Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Heather Smith Thomas's Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Growing up on the Ranch

When my parents started buying the ranch, it opened up a whole new world for me as an animal lover. We soon had more horses — and cattle. The ranch had several small hayfields along the creek where we put up hay for winter feed. We didn’t have any haying equipment, so my dad hired our neighbor to cut, rake, and bale the hay. Then we gathered the bales and stacked them. We pulled a “hay slip” behind our Jeep, to bring the bales out of the fields. My little brother and I helped roll bales onto this wooden “raft” that dragged along the ground.

Like most ranches in our part of the country, much of our land was too steep to irrigate. We had a small amount of hay ground (irrigated by ditches from the creek) and not enough acres of mountainside to graze the number of cattle it would take to make a living. Homesteads in early days were limited to 160 acres, enough to grow crops and make a living in the humid East, where land was flatter and more fertile, but not enough to live on in the arid West, where much of the land could not be cultivated and could only be used for livestock grazing. Even when the Homestead Act was changed to allow a 320-acre “grazing homestead,” this was still inadequate. Most ranchers grazed their cattle on surrounding mountains and deserts — land that was too steep, dry, or rocky to be taken up as homesteads. Thus, nearly every western ranch had a “summer range” where they turned out cattle, to save the irrigated acres at home for growing hay for winter feed. So our cows went to the mountains for the summer, and my brother and I helped Dad look after them. We “rode range” to check on the cattle, repair fences, move cattle from one part of the range to another, and gather them in the fall.

Riding Possum (in 1956) — I finally have a saddle!

After riding my beloved Possum bareback for 3 years, I now had a saddle! We also had more horses to ride — not just Possum and Nosey. My father bought a black mare named Scrappy from a boy who lived on a ranch north of town; Lynn was selling his horse to buy some sheep. He was a grade ahead of me in school, and I didn’t know him very well at that time, but ironically, he was the man I married after we grew up! Dad also bought a two-year-old Thoroughbred filly from an old rancher who lived at the mouth of our creek.

Ginger, the bottle-raised filly, in 1956

And we had Ginger. Two animals came with the ranch — a big yellow tomcat we called Thomas and a friendly chestnut filly named Ginger. Ida, the lady who sold us the ranch, told us Ginger was an orphan, raised on a bottle. Ginger’s mother died giving birth, and it was only luck that Ida’s son found the little foal before it, too, died. He carried the foal home on his saddle horse, and he and his mom revived the starving baby with milk from an eyedropper, then from a bottle. Ginger grew up thinking she was a human and would walk into the house if you’d let her. When we started riding her, she became one of our favorite mounts because she was good at working cattle and had a fast trot that could swiftly cover the many miles we had to travel on the range.

Ready to ride range, 1956

My brother and I became the best of friends during those growing-up years, working together on the ranch as we irrigated the fields, rode range, stacked hay, cut and hauled wood for winter (he cut it with a chain saw, and I stacked it in the Jeep to haul home), and dug postholes. We had lots of fences to build; some of the old boundary fences were falling down, and there were very few internal fences on the ranch. We built a fence around the garden and to separate the horse pasture from the rest of the fields. Our most heroic effort was to help build 3 miles of fence around our 320-acre mountain pasture — part of our ranch (originally a separate homestead) that had never had a complete fence around it. Dad paid us 50 cents an hour or 50 cents a posthole. On the pasture and garden fence we made more money by the posthole, but on the ridges in the mountains, it might take several hours to chisel a hole through the rocks, and then we were glad for 50 cents an hour!

Heather and cat

We had a variety of pets, including a cow dog named Pepper, who went with us when we rode and was sometimes helpful when we had to chase cattle out of the brush while moving them to a different part of the range. Old Thomas the cat was a favorite, though we nearly lost him one summer when he was bitten by a rattlesnake. He disappeared for a week and came home thin and ill, with all the hair gone on one shoulder and two fang marks oozing infection. But he survived and endured several more snakebites in his remaining years.

Onion and Perfy

Our most unusual pets were two young skunks my brother brought home one day after helping Dad fix fence. A mama skunk wandered by them, with five babies trailing behind her — and my brother grabbed a couple. I named my skunk Onion (because that’s what a baby skunk’s odor smells like), and Rocky named his Evening in Paris (a perfume), soon shortened to Perfume, then Perfy. Mom wasn’t happy about the way we smelled after handling our new pets! After they got used to us, however, they no longer sprayed. We kept them in an old rabbit hutch until they were no longer afraid of us and fed them cat food, raw eggs, and every rattlesnake we killed that summer. They loved to eat snakes, and we learned that skunks are one of snakes’ natural predators. Just like a cat, the skunk teases a snake into striking, then grabs it behind the head (this is probably why our old cat got bitten so many times in his old age; he was probably not as fast and agile as he once was, when teasing the snakes). That fall, when Onion and Perfy were nearly full grown, we turned them loose for good. But they frequently “visited” again, and we always knew they were our pets — because they were the gentle ones who didn’t spray us!

To be continued. . . .

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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