H. Alan Day's Blog

Moving Day

We all need a chuckle these days. Here’s one that I hope at least brings a smile. 

One of the first things I learned when ranching in the Midwest was to circle May 10 on the calendar. This was the day ranchers moved their livestock to summer pastures. My “livestock” happened to be 1500 wild horses. My crew and I had been preparing all winter, training the horses to follow a cowboy on horseback around corrals, through gates and alleys, and into open pasture. On May 10th we planned to move the entire herd from headquarters to Mud Lake, where summer grazing would begin. It was a 6-mile journey. Would the horses make it through all the gates and across all the pastures or would they bolt in every direction? Even the best cowboy never could have predicted the adventures in store for us. I shared the following story at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, renowned for its Equestrian Studies program. 

Susie

During these days of COVID-19 quarantines, our animal friends are important in our lives. Just their presence can lighten the stress and anxiety so many of us feel. Even during less tumultuous times, pets have been important in my life.

Susie the Day family dogOne of the pets embedded in Day family history is Susie, the dog we had while I was growing up. She was a little, short-legged, barrel-chested dog, with short, white hair and a tail that curled over her back. I think she was a stray that Sandra found on the ranch. Susie was the only dog allowed in the house. This privilege was granted her when I was too young to know that not every dog received special treatment. When she looked at you, you could read the intelligence in her eyes. She fit in our family like a fourth child.

Susie loved all the family equally and would always come with a smile when called. Every morning she made it a point to visit each family member in bed and greet them with a smile. If you didn’t know better, you would think her smile was snarl. She pulled her lips back, stuck out her tongue and hissed.

Susie wasn’t spoiled and never was in the way, yet she was always part of any event in the house. One of her best traits was that she could hear cars coming up the ranch road when they still were several miles away. She’d give a couple of little barks. You could always tell whether it was a stranger or a ranch vehicle by her bark. If we heard a stranger bark, we would say company is coming, and my mother would make a fresh pot of fresh coffee and get ready to receive guests.

Susie only had one enemy—the pig we kept down in the corral. Once a day, the pig visited the back of the bunkhouse to eat the cowboys’ table scraps. When that pig took one step out of the corral, Susie jumped and had a barking tantrum even if she were napping soundly indoors.

I loved having Susie as a companion. I’d take her with me to check windmills or put out salt licks for the cattle. She loved to come along. I almost always took a 22 rifle to shoot jackrabbits. They ate a lot of grass that I wanted for the cows. Susie would spot the jackrabbits first and would tell me. I’d stop and shoot the rabbit. She’d then jump out of the jeep and land on her head because her legs were short. She’d pick herself up and run over to the jackrabbit, shake it to death, then strut back to the jeep so proud of herself for being such a great hunter. Sometimes, she would get a little blood on her chest or leg. She’d make sure to show me the badge of courage that she earned while shaking that mean rabbit.

Susie lived a long and healthy life. When she finally got old and passed, it was one of the saddest days we had on the ranch. I was a senior in high school. Of course, I missed her. Terribly. But when I think of her, I don’t think of the missing. I think of all the fun we had and feel grateful that she was a part of my life.

From Out of the Dust

I’m an avid University of Arizona basketball fan and was at a game the other week with my friend Jimmy Patterson. At one point during the game, Jimmy pointed to a fellow walking on the floor. “There’s Bob Baffert,” he said.

               I immediately took interest. I respect any master horseman and Baffert’s success in horse racing is unmatched, if not legendary. I knew Baffert had been raised in Arizona, but I was surprised to see him at a game.

               Afterward, Jimmy and I went to a local burger joint to celebrate our victory. Who should walk in but Bob Baffert and his look-alike, who was presumably his brother. Jimmy, having never met a stranger in his life, got up and went over to talk to them. I’m a bit embarrassed about approaching strangers so stayed at our table. After smiles and talk, Jimmy waved me over. Introductions were made all around.

               “Did you know Bob is one of our fraternity brothers?” Jimmy asked me.  I had no idea that Baffert was an SAE. And, as it turned out, Baffert had no idea that I was from Duncan, Arizona. He volunteered that when he had been a jockey, he had ridden a couple of races in Duncan at the county fair. I was overwhelmed by that factoid. Bob is arguably at the top of his profession and Duncan County fair races are arguably at the bottom of horse racing. You have to admire someone who has risen from the bottom to the top of any profession.

               Later as I ruminated on the surprising connections between Bob Baffert and myself, I realized that I knew someone else who had risen from the dusts of Duncan to the top of her profession. And then it struck me. Maybe we need more folks to pass through Duncan, Arizona, population 200.

Tis’ the Season for a Good Book

My parents were readers and instilled a love of books in my sisters and me. I remember many a happy hour as child sitting next to my mother as she read and reread my favorite books. For years, my coffee table has had a healthy pile of books on it.  Fiction. History. Mystery. Western. Biography. Memoir. You’ll find them there.

Following are some of my all-time favorites. If you’re looking for a good book to give that special someone this holiday season, maybe one of these will fit the bill.

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry. I could read this novel ten times over and maybe I have. McMurtry develops characters like few other authors can. Who can forget Captain W. F. Call and Augustus McCrae and their epic cattle drive north? Just thinking about them and their comrades makes me want to dig into those pages again.

BLOOD BROTHER by Elliot Arnold.  Another classic, this historical novel tells the story of Cochise, the great Apache chief, and Tom Jeffords, the agent who tried to establish peace between the Indians and the U.S. government. Lots of frontier action in these pages. The movie “Broken Arrow” was based on the book.

C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries. Box’s series begins with OPEN SEASON published in 2001. But jump in wherever you can. Joe Pickett is a crime-solving, adventure-slinging Wyoming game warden, who keeps me turning the page. Rumor has it the Box is going to be at the Tucson Festival of Books March 14-15, 2020. Mark your calendars!

UNDAUNTED COURAGE: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. I didn’t take many breaks reading this one. Ambrose is a heck of a storyteller and the Lewis and Clark expedition is a heck of a story. Worthy of the category “Required Reading for All.”

EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne.  Being an avid reader of western history, I was surprised at what I didn’t know about the Comanches. Their influence on the West is astounding. Gwynne is a superb writer. His new book, HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC: The Final Year of the Civil War, is on my Christmas list (in case anyone was wondering).

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A Story of Violent Faith by John Krakauer. My wife’s grandmother, Lettie Bingham, grew up in and escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico. Krakauer brought me right into her world with this story about two Mormon brothers who receive a commandment from God to kill.

THE EMERALD MILE: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko. I’ve done some crazy things in my life, but navigating a wooden boat down a flooded and roaring Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead’s to break a record is not one of them. Nor would it ever be. But in 1983, it was Kenton Grau’s goal. Kevin Fedarko’s tale of Grau’s journey is riveting.

Happy shopping, Happy reading, Happy Holidays!

Alan

A Call for Cowboy Pilots

               When people start talking about the plight of wild horses, they almost always include helicopter gatherings in their conversation. In this context, the helicopter is considered the tool of the Devil. During gatherings, helicopters terrorize horses by chasing them in an aggressive manner in their attempts to herd them into makeshift corrals. Unfortunately, many of the ranges where wild horses live are rocky and steep making gathers by horseback impossible or, at the very least, impractical. So void of other options, the Bureau of Land Management is left dealing with the Devil.

               During my ranching years, I heard about these gatherings. The stories of cruelty dismayed me and I wondered if the horses could be gathered in any other way. An answer came the day a stranger driving a pickup and hauling a trailer arrived at Lazy B. On that trailer was a helicopter.

               The stranger hopped out. He wore boots and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat with sweat stains and looked every inch a cowboy. He was a friendly sort and asked me if I had any wild cattle that needed to be gathered. “I can gather them easily with my helicopter,” he said.

                I thought for a moment. “There are a bunch of replacement heifers in a pasture that I need to gather,” I said. “But I can get that done on horseback.“ I looked at the chopper glinting in the sun. “Tell you what. I’ll make a deal. I’ll hire you to gather the cattle if I can ride along to see how you work.”

               Fifteen minutes later we were lifting off, headed for the Cottonwood pasture.

               We soon spotted a group of heifers. The corral was on the west end of the pasture, so the pilot approached the group from the east. He descended, but instead of coming in fast and hot, he gently eased the chopper toward the group. Startled, the cattle looked up, turned west, and ran about fifteen steps. They stopped and turned back to look at the strange apparatus buzzing in the air. For a better part of a minute, they eyed the helicopter, which was now hovering in place. Then they started ambling west. They didn’t feel threatened, so weren’t in a hurry and neither was the pilot.  He found another group and repeated the process.

               In less than an hour, we had all the cattle, now in five groups, heading west toward the corral. We were high enough that we could keep our eye on all five at the same time. To keep them moving, the pilot zigzagged back and forth along the rear of the groups. If a group stopped, he turned and went at them but never in a threatening manner.

               Once all five groups were steadily walking, he picked a convenient hilltop and landed. I watched the cows move like some invisible force was behind them saying, “March along, time to get to the corral.” I was amazed. The pilot explained that if he were to charge the cattle and fly over them, they would turn and run back under him in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t take long before they would learn that they could always do this.

               “If they run back under you, you’ll never be able to gather them by helicopter,” said the pilot. “They’ve learned that they can turn and run. The herd is wrecked for the pilot and the pilot after that. “

               After fifteen minutes or so, a few of the groups stopped, so we lifted off and got them moving again. Soon, all the groups combined into one and went into the corral.  The pilot landed outside the corral, and I hopped out and shut the gate.    

               I was flabbergasted. I had just had a real eye-opening demo of the practicality of the helicopter. This was by far the easiest, quickest gather I had ever experienced. Had I done this on horseback, I and six other cowboys would have had to load our horses on trailers, haul the trailers eight miles, unload at the corral, saddle the horses, and ride for an hour to get to the back of the pasture , then turn around and start pushing the cattle toward the corral. If helicopters had been cheaper to purchase and operate, I would have bought one.

               So when fellow horse lovers refer to the helicopter as the tool of the devil, I beg to differ. I say the pilots, not the helicopters, are the devil. The BLM should qualify pilots as a cowboy who knows how to fly a helicopter rather than a helicopter pilot who thinks he can force livestock to do his wishes. My guess is that the horses would be less terrorized going into the corrals and have fewer injuries along the way. My other guess is that the BLM has never considered this option. But it certainly is an option worthy of trying.

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