In the large acreages of the west, branding is a
necessary part of cattle management. It is impossible to
keep all of the livestock within the fences all of the time.
The pastures are often miles from home, and it may be weeks
between checks of the cattle. There are usually mountains
and valleys, trees and brush for the cattle to hide in.
Livestock can disappear for months - branding provides a
"return address" for cattle and horses.
Montana remains an "open range" state where, with the
exception of a few isolated "herd law districts", the law
requires a landowner to fence out the livestock of others,
rather than fence in his own.
Brands are registered with the state brand office, with
each owner's brand having a precise character lay-out and
position on the animal. (My own 3 hanging H is registered to
the left shoulder - the same brand on the right shoulder is
registered to a different cattleman.) Brand inspections are
required for movement of cattle and horses across a county
line in Montana, and for change of ownership.
Branding is done when the calves are 2-3 months old -
before they are turned out to pasture. In Montana, the
brandings begin as early as March - for the January calves -
and climax in May. The actual brand application requires
only about 3 seconds from a hot iron - the hair re-grows in
a changed pattern that is permanently visible. Of course the
calf is not a willing participant in the process, and must
be restrained in some way.
For many years brandings were done with horses to catch
the calves and wrestlers to restrain them. But over the last
few decades the wrestlers have been mostly displaced by a
modern contraption called a calf table.
The calf table is set up at the end of a short chute, and
one (good) man (or a couple of kids) push the calves in one
at a time. The headgate is slammed shut on the calf, the
sides squeezed in, and the whole contraption is tipped to
hold the calf on his side at a handy working level.
The calves can only be worked one at a time with this
set-up, but 3 or 4 people can accomplish a task that
formerly took 15 or 20. Running calves through a table is
only half as fast as heeling calves out to wrestlers, but it
takes only a fourth the crew. (Of course you only get a
fourth as many volunteers for branding with a calf table
because it's twice the work and half the fun.)
The spring of 1973 found me on a 1200 cow outfit in the
Bearspaw Mountains south of Chinook. The cattle had been
paired out after branding into 3 bunches of 400 cows each.
Branding those cattle was spread over three days - one day
for each bunch.
We began the day by setting up a circle of portable
corral panels in the corner of the field where the day's
gather was pastured, leaving a large opening along one fence
line. Rigs began to arrive from neighboring ranches at about
9:00, and we saddled up to gather the field.
When the pairs were all in the corral, a couple of ropes
were hooked to the end of the corral, and horses helped drag
the panels into a tighter circle, overlapping several
lengths to make a 16 foot wide alley leading out of the
corral. The cows were eager to escape, and a couple of guys
afoot in the alley were able to let them past while turning
the calves back into the corral. A couple of the better
ropers were positioned at the exit to catch any calves that
snuck past the men doing the sorting.
With the cows now on the outside and the calves on the
inside, we pulled the corral into a smaller circle and set
up the propane branding pot near the throat. While the irons
began to heat, and the syringes were filled, the rest of us
made our first trip to the ice chests. When the irons were
deemed hot enough, the boss raised an arm and made a
circling motion with his wrist, and the first three ropers
These ropers rode into the bunch, standing a loop just
ahead of a calf's hind legs. As the calf stepped forward,
the roper pulled his slack, dallied to the saddle horn, and
turned for the fire. Four teams of wrestlers were waiting. A
team would step out and throw the calf on its side while the
horse pulled past, drawing the calf into a good position
near the fire.
the wrestlers had the calf on the ground they pulled off the
heel-rope and awaited the convergence of the rest of the
ground crew. Castration of bull calves, dehorning,
vaccinations, and branding were accomplished. In an hour we
were through the first 100 head, and the women showed up
with dinner in the pickup.
I had been working with my brother Mark for the last
couple of months, and we naturally paired off to wrestle. We
had a good system and we were enjoying the work. Our
strategy was to take opposite sides of the rope as a horse
came between us. One of us would take the rope and the other
the tail, pulling in opposite directions to throw the calf.
When the calf reached the fire, one of us sat behind the
calf holding one hind leg and bracing a foot on the other,
while the other of us kneeled with one knee on the calf's
neck, pulling back on a front leg. It worked well for us and
required a minimum of effort on our part. The country was
pretty, the weather was nice, and there was an endless
supply of beer.
Better than wrestling, however, was roping - and we
looked for our opportunity to get in there ahorseback. All
it took was short run where the wrestling was going a little
faster than the roping and one of us would ride in and start
heeling. Depending on how hot my roping was for the day, I
could heel around 25 calves before I got tired enough to
relinquish to another roper.
In the 70s most ranches were feeding small square bales
and we loaded them all by hand. It took more labor to run a
ranch in years past. Town jobs didn't have the same appeal
that they seem to now, and the country had plenty of young
men like Mark and I to do the wrestling. The girls from the
neighboring ranches attended also, and the brandings were a
social occasion as well as exchange of labor.
There were 4 of us working on the Mitchell ranch. A good
branding crew required 3 roping, 8 wrestling, 2 vaccinating,
2 branding, 1 castrating, 1 dehorning, and a few for spares
For 3 days in early June we had some 15 of the neighbors
helping us brand, and it took another 10 days of branding on
other ranches to repay the help. So for two weeks we were at
a branding nearly every day.
When the brandings finished it was time to move the
cattle to summer range on the reservation - we had been
ahorseback every day while we were calving in March and
April, and here was another week spent exclusively atop our
Over the next 20 years I worked all up and down the
"Rocky Mountain Front" between Augusta and Browning, and
brandings were the same everywhere - everyone who came had
plenty of experience at the job. My first wreck came in 1982
when it came time to brand cattle at the TN Quarter Circle
Ranch out of Bynum.
I was hired to run the place for a fellow who had made
his money in the car business and had invested in a couple
of places in Teton County. His son was on the wrestling team
at Fairfield High School, and had plenty of brawny buddies.
I was assured that we would have plenty of help. The place
was located in the band of transition between the foothills
ranches and the flat-land farms - the neighbors with whom I
was acquainted were mostly farmers.
I had never thought of a branding as requiring any
particular skill - just catch 'em, hold 'em down, and slap
on a brand. But I soon found that my crew of farmers was out
of their element. I had enough friends to cover the
essential jobs, but it certainly wasn't a smooth operation.
The owner had some buddies who were into team roping, and
thought they were qualified to heel calves. They could sure
catch a steer running out of a roping chute into an open
arena, but I quickly saw that neither they nor their horses
understood how to handle a bunch of calves in a small
In a roping arena, one steer is released at a time. The
two horses burst out after him and have him headed, heeled,
and stretched out in a few steps and a few seconds. The
heeling horse needs only to follow the steer until the heel
loop is thrown, then stop and hold the rope tight long
enough for the heading horse to spin around and face back
down the rope toward the steer.
In a branding corral the horse has to move into the herd
and position the rider for a throw, without stirring up the
calves. Then he must turn and drag the calf to the fire,
sometimes at odd angles from where it is caught.
And I saw more trouble brewing when they started pulling
calves toward the ground crew. An experienced wrestler will
throw a calf before it gets to the fire so that it can't
make a sweep on the end of the rope and "clothesline" the
people afoot or escape unbranded into the herd of cows
outside awaiting their calves. The wrestler will control the
calf, while letting the horse do the work of dragging him
These high school wrestlers had enough energy that they
wouldn't wait for a heeler to catch one, but would "leg" one
out and drag him in themselves. Or they might grab the rope
as the horse came toward them and take over pulling in the
calf. These town boys didn't understand about controlling
the calves to prevent wrecks, nor about conserving their
energy until the job was finished.
And when they did throw a calf, the partners didn't work
as a team. One of them may be trying to throw the calf to
the right side, while the other was trying to throw him to
the left. They didn't understand how to leverage the pull of
the rope to help them throw a calf, and often worked against
physics - making the job much harder on both the wrestlers
and the calves. They weren't attentive to operations being
performed on the calves and often turned one loose or simply
let him escape before all of them were accomplished.
That was the only branding I ever attended where a calf
got hurt. Somewhere in the fracas one of them had its thigh
bone broken by an over-eager and under-organized team of
The owner wanted to try his hand at roping too. But
neither he nor his horses had the skill or experience to
accomplish anything. Luckily, they didn't get into a wreck.
We only had 270 head to brand, and we should have had
them done in a couple of hours, but the job drug on and on.
The slow gain in efficiency as the crew got some experience
was canceled out by their loss of coordination from the
consumption of beer. And it was a pattern I saw increasingly
as the years went by.
couple of years later I had broke a palomino gelding for
some folks near Simms. When it came time to brand their
cattle, they called me to come down and heel off him.
This horse had been a little more goosey that most, and
the work would do him good. I had no cattle to work him on
when I broke him so this would be a good experience for him.
I loaded my family into the suburban, threw my saddle in the
back and drove down to Simms.
The horse was skeptical about the job he was being asked
to do, and he was pretty jumpy for the first few calves. But
we were soon doing alright. Things got pretty western,
however, when a calf circled around and pulled the rope
under the horse's tail.
It happens regularly that a heel loop closes on only one
hind leg, or a calf kicks a leg out of the loop.
Occasionally a calf will run around the horse, challenging
the rider to keep from getting tangled in the rope. To avoid
a wreck, you must rein your horse hard in the direction of
the calf's circle to keep the horse headed away.
This palomino never had a particularly willing attitude,
and he hadn't taken as good a rein as most colts. I had
spent 30 days on him, and had him working as well as could
be expected, but the owners had not ridden him again after I
turned him back to them. When a calf pulled the rope behind
his rump, the horse didn't respond quickly enough to keep me
out of trouble - and the horse bucked high and hard.
Of all the times to have a camera handy, one of my kids
got a shot of me with a foot of daylight between my ass and
the saddle. My hand was still down near the horn as I
quickly dropped my dallies, and my kids claim that I was
"grabbing leather". (I have destroyed four prints of that
picture, but new ones keep cropping up.)
I got sidetracked for a time in the healthcare profession
and got back into the cow business in another place and
time. As cattlemen abandoned horses for 4-wheelers, they
also turned toward calf tables to do their branding.
hile I was working as the CEO of the hospital at Townsend
I heard of a good old-fashioned branding to be held that
weekend. I hit up one of my doctors for the use of his
"You're welcome to him," the doctor said, "but he won't
do you any good."
"I'll get by with him," I said. "And can I get away with
"You're welcome to that, too," he said, "but you'll never
get him in it."
The trailer was a small two-horse outfit with barely
enough room for either. I had no doubt that a horse would be
reluctant to enter its claustrophobic darkness, but neither
did I doubt that I could accomplish the task.
On the appointed day I drove out to the corral and hooked
up the trailer. I caught the horse and led him to it. Of
course he balked at the sight of the dark interior of the
trailer, but I was prepared with plenty of rope. Ordinarily
I would saddle the horse before putting him in the trailer,
but there wasn't enough room in this one for a horse and his
saddle. I ran my long soft rope from the halter, through a
ring inside the front of the trailer, and around the butt of
the horse. The butt-rope gave him extra incentive to go in,
and the halter end kept him aimed the right direction. It
took only a few minutes to convince him that there were only
two choices here: the easy way or the hard way. It wasn't a
question of if he would get in that trailer, only a matter
of how soon.
The horse hadn't been trained around cows. In fact, it
didn't seem like he'd had much training of any kind. I
didn't feel conspicuous on a green horse - the outfit doing
the branding ran dudes when they trailed cattle to summer
range and moved them around in the Forest Service lease, and
there were a high percentage of farmers and town folk among
There were already too many ropers in the corral when we
were ready to begin, and I ended up wrestling with a fellow
who was dressed real fine. He had on a tall felt hat, high-waisted
brown duck pants with suspenders, a bib-front shirt, and
expensive chaps. The guy had a good-looking horse with a
nice custom-made saddle. He looked like something out of an
old photograph, and I labeled him in my mind as an "O C":
Ostensible Cowboy. "Real" cowboys simply don't dress like
But my first impression was quickly dispelled - this
fellow knew what to do with those calves. He handled them
safely and efficiently, and we worked well together. I
admired his saddle and chaps as we worked, and told him that
I had given up ranch work after 20 years when I finally
realized that I would never be able to buy an outfit like
his on ranch wages.
"Ranch wages didn't buy this outfit," he said. "I'm a
The wind came up as we worked through the calves, and it
soon exceeded 40 MPH. I pride myself on having lived 20
years along the Rocky Mountain Front where the wind is a
constant factor. I have learned to keep a hat on my head in
any weather by keeping the top of my head tilted into the
wind so it is blowing on rather than off. I traded my hat
for a scotch cap that day, however, when I took my turn at
Those town ropers had burned out pretty quickly. The wind
was especially daunting to them. We weren't half done with
the calves when the pace had slowed down enough for me to
mount up on my borrowed horse.
As I said, this horse didn't have much training, and
likely not much experience either. He was pretty smart,
however. It didn't take too long for him to get over his
apprehension of the calves, and he was soon putting me in a
good position to heel calves. But he never did get over his
fear of the roaring propane branding pot, and I had to
"pedal" the horse through the ground crew with each calf.
The doctor had forbidden me to use spurs on his horse,
although this was one of the few horses I had ridden that
I'd have liked to use them on.
The wind continued to increase as the afternoon ground
on, and the number of eager ropers dwindled. My whole body
was tired - my arms from reining the horse around and from
throwing the rope, and my legs from continually urging my
horse. But there weren't any other volunteers to rope. I was
bringing in every second calf. When the roping is going
well, everyone is too busy handling cattle to pay much
attention to the ropers. But when things slow down, the
whole crew is watching every time you miss a loop. The wind
was making the job difficult enough, but a poor rope, lack
of practice, a green horse, and lots of eyes made the job
that much harder.
I hadn't been directly invited to that branding, only
heard about it second hand. They started out with more
ropers than wrestlers. Yet by the time it was all finished,
I had drug in nearly a third of all the calves. It seems
like they would still be there branding if I hadn't showed
up with that borrowed horse!
Click here for a