Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Ginger, Part Three: A Good Ranch Horse

To read Part One of this series, click here.
For Part Two, here.

Even though my brother used Ginger as his 4-H project for several years, I still enjoyed riding her at home on the ranch. She was still my favorite horse for riding range until I became more at ease with riding Nellace — the skittish Thoroughbred mare that was still quite green in her training.

I always enjoyed riding Ginger on the ranch and on the range. Here,
my brother is riding Nosey, my dad is on Nell, and I'm riding Ginger
— ready to ride out on the range to move cattle.

Ginger was very good at herding cattle and chasing strays back to the herd when we took cattle out to summer range or moved them to a different pasture. Dad usually rode Nell on these rides, and I rode Ginger.

She and I had become a really good team, especially after the cattle drives we made in 1957, the summer before I used her as my 4-H project. The longest drive was in late summer, when all the ranchers on our BLM range allotment met early in the morning and gathered cattle off the lower part of the range to take them up into the mountains where the grass was still green. We started very early because we knew it would get hot and the cattle would have trouble climbing up the mountains in the heat.

Dad and I, riding Nell and Ginger, helped gather the cattle out of lower Baker Creek before starting the long drive up to the head of Baker Creek and over the steep mountain into the right fork of Withington Creek. There were eight riders, but it was still a difficult job to move all the cattle in one big herd up over a mountain where some of the cows had never been before.

By late morning we had the big herd partway up Baker Creek, and we stopped in the shade of the timber to let the horses and cattle rest and to eat our lunch. We’d each packed a sandwich and an apple in our coats, tied behind our saddles. But we were much more thirsty than hungry, after chasing cows for several hours in the heat and coughing in the dust churned up by the herd. Lester Withington, the elderly rancher who lived at the mouth of Withington Creek, showed us where there was a little spring, higher up in the timber, where we could get a drink of cold, clean water. The cattle were very thirsty, too, and spread out along Baker Creek getting their drink.

Ginger was good at herding cattle. In this old photo a friend
(on Possum) and I (on Ginger) are bringing a young cow
and her calf home to the barnyard.

After lunch we started the hardest part of the drive, pushing the cattle over the top of the mountain and into Withington Creek. The cows and calves were hot and tired and didn’t want to climb. Some of them kept drifting too far down the slope as we edged around the mountain, and I nearly wore Ginger out trotting and galloping back and forth on the lower edge of the herd, trying to keep the cattle at the proper level and keep the herd leaders moving upward instead of downward.

It was the hardest work Ginger had ever done. Several riders were following the big herd, urging the cattle on and wearing handkerchiefs over their faces to keep from breathing too much dust. The rest of us were very busy along the lower edge of the herd, trying to keep the cattle moving upward.

If a cow or calf broke from the herd and started down the steep mountainside through the rocks, one of the cow dogs would usually chase it back, but some of the cows were cranky and tired and wouldn’t obey the dogs, and a rider would have to go down after them and bring them back to the herd.

This is part of the mountain we had to go over with the herd of
cattle, to take them from Baker Creek into Withington Creek.

Lester Withington was helping me work the downhill edge of the herd, using his long bullwhip. The cracking/popping sound of the whip helped keep the cows moving in the proper direction. But after several hours of this effort, his arm was very tired, and he showed me how to swing the whip and pop it. I used his bullwhip until we got the cattle over the top and started down the other side into Withington Creek.

The cattle were weary and hot, but they traveled much better going downhill — and they could smell the water ahead. When they got down into the creek bottom, they all headed into the creek to get a drink. We went to the creek also, but upstream from the cattle, to drink and water our horses. I flopped down on my belly and sipped cold water from a small pool where it ran between some rocks. Ginger drank greedily, but I limited her to 15 swallows at first, because she was so hot and sweaty and I didn’t want her to get stomach cramps and colic.

We let the cattle scatter and start grazing and rode among them, helping the bawling calves find their mothers. The cows were so busy eating the green grass that they weren’t worried about their calves; we had to make sure they “mothered up.” If a calf doesn’t know where its mother is, it always goes back to the last place it nursed her. We didn’t want any calves hiking back over the mountain in search of their mothers.

Ginger was a good cow horse — always willing to work — and I enjoyed
using her for all the cattle work. Here, my brother (on Scrappy), my father
(on Possum), and I (on Ginger) are riding out through the orchard to go to the range.

When we were sure they’d all found each other, we rode home down the little jeep road along Withington Creek, letting our horses have a few more drinks of water along the way — after they’d started to cool off and were no longer breathing so fast. By the time Dad and I got home, it was 6 p.m. We’d been riding for 12 hours. In later years that wasn’t an unusual thing for a long day gathering cattle on the range, but at that stage in my young life, it was the longest and most challenging ride I’d ever experienced. I was proud of Ginger for handling it so well.

She was a good cow horse, always willing to work. In the winter, however, we didn’t ride much because the cattle were home from the range, being fed hay in the fields. Most of the horses got a vacation. Ginger was usually the one we’d grab if we had to do an unexpected cattle roundup or bring in a sick cow for treatment because she was always easy to catch and very level-headed. She wasn’t silly after time off from work.

So she was the horse I chose one spring day in 1960 when my father and brother and I had to bring a young cow into the corral to treat for a medical problem. I jumped on Ginger bareback to herd the cow in from the field. After we treated the cow, Dad and Rocky were putting away the equipment (ropes, syringes, etc.), and I rode Ginger for a few minutes around the pasture, practicing figure eights at a canter. It was a lovely warm day, and the ground seemed dry. I wasn’t thinking about the fact it had been muddy not long before, and in some places the dirt was just dry on top.

I often rode Ginger bareback for fun, and sometimes I didn't bother
with a saddle for a short ride in the pasture.

Ginger hit a slick spot just as she leaned into a tight turn at the canter, and her feet went out from under her. She fell down flat on the ground, and I didn’t have time to jump clear or pull my leg out from underneath her. I wasn’t wearing cowboy boots and wasn’t using a saddle, so there was nothing between my leg and her — and the ground. She smashed my ankle and broke it. To date, that’s the only broken bone I’ve ever suffered — through various crazy adventures, spills, and horse accidents.

My leg was in a cast for 6 weeks that spring, and I was terribly upset about not being able to ride for a while. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get the cast off in time for the special performance our 5-H Wranglers were putting on. I’d sold a story about our club to Farm Journal, and they were sending a photographer to take pictures of us. Fortunately, my cast was able to come off, in the nick of time, and I didn’t have to appear on the cover of that magazine with a broken leg!

My leg was in a cast for 6 weeks that spring.
This photo was taken of me, my brother,
and my baby sister, on Easter Sunday.

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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