The cattle drives of the old west were as important as anything in the westward expansion of the United States and in the legacy of the American working cowboy. The drives usually began in spring, so that cattle could feed on the new, fresh grass of the open range. Driving cattle in the spring and summer months allowed the trail boss to avoid flooded rivers so he could get the herd to its new destination before the foul weather of late fall or early winter took hold.
Cattle are still worked slowly, at a walk, just as they were in the earliest drives. Contrary to what we see in movies, cowboys don’t gallop their horses all the time. While a long trot is preferred to cover large expanses of rangeland, a measured walk is best to ensure cattle don’t lose weight by running. As you may appreciate, weight is worth money when cattle are sold, and so there is little need for the bovine cardio that would come from working a herd too quickly. A pace of 10 to 12 miles a day was the preferred speed, although covering greater distances could be achieved under ideal weather conditions. And while steers move faster, a herd mixed with cows and calves will take longer to move.
On a trail, cattle were not driven in the way we might think (and the movies depict) so much as they were guided by the assembled cowhands in a sort of comfortably meandering drift along a general path. The larger the herd, the more cowhands were required to “push horns.” The days were long, dusty and lonesome. The most important cowboy was the venerable trail boss who had ultimate and unilateral authority over the cattle drive.
The boss may be the ranch owner himself, or may be a position trusted to an experienced, wise and thoughtful leader from the ranks of a ranch’s workers. The range boss was assisted by several other cowpunchers, including the important “cookie” I have written about before. Rank or status of each cowboy was determined by his place on the drive. The best positions were the lead riders who “guided” the herd and were the most experienced of cowhands. The outriders of the cattle drives common in the old west, were cowboys who rode on the flanks of a herd to prevent the cattle from straying too wide when being moved from point to point, and who also had a special role in both traffic management and security of the assembled herd.
The least favorite position was the “drag” riders, reserved for those cowboys new to the drive or who were unsuited for other higher-level jobs. Drag riders rode all the way at the back and pushed straggling cows, a job for which they were paid by the opportunity to eat every bit of dust churned up from the herd!
The drive started after breakfast when the remuda of horses were saddled, and went until time for the late afternoon meal, enjoyed at the camp established each night by the location of the chuckwagon. As darkness overcame daylight, two man teams would stand two-hour shifts to look after the herd, and generally keep an eye on the camp. In part to keep themselves awake, the “night hawks” would often sing to the cattle to calm them, thereby avoiding a stampede. Choruses of Git Along Little Dogies, Strawberry Roan, and Bury Me Not of the Lone Prairie could be heard in the night air above the crackle of the campfire and the snoring of the rest of the crew.
Many cowboys got their start as a wrangler, usually a young and inexperienced kid, who’s job it was to know which horse belonged to each cowboy and to gather them up in the morning. Working one’s way up to riding the drag position was generally viewed as a stepping stone to the coveted position of an outrider. Only the lead rider and trail boss hold a higher profile on the trail than that of the outrider, and for good reason. Outriders were adept at moving in every direction horseback, such that they had responsibility for the integrity of the formation of the herd. As such, their role was uniquely protective.
Modern day outriders play much the same role as their predecessors. While modern cattle drives tend to be merely from one pasture on a ranch to another, outriders can also be seen in western-themed parades and in the dramatic “grand entry” so common to opening rodeos large and small. While most all of us have seen a parade, if you’ve never seen a grand entry, imagine a large group of people horseback being led into the arena behind the national and state flags followed by dignitaries, rodeo promoters, stock contractors, competitors, celebrities and politicians. Of course, often the later two constituencies may not be the most adept riders, and so the outrider continues to play a vital role in both calming the nervous politician on a horse for the first time and in making them look like it’s not their first time on a horse.
The work of a modern outrider is done quietly and in a low-key manner so as not to embarrass their rider. The outriders I know — friends of mine — care deeply about horses and care equally deeply about the safety and comfort of the riders they are charged with assisting. Excellent horsemen all, modern day outriders have a well-honed ability to put their horse in a position to positively influence the celebrity’s horse in potentially tricky situations, while keeping the whole parade moving along like nothing ever happened. Their work is without fanfare, but ask any one of them and they will tell you how gratifying the opportunity is for them.
So, the next time you see a parade of horses or have the opportunity to experience a grand entry, perhaps search the assembled riders for those who are quietly, calmly, and unobtrusively keeping the rest of the riders comfortable and safe. They will have a big smile, combined with a watchful eye and may be riding a bit closer to the star quarterback waving to the crowd. Helping, protecting, and encouraging less-experienced riders and in the process doing their part to promote the western heritage unique to North America is what make outriders so valued today, just as they were on the cattle drives of old.
Until next time, happy trails! ★