Typical Range Ride
Typical Range Ride
Heather Smith Thomas checking cows on a young horse in training. Photo courtesy Heather Smith Thomas.

Typical Range Ride

Excerpted from Ranch Tales, by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
Published by The Frontier Project Inc. – www.ajmangum.com

Our cattle ranch lies at the foot of the mountains where our cows spent their summers for fifty years. During those years I rode almost every day to check the cattle, making sure gates were shut, and all the water troughs working. We live in dry country, and when they are on summer pasture in the mountains, cattle depend on a few small streams for water, along with some small seeps that we piped into water troughs. Sometimes a springbox gets plugged with mud from a summer thundershower and needs to be cleaned out or the pipe into the water trough gets plugged, or broken by cattle traffic if the dirt over it washes away in a cloudburst thunderstorm. Sometimes gates get left open and cows wander onto the wrong range, and then those cows must be located and herded back to their proper pastures.

Sometimes a cow or calf gets sick and needs to be brought home for medical treatment. If we ride out there often, we know what’s going on and can attend to any problems. On summer range you don’t want to risk having a trough non-functional for long, for instance, or cattle in that area might have no water. I always enjoyed my daily rides out there to check on things and monitor the grass and the cattle. Each ride is a special experience.

I head up the steep trail through the rocks and sagebrush behind our house. The smell of dewy sage fills my nostrils as my horse brushes the shrubs along the trail, and a horned lark flits up from her nest on the ground as we go by. A mother grouse bursts into the air and does her broken-wing act (her strategy to lead a predator away from her babies, who are scattering out through the grass).

My horse breathes deeply as she climbs the crest of the hill, then pauses, snorting, as a group of antelope leap to their feet from the swale where they were bedded, and bolt across our path. My mare snorts again as she detects their strong, musky scent. They disappear over the hill in a puff of dust, and we continue along the trail.

We soon head down into the Baker Creek canyon, approaching a brushy draw where a small trough collects spring water. A herd of cow elk with calves have been drinking there, and they mill about for a moment when they see me, the cows and calves talking to one another with their high-pitched “eep-eep.” Then they stick their heads in the air and march up out of the draw, disgusted at having their morning interrupted.

We descend into Baker Creek and up the rocky trail into the timber, dodging overhanging fir branches. A golden eagle soars above the canyon, and a pine squirrel scolds us from the tree overhead, knocking fir cones down into the trail. Colorful Indian paintbrush (red, orange, pale cream) and blue lupine dot the grassy clearing ahead. We reach the wire gate in the range fence, and I get off to open it and lead my mare through.

In the meadow beyond, some of our cattle are bedded down chewing their cuds. They are used to seeing me and my horse, and don’t bother to get up as I ride through them, weaving my way between napping calves. One calf is up nursing his mother, slurping noisily at the udder. I make sure they are all healthy, then continue up the trail to check another water trough.

The day is warm and my horse takes a long, grateful drink while I fix the over-flow pipe that has been obstructed with fir needles. This spring comes directly out of the rocky canyon wall and the water is icy cold, and more pure and clean than boggy springs where the elk like to wallow, so I quench my thirst at the renewed flow through the pipe into the trough.

It’s a steep climb into the next little creek drainage, but we wind our way in a roundabout fashion, stopping at each group of cows to check on them. When we get over the mountain and head down the other side, there is another trough in a grassy clearing, and here I let my horse graze for a moment as I eat a sandwich from my jacket pocket. My jacket, tied to the back of my saddle, holds not only my lunch, but also a pocketful of baling twine for emergency fence repairs. I can always tie a broken wire back together or tie wires back up to a post if the elk have knocked them off. In another pocket my jacket holds small binoculars for checking on cattle a long ways away.

After this quick lunch, my horse and I travel through more timber, startling two big mule deer bucks who leap gracefully over the fence and out of sight. We go around the mountain through an outcropping of rocks, my horse carefully picking her way in the precarious footing. I have to go another mile to check the gate in the back corner fence between our range and the Forest Service allotment. There’s a jeep track that comes up that side of the mountain and into our range, and I check this gate often; sometimes folks neglect to shut it after driving through. While on the backside of the mountain I find a group of yearling heifers. They are several miles from where I saw them yesterday. This is the wandering age. These heifers won’t have calves until next year, and are footloose and fancy free. Like a group of teenagers, they are always interested in seeing what’s just out of sight, traveling over the next horizon, not wanting to miss out on anything exciting.

I am glad to find Boogie Woogie (daughter of Shimmy, sister of Tango; yes, all our cattle are named) because I need to check on her eye. She was showing early signs of pinkeye the last time I saw her, but today the eye looks like it is getting better, so maybe I won’t have to bring her home for treatment. I’d rather not have to bring her home; bringing an unwilling critter home from the range can be a tough challenge, even with a good cow horse. Yearlings are sassy, as well as inexperienced in being herded, and about the only way to get one of them home is to bring along a babysitter cow, too. The older cow is more likely to be somewhat cooperative (with more respect for the horse, not trying to outrun us and hide in the brush) and the yearling would tend to stay with the cow.

Yearlings are true groupies; they never like to be by themselves. I head back along the fence to check the side gate in the timber, and find a freshly knocked- down broken-off post where a herd of elk went through. They usually jump the fences, but sometimes they are lazy and knock them over. I’m glad I discovered this hole in the fence before the heifers did, or they’d all be in the neighbors’ range.

Sometimes it can take days or even weeks of riding to find cattle when they stray into the wrong range – because it’s a large area, with lots of timber where cattle can be hard to see – so we like to make sure the fences stay in good shape. I prop the post back up and splice the broken top wire with my handy baling twine. This will hold the fence together until my husband or son-in-law can bring a new post to set. He can probably bring it up the ridge on his four-wheeler and only have to carry it a quarter of a mile down the steep hill through the timber, to the fence.

On my way back over the ridge that serves as the dividing point between Baker Creek and Withington Creek, I check on another water trough, served by a spring my father helped develop nearly sixty years ago. This is an amazing spring, to be located on such a high ridge. A person wonders how any underground water channel could be this far above other water sources. The topmost part of Baker Creek bubbles out of an even larger spring, just under the crest of this ridge.

There are cattle bedded down around the grassy area near this trough, having climbed up here to drink after their morning grazing on nearby mountain slopes. They are full and content, lying in this high spot to take their midday siesta and chew their cuds, enjoying a bit of breeze on this high point.

It’s hot by the time my horse and I start back to lower country, and her feet stir up little clouds of dust. The sweet smell of syringa (the blooming bushes along the creek, Idaho’s state flower) delightfully mixes with the smell of horse sweat as we cross the little stream, where Baker Creek meanders through our lower range pasture. As a kid, I always wished there could be a Kool-Aid flavor that tasted as sweet and good as the smell of syringa. After we cross the little creek, my mare spooks as a coyote pup sticks his head up over an old log to look at us. The sudden movement startles her, but once she realizes what he is, she relaxes and heads down the trail, quickening her pace as she thinks about home. Both of us are pleased with our ride. She’s happy to be heading back to her pasture buddies, and I have enjoyed this peaceful interlude with nature’s creatures while doing my daily tasks.

Footnote: Lemhi county is 93 percent public land (Forest Service and BLM), and includes three mountain ranges and several deep river canyons. One of them, the Middle- fork of the Salmon River, is deeper than the Grand Canyon of Colorado. Our county borders the Frank Church Wilderness Area, one of the first wildernesses established after passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, and the largest in Idaho. In our county, the Lemhi River Valley and Salmon River valley are about the only agricultural land where hay is raised for winter feed, for the herds of cattle that pasture on the surrounding mountains (public land) that make up the majority of the landscape. Our ranch lies up against the Lemhi Range of mountains, and our summer pasture was home to bison in earlier times. It was also the summer hunting grounds of a local tribe of Shoshone Indians when Lewis and Clark came throughour valley 210 years ago.