Chapter Six

Lynx made great strides during his first week under saddle, so much progress that I felt he was ready for a real job. On this outfit that often means moving cattle. As a rule of thumb, trailing cattle from here to there is a great entry level job for a young horse; once underway, a herd of native (raised on the ranch) cows will often trail itself, especially if you happen to be headed somewhere they’d like to be going. A young horse can follow along, all the while thinking he is performing a mighty feat of valor in controlling the snorting beasts.

There are exceptions to this rule of course: cows with very young calves, cows that find the weather or the time of day wrong, cows with bad dispositions, cows with their own agenda or yearlings with multiple agendas--and I know I’m forgetting something. Regardless, this day was shaping up fine. Lynx was in a great frame of mind as was his colleague Tup, and the cows were ready for a change of scenery. 
All we had to do was trail along behind and let my dog do whatever real work there was. 

That is, until we came across one of those cows with a BAD disposition. According to her brand she belonged to the folks south of us. I thought we could pen her up on our way by the corrals and then later take her back where she belonged. In ranch country there is an old maxim that says, “Treat your neighbor’s cow like she’s your own,” but I quickly broke this rule. I didn’t shoot her, which is what I might have done if that old rip were mine! Just at the point where things were starting to go really well she caught scent of Cricket, my hard working cowdog. This cow turned around and (I mean this quite literally) blasted out of the middle of our gather on a dog hunt. Poor Cricket, who was innocently tucking in a corner, was nearly steamrolled. In an instant she had 1200 lbs. of red-eyed, fire-breathing crossbred right on her tail. This was no small thing either, Cricket is an Aussie and her tail is only two inches long. Being a smart dog, she immediately sought sanctuary and the first place she could find--

Right here I would like to add something to last week’s post about desensitization; who needs a flag?

The good news is Lynx handled it like an old pro. He swung around and let her by. Claire deftly swooped in on Tup, cut Mrs. Nasty and her sorry little calf off, and sent them over the hill and out of sight. So I guess we lived up to that old maxim after all; if she were my cow I would definitely keep her away from the rest of my cattle.

We continued on and, once we got the dog out from under his legs, Lynx seemed to gain confidence with every step. The back end of a bunch of slow moving cows puts purpose to the turns we ask a young horse to make. He soon learns to focus on a straggler and head toward her with just a suggestion of leg and rein. With every laggard he pushes up he gets a little surer of himself and his job. Lynx let all the way down (relaxed) and took great interest in his work. He got on a roll and we were on the home stretch.

Which is when I was reminded of the other exception to the rule of moving cattle being such a good thing for young horses, even those with just one eye--bulls. They are such jerks. We had three in with this bunch of cows, three bulls who have been together every day for the past year and a half. Three bulls who had been with these cows for a full 30 days, which in cattle is nine days beyond a complete heat cycle. In other words, most of the cows were already bred and these boys have had plenty of time to settle whatever grudges they carry. Which meant absolutely nothing to them. One of them, Howard, our token Hereford, became quite interested in a certain cow. His momentary distraction afforded one of the other two a chance to make a sneak attack. He failed. 

Howard is blessed with a set of horns. They are his saving grace; he is normally far more docile than his Angus companions and they used to beat him up quite unmercifully until one day he swung his head and accidentally discovered that he could use his horns to inflict a stunning blow on his meaner compadres. It puffed up his ego and made his life a lot better. You go, Howard. On this day he got a horn under the ribs of his ambusher and flipped him. It was over in ten seconds.

One would think the loser might have had enough but that is not how a bull would see it. Since he lost to Howard, he obviously must take it out on the third bull. These guys were more evenly matched. There were grunts, groans and flying dust right smack in the middle of our little bunch of cows. Two 1800lb. wads of testosterone shoving each other around ended the established order of our trip. In the chaos calves got separated from their mothers and tried to head back the way they came and, well, the cooperative spirit of our cow friends was also lost.

When two bulls are locked in mortal combat there really isn’t much you can do about it. Riding up and trying to mediate a peace settlement usually does not make much of an impression on the combatants and is fairly likely to get you run over. Your best bet is to stay out of the way until they decide to separate and then do your best to keep them apart. And if one loses badly and turns tail, keep clear because he won’t even see you as a speed bump in his haste to get away from the victor.

This nuance was not clear to Lynx yet. We were busy trying to keep motherless calves from running back and attempting to regain our lost momentum. Claire, Tup and Cricket were doing most of the work but, for a green horse, Lynx was holding his own. The trick is to not let your colt feel like he’s getting overwhelmed. So we gave some ground and shortened the line of territory we were trying to protect and it was starting to work.

Of course this is when one bull lost and shot out of there like a nuclear missile. Lynx and I were in the flight path. We were about to get “overwhelmed.”

Much is made of a horse having “cow” or being “cowy.” The term has to do with a horse having a strong natural desire to work cattle. Here in Wyoming it is considered a great compliment if someone says, “Your horse sure is cowy.” I am neutral on this however. While natural ability is great to have it is usually unharnessed. Most horses I hear called cowy are actually just taking over—they pin their ears back, tune their riders out and do with the cow what they want. It is not their fault; they are only doing what works out for them, but it leads to shortcuts and a lack of finesse.

I would prefer a horse listen to my thoughts before he charges in. There are many times when a slight change of position etc. will cause cattle to do what you need them to do. This is hard to accomplish if your horse always has his fangs bared and is trying to make hair fly. Cattle are sensitive to the body language of horses and they don’t always care to be shouted at. They can get overwhelmed, too. So there is one good reason to get your horse listening before you get him all amped up to work a cow.

Another is what happened next with Lynx. As the black rocket hurtled toward us I was able to simply step Lynx over and get out of the way, if barely. The bull missed by inches but he missed. More importantly Lynx went right back to work as if nothing special had happened. I’m not even sure he realized there had been a close call. I have seen and been on a number of colts who have braced up or tried to stand their ground in this situation. Not only is this dangerous but it can have lasting implications. If a colt gets frightened or freight-trained here it can completely destroy his confidence and/or desire to work for a living. What was starting to be a fun job suddenly got painful or scary and the cattle you convinced him he could control are now chasing him. It’s a setback at the very least. Some horses recover from it and some don’t.

It was not an issue for Lynx. He turned calves around and convinced reluctant cows to resume their journey. Claire, on the more experienced Tup, kept the bulls apart and we picked up where we left off. Soon we were back on the home stretch and then we were through the last two gates, turning the cattle loose. It made me feel satisfied to see our cow friends put their heads down in fresh pasture. It always does. It made me feel even better for Lynx. He can do this…he is doing it. Maybe he won’t be turning yearlings down the fence at the reined cow horse show or chasing down a polo ball but he can do an honest day’s work and do it well. Not bad for a guy who can only see half the world.

Next week—A change

Lynx doing a day’s work