Stampede - Part 1

        The cry of “stampede” in the days of the old long trail drives of the 1800’s was a sound and a word that put fear into the heart of every drover that ever had to be in one or try to stop one. They were extremely dangerous, and quite often resulted in the deaths or serious injury of both man and beast. Any number of things could start cattle on a dead run. Lightning and thunder, different sounds, or smells etc. Nighttime was the worst time and that’s when they usually happened. Once a large herd of cattle were frightened into a stampede, they could run for many miles and anything that was in their path stood a good chance of being trampled to death.  Cowboys had to ride with the herd trying to get to the front where they would try to turn the leaders to get the cattle sort of going in a large circle, rather than straight. If they were successful they could get the herd to start “milling” and soon they would be able to stop from their almost suicidal run. Many cowboys never rode away from stampedes, but were beaten into the ground and died there.

            I am glad I was never in a real stampede. The cattle of today are more docile and tame than the old range longhorn cattle of the stampede days. But…even today’s cattle are capable of it, given the right, or should I say, the wrong circumstances. As I said, I was never in a full-fledged, all out stampede, but I have had the experience twice of being with cattle when they broke into a run, and they could not be stopped, all you could do was ride with them till they stopped, or you could get them eventually stopped. Neither one of these incidents were cause by fear in the cattle, and they weren’t at night.

            The first incident was just plain fun. No fear involved as far as us riders were concerned.  But to be with a large herd of running cattle is definitely a rush. The sound and rumble of hundreds of hooves hitting the ground is exciting, it sends a thrill through you that’s for sure.

            This first incident that I mentioned, took place in Idaho back in the ‘60’s. I was 18 years old and was hired by a rancher, Kay Robinson to help him gather his herd off the hills and trail them for two days to their home ranch near Ammon, Idaho. It was late November and it was on the dangerous side because the ground was slick and muddy, and up higher there was snow where we started the drive. I was very inexperienced, a city kid, but I was glad for the chance to do some real cowboying. The whole drive, beginning to end was an adventure to me, and I came close a couple of times to getting seriously hurt or killed, but it all turned out well and I was very glad for it. 

            On the second day close to the end of the drive, we were moving along nicely up on top of the big bare hills above Ammon and Idaho Falls. We had, as I remember, a herd of 110 steers.  It was late in the afternoon, we were within an hour or two of the end of the trail. There was just the two of us, Kay and myself. It had warmed up a bit, from the cold snow and wind we’d had.  The sun was peekin’ through the clouds and warming us a little. There was still a breeze but not stiff and cold like the last two days. I was sort of enjoying the peaceful slow conditions.

            All of a sudden, all the steers broke into a run. Kay yelled to me to keep up with them that was all, just keep up with them. That wasn’t hard, my horse was doing that pretty much on his own, I was just along for the ride. We galloped along across the top of those open grassy hills. We weren’t going full tilt, but we were in a definite gallop. I was thrilled. The cattle were going down the slopes a while then up slopes a little following the undulating contour of the ridge. A couple of times, my horse and I were airborne as we sort of catapulted off a rise, and landed with a good solid thud below-about a 15-foot glide. I loved the sound of their hooves, all 440 of them thundering along. It was a rumble you not only could hear, but you could feel the earth rumbling. WOW, this was more than I bargained for. I looked ahead at Kay, he was “tall in the saddle” keeping pace on his big black horse. I felt like I was in a movie. My horse was doing well too—he had been great both days, no trouble at all. We just kept up with the running herd—there didn’t seem to be any panic in them, they seemed to be enjoying running. We were all energized and having fun it seemed.

            After a while the cattle started to slow down, and finally came to trot. Soon they were just walking and we were back to normal. I didn’t want it to end so soon. I thought to myself, I was in a real stampede, wow wait till I tell Mom about this. It wasn’t a “real” stampede, but at 18 and not knowing “sick-em from comeback” it satisfied me that it was. I couldn’t have been happier about it all.

            Later when we got down off the foothills and corralled the herd then Kay explained to me that the steers were just “excited” to get home, because they knew we were close to home and they were wantin’ to hurry it up a bit.  It was no big deal to him, he was expecting it I think, but to me it was “high adventure”. The thing about it all that captivated me was the “uncontrolled power of so many big heavy animals thundering across the earth” there was something so “primitive” about it that I loved.   can relate a very small bit with the Indians as they chased the big herds of those huge buffalo across the hills and prairies of the unfenced earth. Their horses going at full speed, putting them close so they could draw the bow and place their arrow.  One can only imagine the adrenaline rush that was. Wow. At any rate, it was an experience I’m glad I was there to feel. I told Mom all about it when I got home, she could see and feel my enthusiasm, and she listened well as she always did, but, although I didn’t know it then, she was just glad I was home in one piece and all was well.

Stay tuned for Clark's second "stampede" experience...

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