Sunday, May 16, 2010
Well, I’ve got my second ranch branding under my belt and this time I got to experience it from the back of my sweet Ruby. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to be riding a horse that you trust. I couldn’t help but mentally compare everything we were doing to my experience last year while riding Breeze. There was really no comparison. This time I was able to find a calming confidence in the ability of my horse.
We arrived at SCR Thursday evening and unloaded the mares. Both came off the trailer and took deep breathes of the northern New Mexico air. I’m sure they were finding comfort in the smells that spoke of home to them for the first six years of their lives. Dad and I took some good natured ribbing from Grant for the braided manes and tail bags. Didn’t we know we were coming to a ranch and not a parade?? We settled the mares in a pipe pen next to a set of geldings and the girls immediately started winking and teasing the poor boys. The turmoil they were causing was a reminder of why the cowboys prefer an all gelding crew.
At the house we sat in the kitchen and visited with Grant and his wife, Connie, as she finished making a pair of leggings for herself so she could wear them in the gather the next morning. Their two boys, Trey and Sterlin, were in the living room watching a movie and would wander through the kitchen periodically to playfully punch Dad or me. They would both miss school tomorrow so they could help gather. Trey is in second grade and Sterlin in Pre-K. After a while Dad and I made our way over to the bunkhouse for the night.
Since this was a small gather we didn’t have to be loaded until seven thirty and Dad and I left the bunkhouse the next morning at six fifty to saddle. Grant was already at the barn and his horse stood by the trailer saddled. He asked me to saddle both of our horses so Dad could go with him to catch the boys’ horses that were still in the pasture. Ruby and Snakebite both blew at me when I came in the pen. Nostrils wide, they indicated that they were back on ranch duty and would be a little stubborn about catching this morning. Ruby ran around the pen twice with her neck arched and a few dolphin bucks thrown in to show me how good she felt in the crisp morning air. I smiled at her good mood and then stepped to her head. She came to a stop and stood as I approached her. Though her theatrics were at an end, she still vibrated while I slipped on her halter. With Ruby caught Snakebite was easy to get haltered and by the time Dad and Grant were back I had the girls saddled. The maligned braids were gone and their manes and tails now hung in waves and kinks that I’m not sure were much better, but they would have to do.
The three of us readied Connie’s and the boys’ horses and loaded the six into the long stock trailer, geldings in the front and mares in the back. Kiowa, a cowboy on the ranch, came from the show barn and loaded the two young horses he would be riding into a second trailer. There would be two other men meeting us at the pasture; a young cowboy from a neighboring ranch and a friend from town and his young son that was Trey’s age.
Comanche pasture was the furthest one from the house. When we reached the fence that bordered its corner we started looking for cows to get an idea of where they were. On the rough road of the pasture we made our way to the windmill and Grant ran the siren to see if we could get the cows moving in the right direction. We continued on to the back fence where we stopped and unloaded. It was cooler here than it had been at the house. The wind whipped around the hills and cedars and cut through the layers of clothing we were wearing. Grant paired us off and assigned areas of the pasture for each pair to cover. We would work from the back fence and zig-zag through our part looking for cows and their calves. Dad and I worked together, splitting off and then meeting in the middle periodically.
Ruby and I moved at a quick trot as we made our way through the maze of cedar trees and cholla. Fallen branches littered the ground and Ruby never blinked as she stepped over them. Her breathing grew strong as we topped the hills and I let her regain her air as we looked down in the valleys between to check for cattle. Often, I felt an unconscious smile form on my lips as I reveled in the beauty around me and the sweet courage of my little red mare. This was the place of her birth and the land she had roamed and was ridden in until she came to be mine. She was savvy to the way to handle her body and place her feet as we ascended and descended the hills. She knew to watch were she was going so as to avoid the varmint mounds that cropped up. Last year, when she would make an adjustment to miss the holes the sudden shift would unbalance me. This year I sat with a solid seat. Ruby has given me confidence. I’m in love with this time in my life, and with Ruby, as I learn and become a better rider. Every so often I ran my hand down her neck to let her know she was appreciated.
Dad and I didn’t find any cows in our part but when we met up with Connie we helped her bring in her five head. We all met at the windmill: Grant with Trey, Richard and his young son, Guy, Connie, Dad and me, and Kiowa. At some point, Sterlin had gotten colder than his little cowboy toughness could stand and Connie had taken him back to the truck. Now that the cows were gathered she doubled back to get him and bring the trailer around. The eight of us formed a sort of “V” behind the cattle and began pushing them toward the highway. We would push them through a water gap under the road and into the trap pasture on the other side where they would stay until the branding tomorrow.
When we neared the water gap Kiowa rode his colt ahead to open the gate. We placed our horses so as to squeeze the herd through. Cars whizzed by above us and the sounds echoed in the concrete tunnels. With some whoopin’ and hollerin’ we got most of the herd by until only a few cows and babies remained. The cows went through but five scared calves balked at the gap. Without the comfort of their mothers they begin to panic and race wildly between the open gate before them and the “fence” of horses behind. Cute as they were, the little calves were dumb to how this whole driving thing works. One calf squirted out between horses and Ruby and I took off with a lunge. We crashed through brush to get around the calf and brought it back.
After several failed attempts to push the calves through, Grant took down his rope and built a loop. The horse he was riding was young but he managed to rope one of the bigger calves and get him stopped. Richard and Grant climbed off their horses and wrestled the calf under the gap to the other side. We managed to get three more under and had only one tiny calf left. The little guy had lost all sense and ran wildly into the fence several times before finally crashing through the wires and onto the highway side. I followed the calf, me and Ruby on the inside of the barbed wire fence and he on the outside while cars flew past oblivious.
By this time Connie had caught up to us with the truck and trailer and drove through the end gate and onto the highway to stop traffic. Grant got off his horse in the pasture and climbed through the fence. He hollered at me to stay with the calf and made his way to the trailer to unload and mount Connie’s horse on the highway. We followed the calf down to the gate until I could ride Ruby through. With Dad and Connie stopping traffic Grant and I were able to get the calf across the highway and into the pasture trap with the rest of the herd.
The gather hadn’t quite gone according to plan but it was done. Although I had been afraid for the little maverick calf’s life, the end result was a satisfying one. The entire episode was exciting and, in hindsight, fun and only served to further strengthen my trust in my red Ruby mare.
I’ll fill you in on the night under the stars and the next day’s branding later. . . .