First you see the cattle stringing out at a brisk trot. You’re gathering a rough brushy pasture, trotting over a rock bedecked hill, watching for movement somewhere. You hope you covered all of your assigned territory and that you kept the pace of the circle everyone was making, because you haven’t seen anybody since the drop off. Your mind drifts back to that spot you figured was clear but now wish you’d trotted the extra 500 yards to make sure.
You pull up your sweaty horse to get a good look at what’s below you. While he’s catching his air you take note of the bunch trotting down the draw. The man on the outside circle ahead of you must have kicked them down here, knowing they’d travel and knowing you’d pick them up. Good, you tell yourself. I’m where I should be.
But the next thing you see is another horse and rider behind those cattle, and you realize you are behind. You’re somewhat disgusted with yourself, but glad you saw those cows or you’d have ridden right in front of them and turned them around. Squinting into the sunrise, you try to recognize the rider. What you see first sorta embarrasses you, then it makes you smile. It’s the kid.
They may be little. Their stirrups are barely long enough to touch the horse’s hide. Daddy may not let them carry a rope yet, and Mama might always stay within earshot, but don’t underestimate a kid on a horse. You’re looking at typically about 15+ years experience working and gathering cattle, between them and their horse. The judgement may come from the horse, but the motivation is from the kid. Gates do slow these little cowboys down quite a bit, but other than that, they’re good for as long as Mom will let them ride.
The truth is, cowkids learn how to do a lot more tasks than they are physically able to perform. They know exactly how to saddle their old pony, or work the squeeze chute, or drive the pickup, but the required height and strength is yet to come. There’s a lot they don’t know, but the trick is, they don’t know that!
When other kids are big enough to want to go to the mall, cow kids are about big enough to build a hay fort. They bring all sorts of ‘necessities’ to the hay barn and wrestle the 50-75 lb hay bales into the perfect spots to create tunnels and lookout holes. It’s like being lord of your very own grass castle. Our forts always had blankets, kittens, a canteen, and a pair of old binoculars for spying. My sister and I swiped the walkie talkies when we had friends over, but if we couldn’t use those, we would use our dogs to carry messages to the house (with notes tied in the collar that said something like, “Mom, bring snacks”).
There were five of us cousins born within a few years of each other. At family ranch ‘works’, we were all mounted on trusty horses that had been there, done that. So when we got the cattle to the corral and there wasn’t anything for us little guys to do, we would designate teams and play ‘cowboys and indians’. Basically we chased each other around the juniper trees on a nearby hill as fast as our old ponies would let us go. It was a glorified game of tag, complete with ambushes and war whoops. We couldn’t get on our horses without a fence, so we seldom dismounted during our game. On a couple of occasions we did take it too far…we found some sheep chalk (a bright oil-based paint stick made for marking sheep but used also to mark cattle when we palpate) in the saddle shed and put war paint on our horses. It didn’t wear off for months! The times we used Mom’s lipstick, it came off sooner.
Most little cowkids will want to ride every four-legged critter on the place. They’ll try all the horses, ride anything in the corral if you don’t stop them: even calves, pigs, and dogs.
My first time to get really bucked off was at age 10 (it wasn’t the last!). I had convinced my Dad to let me ride a horse in his string named Mouse (‘string’ is the word we use for the horses that are assigned to a particular cowboy. They’re his tools, if you will. Many ranches provide a string of horses for each of their employees to use). Well, Mouse was a grulla color with a big white star on his forehead, and I was so in love. He seemed gentle enough, but hadn’t ever felt spurs up high on his ribs (cowkids aren’t known for having long stirrups). I gigged him in the ribs like I did my old pony, but Mouse was a lot more ticklish. He broke into a little crow hop and there I went. I still remember the slow-motion sensation of the ground rushing up at me.
Mom picked me up, dusted me off, caught my horse and put me back up there. Sitting back up on the beast, I could feel the electricity in him. His hide seemed to crawl with it, his ears were locked on me and I was locked on him. Mom fixed me a make-shift night latch (a leather strap around the swells of the saddle to grab if needed. No cow kid is ever allowed to use the saddle horn for balance. It’s for a rope only.) She rode right beside me, talking quietly to help me and Mouse get our minds off each other. Within minutes, we were moving out together like old friends. I had learned something that can’t be taught: respect your horse. It only took me four or five days to fall in love with another horse in Daddy’s string. Mouse was certified ‘kid-broke’ by then, and I was ready for my next one.
There’s a special age when your burdens are still light but you’re able to do more things, and that age for ranch kids is a blessed time of freedom. You start to learn everything important but you don’ t have the pressure of your teens to take the fun out of it. Hard work, responsibility, perseverance, discipline, compassion, honesty…it’s all there. Caring for livestock is fun; you want to go out in below zero cold to play in the snow while Dad busts ice. You want to go clean stock tanks because you get to play in the mud while Mom and your older siblings have to bail out the trough.
Cowkids. I would trade places with them in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you?
The photos in this article are all the property of Brittany Starritt unless otherwise noted. They feature my niece, Sammie, cowkid and horsewoman extraordinairre. She illustrates the story better than the words do. I’m proud she calls me her ‘Tantie’.