My Early Cowboying Experiences
By Steve Moreland, February 8, 2016
Believe it or not, until I was four years old, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a chicken farmer. It was always fun to be with Grandpa Anderson on his Minnesota farm. I would pull on his sleeve and ask, “Can we go gather eggs, Grandpa?” “No,” he would respond, “we just gathered eggs an hour ago.” Every time my Minnesota grandparents visited us in Nebraska the first few years of my life, they would bring me a new pair of striped bib overalls. This thrilled my little heart for a while, but then my dreams and aspirations changed over to wanting to be a cowboy instead.
When my cousin Ken Moreland and I were both four years old, our Grandpa Jack bought each of us a Shetland pony. Ken’s pony was named Thunderhead, and mine went by the moniker of Lightning. Lightning had the type of personality that almost made me reconsider the possibilities of again wanting to be a chicken farmer. He was a mean ornery little sucker that was hardly broke at all. The day I received my initiation, Dad was mounted on his horse and was leading the pony. I crawled aboard and we took off, me not enjoying the experience in the least. It was easy to tell the pony didn’t like me, and I sure didn’t like him. We did alright, at least I stayed on top, until we got to a valley about a mile west of the house. Dad was still leading me. There were about ten loose horses in this pasture, and they came frolicking up to investigate us trespassers. My little pony just frolicked out from underneath me, and then proceeded to escape from Dad’s grip. Dad had to lope off in pursuit of the renegade Shetland, and I was left out in the middle of the pasture to fend for myself. There were cattle out on the flat, and they had to come up to check out the funny looking two-legged varmint out in the middle of their domain. I was scared to death and headed for the only comfort in sight, a windmill. Dad found me near the top of the tower, still trying to get as far away as I could from those mean old cows. I rode home on the front of Dad’s saddle with him, and my smart aleck little pony followed smugly along behind. I never rode that pony again.
Dad had sold Butch Nero a nice spotted mare that was pretty gentle. She was about a year older than me. Butch didn’t have any place to keep her in Greeley, Colorado, where he lived, so Spot was still on our ranch. Shortly after my wreck with the Shetland, Dad put my saddle on Spot and told me to give her a try. She and I got along fine. I rode her quite a little for a week or two, and liked her very much. Dad wrote a check to Butch and bought the horse back, and my new occupation of being a cowboy started to become fun.
Dad took a photograph of Spot one time in black-and-white (which was all there was in those days). He entered the picture in a contest sponsored by the Blackpipe State Bank in Martin. It won, and was featured on their calendar for the year 1954. Dad also won a twenty-five dollar savings bond out of the deal.
Spot was one of the best all-around horses that ever lived. She stood fifteen hands tall and weighed 1100 pounds, and was a pretty black and white paint mare. A lot of spotted horses of that era didn’t show much breeding, but Spot did. Dad bought Spot when she was a four-year-old from Ray Welker. He lived northwest of Merriman at the time, and had raised the mare. Spot was a granddaughter of Gold Dollar, who was one of the exceptionally good stallions of that era. It was said that more horses sold to the military sired by Gold Dollar than from any other stud.
Kids could get by with about anything on old Spot, but some unsuspecting cocky young hired hand could get piled from her before he ever knew what happened. Kids could catch her anywhere but if a man needed her he’d better have his act together because she was a bunch-quitting old fool. Lots of times, if Dad needed her, he would have me go catch her before he made his presence known. Dad recalled that one time he was riding her about a mile north of the buildings. When he got off to shut a gate, Spot jerked away from him. She stayed just ahead of Dad, making a game out of it, as he walked all the way home. Whenever he would try to swiftly get in front of her, she would trot just enough to not let him. It was quite an exasperating experience, but by the time they both arrived home, Dad was laughing too hard to get very mad at her.
Spot would be kept up for a wrangle horse much of the time, and would be allowed to graze in the “calving lot.” A leather strap around her foot, with a chain about three feet long attached, served as an aid in catching her. Sandra and I would go play Indians once in a while. I would carry an old rope calf halter, and we would pet old Spot until she would allow me to put the halter over her ears. Then I would unbuckle the chain and deposit it on a nearby fence post, where it would be handy to put back on her later. I would boost Sandra up, and she would slide back over the top of Spot’s rump. Then I would shinny up by grabbing a handful of mane, and putting my knee on the “elbow” of Spot’s leg. Sandra would grab my belt loop and tug on my britches as best she could, and soon I would be up on top. Away we would ride, ready to conquer the world.
I was pretty darn poor help for a while, but Dad put up with me and took me along until finally I started to make a hand. By the time I was in first and second grade, he was even rather depending on my abilities. One Friday afternoon, Mom picked me up from school. We hurried home so Sandra and I could watch our favorite television show, “Brave Eagle.” We were just nicely settled in to watch as the show started. Dad came in the door, and he had other plans. His horse Penny and my horse Spot were saddled and ready, and there were cattle to be moved. I very much desired to stay put on the nice comfortable davenport to watch my favorite show. The only way he diplomatically got me to assist was by telling me there was a good chance we’d run on to Brave Eagle and his band of warriors as we rode out through the hills. He would even point over the top of some of the hills and ask, “Is that feathers I see?” I’d look, and we’d determine it was just grass waving in the breeze. By the time we got a bunch of cows driven home in the moonlight, I realized I’d been had.
It was about in this same time period that one evening at the supper table, Dad announced that he had hired a new man to start working on our ranch the next week. Sandra, bless her heart, responded, “Oh goodie, maybe now Stevie won’t have to work so hard.”
Some of the first major cowboy jobs that I recall was just before I turned ten years of age. Dad’s place was long on hay, but short on pasture. During 1960, and again in 1961, we summered about 120 cow/calf pairs and 20 yearling heifers half-way between Hay Springs and Chadron, in a pine tree covered pasture about five miles north of Highway 20. Don Yardley was in charge of this place, on a lease deal of some kind. I was recruited to help drive the cattle both to and from the pasture and enjoyed the experiences for the most part. Don had a neighbor, Bill Anderson, who also helped move the cattle. Bill was riding a very nice well-behaved stallion, but knowing that Spot was a mare and knowing that stallions could be mean on occasion had me a bit worried. I never could quite let down my guard whenever Bill rode close to me.
Also, late in the summer of 1961, grass was getting scarce on our ranch but Dad’s brother had a little bit of surplus pasture. Dad, Sandra, and I had trailed 75 cows with steer calves about ten miles from our Green Valley Hereford Ranch to the JO Ranch, owned by Uncle Stan and his family. When we arrived at Uncle Stan’s pasture, he and Aunt Joy and an Iowa cattle buyer, Dave Leith and his wife, drove out to the pasture in a car to watch us come in the gate. Dad was always a bit of a show-off. He told Sandra and me to gallop our horses just as fast as we could to the car, which was about an eighth of a mile away. This we did, and we all reined to a stop in a flourish and a cloud of dust. The jury is still out on whether or not the onlookers were impressed, but they probably were not.
On an October morning a couple months later, the calves were sold to Otto Tostengard from Dovray, Minnesota, and loaded onto a truck. The cows were locked in the JO corrals for the day, because Dad and Uncle Stan wanted to go to the ranch auction of Jack Stotts at Cody, Nebraska. Dad picked me up from school at 3:30, and took me out to the JO where our horses were waiting. He rode Penny, a sorrel gelding, and I climbed aboard my mare, Spot. It was just the two of us riders making the trip. We let the cows out the gate and headed them for the Green Valley about ten miles away. This was in the era before Daylight Savings Time, so it was pitch dark about an hour after we started and there was no moon. The old cows just knew their calves were back in the JO corral and gave us trouble every step of the way. Somehow we got lost in Mrs. Bowring’s summer pasture and turned north too quick in the dark. We were on a real awkward steep hillside, and had much trouble holding the herd together. It was fortunate that the Hereford cows had just enough white coloring to kind of see when one would turn to go back. We crossed Highway 20 without any flaggers on this dark night, but fortunately no traffic came along. We pushed the bunch on towards our ranch, but had to go through a pasture of Jay Coles with a multitude of black yearling heifers in our way. Dad threw open a wire gate and galloped ahead to get the yearlings out of our way. While riding fast and furious pushing the heifers, he got too close to the fence. Dad’s good horse, Penny, got his front feet tangled in the wire gate that was laying on the ground, and took a wild summersault at high speed. Dad was thrown clear, and neither he nor the horse suffered permanent damage. Dad didn’t even tell me about this happening until the next day. In retrospect, had he gotten injured and possibly knocked unconscious, I’m not real sure I’d have even known the way on to our house. There may have been a third rider along on this trip after all—our invisible guardian angel. We finally got the cows home by about ten o’clock, and I was ready for bed.