November 19, 2015
Mike and I were in a small holding pasture, maybe four or five acres, near ranch headquarters. With us were about 100 head of cattle. The idea was to move them through a gate, across a large pasture, along a narrow strip between the railroad track and the highway, and, finally, through a small dark tunnel that runs under the highway and into a huge pasture beyond. My wife and Doug had gone ahead to open gates and block access to a rocky draw where driving cattle is impossible. Mike wanted to get an accurate head count so he stationed himself near the first gate which was open just wide enough to accommodate one cow at a time. My job was to drive the cattle through while he counted.
I was riding Oliver, a gaunt, broke-to-death gray who knows his business far better than I do. The angle of the gate allowed the cattle to be driven from one direction only, so the first thing was to move them to that side of the pasture. I walked Oliver around the scattered herd and like magnets with the wrong ends facing they moved away from me in precise relation to my speed and distance. Whenever one started to turn back I would touch Oliver with a leg and he would cut in front of it, forcing it to follow the others. Oliver and I moved slowly and easily, trying not to excite the herd, and for a while everything went smoothly. In almost no time I had them bunched up where I wanted them and I called to Mike.
"OK. I'm gonna push them on through."
I was feeling very competent and professional. I moved in on the herd, putting pressure on the ones closest to me, which, in turn, put pressure on the others in a ripple effect until the far edge started to move along the fence line. And just as I was starting to congratulate myself, the first couple of head reached the open gate and flowed right on past it as if it were barred and locked. Immediately, I put my heels to Oliver and we cantered forward to turn the herd through the gate. They turned all right, but not through the gate. Some stopped and turned back against the ones behind them, some ran around behind me to the far side of the pasture, and in an instant all was chaos. Oliver and I retreated and started over again, gathering the individuals up into a single unit, then moving the whole herd back where I wanted it.
"OK, Mike, I'm gonna try it again."
This time I tried a different angle, further out from the fence, but being on the edge of the herd instead of behind it proved very ineffective. As soon as I put pressure on them, the cattle in front moved obediently forward, but those in back started to turn. I cantered back and forced them to follow the others, then cantered forward to try and squeeze the first couple of head through the gate. Instead they stopped and the cattle in back started to scatter again so I cantered back to gather them and noticed as I did that the ones in front had trotted past the gate. I was beginning to feel like a man pushing a rope. I cantered forward again, but nothing I could do or say—and I had much to say to those cows—would force them through the gate. In short order they were scattered again, bawling and lowing.
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Again I gathered them into a herd, only now they were agitated—as was I—and difficult to handle. This time I got them roughly in the center of the pasture and drove them directly at the gate. This involved frantic galloping from side to side to keep them in a herd, but they moved forward until, at the gate, they divided like water around a rock, left and right, as if it were the entrance to hell itself. Not one damn cow went through.
I reined up and looked at Mike. "Any suggestions?"
Inscrutable, he looked at me, at the gate, at his own horse, a pretty little green-broke mare with a tendency to buck. Finally…
"Let me get a dog. Stay here. Don't let them cows through."
He drawled it out so softly and was gone so quickly that at first I was convinced it was his heavy-handed attempt at humor. But as soon as he left, the cattle started drifting toward the same gate they couldn't be driven through. Oliver and I blocked the way and I thought fondly of double cheeseburgers.
Mike Ginn. Short. Built like a small coke machine. Little for big, but hell for stout. Glasses and a constant cheery smile manage to make him as inscrutable as an Oriental villain in a 1930's detective serial. Laconic. When he does talk, short choppy sentences. Rides a Ron Rose saddle. Beautiful tooling— carving, they call it. I was admiring it one day when my eye was caught by six or eight evenly spaced round dots carved into the center of the cantle about two inches down. Wondering, I ran my finger over them.
Mike: "Them's 'oh sh–' marks."
"It's what you say when you're coming off. 'Ooh sh–.' It's from the rowel of my spur."
At the tunnel the cattle were bunched up, milling and nervous. The tunnel was dark and low—on a tall horse a man has to duck his head to pass through—and to my eye it appeared ominous. God only knows how it looked to the cows. They were reluctant to go through a gate, but that was nothing compared to how they felt about this tunnel. If they had been sailors, I would have been worried about mutiny. Mike and Doug were in front, trying to drive them through, Darleen and I in back, trying to hold the herd together.
Time and again individuals or small groups of cattle tried to break around us, headed back to the home pastures, and we had to turn them. Darleen used to show cutting horses and was in her element. I was neither as confident nor as competent and repeatedly the dog saved me from ignominy. The dog, Sandi, looked exactly like what she was, a small, generic canine, but she knew her stuff. She held cows with a prison-yard stare, discouraged would-be runaways with well-timed feints, turned escapees with savage, jaw-popping charges at their heads. Maybe 45 pounds carrying her schoolbooks, she had those 1,000-pound animals thoroughly intimidated and without her we would have been in more trouble than we were.
In front, Mike and Doug were trying to drive different individuals, different combinations of cows, from all different angles. Nothing worked. Doug walked his horse through the tunnel and into the sunlight on the far side, an example, leading the way, "see, it's safe and nice here." The cows were unimpressed. When he started to walk back the entire herd recoiled in such panic that Mike had to gallop back to help Darleen and Sandi and me hold them.
This had been going on for a long time now. Darleen and I were getting irritable and snappish. Doug was discouraged. Even Sandi was starting to tire, but Mike remained as cheery as ever. It was a problem to be solved and he would keep at it until he found a solution.
And suddenly, for no discernible rhyme or reason, one cow started, cautiously, tentatively at first, through the tunnel and the whole herd followed.
Excerpt from "An Accidental Cowboy" by Jameson Parker
Reprinted with permission from Range Magazine