Monday, August 31, 2009

Horse Power!

This one is long… but if you have time and any interest in digging, dragging, pulling and plowing with the power of the horse, please take a look at the article I wrote entitled Horse Power at

If anyone’s been wondering what we do in the high country during the summer season, this will share a little bit of the job with you. There’s more to horses than riding! (and shoveling manure…)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Floyd's Horse Stories: The work horses on the ranch

When I was a little kid, we had one big old tractor on the ranch that had big steel wheels. It was used to pull the plow and to power the thrasher machine. All the other tasks were accomplished with horses. We had about 20 head of horses on the ranch most of the time. That was just the mature horses we relied on for work, not including the mares and colts.

Every year we had from 2-4 colts. Our stud was a big draft horse. Back then, we didn’t put emphasis on specific breeds of the horses. The heavier or draft breeds were primarily work horses, and the lighter breeds primarily for riding. I’ve told you about our mare, Nellie, before (
see link). She’s the one the four of us boys learned to ride on, and who I first rode to school on. Over the years, she had probably six colts.

I’ve also told you a little bit about Ginger (
see link), the first horse that was really mine. I got Ginger when I was 8. He was about 14 hands, a pretty little sorrel gelding with light mane and tail. I thought he was the best looking horse I ever saw. I could entertain the visiting relatives from back east because Ginger would rear up and walk on his hind feet. That was sure to impress them.

At any given time, we had about 5or 6 saddle horses. Dad’s horse was a big sorrel with a star on his forehead called Tony. Dad used him during the summer to irrigate off of. He would ride the horse out into the meadows, which would be all flooded. Dad would step off Tony, drop the reins, take a board out of the head gate or use his shovel to fix a ditch, and Tony would stand there grazing until Dad was done and ready to move on. I would go with him, riding Nellie. Most of what I recall was that the mosquitoes would just about eat us alive.

Now, my Uncle Bill had a horse called Skeeter, and she was a big black mare that also was a very good cow horse and had one very good trait, one very special talent. When we was out checking the cattle, if a calf got across the fence and there wasn’t a gait close by to ride through, that Skeeter would jump the fence, bring the calf back in, and jump back to my Uncle Bill. Pretty amazing. I saw it myself at least two or three times. Uncle Bill would get off the horse; she’d jump that fence, chase the calf back through a hole in the fence, then jump back over and wait for Uncle Bill. You see, he bought that horse from a guy he met at the Stampede fair who was performing a trick act where that Skeeter would jump over convertibles. Well, my folks invited the guy out to the ranch after the show. The guy probably had a hard luck story, but I never heard it all. All I remember was that he was going to quit the circuit for some reason, and told us he was going to come back for his horse, but never came back, so Uncle Bill ended up with her. Well, that Skeeter didn’t have to do any more convertible jumping, but her talents sure came in handy on the ranch

As for the work horses, they’d have their hands full throughout the year, and we relied on them for a variety of jobs. When we were putting up hay, there would be about 14 teams in the field. Besides our own teams, my folks rented horses. Usually the driver and the team would come together; many of them local folks.

So, the full crew during haying involved about 14 teams. The big, heavy work horses were on the mowing machines. There were 5 horse drawn mowers. This was the hardest job on the horses because the sickle is driven by power off the wheels, but the sickle bar was off to the side. The side pull created by the sickle bar would wear on the horse’s neck with the side dragging all the time.

The next hardest job, for which we usually had four teams on, was the buck rakes. These gathered the hay and moved it into the stacker. The stacker team, whose job it was to pile the hay on the stack, had to be a really good team. Not only was the load of hay heavy but the team had to stop at exactly the right time to stack the pile just so. A good team and driver could place the hay either in front or back of the stack, and make the job of the men on the stack that much easier. Each pile would be kept nice and square with a rounded top.

Then, there were five teams on the sulky or dump rakes. These were usually lighter weight or smaller horses because it didn’t require the power to pull that many of the other jobs did. One team I particularly remember were a set of big bay mares we called Mini and Mandy. They were the stacker team during haying, the feed team during the winter, and when they were feeding cattle, why they would pull in beside the hay stacks, while the hay was forked onto the wagons, then pull out into the herd of cattle. The driver could tie the reins around the post on the wagon as the team would drive out, make a circle, and be back when the hay was unloaded. Early auto pilot.

We had two hay wagons, one that fed the cattle, one that fed the sheep. All winter long. 300 head cows would be fed. That required 3 loads of hay. The same was needed also for the sheep. So, both wagons would leave out soon after sun up, and wouldn’t be done until 2. On Saturday, they fed double, so it was an all day ordeal. But then Sunday was a day of rest.

The same horses were used for the farming operation, for disking and harrowing, planting and pulling the binder (a machine which cut the hay and put it in into bundles), then pulled the bundle wagons that hauled grain to the thrashing machine. The thrasher made a big straw pile as it threw straw out the back end, and grain out the side to a little box wagon.

When we were haying, you were expected to have your team harnessed and ready to head to the field at 7 am. Everyone took one hour off for lunch, during which time the women folk brought a hot meal out the hay field. The teams were unhooked and tied to the fence or the equipment, and given a fork full of hay for their own lunch while the people ate. At 1 o’clock, the teams were hitched back up, and the whole crew worked on the field to 6. After that, those of us who drove rakes still had to unhook the rake and ride the horse back to the barn. The mowers were the only ones who rode the equipment back in, as they had to change the sickles and grease the moving parts regularly.

When it was time to break the work colts, we took the big stud horse, and teamed him up with a new horse. We’d then hook the two of them up to the breaking sled, which was just a wooden sled with a tongue. On top of the sled, we’d pile sacks of sand for added weight. Well, no doubt that stud knew what he was doing, and he let the new horse run away and pull the whole weight of it. As you can guess, it wasn’t long before the new horse learned to let the stud take on his half of the work. And if they wouldn’t pull their half, he’d pull the sled right up into their heels to keep them going.

We’d drive them up the lane, turn around as the stud would push the young horse around, and drive them back. And do it again two days later. That’s about all it took with these horses. That stud was the teacher really.

There was a lot of work for the horses, and a lot of work for us all. Three meals a day were served for the crew. The crew included our family of 7, then my grandparents, Uncle Bill, the two maiden aunts, Clara and Amelia, and somewhere between 6 and 12 helpers. There were three men that were our regular help, who lived with their families nearby but would join for the noon meal. But throughout the year, for sheep shearing in the spring, haying in summer and thrashing in the fall, there would be more hired hands to help, and to feed. For most of the crew, there was a bunk house over the shop. They’d bring their own bedrolls, and sleep on an old army cot. Before meals, they washed up in the basement in my grandpa’s house.

Providing regular meals for all these people was a lot of work for the women folks, but that’s another story…
Story by Floyd Getz, Photos from the Getz family archives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Part VIII in the series on How To Horse Pack: Arriving at Camp

This may not seem like much of a topic, but after remembering how stressed I’d be on the trail, right before arriving at camp, thinking about how to handle who and what first and how… I’ll hope I’m not the only one who might have appreciated a little advice on what you do when you get to the camp site.

It’s this very reason that I’ve envied back packers (mind you, however, I am an avid and true blue horse packer). They arrive at camp, drop the load from their back, and sit back and rest a while. Then lay out their tent or bivy sack, heat up the water for their dehydrated dinner, and call it quits. OK, I don’t know if this makes up for the burden of carrying 70 pounds on your human back all day, but it’s the compromise. We horse packers don’t have the load, but once we get there, the work is far from over. (Oh, and in further defense of the horse packer – yes, you can tell I’ve been in this debate more than a few times – “sitting in the saddle” all day is far more than just sitting… Let me know what you think after you’ve spent 5 hours or so in the saddle in the mountains one day.)

So, what do we do when we arrive at camp?

Well, first of all, the horse comes first. And usually we have a few horses to care for. So, there’s work to be done.

When we arrive at a location we plan to set up camp, the horses need not be too close to camp. Remember, once they stop and relax, they’re more than likely to be needing to relieve themselves (probably the rider will be too), but no one needs that where you’ll be pitching your tent. We find a group of trees just far enough away from where we’ll be setting up camp that it’s easy to lead over the pack horses one at a time to unload, but odors will not be offensive.

Usually by the time we reach camp, the horses are tired and hungry (once again, probably the rider will be too). I stop, drop the lead rope of the pack string, drop the reins of my riding horse, and chances are more than likely that they’ll all do nothing more than lower their heads and begin to eat. As a probably obvious tip here, make sure you stop in a grassy location. The horses are more interested in eating and resting than running off. This gives me time to dismount, remove my horse’s headstall, hang it over the saddle horn, and clip on his lead rope; then take off my hat and chaps, which I usually just hang over my saddle; and untie the pack string.

Bringing the stallion to camp adds a little extra caution. I’ll drop his reins and let him graze, only long enough to remove his bridle, and clip on a long lead rope which I can picket to a stump or rock or bush if need be, to keep him at a safe distance from fighting with the other horses. But since he’s a skinny boy, I’d like him to be grazing as much as possible when he’s not working. You can use this trick if you have a horse that fights, bites, kicks, or runs off.

Then, each pack horse is led over closer to camp, and their load is lifted, unloaded under a big tree in a neat pile. Sometimes not so neat. But it’s all there. All the fixings for setting up camp in one big pile. We can take care of all that later. First, the horses. One by one, the horses are led over to a good sized fallen tree (in our neck of the woods, these are plentiful) that works as a great saddle rack. There, each horse is unsaddle, inspected for chafing, wound or saddle sores, briefly curried, and sprayed with fly spray if need be.

After each horse in unsaddled, they can either be tied to trees (high and tight) for a short period of time if this is permissible in your location, or better yet, set up your highline with tree savers (or cinches) right from the get go, and tie the horses safely up there.

The saddles are left uncovered to air out if it’s not raining, but we don’t forget to cover them before night fall, throwing one of the pack tarps over them to protect them from rain or snow, frost or dew.

After the last horse is unsaddled and tied up, we usually leave the horses tied and resting while we address the unpacking of the panniers and the setting up of camp. A little bit of down time for them won’t hurt, though we know what they really want is GRASS.

So, after camp is set and our personal belongings are all in order, before we can sit down and relax (or eat… and I’m usually pretty hungry by now, so keep those snacks handy), the horses have to be turned out to graze. I’ve address how we do this in a previous post.

When the horses are all turned out and grazing, and all stock seem well and fine, and the camp is set… then and only then can we sit and relax. But since we didn’t have to limit our gear to what we carry on our human back, and had our horses help instead, chances are we packed a chair, and now we’re sittin’ pretty!