Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gathering Cattle

                                                by Laura Crum

            And now for something completely different…anybody remember that Monty Python movie? And yes, today’s post is pretty much the polar opposite of Terri’s previous post, in which she tells the almost fairytale story of her triumphs at the upper levels of dressage with her lovely horse, Uiver. Congratulations, Terri and Uiver!
And now you get me, the has been cowgirl, dinking around with my hairy pony, my young son, and a bunch of old team ropers. Quite the culture shift. Let no one say we are not a diverse group here at Equestrian Ink. Our common bond being a love of horses and a desire to write about horses (!)
So, lately most of my riding has involved gathering cattle. For many years now, I have been mostly trail riding, but this last year my son preferred to ride with our team roping friends and help them gather and work the cattle. I love moving cattle…I’ve done it my entire life. So I willingly prioritized riding with the roping crew a couple of days a week over the trail rides that we’ve been used to doing.
            However, the other day it struck me that I have very few photos of our gathers…etc, unlike my trail rides. The reason, of course, is that trail rides have many fairly quiet moments when it’s easy to take the ubiquitous ear shot, or turn and photograph your companions. Not so when you are working cattle. Most of the time you are focused on being where you need to be in relationship to the critter or herd, and you are moving too quickly for photos. There is almost never any handy person just standing around who can take photos OF you. Thus I have almost no photos of gathering cattle, despite how often I have done it.
            So the other day I decided to try and “capture” one of our gathers with my camera. I thought that many of you have probably never done this before, and might enjoy a vicarious internet version of the experience. 
It’s November and the fields are pretty bare here. The green grass is just barely started. The cattle are being fed hay every day. So the scene is not as picturesque as it is in the spring, when the fields are lush and green.
            Also, despite my best intentions, I only got a few decent shots. I was just too busy herding cattle the rest of the time, and the one shot I took when the cattle were galloping up a ravine was so blurry as to be useless. So here is my rather feeble attempt to take you all with me on a gather.
            Sunny and I are looking for the cattle. Can you see from his ears where they are?

            After this I had to pay attention to what I was doing as we went down into the ravine and pushed the cattle out of the brush and got them gathered in a herd. Then a certain amount of scrambling quickly up the hill and loping across the field happened, as we worked to get the herd moving toward the catch pen. I was too busy to take photos at this point, but here’s a photo from last fall, showing my son following the other guys up the ravine toward the upper field.

Finally the cattle are headed in the right direction and I hung back, pulled my horse up, and took a photo of my son and our friends pushing the herd toward the catch pen gate. That’s my kid on the far right and my uncle Todd and our friend/boarder, Wally, on the left.

            Then, more loping here and there, and ducking and dodging with the cattle took place, as we worked to get the more recalcitrant critters through the holding pen gate and then through the gate into the alley. Again, much too busy and moving too fast to take photos. Then I had to lope ahead of the group to open the gate that leads to the roping chutes, as someone had (ahem) forgotten to open it previously. So, again, no time to take photos. 
But here’s a shot from this spring showing my son and our friend Wally pushing the herd up the alley toward the roping chutes.

Once the cattle are loaded in the chutes the roping begins. The big fun for my son comes when there is a steer that is deemed no good to rope (lots of reasons—it “sets up” or it “drags” or it turns left in a determined way…etc), and my kid and his trusty steed, Henry, get to chase this animal down the arena.

            Anyway, thinking about gathering cattle reminded me of the many, many times I have done this. First on our family ranch here in Santa Cruz County, then on the northern California commercial cattle ranch where I worked in my 20’s, then in the central valley and the foothills where I worked for various cowhorse/cutting horse trainers (gathering the cattle was always the first chore of the day), and finally here on my uncle’s little ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Almost fifty years of gathering cattle. I guess I should know how to do it by now(!)
            Gathering cattle (and working cattle in general) is all about a sort of intuitive understanding of a cow’s body language. You have to be able to read the cattle. A recalcitrant sort of cow will need you to be far more “in her face” to turn her and get her moving in the right direction. A flighty animal will need you to back off. You have to be able to tell what the cattle are thinking. It’s also important to read the herd as a group. Some people can work with cattle for many years and still they always seem to be in the “wrong place.” Just like people who have horses for many years and never learn to “read” them very well. And the skills that one uses in reading and moving cattle do translate to some degree to reading horses, though the two species have some BIG differences.
            Actually, the skills used in reading cattle or horses also come in handy when herding any sort of critter—including chickens. Trust me, I know.

            (The above photo is Toby, our banty rooster, crowing defiantly at me as I attempt to "herd" the chickens back in the coop after a day out in the garden.)

Anyway of course there are no photos of me cause I am the one holding the camera (as I usually am), so I talked my intrepid companion into taking a shot of me when we went riding the next day. A little blurry, but you get the idea. Sunny and me—having fun covering some country in November.

I know some of you, like me, enjoy working cattle in various disciplines, but maybe for a few of you it’s a new experience. Many of our authors here on the site are involved with dressage. And our readers do everything from endurance to reining. So our riding disciplines are pretty different—does gathering cattle seem exotic to some of you, just as high end dressage seems exotic to me? Anyway, this is what my riding time has looked like lately.
Happy Thanksgiving to all—I am so grateful for my happy life here with my horses and family (not to mention my garden and other critters)—words can’t express it. I hope you all have much to be grateful for, too.
And for those who are already embarked on Xmas shopping (black Friday and all that), I would like to point out that the first two novels in my mystery series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy are currently on sale as Kindle editions for 99 cents each. For just shy of two dollars you can give a fun Xmas present to anyone who likes horses, mysteries and reading on Kindle. Or you can give them to yourself to enliven the darker days of winter. Here is the link to Cutter, the first book, set against a background of western ranches and cutting horses, and Hoofprints, the second book, which revolves around murder in the world of professional trainers and reined cowhorses. Come take a peak at the western cowhorse world where I have spent my horse time.

PS For those who prefer to read "physical" books, I'm thinking to have a giveaway. If you're interested, leave a comment to let me know. I'm never sure how many folks prefer "real" books to digital.


Martine said...

Thanks for that, Laura, I love reading all of your posts & the diversity on Equestrian Ink is the reason it's one of my favourites. I've always dreamed of riding Western, just as you've dreamed of a year in Provence :D
My aim is to do a trail ride in the "back" part of Yosemite... don't know if it'll ever happen, but ya never know!

Laura Crum said...

Martine--Thank you! Glad you enjoy the posts. The photos I posted of our horseback vacation in the mountains this summer were taken on the east side of Tioga Pass--basically the "back" of Yosemite. Its lovely country. I hope you get there, and I hope I get the fabled "year in Provence." I guess the grass is always greener....

AareneX said...

What a cool post, Laura. I really want to learn to work cows...alas, on the Wet Side of the state where I live, it's mostly dairy cattle, and they gather *themselves* twice each day!

Someday, someday. until then, I'll read Laura Crum's adventures!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Aarene--and I hope that at least you can enjoy working cattle vicariously through my stories. Happy Thanksgiving!

CG said...

I've always been just a tad scared of cows. So last spring I was a nervous to complete the cow sorting portion of our local trailcourse/playday.

But, it turns out my young TB gelding LOVES to push them around and we had a blast!

I'm working up to trying a small local team sorting event this winter and Cartman is learning to rope for fun, so I love the cowgirl posts:)

Terri Rocovich said...

Oh my God Laura that looks like so much fun. I went on a cattle drive once and it was like going back to our roots. Sunny looks keen to his job too. If one of those steers ever turned and looked at Uiver he would probably lay down and start crying and want to call for help. Either that or all 17 hands of him would be in the next county in a flash.

I love your rooster too, so pretty. Have a great holiday, I for one plan on pigging out big time.

Laura Crum said...

CG--Sounds like you guys are having fun. Its interesting how many horses really love chasing cows...not just cowhorse bred QHs. Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the post.

Terri--Well, all of our horses have worked cattle their whole "using" lives, so that is their job, as dressage is Uiver's job. Sunny and Henry will both physically block cattle with their bodies, as needed when forcing a steer through a chute. My son was pushing a cranky steer with Henry one time and the steer double barreled Henry in the chest--that old horse didn't even back off. So yeah, they are pretty tough when it comes to working cows.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, too--have a great feast!

spotz58 said...

I've been afraid of cows my whole life, and as you can imagine I am hopeless at reading them. So I reread your "cattle" posts to learn as much as I can from them. Some day, maybe...

Laura Crum said...

spotz58--Cows aren't that scary, really. But I know we all have our fears. I, for instance, would be deathly afraid of jumping those very solid cross country jumps that three day eventers go sailing over with grins on their faces. Anyway, if you ever have a chance to work cattle on an experienced horse, that might go a ways towards making it less scary. And, for sure, there's more than one way to have fun with a horse...who needs those silly cattle?

Grandma K said...

I just finished reading the last book in your series and wondered if you are busy on another?? Please keep writing - I love your books!

Laura Crum said...

Grandma K--You've read all twelve books? Wow--I don't think I have that many readers who have read every one of my books. I don't actually have plans to continue the series--I always meant to write a dozen books, and now that goal is accomplished. But you never know...I might get inspired. I'm so glad you've enjoyed the series, and thanks for the comment.