"Ain't This Romantic" is the title of a forthcoming book
by Cowboy and Author Kent Hanawalt.
Click the titles below for excerpts.
When I drove out onto the feedgrounds I could see that we
had visitors – there were about 30 head of big black cows
scattered among our herd of red cows.
The first winter storm had blown in the middle of
December, bringing wind, snow, and below zero temperatures.
The cows had holed up in the protection of the brush, and
were reluctant to come out for feed. But they needed to fill
their bellies in order to weather the cold, so I had taken
them some hay to eat and straw to bed on.
A couple of weeks had passed and the cold hadn’t yet let
up. There were some cows still out to pasture in a
neighboring field who had been looking longingly over the
fence as I daily spread hay for our cows. They did have
plenty of grass, and tubs of a molasses and grain supplement
that provided them with an adequate ration. And in fact if
I’d had a supplement on hand for our cows I would not have
been so hasty to give them hay.
But “the grass is always greener on the other side of the
fence”. And cows being cows, those across the fence had
finally found a low spot in the where they could get
We drove along the fence until we saw the tracks in the
snow where this bunch of cows had come in. It was in a
corner where the brace pole had rotted off and the post had
leaned over. The fence was still a couple of feet off the
ground, but those cows had jumped over without so much as
snagging a hair.
I left Gary to the task of screwing up boards on the new
windbreak while I drove back to get a new brace pole and
some fencing tools. Gary met me on my return to say that
after going to water, those black cows had split off and
were headed back toward the hole in their fence. Sending
Gary ahead to open the gate and cut back any of ours that
were in the bunch, my dog I followed along behind holding
the bunch together.
Even as we were herding those cows back towards their
gate, I knew that this was an exercise in futility. Without
a horse we would run our legs off and abuse the pickups, and
only get most of the cattle. We would still have to come
back tomorrow to finish the job. The most that we could hope
to accomplish would be to keep the portion of the cows that
we did manage to cut out from eating our expensive hay all
Max and I did get about 20 head bunched up and headed
down the fenceline toward the gate. If Gary had given those
cows a little more ”air”, they’d have turned out the gate.
But Gary was too close to the hole, and a bunch of cows
split off and ducked around him, heading down the fence
behind him. Jumping Max into the pickup with me, we sped
across the hayfield and around some rocky knobs to get head
them back again.
Most of the cows were compliant enough, but one
ill-tempered old gal spun around to challenge Max. She blew
past me and headed on down the fence, finally crashing
through the fence and breaking 3 wires before heading west
to join the cows that had turned out the gate and headed for
home. Max and I left her and returned to the handful that
were headed back up the fence for a second run at the gate.
As we swung out to their flank to wing them out I felt a
sickening clunk as we came to a sudden stop. I didn’t need
to look under the pickup to know that we had high-centered
on one of the many rocks that inhabit the West Boulder
Afoot, Max and I tried to turn this last little bunch out
the gate. But they had other ideas, and Max’s urgings only
made them go faster in the wrong direction. We had just
wasted most of an hour of daylight accomplishing nothing of
much value, and leaving the pickup perched on top of a rock.
Gary brought his pickup over and we connected the big
tow-rope to my trailer hitch. Several attempts, with
escalating force, to drag my pickup off the rock were
unsuccessful. I pulled out the High-Lift jack.
Wedging the jack under the front bumper I lifted the
front wheels off the ground and tipped the pickup off to one
side in an attempt to free it, but I was still stuck. Moving
the jack to the rear bumper I jacked up and then tipped the
pickup forward. On the 3rd go the transmission slid off the
front of the rock and I was free.
We had gotten about 15 head out the gate – about half the
strays. But now there were two holes in the fence. We didn’t
have any splice wire with us, so we pulled the broken wires
together with bale twine, then headed up to the corner where
the cows had come in.
It didn’t take long to fit in a new brace pole and screw
it into place, tightening the wires to block their avenue of
escape. By now it was dark, and we’d mostly wasted an
Now that these cattle had tasted our hay it would be
increasingly difficult to keep them out when they weren’t
being fed by their owner. Montana is an open range state:
even though most of the state is fenced, the cattle owner
has no legal obligation to contain his livestock – rather, a
landholder has the responsibility of fencing out unwanted
I couldn’t read the brand on the stray cattle. The ranch
from which they had come was owned by a fellow from Maryland
who spent his summers in Montana but wintered back on the
Atlantic coast. He had leased out this pasture, and I didn’t
know where these cows were from. Later in the evening after
a few phone calls I finally made connection with their
Tim was apologetic. He was embarrassed that he hadn’t
taken them home sooner, and sorry that they had broken
through the fence. He promised that he would be up the next
morning to take care of them.
I woke up to a temperature of 10 below. The nearest
corrals were a mile away. To sort them in a corral would
require us to trail the whole herd there, cut off the
strays, and trail them back. We had tried to do the job with
a pickup the day before, and had only wasted time - and I
was lucky that I hadn’t incurred a big repair bill. Today we
would do the job properly.
This was the first bitter weather of the year and I
wasn’t yet hardened in. It would take a lot of clothes to
keep from freezing – and at 10 below I am talking about
literally freezing. With no pickup cab and no sunshine to
warm us, the frigid air could be dangerous.
I began with a pair of silk long johns. Next a light wool
union suit. Wrangler jeans and shirt, silk neck-scarf,
insulated bib overalls, down vest, wool coat, wool sox,
felt-lined packs, leather mitts with wool liners, and a wool
ear-lap cap. I would have preferred to ride my “Kentucky
Colt” for the job, but decided to ride Buddy instead. The
half-thoroughbred colt was just too tall for me to get
astride with all those clothes.
Kim and I saddled 3 horses while Gary went ahead with the
tractor to feed. As I said, it was the first bitter cold of
the year. In fact, it had been only a few weeks earlier when
we were pounding posts and farming. My saddle still had
standard stirrups – I had to change to the larger “overshoe
stirrups” to accommodate my “pac” boots.
Before putting the bridles on, we put water on the bits.
The coating of ice would keep the cold metal from sticking
to the horse’s mouths. Finally aboard, we let the horses out
into a swinging trot as we rode the two miles up west to the
edge of the ranch.
Gary had laid down a line of hay on both sides of the
line fence, leaving a space between the hay and the gate. He
climbed out of the warm tractor cab and onto the cold
saddle. With Gary to hold the herd on the hay and Kim to
watch the gate, it didn’t take long for me to cut out the 15
cows that we had missed the afternoon before. Their owner
pulled up in a pickup as we finished.
“I got all the cows with your eartags,” I told them, “but
there is one no-tag black cow. We have a few black cows
also, and I can’t read any brands with all that winter
Tim walked among the cows and looked over that cow that
didn’t have a tag.
“I think that’s number 243,” he said. “She has some white
between her front legs.” So I cut her out the gate too.
“We’ll never keep them out now,” said Ted. “It’s time to
take them home. We’ll have to get them up to Terry’s corrals
to load them out.
We were there with our horses, so we gathered up the cut
and headed them west to the corrals on the ranch Tim and Ted
had leased. While Kim and Gary took the cut straight up the
fence, Max and Buddy and I swung up and around to pick up
the rest of the cattle in the pasture.
I’d stayed warm enough trotting out to the herd, and
cutting the strays through the gate. But the sun couldn’t
get through the thick cloud cover to warm the day, and there
was a gentle breeze in my face as I followed the cattle over
the hill and down into the corral. I wasn’t suffering any,
but I wondered if my help had on enough clothes.
Kim and Gary reached the corrals before I did. As I
penned the last of the cattle, Kim hollered over that one
cow had broken back and that Gary had gone after her. Kim
went back to help him while Ted and I pushed the cows across
the road into a field far removed from where we were
As we closed the gate behind the cows I saw Kim and Gary
coming with the renegade. It wasn’t long before the cow
jumped through the fence and headed back toward our herd.
Gary had chased her all the way back to our fence once
already, and now the cow was steaming that way again. Buddy
and I gave chase.
Ranger dog was along with us today, as well as Max. I
remembered that dog-fighting bitch that had torn up the
fence the afternoon before and I was looking forward to
putting both dogs on her at once – one on each end. She
would learn some respect!
I had pulled Buddy’s shoes a couple of weeks before when
we had finished the fall work on the cows. There were
several inches of snow and I wasn’t real excited about
giving him his head as we ran to turn that cow. I would have
felt safer on the Kentucky Colt who had sharp shoes and
Twice we had the cow turned, and twice she ducked behind
us – Buddy just didn’t have cow-sense to anticipate her
stops. I pulled down my lariat. As the cow steamed on toward
our herd I juggled the rope in my mittened hands, trying to
straighten the coils.
From her actions, it was likely that the cow was ours
after all. But she needed to be roped no matter who the
owner was. If she belonged to the Watsons, we would have to
rope her to get her in their trailer. If she was ours, she
needed to learn some respect for a horse.
I got ahead of the cow and opened the gate back into our
field, still trying to untangle the rope so I could make a
throw. Finally I stopped, put on a pair of gloves from my
saddle bags, tightened my cinches, and organized my lariat.
These gloves were the thinly-insulated rubberized gloves
that I kept for handling slimy new calves in the spring.
They were no match for the below-zero weather - my fingers
were numbing fast. But that cow wasn’t going to get away
Now pasture roping isn’t anything like arena roping. In a
rodeo, the cow steer is held captive in a chute until the
roper “gives the nod”. The horse is fresh, having only loped
around the arena a few times to warm up. The roper is on a
big, stout, well-trained rope horse, has on a particular
style of glove, and is bearing a carefully selected lariat
that has been meticulously arranged, and holding a loop that
is precisely measured.
The scrawny little steers burst out of the chute with a
slight lead onto a level and prepared ground surface, and
with a second horse flanking him on the right to hold him on
a steady course. Only a second or two elapse before the
cowboy dabs a loop on the horns of the steer that is only a
few feet from his knee, and his partner just as quickly
snares the hind legs, and this 600-pound steer is laying on
My little horse had already carried me 5 miles through
the snow, and had cut out 20 cows. There was no chute to
hold the cow – which was bigger than the horse - until we
could get up beside her. We had to follow the ducking,
swerving cow through rocks, badger holes, and irrigation
ditches until she lined out straight enough that we could
pour on the coal to put me up close enough for a shot.
On the second throw I had her! I dallied up. But this cow
was bigger than my horse by several hundred pounds, and we
weren’t controlling her too well. My rear cinch wasn’t as
tight as I thought, and my saddle was riding up as the cow
stood facing us with her tongue hanging out. We waited for
her to run out of air and tip over.
My fingers were freezing and this cow didn’t seem to be
weakening. We gave her a little slack and she headed for the
cows at water tanks. As she passed the water tanks I threw a
dally around a sturdy post and pulled the cow up short. With
the piggen’ string I carry behind my saddle I tied her hind
Just as I got this cow tied up, Ted Watson pulled up in
his pickup. Not everyone shares my cow-handling philosophy
and I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be to having one
of his cows roped.
But Ted had a grin on his face.
“We inseminated some 500 head a year on the Wilson
place,” he told me. “I bred a lot of them on their side. We
headed and heeled them and stretched them out. They say you
can scare the heat right out of them by handling them rough,
but that’s baloney. When they’re in heat they’re in heat.”
This cow had covered about 3 miles since we first cut her
out the gate, and the last mile had been at a run. She had
burned off all the snow that had been on her back. With the
cow immobilized and at close range, I could now read her
brand: she was ours!
This no-tag cow knew where she belonged, and was
determined to get home – but that didn’t excuse her lack of
respect. The next time she sees a horse coming, however, she
will yield to the pressure, and go in whatever direction
that cowboy points her.
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