Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Riding With Old Cowboys

                                                by Laura Crum

            We helped our friends gather and rope their cattle yesterday. My son and I ride regularly with several team ropers who are in their 70’s (and in one case 80’s). These four old men have been riding and roping all their lives. They’ve learned a few tricks in those years. Two of these guys (my uncle Todd and our friend/boarder, Wally), taught me to ride and rope. And they are both still roping today.
            I bring my son to ride at this practice arena for a reason. Its not that I want him to become a team roper (and he’s shown little interest in learning the sport). I’ve seen enough of competitive team roping not to care if I ever see any more. The abuse created by competition exists in this sport as it does all competitive horse sports. And I, for one, have had enough of such abuse. I don’t even care to be around it any more, or support it any way, even with my presence. But our practice roping is different.
            Nothing is on the line here. No one is pushing his horse too hard in order to win. There is space for my son to chase cattle, even though he’s not roping or even learning to rope. But, like me, my kid enjoys working cattle. And the horses enjoy this, too. So we gather the cattle, and bring them up the alley, and haze them, and occasionally chase one that isn’t wanted for roping. Once in awhile we’ll “work” a steer—doing our best to get our old rope horses to “hook on” and move with the animal like a cutting horse does. It’s all great fun for both horse and rider. Below you see my son chasing a steer down the arena on Henry.

            But the fun of working cattle is not the main reason I bring my kid here to ride. I want him to grow up around these old cowboys and their horses, just like I did. The funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you exactly why.
            It would be easy to say that they represent a way of life I admire—but it wouldn’t be strictly true. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t admire here. I’ve seen some of these old guys beat up horses and cattle in ways that I don’t condone—and believe me, I spoke up. In my old age, I pretty much speak my mind, and I won’t tolerate seeing an animal abused in front of me without trying to stop the abuse. Not to mention that I can’t even listen to them when they talk politics—that’s how radically we disagree in that area. Oh, and the derogatory/patronizing attitude often expressed towards women can really piss me off. Not to mention some of these old birds aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. I could go on and on. But…
            But I still take my son to that practice roping every week, and the reason is partly to do with these old cowboys.
            It’s a little difficult to put into words, but maybe some of you will know what I mean. My old cowboy buddies are more than just themselves; they are, in a sense, icons—living symbols of a way of life. A life that is about horses and cattle and the cowboy way. About being tough under pressure and having some courage, about knowing how to ride a horse and how to “read” a cow. About staying out in the weather (hot and cold, muddy and dusty), and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. About not being afraid to get dirty, and understanding the natural world. And about a particular sort of grace and camaraderie I never found anywhere else. My heart still lifts when we all go out to gather cattle on our shiny horses on a bright morning in early summer.
            The gift I want to give my son is to understand this beauty from the inside out—to have it be part of him. I don’t necessarily want him to admire or emulate these men (though there are many ways in which I do admire them), but I want him to understand the way of life they represent. I don’t want him to grow up on pristine soccer fields made of artificial turf, duking it out with eleven year olds in shiny uniforms who have neither manners, grace, nor any real understanding of life. I want him to learn something bigger than that.
            I imagine that this emblematic quality exists in any horse sport. It certainly did in the other horse sports I participated in—cowhorse and cutting—and the ranching world is steeped in it, as is the world of mountain horse packers. But I can see it just as clearly when I think of jumping horses or dressage or racehorses. In all horse sports there is abuse, yes, but there is beauty and history and some deep gravitas, too. And though I don’t want my son to be exposed to abuse (and I let him see me stand up against it), I do want him to understand that grave beauty that comes with understanding and interacting with horses, and people who know horses. Not to mention the genuine joy and great fun that comes with getting a job done on horseback with friends.
            So here’s to the old cowboys, with all their good points and flaws. I can’t imagine a world without you.
            My son, on his good horse Henry, bringing the cattle up the alley with Wally and Twister.
Do others of you share this same odd balance between criticism and admiration when it comes to the "icons" in your horse sport of choice?


Alison said...

Love your description of these 'good ol' cowboys.' It's like the farmers I live near. Lots to admire . . . and some not so much.

I would love to be in your son's shoes, learning the art of roping and rounding in such an easy way. What a great experience!

carolyn said...
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Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Alison. My son really loves riding at the arena--and I think its been good for him to learn from the "old cowboys".

horsegenes said...

I totally get what you are saying. There is something about older gentlemen - there kindness, patience, humility, and respect for life in general that draws me in. He is a lucky boy to have them in his life and you for recognizing how important it is.

And as a perk... look at all the great stories he is going to get to retell to his children. :)

AareneX said...

I'm a huge believer in allowing a BUNCH of adults raise each kid, especially as the kid reaches adolescence. Parents can't provide the triangulation that an older generation can offer; your cowboys had "been there, done that" when WE were kids, and they haven't forgotten how the world works...and they've got the time to pass along what they've learned.

When we are that age, it will be our turn to help raise other folks' kids. It's only fair to be ready for that!

Hooray for you and for your son, to take advantage of everything (the good and the not-recommended-for-prime-time) these cowboys can offer.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks kel and Aarene. I knew you two would both get what I mean.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Oh yeah, my father-in-law was a lot like the old cowboys. Only he was an old logger and dairyman. We made sure that the son got to spend a bit of time with grandpa and get a sense of the old times with him. He still remembers those times as an adult.

Doesn't hurt for a kid to see active and involved older folks in the same activity. Plus those old guys can teach him a lot of stuff. Good and bad...and you can help him learn how to handle differences of opinion while still being respectful. Lots to learn there!

Laura Crum said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Joyce!

Grey Horse Matters said...

I think it's great that you're exposing your son to the old cowboys. Of course, in any sport there is good and bad but you're there to show him how to stand up to abuse and also give him a difference of opinion in their political outlooks. And how they feel about women is just old hat and I'm sure he's learned what he needs to know from having a mom who is strong and intelligent.

I exposed my kids to some of the old folks at barns and shows too. We didn't do the cattle thing or western riding but there was still a lot to learn from the older jumper riders. Again, good and bad. But it gives them an idea of the world and shows them everything isn't candy and roses. They also learned not to be little princesses and can all do their own tacking, grooming and doctoring with horses. There is no substitute for being exposed to many different personalities and different ways of doing things.