|Colorado, circa 1900|
A week or so ago, Chris Zahniser asked me if I would give a hand during a gathering and branding at his place. Of course I was all for it. It was that time of year, and I always look forward to gatherings. Besides the work involved, it is a big part of the cowboy lifestyle. And yes, all in all, it's also a lot of fun.
When Saturday morning came around, as I had a second cup of coffee, I realized that I was feeling that old anticipation of wanting to get out there. I sat there for a moment with my coffee and slipped into a memory of my grandfather and dad, my uncles, and others when I wasn't 10 yet.
Though the day started with a crisp chill in the air but soon warmed up real nice, by the time I arrived at the ranch, it was a really beautiful spring morning. Chris had told me that most of the cattle were already done and that there were only a few to do. He also said that there the few left would be easy enough to bring in to the pens and that there was no need for another horse.
Now, though I did want to try to use my new horse Jack for this, I'm not too proud to think that I can't do ground work. And yes, I've been around enough to have seen a few hands who would only show up for the riding and the gathering - then bug out when the ground work begins. It usually only happens once, because after that their names get around and their not usually asked back to help - no matter how short handed you might be.
As for doing ground work, my age and bad back wouldn't stop me from helping when friends ask. Besides, there is something about trying to wrestle a cow or two or more. Why wrestle cattle, or sit on their shoulders and neck to keep them down? Well, that's part of the job when you do it the "old way." And yes, Chris told me that we would be branding and cutting the "old way" - without a chute, and instead using a "header" and a "heeler."
Using two cowboys on horseback, one roper is referred to as the "header." He's the cowboy who ropes the front of the steer. The second cowboy roper is the "heeler." He ropes the steer by its hind feet. Once the header has roped the animal, he then takes a dally, which is a couple of wraps of the rope around the horn of the saddle. Once the header has made the dally, he turns the horse, usually to the left, and the steer will follow, still running.
The heeler waits until the header has turned the steer. When the heeler has a clear throw, the heeler throws a loop of rope under the running steer's hind legs and catches them. As soon as the heeler also dallies tight, the header turns his or her horse to directly face the steer and heeler. Both horses back up slightly to stretch out the steer's hind legs, hopefully taunt enough to immobilize the animal. As soon as the animal is stretched out, then the ground work starts.
First thing to do is make sure the cow, calf, steer, or bull is laying on the opposite side of where the owner's brand needs to be placed. If the animal has to be rolled over, then that's the time to do it. One cowboy places his knee on the cow's neck and pulls up and back on the head. His partner grasps the uppermost hind leg, pulls it back and at the same time places his foot on the hind leg next to the ground. Although some skip the second man and just let the horses stretch the animal out. Either way, the animal is in pretty good position for branding.
Most cattle operations today use a squeeze chute because it is simply faster and easier. Also, beings that the cow or steer or calf is in the chute, it is completely immobilized and can be vaccinated, doctored, cut, tagged and branded all a lot easier than on the ground.
While more cattle can get done in a shorter amount of time, it is also true that a squeeze chute is a sizable investment for most beef producers. Many small outfits like the Zahniser's Green Valley Ranch would be smart to save their money and do things the "old fashion way" if they can get the help to do it. And just for the record, branding livestock has been around since before the ancient Romans and were well known to be used in the Middle Ages in Europe.
The Europeans brought branding to America, and it was actually refined by the Spanish Vaquero in what today is the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the Old West, a "branding iron" consisted of an iron rod with a simple symbol or mark which cowboys heated in a fire. That hasn't changed much at all.
Once the animal is restrained, and after the branding iron turned red hot, a cowboy grabs up the iron and presses the branding iron against the hide of the cow. Back in the Old West, a brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could graze freely together on open range. Cowboys would later separate the cattle during "roundups" and "gatherings" when preparing to drive them to market.
Rustlers used what was known as a "running irons" were pretty smart about changing brands. It should be noted that just having a "running iron" in your possession could have led you to a hanging tree in the Old West. Brands became so numerous that it became necessary to start Brand Registries and record them in books so that ranchers could prove their property was in fact theirs.
Once laws were passed requiring the registration of brands, and the inspection of cattle driven through various territories. Penalties were imposed on those who failed to obtain a bill of sale with a list of brands on the animals purchased. Of course, today free-range or open-range grazing is a lot less common than in the past. But, branding is still used for the purpose of proving ownership, especially of lost or stolen animals. In fact, even today, many states have strict laws regarding brands, including brand registration, and require brand inspections. Of course, today there are other types of branding methods including freeze and paint branding.
As for last Saturday, well, we went Old School.
Al Zahniser and his son Chris who manages their family beef operation, Craig Record who is a local cowboy and horse trainer, his daughter Jasmine, Buck Baca and his son Justin, were all there when I arrived. Chris organized the gathering and branding. And although Al was scheduled to be somewhere else that day, he did show up to see how things were going - and of course make sure all was going according to plan. While Al has raised cattle for more years than most, and Chris knows what was needed, Craig has worked for some big outfits in his time and because he was available. Craig was the top hand that day.
There are many unspoken rules to the tradition of gathering and branding. One big rule is that while everyone works together and watches every one else's back, there can only be one top hand who calls the shots so that everything goes smoothly and safely.
Since all they had to cover was about a hundred acres, Craig had his mare Annie saddled and soon rode out with 15 year old Justin Baca to cover his flanks. And yes, this was a first for Justin.
Justin Baca is a young man who has learned a lot from the cowboy way. He is a good worker and not afraid to get in there to do what needs done. At 15, he's just started team roping and his dad Buck is a great mentor for him.
Granted there were less than twenty head of cattle that needed to be gathered, it was good to see that Justin rode where he was told and not ahead of the boss. Riding ahead of the top hand or boss is seen as plain disrespectful, but also foolish because in most cases he's not taking directions from the man in charge - and really won't know how things are going to get done.
It was sort of funny to watch the scene take off. At the top of the far rise, the cattle had come out and lined up all facing the two riders coming slowly toward them. It looked like some sort of cavalry position being met by two lone riders.
Once Craig was close, the cattle broke and swung across the right side of the field. Both Craig and Justin tried to contain them and move them slowly toward the pens, but couldn't as the cows split time and time again from one side of the field to the other.
Normally, when you are given an area to gather in - you go exactly where you are told. You don't cross over into another rider’s area. But in this case, the cows and not the riders were forcing the action. Whether its a small area or big area, a number of riders can search out cows and have an easier time moving them simply because they have more help.
In this case, two riders were trying to move cattle in an area that was wide open and the cows didn't want to go where they were being pushed. It was sort of squeezing a balloon full of water. Squeeze one spot and another bulges. Use two hands and the middle bugles. Of course to add insult to what was being done was when the cattle were almost in the corral and they broke again. This went on for the better part of an hour when Justin came in and his dad took over his position.
Now I can't say for sure, but I was hoping that Justin saw how nothing changed after his dad took over. At one point though, I looked at Justin and asked how he was doing. He looked a little down in the mouth because he was having such a hard time with the cows out there. As I said before, Justin had just started team roping where roping is completely different altogether. Team roping is a controlled event.
Steers used for roping are moved from a holding corral through a series of narrow alleyways that lead to the roping arena. The alleyways or runways allow the steers to be lined up in single file. Then, one at a time, a steer is moved into a chute with spring-loaded doors in front and a solid gate behind, so that only one animal is released at a time.
On each side of the chute is an area called the box that is big enough to hold a horse and rider. The header is on one side (usually the left, for a right-handed header) while the "heeler" is on the other side of the chute in that box.
A taut rope, called the barrier, runs in front of the header's box and is fastened to an easily released rope on the neck of the steer of a designated length, used to ensure that the steer gets a head start. An electronic barrier, consisting of an electric eye connected to a timing device, is sometimes used in place of the barrier rope.
When the header is ready, the roper calls for the steer and an assistant pulls a lever, opening the chute doors. The freed steer breaks out running. When the steer reaches the end of the rope, the barrier releases. The header must rope the steer with one of three legal catches: a clean horn catch around both horns, a neck catch around the neck or a half-head catch around the neck and one horn.
The header then takes a dally, and goes through the exercise the same way as I described before. The same for the heeler, except since Team Roping is a competition the heeler gets a five second penalty assessed to the end time if only one leg is caught.
As soon as the heeler also dallies tight, the header turns his or her horse to directly face the steer and heeler. Both horses back up slightly to stretch out the steer's hind legs, immobilizing the animal. As soon as the steer is stretched out, an official waves a flag and the time is taken.
The steer is released and trots off to an open gate where he will go back into an allyway for another go around. All very neat and clean. Some of this is what old style ranch work was all about, such as with what the header and heeler does, but the difference is in the cattle and the setup.
In ranch work, the animals you're roping are not just a bunch of Corriente steers that live to be roped. A small herd that has been roped again and again.
Chris Zahniser's red and white face Herefords seldom ever run in a straight line. They bunch up with other cattle. There are no alleyways or runways. No chutes and boxes. And yes. they can try your patience while making the most experienced Team Roper feel like a rookie.
I tried to tell Justin that besides gatherings not being like Team Ropings, Al Zahniser's cattle had never been driven by horses before. This was a first for more than just Justin.
After almost an hour or two, Craig's 19 year old daughter Jasmine who has been around cows forever finally took her horse out there to help her dad and Buck bring them in. Her horse made the difference and the cattle were all pretty worn out from running around. Both Craig's and Buck's horses were lathered and tired as well, so we all figured that they and the cattle would take a few minutes to calm down.
After a short break, we were ready and cut out the ones that didn't need branding and got them out of our way. The few left were bunched up and sorting was getting interesting in that one big steer thought he was still a bull and actually charged the horse - and me at one point.
The guys yelled and said that he missed me by a foot or so, and I was thankful they were watching my back. That is an important part of doing the ground work, especially when there's a mean one in the herd.
Justin was never involved in castrating bulls, so besides the gathering and branding - cutting a bull was a real eye opener. Castration is the removal of the testicles of a bull. Castrated bulls gain weight a lot faster. Castration makes the beef tastier, and it improves its temperament.
Justin watched Craig as he cut the first bull, and he was OK with helping with whatever needed to be done. He was a great help, and just as everyone else does -- he kept from getting in the way.
Craig was the header and Buck heeled, and they worked pretty good together. Buck seem to realize that the big difference between Team Roping and the branding pen is that you're not fighting the clock for time. Roping in the branding pen is very different, when taking your shot you have to sort of consider where the steer is going to go. You consider where the animal is going to end up after your loop. And yes, you don’t want to get another roper in trouble.
It's been my experience that when making plans to take a shot you need to notice if the other roper is paying attention to what's going on. It's better to pass up the shot and wait until he's working with you.
My grandfather was a great cowboy, and he would have loved Craig's horse Annie that day. She kept the rope taunt but not too much. See while its true that the animal being stretched is being immobilized, we wouldn't want a horse to put too much pressure on that rope - especially small calves.
As for ground work, I've heard it said that the best ground crews are ones that are the best horsemen. Many times the ground crews don’t know enough to get out of the way of the roper who is dragging a steer to them. The crew needs to know what's going on and should get out of the way of the man on the horse and let him ride past before doing the work.
After we made sure the cow, calf, steer, or bull was laying on the opposite side of where the owner's brand needs to be placed, and rolled over a couple, I had put my considerable weight on the cattle up to that point by placing one knee on the cow's neck and pulling up and back on its head.
Justin said that he wanted to hold the next steer down. Chris and I looked at Justin, and after asking how much he weighed, he replied, "113 pounds!"
Chris and I both got a laugh from it, mostly because I'm about three times his size, but we agreed and told him that the next one was his. When it was time, Craig showed Justin what to do and how to hold him down. Justin did as he was told, at one point riding out the steers attempt to throw a fuss. At that moment, Justin Baca became a cowboy.
Most young people learn a great deal from ranching and farming. More than people think actually. Fact is that there are a lot of great qualities that kids learn on a farm and ranch. Nowhere can you find youngsters who are more responsible than ranch and farm kids. And nowhere can you find young people who are more polite or more trustworthy.
Beside teaching kids about animal husbandry, animal care, and what it takes to feed America. Living in the country can teach many valuable qualities that are lacking in city life.
Like many others who I've known, Justin has learned responsibility and really does have a good sense of self worth. And yes, I believe that one way that the small gathering and branding was good for him, he was part of the success of what took place that day. It was hard work, but in the end it was great. And yes, he learned that for himself.
By joining in on the gathering and seeing how it can get done even when it looks frustrating, getting into Team Roping and learning to be responsible for his horse and other animals, all of these activities can heighten a kid's sense of worth. And as most of us know, there’s something about knowing that people and animals are counting on you and what you do - that brings out the best in people.
When Justin showed that he had the determination to hold down that steer - even though he didn't have the body weight behind him - that was real determination.
And there is a another essential trait that I see in Justin and other country kids that I don't see in too many city kids, it is what makes us into the people we are. It has to do with how we look at life.
Hope is one of the strongest forces that drive the human spirit to accomplish many things. Having hope will help kids overcome many disappointments. Combine a sense of hope with being responsible and determined, and that truly is a formula for success.
By showing a great sense of responsibility and determination, Justin became a cowboy that day at the Green Valley Ranch. He did great. And yes indeed, his sense of responsibility and determination showed us all that he knows how to Cowboy Up!