The most essential tool the early cowboy used in working livestock was a rather mongrel-like herd animal referred to as a cow pony. These horses of the early west were half wild, but wholly sturdy and well-suited for the long days on the open untamed range. You see, before the development of the American quarter horse as a distinct breed, most cow ponies came from the open range and were an odd collection of mustangs (from the Spanish word mesteño meaning wild or untamed) and U.S. Cavalry remounts and Eastern-bred domesticated horses. Later, colonial “quarter horses” were cross bred with these western cow ponies, and pioneers found that the new crossbreed had innate “cow sense” or a natural instinct for working with cattle, making it popular with cattlemen of the early American West.
Early foundation horses
Early foundation sires of the quarter horse type were Steel Dust, foaled in 1843; Old Sholoh, foaled in 1844; and Peter McCue, foaled in 1895. The main duty of the ranch horse in the American West was working cattle. Even after the invention of the automobile, horses were and still are irreplaceable for handling livestock on the open range and in the cattle pen. Thus, major Texas cattle ranches, such as the King Ranch, the Four Sixes and the Waggoner Ranch played a significant role in the development of the modern quarter horse.
But, back to the predecessor of the commonly-used quarter horse, the cow pony who roamed free until about the age of four, when the cowboys would come out to the corral of wrangled horses, and work them through a kind of brutal, nerve shattering basic training known as breaking or busting. This process of busting a horse was quite literally to break the animals’ wild spirit through lessons of fear and respect for the cowboy. Carried out by bronc busters, who sometimes were particularly saddle-worthy cowboys, the lessons were ones the horses would surely never forget! And, while modern methods of horse training have largely done away with such seemingly barbaric methods, in their day they had their place in taming both the mustangs of the West and in the western frontier itself.
Horses have a unique way of communicating a message
I’ve written before about my horse, Whiskey, and her bloodline as a descendant of Joe Hancock. At five-years old, she has plenty of spirit to her, which is accompanied by a willing work ethic and a unique aptitude for tracking all manner of things and in the process doing her job, a job she very much enjoys. But, at only five-years old and with plenty of Hancock spirit, she can also sometimes act like a petulant teenager who occasionally tries to test me and my authority. Now, I can assure you we are willing partners in a mutually-beneficial relationship, but when I’m in the saddle, I am and must be the greater among equals.
Most days Whiskey is an unflappable, hard-working, and patient mount. She teaches me and I train her, and our partnership is a very special one that continues to get better with time. On occasion, though, her teenage spirit temporarily gets the better of her like it did a few nights back. While putting her through several working drills in close quarters with other horses, she decided that she had had enough of this seemingly pointless game. Big kick. Small buck. A toss of her head and a few spins that would make any reining horse proud, and before I know it I was hanging on for dear life not unlike the bronc busters in the old mustang corral. After a few seconds, I got to thinking I might actually save myself and stay horseback, when she gave me one last turbospin and off I came. THUD!
Horses by their nature are not mean, especially to the one who feeds them. Horses by their very nature are caring, herd animals. Horses are thoughtful and they are gentle. And, while my mare is normally good-natured, willing, smart and patient, on this evening, she was trying to tell me something and I wasn’t listening. That is until she made her point perfectly clear in the unique manner that only a 1,100 pound spirited teenager can: get off of me!
Horses can teach us to listen
So, after dusting myself off, climbing back in the saddle and going for a few trots and a few lopes around the training pen so we could kiss and make up, I started to consider how my not listening to Whiskey ended in a rough “unintended dismount.” What was she trying to tell me, but more importantly, why did I not understand that she was trying to communicate to me? Simply put, why was I not listening?
“Surely there is value to be gained from trying to find that which binds us rather than that which divides us.”– The Cowboy Accountant
I think often in our lives, we may think we know the answer, or may not find value in the words and wisdom of others. It seems like in modern society, we spend more time seeing who can yell the loudest rather than who can listen the best.
Politicians, media, and celebrities seem hyper-focused of late on talking the loudest and the quickest rather than on patiently and thoughtfully listening to an opposing viewpoint to consider its merits. I’m not suggesting anyone should be unfaithful to their convictions, and I’m not one to comment on politics or on the lives of others. But, surely there is value to be gained from trying to find that which binds us rather than that which divides us? And, I believe that listening helps us do just that.
A valuable lesson learned
As many times before, my horse taught me a lesson that evening. A valuable lesson that will stay with me long after my sore body heals and my pride recovers. The lesson that there is immense value in the simple act of listening. Listening at work. Listening at home. Listening to friends and family. Listening to others who’s views are different than mine. And, yes, listening to my horse. While the impacts of not listening may not be as rugged as getting tossed from a horse, they are still negative impacts that are largely avoidable.
And, I believe we can be better as a people if we sometimes listened more and talked less. So, I’m going to focus more effort on listening, with a goal of improving my skills as a listener as well as a horseman. For the cowboy, I believe his most essential tool is his horse. Or maybe it’s his ability to listen.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Until we visit next time, happy trails! ★