Fall is one of the busiest times of year on a cow outfit. The southern Idaho ranch where we work, is no exception. We are in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is Fall works.
My husband and his crew are gathering the cattle come down from the high country to begin their long trek towards their winter range. Early mornings are typical in ranching and they are earlier still when we gather cattle. Cattle handle best when the day is fresh, as they tend to enjoy lounging in the shade or around water holes during the heat of the day. Hot coffee starts the day (mine, at least), then horses are caught, grained, and saddled before daylight. The lead-off cowboy or crew boss (my sweetie) cuts the circle and the day’s work begins.
The days are long, there is a lot of country to cover on this outfit. Every corner, draw, and patch of brush and trees within your circle must be checked. The crisp, dark Fall mornings progress into a long, hot Fall day, made worthwhile in one golden instant. When the hills begin transitioning from cold blue in color, to rose-pink, and finally warm gold in concert with the rising sun, I experience transcendence. It is at this instant, with my horse’s heart beating beneath me, I know with certainty I am part of something greater than myself.
By the time the sun has crested the Eastern horizon, most of the cattle have been thrown together and the trailing of the herd begins. Once the cattle are started in the right direction, the crew falls into position around the herd based upon their position while gathering. Cowboy etiquette requires that you stay in your designated position throughout the day. My husband takes the outside circle, I have started the day on a smaller circle to his left, thus when the herd is thrown together I am on the left-hand drag.
Herding large bunches of cattle can be as difficult as determining the course of spilled milk upon a flat surface. There is a fluidity and lack of reason in their movements, as the lead animals exert an inexplicable pull upon those in the drag. It is a monotonous job, but requires attention and skill nonetheless. Cowboys are strung around the line of cattle, like beads upon a string. Lead, flank, and drag sliding from position-to-position upon the invisible string, gently shaping and encouraging the line of cattle upon their course.
The monotony of well-behaved cattle is broken up by ill-mannered beasts and the landscape’s lack of concern or cooperation. Cows and calves are seemingly swallowed by man-sized sagebrush and frustration levels run high. My hours spent shedding layers and inhaling dust in the drag are filled with daydreams of cold drinks and the modern miracle of air conditioning. About the time I’m ready to hand in my resignation, the gate is in sight and it is time for the return trek to the horse trailer.
For me the beauty of this lifestyle is found in the little moments, the wonders of sunrises or the flicker of a horse’s ears. While for others the goodness is defined by satisfaction in the tangible results of labor: miles covered, numbers gathered, those things that can be measured. All in all, it is a life like no other.
Stay tuned for Fall Works: Part II.
Circle: a term that has been around longer than barbwire fences, is the designated country or area a cowboy is supposed to ride and cover.
Drag: The tail-end of a trail herd.
Fall works: the term for all activities traditionally completed in the Fall of the year: gathering, shipping, weaning, pregnancy testing, culling, and re-gathering. What the term entails varies upon location, without exception this time of year is busy.
Flank: The sides of a trail herd, also –to flank up: bump or ride up to the next cowboy so he in turn can flank up help the next person if a situation arises with the cattle.
Lead: The head of a trail herd, the lead-off or an experienced man is in this position, opening gates and determining the course of the herd.
Lead-off: also Jigger boss. Cowboy crew leader.
Outside: The outside circle or big circle, usually taken by a boss or experienced cowboy, requires a tough horse because it encompasses the most country.