Daughter Amber and I unloaded our horses in the corner of the Dead-Cow Spring pasture. We planned to gather a dozen bulls from a herd of nearly 300 cows scattered across two large pastures. But for us, gathering the bulls was really an excuse to work our horses.
Ranch work not only helps young horses progress in their training, but it also benefits more experienced horses of all disciplines. The work isn't magical, but it provides opportunities to teach horses to travel, turn and gain confidence. At the same time, the horses and riders develop strong connections.
Working off the Fresh
An obvious benefit of ranch work is that horses get ridden until they're tired. Although this is great for some horses, it's important to avoid overdoing it. For example, an overweight horse that's spent the winter in a stall must be gradually conditioned to develop his strength and stamina for intense work. And, although it might benefit a high-strung horse to expend some energy, a season of exhaustion might turn him into a drudge. That's why I teach my horses to pace themselves and conserve their energy for when they really need it.
During the gather, I rode a 4-year-old, green-broke mare named "Reba." Although I'd primarily ridden her in an arena, she'd moved cows before.
Amber rode a 6-year-old Quarter Horse stallion named Roper Oroan ("Buster"). Buster was accustomed to ranch and arena riding. I'd competed in tie-down roping on the horse, and Amber was using him for breakaway roping in National High School Rodeo Association competition. This ride would be a good change of pace for him, plus allow Amber to get to know him better.
The landscape was hilly and cut with numerous draws. No cows were in sight, so we zigzagged across the pasture, rode the ridges and sought watering places. Reba was ready to go, arching her neck and scanning the area for anything spooky. Buster remained steady.
We walked across rocky outcrops and down steep slopes. As the terrain permitted, we traveled at an extended trot. This was a great way to expend our horse's excess energy without losing control, plus cover a lot of country.
Throughout the ride, we used the same rein and body cues we use in the arena. On this irregular ground, however, our signals were connected to external factors, such as terrain changes and cattle movement, so our meanings became more important and understandable to our horses.
Slowing to a walk, we followed a narrow trail up a deep, cottonwood-filled draw; then we angled up a steep side-hill. A broad, grass-covered basin with a small, dry lakebed was a suitable place to lope our horses.
Beyond the basin, we rode through the series of draws and hills that cover the pasture's rugged western half. Tracks abounded, but no cattle were in sight. The reason: A wire gate that opened into an adjoining pasture was down.
By this time, my mare had settled down. When I dismounted and threw the bedraggled gate out of the way, she stood willingly for me to remount.
The complete story can be found in the February, 2005 edition of Western Horseman