March 2008
Horses, dogs, cattle and cowboys:
working cowboys in South Central Texas

Horses, dogs, cattle and cowboys

Horses, dogs, cattle and cowboys: working cowboys in South Central Texas

By Don Ford Photos by Leah Ford

Pursuit of my chosen profession was interrupted by poison of my own making some twenty years ago. Once I got back on track I ever-so-gradually inched back toward the career I’d pursued since childhood—raising cattle and managing a ranch. In 1991 I acquired another horse, not long afterward one horse turned into a herd. My father put me back into the cattle business in 2004 when he bought 130 heifers and then shipped 27 cows and a bull back to Texas from a small farm he owns in New Mexico.

Working cowboys in South Central Texas

Getting the cattle branded and vaccinated was my first challenge. Dad’s Belmont, Texas ranch borders the Guadalupe River, notorious in recent times for floods that can carry herds away. Without a brand, it’s hard to know where animals belong after such an occurrence. I borrowed a portable squeeze chute and assembled a group of workers that helped out on our horse farm near Seguin. Most of them had little or no experience with cattle. We had fed range cubes for a couple of weeks so I figured it’d be easy enough to catch the cows. I figured wrong.

I dispatched one fellow in a pickup to call the cattle while the rest of our motley crew circled the herd on foot. A group of cows ran after the pickup while others lagged behind; every time a few head caught up to the truck he’d go faster—too fast. Me and another fellow pushed the cattle from behind and I tried to convince a couple more of my “helpers” to guard the left flank. A fence formed a barrier on the right. I saw that the herd was getting strung out and also that a few of the New Mexico cows had figured out we had something in mind aside from feeding them. I waved and yelled at one of the men on the left, telling him them to move along. He continued walking. I yelled louder and waved more aggressively but he continued to walk, faster now, but still at a walk. Seeing the coming break I ran on foot for all I was worth up the left flank, which isn’t much at my age, screaming and cussing all the while. I passed the worker, but not the cows, which broke and ran ahead and got around me. The worker began running after the fact which saved his life but did nothing to help get cattle into the pen.

The rest is a sad and miserable tale: a two-day fiasco that left fences broken, cows branded anywhere from mid-rib to the neck on the right side of their bodies. Some of the resulting brands were blurred by all the movement the branding iron did. Other attempts at branding did little more than burn off the hair and a few were even applied upside down. I couldn’t work the head gate and do the branding too; the catch device that’s supposed to hold the head-gate closed slipped so I had to maintain pressure on the handle. Since the branding was done on the off side, I couldn’t see what the fellow manning the irons was doing. We had pinkeye in the herd so I was tasked with filling three separate syringes, one an antibiotic, and two different vaccines; none of the guys I put in charge of this seemed to be able to keep straight which animal got what drug and how much of it they got. The squeeze chute was old and more than a handful of cows managed to evade my attempts at catching them or broke out after they were caught. Fences got busted, gates were left open; cows that had already been worked got mixed in with others that hadn’t. On top of all that it was hotter than hell and I couldn’t seem to consume enough water.

By the time we got done not only was I exhausted and dehydrated, I had only narrowly escaped beating my helpers and killing some of the cattle. When I later described all of this to Jim Wundt, a neighboring rancher, he suggested I call Wendy Thompson the next time we worked cows.

Wendy arrived forewarned and he came prepared. Danny Mitchell and Dub Whitehead accompanied him; each drove his own pickup; a gooseneck livestock trailer trailed each truck. The front compartment of the trailers contained dogs, in the aft compartment rode horses, saddled and ready to go. Both Wendy and Dub brought teen-aged sons along to help; each of them had his own mount and was fitted for the job with well-worn boots, hats, spurs, riding chaps and a lariat rope. Each also carried a folding knife on his belt. As it turned out, none of this was for show. I was impressed when each of the young boys walked up, looked me square in the eye and extended a firm hand in greeting. With these youngsters it’s still Yes, sir and No, sir and I’m sure a Thank you m’aam if a woman happens to be around.

What followed was akin to watching ballet, ranch style that is.

On this particular occasion the dogs stayed in the trailer. The dogs didn’t like this and voiced their disapproval but one shot from Danny’s pistola put them back in place, whimpering quietly. Wendy and his crew circled the cows horseback while I called them from my pickup. Each man (and the boys as well) moved in unison. They kept the herd bunched and anticipated the cattle’s movements seemingly before the cattle made them.

After penning the herd rather effortlessly, Wendy and his crew sorted calves from cows horseback, penning the calves and then working the cows in small bunches. The cowboys dosed the cows with pour-on Ivermectrin and branded them where necessary and then turned the cows into a trap alongside the corral.

Once all the cows had been worked the cowboys sorted market size calves from baby calves on foot and then loaded the market calves into waiting trailers. Then the men worked the small calves, notching ears and vaccinating of all of them and castrating the bull calves. The young cowboys got to do most of the castrating that day. I say got to do because it was something they enjoyed. Wasn’t any forcing or begging to it.

Wendy’s young crew filled the working chute with calves and started from the back of the chute, working their way forward. Heifers were vaccinated with a multiple dose syringe gun and allowed to back out. The young cowboys pulled the tail of each bull calf up and over the calf’s back and pressed him against the wall of the chute with their bodies while another of the boys cut off the scrotum and pulled out the testicles. This process went amazingly fast compared to the way I had grown up working calves (flanking and working them on the ground or in a calf-cradle). Of course we used to brand our calves—this is no longer done on market animals.

It was a real joy for me to watch these men work, in particular the young cowboys. I feared that the old ways would be lost forever on this generation; these boys serve as living proof that the breed is not yet dead. The boys are all skilled horsemen and had a blast working our cattle, although they got in trouble a time or two with Wendy for being quick to extract a rope or for hopping onto the back of a passing calf.

Memories of my own youth flooded my brain as I watched. A time or two, if a man had looked, tears weren’t far from the surface—tears of laughter and joy that is.

Then last year I got to see Wendy and his crew work cattle with dogs. This proved a departure from my own experiences in Oregon where Australian dogs are the rule. Wendy and the Gonzales county bunch favor black mouth curs.

Dogs become especially useful in brush country Typically the cowboys turn the dogs loose on a herd of cows en masse. The dogs bunch the cattle by running circles around the group and going after any cow that breaks and runs while the cowboys sit at a distance and watch. Once the cattle are in a tight bunch and no longer trying to break ranks the cowboys move in from behind with their horses while the dogs move ahead and alongside, keeping the cattle from bolting. At any time if the cows begin to drift or stray, the cowboys back off and allow the dogs to regroup the herd. Then they walk, not run, to the pen in an orderly group. The men yell at the dogs by name if one gets too aggressive or fails to go after a wandering cow. Unruly cattle generally decide the herd is a friendlier place to be after feeling the fangs of a black-mouthed cur. While a dog is no match for a cow one on one, in a group the dogs work together; one distracts the animal while another darts in to punish the transgressor. As soon as the cow turns the other way, she gets it from the other side. The only place of refuge is the herd.

Wendy’s dogs are trained to jump into water troughs or tanks to cool themselves during hot days and take turns doing so upon orders from their masters after the cattle are standing  bunched up and motionless. Sometimes Wendy installs shock collars on the dogs’ necks during the training process to be used only if and when a dog disobeys an order. As a rule it’s much easier to get a dog of this particular breed to go after a cow than it is to get them off once engaged.

A dog becomes especially useful in brush country because a cow can go places a mounted cowboy can’t. Low hanging limbs and thorns are no obstacle for a dog; a dog’s superior quickness and agility allows him to get around cattle in a tight place where a horse and rider wouldn’t have a prayer of doing so.

Wendy usually rides a sorrel gelding. Both Dub and Danny train horses for other people so they’re liable to ride just about anything, although I’d guess the vast majority of the horses they train are quarter horses and predominately geldings. Danny wants a horse that’s already started; Dub and his crew will take on totally green horses if that’s the owner’s desire, though I doubt he actually takes an animal to work cattle until they’re well started. So while they’re getting paid for gathering and working cattle, they’re also getting paid for training someone else’s horse.

A good long day working cattle does more to calm a horse than many one hour sessions will. A horse learns to conserve energy and once tired, a cowboy can swing a rope ora dog has superior quickness and agility make loud noises or approach potentially scary obstacles with less chance of the horse spooking or shying away. Marathon sessions of loading and hauling in trailers and standing tied are also part of the equation not to be had when horses are dealt with for brief encounters like is the norm in the world of training horses for racing or performance events.

When I asked Wendy what kind of horses he likes he replied, “Good ones.” Nothing about breed, color, pedigree or popular bloodlines. What he wants is a horse that does his job.

By my estimation Dub Whitehead is man to see if you have unbroken or really green colts that need starting. Danny Mitchell is accomplished at putting finishing touches on a horse. Every mount I’ve seen him on ends up with head down, watching cattle and moving ever so subtly to one side or the other with a minimal amount of urging to allow one animal by while impeding or stopping the progress of another.

Wendy generally goes into the pack with his horse to cut out animals. Whenever he needs to move a young calf along this gelding nudges them with his nose or pushes them along by bumping them with his knees.

While all carry a rope and know how to use it, they avoid roping cattle unnecessarily. The goal is to get the animal where you need for it to be in the least stressful way possible, not to prove how well you swing a rope or how fast your horse can run. Foresight is more valuable than speed and athleticism—the key is to anticipate the cattle’s reactions and move early and to avoid pitfalls created by a poorly designed plan of attack. No school teaches this wisdom; the craft is learned on the job and has been handed down from generation to generation.

Recently I had a cow with a prolapsed uterus. I sent hands to catch her but they failed to get the job done. I had already called Wendy and told him we’d have the cow penned. When he arrived I told him somewhat sheepishly that she was still in the pasture, thinking we’d have to wait for another day. The eyes of Wendy’s son Jacob and Dub’s son Cody lit up. A rare chance to rope a cow and not get in trouble for doing so!

Wendy said, “No problem.” He pulled a shotgun out of his truck. I looked on kind of inquisitively. Then he pulled out a devise that goes into the barrel of the shotgun and loaded a dose of sedative into a dart. We drove into the pasture. I positioned the pickup about fifty feet away from the cow. Wendy waited until the cow looked away and then shot the dart into her neck. We drove away. The drug was something mild a veterinarian gave him for such occasions; the really hard quick acting drugs can’t be had by common cattlemen and cowboys. After about twenty minutes the cow got sleepy and lay down.

The goal is to get the animal where you need for it to be Wendy and his boys rode out to the cow. She got up but before she could move she was roped by head and heels and stretched out on the ground. Wendy shoved her prolapsed uterus back into place and sewed her shut with a piece of nylon string borrowed from a round bale. The cow survived. Had I paid cowboys to catch the cow and then a veterinarian to perform this duty, the cost of repairing her would have exceeded her value. Had not the procedure been done, she would have developed an infection and died. In the end I sold her for about $350 more than it cost me to save her life.

Wendy not only helps me work our cattle but dispenses valuable advice on current market conditions and answers my questions regarding management decisions. He works for other established cattlemen and has learned a lot in his forty-some-odd years. These guys don’t work cheap but you get what you pay for and more.

Living near river bottoms presents occasions, seemingly more in recent years than was once considered normal, when floodwaters rise and carry cattle away, killing some and leaving others displaced from their homes. Under these conditions cattle have way of getting themselves into hellacious messes. It’s these times when a cowboy’s job becomes difficult and dangerous. During the flood of ’98 Wendy hauled portable pens up and down the river on the side of his trailer, caught and relocated cattle, often for free. The cattlemen he worked for had been loyal to him and he repaid the favor when necessity demanded. Many other South Texas cowboys were hard at it up and down the river, risking their lives on boggy ground amid rising waters saving whatever cattle they happened upon. None of their personal property was at stake nor was there a monetary gain to be had by saving the lives of a stranger’s cattle. The job needed to be done; they were the only people capable, so they did it.

Modern times have brought new challenges to a cowboy’s way of life. Rising prices for fuel, equipment and feed have changed economic equations. Big corporate takeovers of feeding and slaughter facilities have eliminated lots of jobs in the cattle industry, but South Texas river bottoms remain challenging: horses, dogs, cowboys and cattle continue to be an integral part of the fabric that is our land and our heritage. The place wouldn’t be the same without them.

Wendy Thompson resides between Seguin and Belmont, Texas. He has two teen-age sons, Jared and Jacob.

Danny Mitchell lives near Nixon, Texas. He has two young sons, Hagen and Wells.

Dub Whitehead calls Gonzales, Texas home. He has two teen-age sons, Bryce and Cody.

Toby Tally from Nixon and Charles Zella from Leesville also help us with our cattle on occasion.

They all, from the first to the last, are real cowboys: hardworking, honest, clean-living, respectful, God-fearing men. As gentle with man and beast as the job will allow yet as tough as necessity demands. That’s pretty damn tough.

Horses, dogs, cattle and cowboys: working cowboys in South Central Texas

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