Riding With Old Cowboys

by Laura Crum

We helped our friends gather and rope their cattle yesterday. My son and I ride regularly with several team ropers who are in their 70’s (and in one case 80’s). These four old men have been riding and roping all their lives. They’ve learned a few tricks in those years. Two of these guys (my uncle Todd and our friend/boarder, Wally), taught me to ride and rope. And they are both still roping today.
I bring my son to ride at this practice arena for a reason. Its not that I want him to become a team roper (and he’s shown little interest in learning the sport). I’ve seen enough of competitive team roping not to care if I ever see any more. The abuse created by competition exists in this sport as it does all competitive horse sports. And I, for one, have had enough of such abuse. I don’t even care to be around it any more, or support it any way, even with my presence. But our practice roping is different.
Nothing is on the line here. No one is pushing his horse too hard in order to win. There is space for my son to chase cattle, even though he’s not roping or even learning to rope. But, like me, my kid enjoys working cattle. And the horses enjoy this, too. So we gather the cattle, and bring them up the alley, and haze them, and occasionally chase one that isn’t wanted for roping. Once in awhile we’ll “work” a steer—doing our best to get our old rope horses to “hook on” and move with the animal like a cutting horse does. It’s all great fun for both horse and rider.
But the fun of working cattle is not the main reason I bring my kid here to ride. I want him to grow up around these old cowboys and their horses, just like I did. The funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you exactly why.
It would be easy to say that they represent a way of life I admire—but it wouldn’t be strictly true. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t admire here. I’ve seen some of these old guys beat up horses and cattle in ways that I don’t condone—and believe me, I spoke up. In my old age, I pretty much speak my mind, and I won’t tolerate seeing an animal abused in front of me without trying to stop the abuse. Not to mention that I can’t even listen to them when they talk politics—that’s how radically we disagree in that area. Oh, and the derogatory/patronizing attitude often expressed towards women can really piss me off. Not to mention some of these old birds aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. I could go on and on. But…
But I still take my son to that practice roping every week, and the reason is partly to do with these old cowboys.
It’s a little difficult to put into words, but maybe some of you will know what I mean. My old cowboy buddies are more than just themselves; they are, in a sense, icons—living symbols of a way of life. A life that is about horses and cattle and the cowboy way. About being tough under pressure and having some courage, about knowing how to ride a horse and how to “read” a cow. About staying out in the weather (hot and cold, muddy and dusty), and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. About not being afraid to get dirty, and understanding the natural world. And about a particular sort of grace and camaraderie I never found anywhere else. My heart still lifts when we all go out to gather cattle on our shiny horses on a bright morning in early summer.
The gift I want to give my son is to understand this beauty from the inside out—to have it be part of him. I don’t necessarily want him to admire or emulate these men (though there are many ways in which I do admire them), but I want him to understand the way of life they represent. I don’t want him to grow up on pristine soccer fields made of artificial turf, duking it out with eleven year olds in shiny uniforms who have neither manners, grace, nor any real understanding of life. I want him to learn something bigger than that.
I imagine that this emblematic quality exists in any horse sport. It certainly did in the other horse sports I participated in—cowhorse and cutting—and the ranching world is steeped in it, as is the world of mountain horse packers. But I can see it just as clearly when I think of jumping horses or dressage or racehorses. In all horse sports there is abuse, yes, but there is beauty and history and some deep gravitas, too. And though I don’t want my son to be exposed to abuse (and I let him see me stand up against it), I do want him to understand that grave beauty that comes with understanding and interacting with horses, and people who know horses. Not to mention the genuine joy and great fun that comes with getting a job done on horseback with friends.
This particular joy and beauty is something I have tried very hard to capture in my mystery novels as well. Maybe I got it done.
So here’s to the old cowboys, with all their good points and flaws. I can’t imagine a world without you.

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2 Responses

  1. One question about your 3rd paragraph: everyone enjoys the chasing and roping–the old guys, you, your son, your horses–but do the cattle enjoy it? I guess you could tell if they didn’t!
    And your penultimate paragraph: yes, you do capture the particular joy and beauty of life with horses in your mystery novels. No question about it!

    • Merry, The cattle tolerate it and grow used to it if they’re treated reasonably well. Different roping arenas have different standards in the way they treat cattle. Cattle do better at the kinder arenas, obviously. I can’t say they like being roped. But…every year I choose two steers from the roping herd who have been cooperative “players” and these two get to live for several years in my pasture doing nothing but enjoying life, until they are humanely killed as they graze there, to become my grass fed beef. So they do get a reward for their effort. But truthfully, its one of the reasons I don’t rope any more–I feel sorry for the cattle. I do say in the post that its a mixed bag and I don’t entirely admire what I see.

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