by Joe Guild
There was a skiff of snow on the ground in patches around the old aspen-wood round corral. A few wispy stray flakes blew around in the occasional gust, but otherwise it was winter – quiet and still.
The gate had swung open, so as I walked from the barn to the house I paused to close it and wished each of the upright posts could speak. A corral was first built here over 100 years ago and some of these trees looked that old. It is about 60 feet across and anchored by steel pipe posts sunk deep in the ground and steel cable stretched top and bottom all the way around. The effect is very natural because none of the aspen logs is exactly the same height or diameter. Against the late afternoon, mostly-cloudy sky, the tops of the posts appeared to cut the air with their jagged edges. From every angle of view, inside or outside, a new image surprised the eyes. Inside, one could feel protected and sheltered from the rest of the ranch. This could be a boy’s imaginary Fort Laramie filled with soldiers and settlers, a refuge from enraged natives. For a young buckaroo, it was the place where all the best work, the horseback work, started. For an old man, it was a place of memories, peace and contemplation.
This day I reflected on the times the cavvy was run in by the wrangler from the big horse pasture surrounding the house and buildings. I loved wrangling early in the morning before dawn was even a gray line in the east. I thrilled at the long trot around the herd and the sound of their silence shattering hooves up ahead of me before I could even see them. I still get a tingle when I hear 65 horses coming up the draw ahead of the wrangler on their way to this corral.
In the summer, as we caught horses to push cattle high into the mountains, the dust in the corral would make you think you’d never find a horse to ride. But, the cowboss knew every horse down to the shape of its nose and ear, and he always got you a horse to ride. In the spring, that same little round spot of earth would be so full of ankle deep mud, it would suck off your over boots if you weren’t careful.
As soon as the horses galloped into the corral they would roil and boil like grandma’s teapot on the stove. They would squeal and snort as if they were trying to figure each other out for the first, rather than the thousandth, time. As soon as the boss stepped in and sharply, yet softly spoke to them, they would settle like school kids for the strictest teacher they ever had. And in a quiet voice, from oldest on the ranch to youngest, he would call out the cowboy’s name and in return get a horse’s back, “Studs, Rocky , Winchester, Stump, Leo, Peppy, Bit, Buster and Bob.” Soon enough, the horses not caught for the day would be let out of this very gate to spend another day grazing and lazing in the horse pasture. And, as full of piss and speed as they came in, they walked out slowly -- another lesson in manners re-learned.
I also thought of all the time we took with the colts. First catch, first haltering, first touches, first rides were all done with each young horse getting as much time as it needed to become a partner and understand man. Hundreds of men and thousands of horses had made this place their workshop. I looked out the gate to the south across the horse pasture and there on the hillside was the whole cavvy, free and alive as only a horse can look. Some in that bunch were honest-to-God, great horses, others just pretty good transportation. But every last one was incapable of being anything but honest with you. It was up to the cowboy to figure out his horses, not the other way around. If you listened, they would tell you. They were all born right here on this place to be cow horses and that is what they were. Their mamas would go out every year with a stud bunch and next spring a new potential great cow horse would show up. Born, work, and die, all on the same place -- not a bad way to live.
I thought about this luxury of being able to think. Time is different on a ranch. When horses and cattle define the rhythm of your day, when you are off on a long trot before the sun rises, time has a new meaning not bound by the face of a clock, but measured by the posts in an old round corral. When you quit the work you started early in the morning (only if it is done and not at high noon), and you don’t know what the clock says when you eat your midday meal, time gives you more of itself to mow the unwanted weeds out of your brain.
You use -- you don’t take -- the time to start a colt. And so, if you need a half hour to do with one horse what took five minutes to do with another, you use all of that time, and it isn’t measured by a clock. When the colt tells you he’s learned enough of that for the day, you can put him away and go eat your dinner. One year it took all day from dawn to dusk to gather that pasture and move the cattle to the dry fork corral. This year it was over and done by mid-afternoon.
Late in the afternoon, when even the short sage casts a shadow, there is time to pause and reconstruct the day. Time isn’t sped up; it’s slowed down to a glimpse of an earlier, less-modern age. And so, our clocks are used a little less on a ranch, and when they are used, maybe they are used a bit more rationally.
I thought of the men and the boys who became men in this place. As the years went by, they kept coming back for the new season’s cow work. I thought about how hard they worked at their rough and dangerous craft for the love of it. Many did their job for very little pay because of their pride and because they counted themselves among the lucky and fortunate to be paid for being a buckaroo. I thought of myself and the wonder I feel upon looking at a new calf or foal, how privileged I was to be one of the cowboys, how good the sage smells after the rain, what satisfaction there is in the fall after the gathers, the work and the shipping is done, and how peaceful it is in the middle of winter pausing on the feed ground watching the cattle eat the product of the summer’s toil. The round corral reminded me there are no true beginnings and endings; there is only being where and who and what we are now.
Winter is a good time to look at old corrals and the land – to think of the cattle and the horses and the jobs which need doing. It’s a good time to look back and see where you have come from. Because if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you are going.
Previously published in Progressive Rancher January 2006