Matt Bewley, Published September 10 2007
Horse power vs. horsepowerMENTOR, Minn. - Horse have been a necessity on the American frontier for more than two centuries. They've pulled our wagons across the Plains, plowed fields and carried soldiers onto battle. They've also helped cowboys build and run the American cattle industry.
The four-wheeler, or all-terrain vehicle, a relative new-comer to pastureland, has no such history to tell. The logical successor to the dirt bikes and three-wheelers that invaded farms and ranches late in the last century still is growing in popularity. It also is taking on more duties in hunting fields, on farms and on racetracks.
But can it dethrone the working cow-horse?
“I can't foresee any time in the future when horses would not be used for cattle,” says rancher Forrest Giannonatti of Mentor, Minn. “They will always be a necessity on a cattle ranch.”
Giannonatti was raised on a cattle ranch near Buffalo, S.D.
“We were in a ranching community there,” he says. “We raised horses, cattle and sheep. Back at the time, most of our horses were used for working. The little bit of farming we did was all done with horses. We used mostly cross-breeds, often Percherons crossed with lighter saddle breeds to create an intermediate horse.”
The resulting horses, after generations of breeding, were gifted with stamina, agility, trainability and an innate “cow sense.” One of the more popular strains of these animals is what today is called the American quarter horse.
“Back at that time, though, they weren't recognized as quarter horses, just saddlebred horses,” Giannonatti says.
He has worked for some pretty large outfits through the years, helping to manage as many as 2,500 head of cattle from horseback. When he was young, the Dust Bowl hit the Midwest, and many cattle moved out of the area to other parts of South Dakota and to Iowa and Nebraska. When it came time to bring them back, Giannonatti was part of the crew that worked the cattle drives from the railhead to their home farms.
“It took several trips, and some had to travel quite a ways, as much as two to three days,” he says.
These days, of course, long-distance cattle transportation is done with 18-wheelers. But back then, Gionnonatti and his fellow cowhands rode their horses at point, drag and wing, ushering the cattle across the valleys and rivers of the Northern Plains.
“We're kind of a dying breed,” he says. “You can't stop progress. When I was a young man, everything was done with a hayrack and a pitchfork. Young people nowadays have no conception of how that was done. You can do now in an hour what it would take all day to do when I was a young man,” including crossing 600 acres of pastureland to reach your herd.
Agility vs. speed
“You can get there quicker on a four-wheeler,” he admits. “The four-wheeler is so good for going out to check your herd.“
But that's just one task required for cattle ranching.
“For many years, I was kind of what you might call a little hard-headed about four-wheelers or dirt bikes. There are things you cannot do on a four-wheeler that the older cowboy way of doing things scan. Sure, you can get to your herd quicker, but what if you discover one of the cows has pink-eye or hoof rot? You must have a saddle horse and lariat rope to catch them and doctor them,” he says.
Bob Amundson has an even better idea. He and his wife, Mary, raise black Angus near Larimore, N.D., and start their calving at the end of January.
“If we get a newborn calf that needs to be brought in because it's chilled, it's still quicker to get out there with a four-wheeler and drag it in by toboggan,” he says.
Not that he's got anything against a horse and a rope.
“I've got ropes, and if I have to, I can catch it,” Amundson says. “If you want to go out and get one cow out of a pasture, you'd be better off taking a horse. You can cut and sort so much easier than on a four-wheeler because a horse can turn on a dime. With a four-wheeler, the cows can get past you and back to the bunch.”
Still, he has other ways to catch cattle.
“We run everything through alleys. If we have to catch something out in the pasture, it's easier to set up a pen, and then bring them back to that pen, and catch them out of there and load them in a trailer if something that's got to be doctored.”
His decision to stay atop his four-wheeler as much as possible is purely economic.
“I'd go broke if I had to catch everything with a rope,” he says. “I'm too old for that.”
Another aspect of the agility issue is control. Moving through rough terrain, particularly when chasing down stray calves, can be slippery work.
“I think I have more control on a horse,” Mary Amundson says. “We've got some steep banks in our pastures, where I'd rather be on a horse than a four-wheeler. I just don't feel safe on a four- wheeler. If it's flat or you're going down the road it's fine, but I'd still much rather be on a horse.”
Carrington, N.D., rancher Gary Anderson also feels safer on a horse, especially when his black Angus cows are protecting newborn calves.
“It's dangerous at calving,” he says. “Our cows won't respect a four-wheeler at all. The sound a four-wheeler makes is about like a pickup, which they're already used to, so they aren't afraid of that.
“But they'll respect the horse. And when the calf is born out in the 50-acre pasture, we like to tag them so they're the same number as the cow, within one, two or three days.”
Anderson's 30 horses, all registered American quarter horses, make pasture work like this possible. Of course, he could move them up into chutes, but he'd rather not.
“That's too damn much work,” he says.
Come spring, the calves need to be branded and here, too, the Andersons rely on their horses.
“We'll get started around the first week of May,” he says. “We drag our calves to the fire. We heel them on horse and drag them to the ground crew with the irons.”
Getting that calf split out from its mother and the herd takes a well-trained horse, hopefully with plenty of cow in him.
A horse with good “cow sense” has a natural ability work cattle, making it more effective for roping, cutting and general cow work. A horse with lots of cow sense is said to have “a lot of cow” in it.
“It's the idea that if you ride horse into a bunch of cows expecting to cut one out, you can almost sense when a horse picks his ears up and is watching and glues on to that animal,” Giannonatti says.
“Some horses won't latch onto a cow,” Anderson says. “They just won't try and work it. But some horses will try and hold it, big time. If you're in a bunch and sorting, you direct him until you get him on that critter, and then - if he's got cow-sense - he'll work it.”
A horse without any real cow sense, however, still can be an effective cow horse.
“If you ride him a lot and get him - people call it ‘really broke' - you get him so handy and so with you you might think that he's just full of cow,” Anderson says. “But he's probably so light, so good on the reins, and doing what you ask him. What everybody misses is that they're riding those horses with their legs.”
He explains: “Your horse has four corners on him; front and rear on the right, and front and rear on the left. If you want his front end over to the right, you use your left leg and give a little push (to the right) - and he can feel a fly touch him, it doesn't take much - and if you want his rear over to the left, you drop your right leg back and push his hind quarters.”
With this kind of connection between cowboy and cow horse, cutting and roping can be a fairly straightforward task. Still, the horse with cow sense makes it even easier on the rider.
With “some of them, you can hang the reins up,” he says.
Forrest Giannonatti breeds his registered American quarter horses so the rider can do just that.
“Different blood lines have been noted for having cow sense,” he says. “Certain lines are more adaptable to learning, but they also need three things; heart, athletic ability and cow sense. Most all of the offspring from these bloodlines are bred to have this cow sense already ingrained in them.”
Airing tires vs. trimming hooves
A new four-wheeler can easily run up to $7,500. Its durability depends on its riders.
“We probably abuse our four-wheeler,” Amundson says. “You put some money into it. We've rolled ours over and we've got it stuck. But if you want a horse to work for you, you can't abuse it. You have to treat it with respect. That four-wheeler, though, it gets abused.”
In a rough pasture, clipping along at 30 mph, the four-wheeler is bound to get banged up enough to need repairs. It needs oil changes and regular maintenance to keep it up.
“But now with a horse,” says Mary Amundson, “all you have to do is put a bale of hay in there, give it some oats once in a while to make him happy, and he's pretty self-sufficient. There's no oil-checking.”
A well-trained cow horse with two years' experience can run from $2,500 on up, depending on its bloodline, soundness and training. They require daily feeding and watering and are not as fast as a four-wheeler, but they still will be out chasing cattle long after the four-wheeler has been hauled off for junk.
“We bought a gray mare in 1973,” Bob Amundson says. “She was born in 1970 and we sold her when she was 23 years old and we were still using her. If you treat a horse well, and feed them well, you can get a lot of years out of them.”
Though the four-wheeler has clearly made inroads onto American cattle ranches, it can't do what the working cow horse is bred to do - work cows.
“We use the four-wheeler to go get the horses up,” Anderson says. “Then we hop off the four-wheeler and saddle up.”
The Amundsons also have a place for both.
“I couldn't be without either,” Bob says. “I've got to have both. One thing about a horse, though - I can whistle and the horses will usually come on up. But I can whistle all day long, and that four-wheeler will stay right where it is.”