. He races to the side of the cow selected and maintains the position so the cowboy can throw the loop. If the rope misses the horse drops back, allowing the cowboy to gather his rope and reposition. Once the animal is roped, the horse immediately sits back on his hind quarters and faces the animal keeping the rope tight. A good rope horse never lets the rope slack.
Night horse - The remuda has night horses. These are selected with care. The attributes needed in this horse are: gentleness, sure-footedness, dependability, keen eyesight, and a sense of direction. A night horse can see a single cow straying from the herd at night and turn it back without guidance. The horse could find its way back to the camp on the darkest night. Many cowboys dozing in the saddle while on night duty could be wakened by their horse making a sudden move to return a straying cow. A seasoned night horse also knew when the two hour shift was ending and would alert the rider by pulling on the bit and shaking its head. The horse and not the rider knew what to do during a stampede at night caused by thunder and lightning. The horse raced along the flank of the stampeding cattle. The rider gave his horse his head and depended on the animal's sight and sure-footedness to get them through.
A good horse was as well if not more respected than a good cowboy. The job of raising and moving cattle in the west was an occupation of danger and a good horse helped you survive.
My horse, though not a total cow horse yet, Bud, can be seen on the cover of my book Outlaw in Petticoats. You can view the cover, read an excerpt and reviews, and enter my website contest at: www.patyjager.com