Cowboy Rituals at Dawn

We had been asleep in our bedrolls after a memorable chuckwagon supper and evening around the campfire on the Parramore Ranch.

I was already awake and very cold just before dawn when I heard a young cowboy approach my bedroll. His words were stiff and formal. He gently nudged my foot inside the bedroll with his boot. “Mr. Ainsworth, sir, Mr. Moorhouse asked me to tell you that breakfast would be ready in about a half hour.” The young cowboy’s extreme etiquette made me feel a little old.

Photo: steppingoutinnewmexico.com

I thanked him and got up. The bracing cold hit me. By the cook fire at the chuckwagon, I learned that the temperature had plunged to just below freezing overnight. No wonder I was stiff and sore. We had fried eggs and bacon, more biscuits, and prickly pear jelly made by Tommy Sprayberry, a friendly young cowboy who took great pride in his jelly and deservedly so.

Over the lid of my tin coffee cup, I saw a burly young cowboy skipping his breakfast to ride a horse in a narrow lane between the corrals, making repeated rollbacks against the fences at full speed. The others laughed and told us the horse had thrown him the day before. They said he had something to prove. “That is, if Tom allows him to ride the horse again today.” I wondered about that “allowed” part.

As we finished our breakfast, the cowboys mentioned “horses by six-fifteen” as if speaking in code that we were meant to hear, but not understand. Sure enough, at six, the young men dropped their plates and utensils in the cook’s dishwater and trotted (and I do mean trotted) toward their saddles and tack.

Feeling a sense of unpreparedness and sudden urgency, Shep and I gathered up our halters and rushed to the corral. Tom and Jackson were already in the corral, ropes in hand, frowning at a spectacle that made my heart sink.

Ears pinned and teeth bared, Rowdy was circling TT in the middle of the herd, occasionally kicking up his heels as a warning to any horse that approached TT. “Whose horse is that?” Tom asked.

I fessed up. “He’s mine.” Head ducked and face warm, I walked over to Rowdy, haltered him and led him out of the corral. He protested, but only until my jerk of the lead rope told him I meant business. Shep followed with TT. I felt like a parent does when a normally well-behaved child makes a spectacle in a restaurant. We tied them both to the trailer and returned to the corral.

We sat on the rails and watched the cowboy tradition of “choosing and catching up” the daily mounts. Each cowboy approached Tom in a pecking order we did not understand, pointed to a horse and described him (the gray roan with one back sock). Tom could either decline or consent to his requested mount. I saw no declines, including the cowboy who was thrown. He got his second chance.

When the selection was made, Tom and Jackson took turns throwing houlihan loops (a loop designed to be delivered in only one swing {usually from the ground} and meant to sort of float from high to settle around a horse’s neck).

Although the loops are meant to cause minimal disturbance, the horses still ran to the corners. I wondered why each cowboy did not just walk up and catch his mount, but this was tradition and what did I know? One has to consider the danger of being bitten or kicked if you walk into a corral full of horses that are bunched up and feeling early morning friskiness.

Mesmerized at the almost mythical daylight ceremony, we were late getting our own mounts ready. Saddles, blankets, and other tack lay haphazardly on the ground as we ran toward our horses after the last horse was roped.

There was no grooming of horses. The cowboys ran their hands over their horses’ backs and under their bellies to clean off any dirt or mud before slinging pads and saddles across them.

I dispensed with my usual brushing of Rowdy. I took pride in getting my horse saddled quickly and efficiently, but when I saw a few cowboys mount, I knew I was over-tacked.

I quickly unbuckled my breast harness, my neck rope, and my saddlebags. I threw them in the trailer along with my bedroll. As Tom and the others rode up to our trailer, Shep and I were scrambling to get ready.

One cowboy who had paid particular attention to our every move told me, “Might want to leave that tie-down here. Saw a horse break his neck once when a limb got under one and he fell down the side of a hill.” His tone was full of condescension, but I took his advice.

Jim Ainsworth is author of the critically acclaimed novel, Rivers Flow.

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