It’s hard to describe the feeling of a cattle drive when it’s about to start, but it’s one of the best. You never know what’s going to happen, how the cows will behave, and exactly what you’ll need to do with your horse to keep the cows in line.
Its anticipation and butterflies, a little nervousness, and a lot of cool headed determination as you set your smarts and your horse’s reflexes against the cows determination not to go where you want.
A couple days ago most of the cows came down off the range, ending up in the wide open fields of the North Ranch (our furthest and newest outpost thanks to our old neighbours the MacPhersons). There’s no hay for them yet, so the ranch boss called us out to push them back up into the bush.
We threw all our tack in the truck, loaded up the horses in the trailer and headed north. The cowboy hats were out, the chaps and slickers on, and I’ve never been able to shake that little kid inside of me that always thinks it’s like something out of a movie.
The air smelled like rain, and everywhere dark grey clouds huddled up close, urging us on. The horses stood in a bunch, some of them shifting their feet, heads up and antsy, because they knew what was coming. Everyone grabbed saddles and blankets and bridles, and there wasn’t much talk as we got all the horses geared up.
The air was full of clinking, and leather creaking. Bridles slipped over heads and saddles thumped onto backs, cinches were tightened, stirrups checked and everyone hopped on.
Then it was down to the fields in a huddled up group, the horses pulling at the bit, trotting, each one trying to stay in the lead, straining to pull just one step ahead of the others, and some of the young ones side-stepping in their impatience. The kids had to get tucked away in a corral with their horses to wait (impatiently), because in the beginning of a cattle drive things move fast, and are always unpredictable. It’s not easy being the one on the road taking pictures, let me tell ya! Feels like you’re missing out on the best kind of game, but then, if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t get to see all this fun.
Of course all the cows were at the back of the field rather than waiting at the gate, so the horses split up, in a smooth, well practiced motion, each rider picking his or her spot to surround the herd.
This time, the cows came without too much fuss, it always helps to have enough riders to head off the strays and the sneaky moms who try to outsmart the nearest horse. They came in at a run. Watching the riders from the road is like watching a well oiled machine, every time the herd bulged to the left or the right, the riders were there to push it back.
Everyone comes crowding out through the corral and onto the road in a big bunch of bawling, running, noisy colours, ready to go anywhere but straight. We always have someone that has to race the herd to the front in order to keep the cows from stringing out too far and from heading into someone’s driveway or field.
After that, time slows down, with periodic amounts of excitement where one or two, or sometimes all the cows suddenly make a break for the bush or through a hole in the fence. It’s always a race to get there first, because if you don’t, you end up in the thick brush, running through branches that slap at your face, hanging on for dear life while your horse tries to beat the cows to their escape. Once you beat the cows (because you must always beat the cows – there’s no other option) and push them back onto the road, everything slows down again. You go back to walking sedately behind the herd, the dogs running patient zig zag patterns, the cows munching their way up the sides of the road, pretending like they aren’t eyeing the bush for the perfect spot to make a break for it.
There’s always things that keep it interesting, like a narrow wooden bridge, cars that need to be guided through the herd, fences that someone forgot to close. More often than not, our cows know what to do, and the drive is done with hardly a hitch. Then it’s back into the trailer and home for some coffee.
So if you ever happen to see us up the North Fork stop and say hi, enjoy the view, remember that this way of life is precious and fading, and be happy that it’s still happening even if it means you have to dodge a few cow pies with your car on the way home.