The Rewards of Cowboying - Part 3
“The rope is the cowboy’s tool,” well spoken words from one of my favorite cowboy artists, George of Prescott, Arizona. The knowhow and the skilled use of a well broke in lariat is another of the real rewards of cowboyin’. Cowboys spend lots of time developing their skill with a rope. It’s not a play thing or a toy. It’s a serious tool for a serious job a lot like a razor sharp ax in the hands of a timber jack. If the timber jack doesn’t know what he’s doin’ with that ax- he can’t do his job and it won’t be long till he gets in trouble and gets hurt or even killed. It’s exactly that way for a cowboy with his rope. You can get in trouble in a split second and lose a thumb or fingers before you even know they’re gone, or get in a serious tangle with your horse and a bull, cow, or even a calf, and bad things can happen in the blink of an eye. But on the other hand, a rope in the skilled hands of a man on a rope savvy horse can do amazing things in the efficient handling of live stock. It’s pretty much poetry in motion to watch it, but it’s nothing short of addicting and exciting to participate in it.
I was at a branding one time on the Idaho/Nevada border with Craig and Jan Burr, we roped and branded over 400 calves. These Buckaroos (and that title refers to men who use the old Spanish methods) hardly ever missed a double hocker and if they did, they let the calf step out of it for a re-try. It was beneath them to drag a calf by only one hind leg, and never the head. It was just plain fun to be there and see these guys in action. I took a calf anyway I could get it- by the neck, the gut, the hind legs, or leg. I think I even got a front leg once. It wasn’t pretty. But those Buckaroos were. I know some people would say it’s not true, but I watched one of the vaqueros using a 60 foot rawhide reata sit on his horse in the middle of the corral, pick his calf, never have his horse take a step toward the calf roll the reata somehow along the ground till the loop hit the calf in the flank the calf would jump a little letting the loop come under his belly and hind legs, and pull the slack catching both hocks. Then he’d dally and drag it to the ground crew. I’ve never seen that since then. His horse hardly had to work at all. Now that’s skill.
Through the years I practiced roping with my friends and brother, and we got better at it. I built a mechanical cow that we could pull with a horse or truck. It was made out of steel pipe welded together. It had a head with horns, hind legs that swing back and forth that could be roped and it was attached to steel pipe skis or runners. We had a ball with it, it afforded us many hours of fun and good practice. We drug it on dry ground, grass, and also snow. We had only one mishap when my brother Steve broke his collar bone when Ranger tripped and fell.
At the roping arenas it cost 50 cents a run with a real steer, so we went as often as we could afford, but the mechanical cow was free and never tired out as long as our horses didn’t I entered different roping events- Jackpot ropings, and rodeos mostly. Never won the money, but it was good practice and I enjoyed it, and I think that’s what counts the most. We did improve our skills along the way. When I was doing real cowboy work on different ranches that was the real payoff, because the work had to get done and you had to do it. There’s nothing quite like throwing your loop when it matters and catching the critters that’s got to be caught. That is one of the rewards of cowboying. Calves, cows, and bulls have got to be caught and doctored, there’s no two ways about it. If they aren’t they get sicker and end up dying or at the least, getting in more serious condition which makes it harder to heal them and much more expensive- which always means less profit for the Boss. A good cowboy that is skilled with a rope can literally cause thousands and thousands of dollars to flow into the pocket of the owner, which otherwise would flow out instead.
On big outfits roping horses is also a must and that’s a beautiful skill to see. There’s no time for men to try to walk into a corral and try to ease up on a horse and catch it by hand, and besides its dangerous- too many horses too close and getting kicked is a high probability. The only method that is quick and safe is to rope them. Ranch horses aren’t pets. They are hardworking animals, and don’t necessarily want to be caught for duty, because the duty is usually tough and long. So if you have, say ten to 12 cowboys that all need a horse caught, saddled, bridled, and ready to go before sun-up, and those horses are in a bunch of say, 30 or more horses (that bunch is called a Remuda or Cavvy) then all that has to be done quickly, otherwise you’d be way late getting the work done, and believe me there’s no such thing on a cow outfit. By sun up the cowboys have already ridden several miles just getting to where the cows are.
So one man is appointed to rope out of the herd, all the horses that will be used that morning. He must be good, quick and accurate. All the horses are crowded into a corner of the corral, or if out on the open range, a make shift corral called a rope corral, formed by cowboys holding their stretched out lariats in a circle.
Each cowboy will select the horse he wants and the roper will catch him and lead him out away from the herd so the rider can take him where his saddle and bridle are and get mounted. The roper uses a loop called a hoolihan or a back hand loop which can be thrown without twirling the loop. It’s fast and accurate with a minimum of movement, and it can be thrown with greater ease no matter which way the horse may move or dodge.
At the Four Sixes Ranch one morning at Dixon Creek, I watched Boots O’Neal rope out about 25 horses out of a herd of 50 or so, and only miss one throw. All of that was done about an hour before sunup, so it was pretty much dark, and yet he picked out each horse by their profile when their name was called by each hand. And I might add Boots was near 80 years old, still a full time cowboy on the Ranch, and he rode with us too. He had been a cowboy there since he had graduated high school. Those old time cowboys are really something else.
Many a bad situation has been averted by a good horse and roper. I refer to my favorite example which is another story in and of itself, where Cotton Rosser saved a crowd of people from being trampled by a huge bull at the Strawberry Days Rodeo in Lehi, Utah. He made a split second catch and yanked the bull off the fence it had jumped. The bull otherwise would have landed on women and children and men. When that rope came tight, and that big beautiful Palomino Horse dug in and pulled that bull backwards off that fence you should have heard the crowd roar it’s approval and gratitude. I mean there were tears in people’s eyes, mine included.
The rope is the cowboy’s tool, and it’s used every day by skilled riders in remote far flung places where a real job has got to be done. Roping is one of the real rewards of a cowboy’s life.
More rewards of cowboying coming soon!