To the Fire: prepping your horse for branding season |

To the Fire: prepping your horse for branding season

Travis Casteel likes bringing his colts to head and heel brandings for the relaxed nature and room to teach. Photo by Jodie Baxendale
Jodie Baxendale

Spring calving season is drawing to a close, and branding season is nearly underway. Soon, ranchers will gather their crews and heat the irons to mark their calves all across the Tri State Livestock News area. When it comes to branding horseback, there are two definite styles: head and heel and dragging to the fire.

Travis Casteel prefers the head and heel method especially while riding colts. “The nice thing about a head and heel is that they don’t have to be very seasoned to get a few calves branded on them,” he says. “You can put as much pressure on as you want to, or don’t want to.”

It’s crucial to know the people one is working with before bringing a young horse to a branding. Casteel says that a good crew can work smoothly and keep an eye on anyone working with colts. Someone with a more seasoned horse might ride beside the young horse to build confidence.

“They should be respecting you if you’re on a colt. Everybody knows that you’re on a horse that hasn’t had much time, then everybody kind of takes care of you. That’s kind of the etiquette of that. You have the opportunity to let that happen. There is enough people roping and enough area and space that somebody on a colt can be doing their thing and everybody else is aware of it and can help if they need to,” Casteel says.

Travis Casteel likes bringing his colts to head and heel brandings for the relaxed nature and room to teach. Photo by Jodie Baxendale

Casteel prefers to heel first on a young horse. “You can pick your calves. Some come out real nice and slow. That gives you options on which one you want to try and heel,” he says. “If you’re heeling it, the animal is going to stay in front of you. Even if you head one and your heeler gets him caught, you can let your heeler drag the calf up to the fire. You’d never have to necessarily pull one up on a fresher, green horse.”

One can also head on a colt, but take pressure off of the horse by having a quick heeler on the backside.

Preparation for the branding consists of having the basics mastered: “About all you’d have to have is to be able to swing your rope and direct them right and left and stop and you can get the different shots set up to where if you don’t want to head one, you can come in and heel, and if you don’t want to heel one, you can have a guy get it caught right away,” he says.

Using a colt during branding season translates well to ranch work all year long. “If you enjoy roping and you enjoy making your horses good, a head and heel is about as good as you can get. If you’ve got a colt that has some days put on it and about all you haven’t got done is the roping part, one spring of branding and you’ve got a pretty solid horse you can depend on,” Casteel says.

Casteel is a fourth generation rancher near Vale, South Dakota. “My great grandfather homesteaded where the house is here around 1910. I’ve lived here my whole life and Dad’s lived here his whole life,” he says. Though Casteel doesn’t raise colts of his own, he has been starting his own horses for the past 25 years.

Comparatively, Cooper Crago is most familiar with the dragging method of branding calves. His dad, Clay, and his grandpa, Cliff, have instilled in him the knowledge of working with young horses.

“Back in the day, we had a pretty good little group of broodmares and they were raising a lot of colts. Grandpa’s always had really good horses and put on clinics and Dad took it on, starting a lot of colts. That’s how we bought groceries for a while. Now, I’m doing it.” The Cragos ranch near Colony, Wyoming.

Crago likes his colts to be fairly broke before taking them to a branding: “Have them rode down and in between your hands, so they know what a straight line is,” he says. “It’s a lot of miles, like this time of year. I have 3 outside horses and 2 young horses of my own right now. I’ll just go make a big circle and check cows on them. That’s how I get them ready for brandings: a lot of miles.”

Whereas some people like to drag a log on their horse before bringing it to a branding, Crago says that he likes to be able to swing a rope and drag it behind them at the very least.

Exposing a colt to the sights and sounds of a branding is best done slowly, says Crago. Several factors can make brandings a high-pressure situation for a young horse, like the noise of the branding pot, the fire, and tight quarters. “I would walk them in before we start dragging calves to let them know what the fire is. I might only drag three calves on him and then get off. That’s plenty good on one and not asking too much,” he says.

Though it varies, Crago says that he likes to have a solid 30 rides on a colt before bringing it to a branding. However, there may be some horses that take up to 90 days to be ready. He says, “Every single horse is a little different. A lot of it is knowing your horse. If you don’t think he’s ready then probably don’t take him.”

Just as with a head and heel branding, the rest of the crew is essential in introducing a young horse to the atmosphere. “If you’ve got a young horse dang sure let them know. Don’t ride them through a narrow hole. Just wait until you’ve got two wrestlers on the ground to go out with your colt. Everyone should know you’re on a young one. A big part is knowing you can have another horse that can walk out beside you. I think that’s a lot of it,” Crago says.

Crago follows several rules of etiquette in the branding pen and trains his colts in such a way that they can adhere to them: “Wait your turn. If you throw and rebuild and miss, stand in the corner and let the next guy take their shot. Don’t be the guy that’s running calves around. Work together and get them in a corner. If someone else is on a young horse, you can dang sure ride out next to them and help them get out of the pen. Once they get out the first time, they should be good,” he says.

“I think once you get calves drug on them and a rope down on them, you’ve pretty much got them whipped, just go to using them. Once you get that done, then they just start turning into a horse. Once they get through brandings, go to doctoring yearlings on them and turn them out in the good string of horses,” he says.

No matter the style, brandings allow for colts to learn and transform into good horses. In turn, they may help the next generation of colts, and the cycle of growth continues.

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