My brother and baby sister and I, riding in the back of the Jeep,
as Dad drove up into our 320-acre mountain pasture to find the horses.
I am calling them and rattling the bucket of oats — a signal for them to come running.
In later years the skittish buckskin mare became easier to catch, partly because I was always patient and took the time to outwait her (as a child I generally had “time” and wasn’t in as big a hurry as adults, who were always on a busy schedule) and partly because Nosey became more mellow and tolerant. By the time I was in high school and our horses were wintering on 320 acres in the mountains, all I had to do was call them and they would come running.
When I was in sixth grade, we suddenly had several more horses. The ranch below our little cabin on Withington Creek came up for sale; it was 640 acres, which included several small hay meadows and a lot of mountain pasture, providing enough feed for about 50 cows. My dad and his brother (an attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho, 170 miles away) went into partnership to buy the little ranch. My family took care of the ranch and the cattle — with my brother Rocky and me doing most of the work irrigating and fencing because Dad still had his job in town as preacher.
My uncle’s interest in the ranch was mainly as an investment and a place where he could bring his family occasionally on weekends for a vacation, to ride horses. My dad eventually bought my uncle’s share of the ranch, in part by exchanging our little acreage and cabin (farther up the creek). The cabin was perfect for my uncle’s family vacations in summer, and the ranch was a better situation for my family.
I’d always dreamed of living on a real ranch, with horses and cattle, and now we had more horses. A young chestnut filly named Ginger came with the ranch, and we bought another yearling filly — a brown Thoroughbred named Nellace — from Lester Withington. Lester was an elderly cattleman who owned the ranch at the mouth of our creek; the creek was named for his grandfather, who had homesteaded there.
where we let the horses into the corral from the Cheney Creek pasture
when I led them down each day with old Possum. This photo
was taken in winter when our bulls were living in the corral.
Our ranch had very few fences, except for the boundary fence around the half that lay along the creek. Another 320 acres up in the mountains wasn’t fenced at all. Near the old house, next to the creek, was a big horse corral where former owners periodically kept horses when they gathered them off the range to break and train. There were also two sod-roofed sheds and an old wooden granary, but no other buildings or fences. During our first summer there, Rocky and I helped Dad dig postholes to create a pasture above our house.
We also built a battery-operated electric fence to separate 70 acres of mountain pasture from the hay meadows. We let the horses run on the 70 acres in the hills and were able to keep them out of the hay fields along the creek. With that much area to roam, the horses were usually far away from the corral, up on the mountain, and difficult to catch. Yet we needed them nearly every day, to ride range and take care of the cattle. Dad purchased some Hereford cows, and during the summer they were on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range in the mountains, a long way from the ranch. The only way to check on them, move them, or round them up in the fall was with horses. Riding range was one of my favorite things to do.
little sister (on Nosey) are coming home from a ride to check on the cattle.
It was also my job (a delightful task, actually) every morning to hike up Cheney Creek — the tiny little stream that ran through the horses’ 70-acre pasture — and find the horses. I took a small bucket of grain and a halter and caught old Possum. Even if the mares and fillies were flighty and hard to catch, Possum was still my buddy, and he’d always come to me for grain, and he didn’t mind being caught. Then I’d get on him bareback. There was always a steep hill or bank that I could use for climbing onto him fairly easily while holding onto my grain bucket. Once mounted, I’d head down to the corral, calling the horses. They didn’t want to be left behind, because Possum was their boss and leader, and they always followed him.
They soon figured out that there was a reward waiting for them down in the corral, and they went galloping madly down the trail ahead of Possum and me. I had to become a really good rider to stay on old Possum bareback, hanging onto his mane, the halter rope, and the empty oat bucket, as he galloped down the steep trail that went through thick bushes in certain places, following the mares.
Every day, before I hiked up to find the horses, I poured oats into several feed boxes Dad had built in the corral, so that when the horses came galloping down the hill and into the corral, there would be a treat waiting for them. In a billow of dust they would pass me and Possum and dash to the feed boxes. I’d slip off old Possum and shut the gate, then turn him loose to let him go to eat some of the oats. Once inside the corral, the horses were all much easier to catch, even Nosey. I could always corner them in the corral, and Nosey seemed to realize there was no point in trying to run away.
My cousin Jennifer riding Nosey, ready to go out on the range with me.
During one of the first corral episodes, however, she did try to evade capture. My dad was helping me catch her in the round corral, and she just kept running around us. He threw his lariat over her head but missed a perfect catch — his rope was hanging by one ear. Nosey immediately stopped dead still in her tracks, assuming she was caught, and we realized that this must have been the way her former owners caught her.
Nosey became a very useful ranch horse. She was much younger and more spirited than Possum, so I often rode her when I went up in the mountains to check on our cattle. In later years she was a good “spare” horse for anyone to ride, as long as they were experienced riders. Our cousins enjoyed riding Nosey when they came to visit, and my baby sister started riding the big mare when she was about 7 years old — after she’d practiced on old Possum.
Nosey was also a good packhorse. Dad bought a packsaddle and used Nosey to pack blocks of salt out to the range for the cows. When we repaired some of the old boundary fences and started building new fences, Nosey was the horse we always used for packing the posts and heavy rolls of barbed wire up the steep hillsides.
One half-section of our ranch had no boundary fence. There had been a fence built around part of it when it was homesteaded in the early 1900s, but that old pole fence had long since fallen down and rotted away. Before we could use this part of our ranch for our cattle, we had to build a fence around it. At that point in time it was grazed by all the neighbors’ range cattle during the summer.
My little sister started riding Nosey when she was about 7 years old.
So Rocky and I helped our dad and a cousin build the 2.5 miles of fence around that pasture. I became good at digging postholes, setting posts and tamping them, and stapling the wire after Dad strung it out along the line of posts, using Nosey to pull the wire. My brother and I kept hold of the metal bar the roll of wire was spinning on, and Dad would ride along the fence line, with the end of the wire tied to his lariat, which was tied to the saddle horn. He and Nosy could string out the wire and drag it along the ground much easier than a person could do it by hand, because often the wire got caught on sagebrush and it took a lot of strength to pull it free.
Nosey also packed the rolls of barbed wire up to the top corners of the fence, where it was too steep to drive with the Jeep. It was so steep that when Rocky and I were unloading two of the rolls one roll fell back down the hill and we couldn’t catch it. The heavy spool of wire went rolling and bouncing, faster and faster, with longer and longer bounces, almost half a mile down the mountain before it came to rest in a flatter area. We had to lead Nosey down there and lift that heavy roll back onto the packsaddle and lead her up the mountain again.
I enjoyed digging postholes and building fences.
Building fence was hard work, but I enjoyed it. It took us all summer and fall to finish that particular fence. Half a mile of that piece of ground bordered another ranch (which was already fenced), so we only had to build fence around the other parts. We also built a fence around our orchard and garden down by the house, so the horses and cattle couldn’t get into the garden or chew on the apple trees. Dad paid us 50 cents an hour or 50 cents per posthole, whichever was more. In the rocky terrain of the mountain pasture, we were glad to get 50 cents an hour, because it often took several hours to dig one hole. By contrast, we could make more money being paid by the posthole in the rock-free soil around the garden, putting in several posts per hour, so we felt that was a really good deal!
[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.