Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Nosey, Part Three: Riding Range

To read the first chapter of the story, click here.
To jump right into the second part, click here.

The most fun I had during our first summer on the ranch was being able to ride in the mountains, checking cattle on the range. There was a lot more territory out there than I’d ever explored on my earlier rides up the creek from our cabin. My little brother Rocky and I had to learn where all the fences and gates were and the water troughs. We learned the grazing habits of the cattle and where we’d be most likely to find them.

That summer I was no longer riding bareback. I needed a saddle for range riding, to make it easier to mount and dismount, to open and shut the wire gates, to take tools along to fix the fences, and so on. Nosey wasn’t as patient as old Possum for getting on bareback and was also much taller. I also needed a saddle to tie things to — so I could take a jacket (in case of thunderstorms), my lunch, or a hammer and sack of fence staples.

I used a borrowed saddle from Lester Withington, one of the ranchers who had cattle on the same range. He was pleased that I was riding out there to help check on the cows and calves. He sometimes rode with me and showed me where the spring boxes for the water troughs were buried, since we sometimes had to open the top of a spring box and unplug the water line if a trough quit working. Occasionally, a drowned mouse would get stuck in the pipe and we'd have to pull it out. I also helped Lester move cattle.

Dad, my little sister (on Nosey) and me, heading out to ride range.
I'm using the old repaired saddle that I've now ridden for 55 years.

About midsummer my dad bought me an old repaired saddle from Clyde Stone at the saddle shop. It had originally been used for roping, but the rear cinch had been torn out of it in some kind of horse accident. Mr. Stone repaired the saddle, without a back cinch. It was less expensive than a new saddle, and Mr. Stone shortened the lace-up stirrup fenders as short as they could go, since I was very small at age 12. I am still riding that same old saddle (55 years later), with the same short stirrups.

Now that I had a saddle of my own, Rocky could use the borrowed saddle from Lester Withington. Together Rocky and I explored the range, riding Possum and Nosey, or the new black mare named Scrappy that our dad bought that summer, since our two fillies (Ginger and Nell) were still too young to be ridden.

When riding around in our home pastures, however, we still rode bareback a lot, especially after hiking up to catch the horses. We often galloped back to the barnyard area, hanging onto a handful of mane. The horses loved to jump the irrigation ditch as we thundered toward home. But one time when Rocky and Nosey got to the ditch and he was prepared for her to jump it, she suddenly stopped and he didn’t — tumbling over her head and splashing into the water.

On our range rides in the mountains behind our ranch, we saw many deer, large herds of antelope, coyotes and their pups (which often followed our horses), and a bear with cubs. I thought our horses might be afraid of the bear, but they just stood still and snorted as the bears loped on up the ridge and into the timber.

On our range rides in the mountains to check the cattle,
fences, and water troughs, we saw wildlife of all kinds.

Nosey was actually more scared of a badger that scurried away from us on one ride, when we startled it on our way to check a water trough. Nosey jumped sideways, and I nearly fell off. I was glad I was riding with a saddle because the stirrups helped me keep my balance during her unexpected leaps. She was much more flighty and spooky than old Possum, and I didn’t want to land on the ground. Old Possum would always stop and eat grass if his rider was off, but Nosey would rather run home.

Our cattle range had many interesting places to ride. The lower end was nearly flat, with a few low hills and lots of sagebrush. A little stream, Baker Creek, ran through the entire range, but the lower end of this stream always dried up in late summer after the weather turned hot. The top end was higher in the mountains, fed by a series of little springs. Part of the range up there was open hillsides with grass and sagebrush, and the north-facing slopes were covered with thick timber where the cows often lay in the shade during the heat of the day. They could hide in there, too, and be hard to find.

Much of the range was very steep. On one of our first rides on Possum and Nosey, Rocky and I were trying to go around a mountain to find Flicker Spring and a water trough we hadn’t seen yet, following directions that Dad had given us. We were supposed to go around the first big mountain beyond Baker Creek, then up into a big draw; the spring was at the top of that draw.

But we started up a false draw instead, before we got clear around the mountain. So we ended up climbing the steep mountain. The little draw we were following got steeper and steeper, and soon there was no trail. We were halfway up the mountain by then, and it was so steep we were afraid to try to turn around and go back down. It seemed safer to keep going up and angle our way over the top, then go back over into Baker Creek, where we knew our way around better.

The farther we went, however, the steeper it got. Soon we were in treacherous rocks with very poor footing. Every rock dislodged by our horses’ feet went crashing down the mountain. One big rock was immediately airborne and made only three bounces on its way down to the flatter country below. The terrain was becoming more challenging, but it was still easier to keep climbing than to try to go back down. I was afraid the horses might fall if we headed down. After Nosey slipped and her hind legs slid downhill several feet (the mare pulling herself back up by digging in with her front feet), Rocky and I were both alarmed. We dismounted, leading the horses the rest of the way to the top, through the rocks.

We were relieved when we got out of the rocks and onto more gently sloping ground. We finally made our way back down the less-steep side of the mountain into Baker Creek. We’d had enough excitement for one day and decided to try to find Flicker Spring another time. After we got home and described our ride, Dad told us that part of the mountain was “steeper than a cow’s face!” From then on that slope was called Cow Face by our family.

I was very glad Nosey and Possum were strong and surefooted. If either of them had fallen down in the slippery rocks, they’d have rolled all the way to the bottom. Nosey was a good mountain horse, however. Having grown up in the mountains, she knew how to handle herself, and she didn’t panic in precarious situations. Her surefootedness was a blessing, many times.

Dad rode her on many hunting trips, leading a packhorse, or sometimes a whole string of packhorses when he went hunting with his good friend Gene Powers and camped in the backcountry for several days to hunt elk. One time the packhorse he was leading slipped off a steep trail and might have tumbled to its death down the cliff, but Dad took a dally around his saddle horn with the lead rope, and Nosey pulled the scrambling packhorse back up onto the trail.

Another time Nosey’s strength and agility came in handy when Rocky and I were riding up Cheney Creek and found a stray Hereford bull belonging to Mr. Enquist, a rancher who lived several miles farther up the valley. He’d come through the fence and was all by himself in our mountain pasture. We started toward him to try to herd him down to our corral, so the neighbor could come and get him, but the bull was aggressive and charged at us. Rocky was closest to him, on Nosey, and as the bull charged at her, she started to spin away. The bull rammed her in the front of her chest, jamming one horn into her flesh, and picked her up with his head. She jerked free and galloped up the hillside, away from the bull. We were very lucky he hit her in the front, instead of broadside, or his horns may have ripped into her vital organs.

Rocky and I were quite shaken by the bull’s aggressiveness because we were accustomed to our own gentle Herefords. We threw rocks at the bull from a safe spot higher on the hill, but he wouldn’t go down the hill. He just stood there and shook his horns at us. So we gave up and rode home to tell Dad about the incident. When Dad and our neighbor Warren Gooch rode back up there, with Gooch’s stock dog, they didn’t have much luck, either. The dog tried to nip the bull and make him go, but the bull was too quick. Every time the dog snapped at the bull’s nose, he got a horn instead. The dog soon gave up and ran home. Dad and Warren Gooch rode back down to our fields and took a little herd of our cows up Cheney Creek to put with the bull, and then they were able to herd them all down together to the corral.

My little sister started riding Nosey when she was about 6 years old.

Nosey was a dependable horse for our friends to ride, except for her skittishness. As long as they were good riders, however, they had no problems. My little sister started riding at a young age, starting on old Possum and then graduating to Nosey and Scrappy when she was about 6 years old. I often took her riding with me on short rides, teaching her the basics of horsemanship. One windy day in early spring, I was glad we weren’t very far from home when Nosey spooked at something and whirled around, losing her young rider. She left my sister on the ground and ran home.

I often took my little sister on short rides with me —
with her on Nosey — while I was training my young filly Khamette.

I was riding a young filly, Khamette. I’d raised her from foalhood and was starting her training under saddle. Khamette was not quite 3 years old and had never had an extra passenger aboard, but she stood calmly as I pulled my little sister up behind me and gave her a ride home. Nosey was happily grazing in the barnyard when we got there and hadn’t even stepped on her bridle reins to break them.

Nosey was easy to shoe. I started shoeing all our ranch horses when
I was 14. Here, I'm shoeing Nosey, while two of the other horses
are tied in the barnyard waiting their turn.

Nosey was a part of our lives for nearly a dozen years. During that time she was one of our main all-purpose ranch horses. When I started shoeing our horses when I was 14 years old, she was one of the first ones I shod, because she was easygoing and nice about having her feet handled. She was large (and took number 2 shoes!) and occasionally leaned on the person shoeing her — which wasn’t so good — but at least she didn’t resist or try to jerk her foot away. All in all, she was part of my “horse education” in many ways.

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.

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