Dusty-Corral School of Learning

THE old gray mare bucked straight up, into a shape like an inverted V, and Jack, the rider, continued up toward the bright blue sky about 15 feet. At this apogee, he laid out flat in the air, facing the sky. Then he contorted and twisted himself in an amazing fashion until his feet were downward, responding to gravity's insistence, and landed in the dusty corral dirt in a crouch, with his bending knees as shock absorber, unhurt.

John, owner of the ranch and of the gray mare, was close to my right. I asked him, "Did you see that?"

He asked, "See what?"

"Jack just got bucked off. I never did see anything like what he went through to get his feet downward and land right."

"Well, Jackie's been bucked off a few times."

"What would have made her buck him off?"

"Don't know. The old gray mare, she's kind of a one-man horse. Maybe she realized I'm standing over here, and somebody else was up in the saddle."

John was never in the least disturbed by nor inclined to make fun of my relative ignorance about horses and cattle. He was the best man I ever worked for. He didn't pay a top wage, but he was generous with "please" and "thank you" and had a crew more devoted to him, and to the work that had to be done, than many ranchers who paid better wages.

My job, as caretaker of the ranch in the Blue Mountains in Oregon's northeast quarter, included irrigation work and fence repair. The cattle stayed on John's ranches at lower elevation near Unity through the winter and in national forest in the summer. In the fall, after the hay was cut, riders drove them down from the forest, and they grazed the stubble and the places on the meadow we couldn't cut until snow covered the grass.

I didn't work with the cattle much, so when I did, it was a learning experience.

Rick was a cowboy who stayed the summer in a cabin down the river about two miles at Cow Camp with his wife and their two small daughters. They rode the national-forest grazing allotments, looking for cattle in any kind of trouble, keeping them out of the streams as much as they could, and moving them to better grass when they grazed an area short.

When there was work to be done with cattle at the Whitney corrals, Rick came up and helped.

Rick specialized in working twice as fast and hard as was needed and swearing three times as much as could be believed. The first time I went to the corrals, which were 100 feet from our house, to work the cattle, the main project was driving calves through a narrow wooden chute, about 30 feet long, into a metal squeeze chute, where they were held immobile to receive insecticide and injections.

The crux of the project was getting the line of calves to move forward when a calf was released from the squeeze chute and another was needed.

Rick told me, "No matter what you do, you're going to get kicked, so you might as well get kicked and get it over with."

He jumped down into the wooden chute, twisted the last calf's tail, pushed, got kicked, and swore. I've worked with men who used rough language, but Rick came up with phrases I'd never heard before. I concluded that the desire to be original in his work methods and in his language was part of Rick's motivation for living.

I looked at John. He stood on a plank along the outside of the chute, reached in with a stick, and prodded the calves on their flanks just enough to call to their attention that it was time to move forward. He seemed to be in no rush, but he also seemed to be as effective at getting the calves to move as Rick was. I decided John was the one to watch and learn from.

Nobody suggested to Rick that he try another approach. As long as he didn't hurt the cattle or any of the other workers, he could get kicked by calves all he wanted. Examples of other ways to do the work were all around. If he wasn't paying attention, nobody was going to intrude by paying attention for him.

THE hands-off-and-let-him-learn attitude didn't apply to one who was ignorant from lack of having worked around bovines.

During one spring branding party, horseback men roped calves fore and aft and held them. Two men on the ground grabbed legs and pushed the calves to the ground and held them for branding. I didn't have a horse, and no one volunteered the use of his, so I helped put the calves down and held them. John spoke to me from across a down calf. "He can still kick when he's down. Don't get behind him. Once you've got him down, get hold of both legs. If he kicks, you'll move with him instead of getting kicked."

I didn't plan to make working with cattle any large part of my future, but I learned about them what I could as we worked.

It interested me more to learn about the people who worked with the cattle. I saw effective "neighboring," when crews from several ranches joined to do the work when many hands were needed. I saw a lot of different styles of work, and I saw tolerance among the workers for whatever style anyone used, as long as the work got done.

I continued watching John's slow approach and confirmed an idea I'd had for a while. A relaxed approach sometimes gets more done than a frenetic pace. I'd watched men on horses move cattle so fast that the cattle were soon riled and running in all directions, and horses and men had all they could do just to keep them together.

One evening when John and I and the old gray mare were the only workers still on the ranch, we discovered a cow and calf down on the meadow when they should have been up in the corral with the rest of the herd. John rode the old gray mare. I walked along in case the cow and calf tried to turn east, where part of the fence had been removed, but John didn't really need me.

He and the mare were a study in minimum motion. When the cow led her calf up toward the corral, horse and rider came along about 50 feet back at a slow pace. If the cow thought about turning back, they stopped while she thought it over. If she moved a step or two back, they moved toward her a step or two. Nobody was in any hurry, so the cow didn't get excited. It was easier not to go by a man on a horse, so she kept on until she and her calf were in the corral. John followed them in, and I shut the gate.

Not every job can be worked with minimum motion, but watching John helped me learn to stay alert for the situations where the cow needs minimum encouragement and too fast a pace only scatters energy.

I learned a lot from John. Maybe the most important lesson was, take the time to watch and to figure out what a good approach is before rushing in to work. That, and stay off the old gray mare; she's mostly a one-man horse.

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