Outside magazine, April 1995
Sure, you can drive a candy-apple-red Chevy pickup with a lariat dangling from the gun rack, a horn that plays "God Bless America," and a bumper sticker that reads SO MANY BICYCLISTS, SO LITTLE TIME. You can wear boot-cut Wranglers that fit like sausage casing, a Stetson the size of the King Ranch, and alligator-tipped Tony Lamas with heels so deeply undershot that you can barely stand, let alone shuffle through a Texas two-step. You can do all these things, but let's not kid anyone--you ain't a real cowboy without a horse.
In fact, I'd like to propose that cowboys be renamed horseboys, because it is the horse, not the cow, that forms the true context of the cowboy lifestyle. It's the defining image of the American West, a metaphor for an entire era.
One afternoon a dozen years ago, my wife and I were visiting rancher friends up in Wyoming. We were driving down the dusty ranch road when we ran into big Ed Sholine, the tall, lean, taciturn foreman of the place, a man who always seemed to me to be cut from the same cloth as Gary Cooper, Ben Johnson, John Wayne. My wife had known Ed since she was a little girl, was used to seeing him around the ranch, checking fence or cattle atop a big, stout bay gelding that he'd owned for many years. But in this instance, and clearly for the very first time, Ed was riding, not his trusty saddle horse, but a brand new three-wheeler. He careened towards us, a big shit-eating grin on his face, his legs so long that his knees came up to his shoulders. Like I say, take the equine out of the picture, and all you've got left is an overgrown kid on a tricycle.
Conversely, put a man on a horse, even as unlikely a candidate as Billy Crystal, and you've got yourself a cowboy--a horseboy.
Besides being central to the cowboy form, the venerable ranch horse also serves a number of invaluable functions. The horse is the ultimate working partner; day in and day out, in all seasons and any weather, he is the multipurpose beast of ranch life, the Leatherman tool of the stock world. Impossibly sturdy and strong, he is also fine-boned and nearly supernaturally graceful. On a bad day he can make you look like a perfect fool. He can hurt you and is even quite capable of killing you in a variety of unpleasant ways. (Though I long ago gave up any fantasies of being a cowboy myself, I have owned four horses and a pony in my life, each of which has tried at one time or another, intentionally or not, to do me grievous bodily harm.)
But most days, a good horse is also capable, in partnership with a rider, of doing things that simply cannot be done in any other way, with any other animal or any piece of machinery. Yes, the cow dog is useful, but only our horseboy--half-man/half-beast--can do it all. He can gather cattle for spring branding, separate cows from calves, rope and dally and hold the calves for the wrestlers to throw and brand. He can move cattle to summer pasture in the mountains and bring them back in autumn, picking surefootedly through dark timber and deadfall, down rocky draws and steep mountainsides to find strays. He can check cattle every single day of the year, moving gently, silently through the herd like a watchful mother.
But beauty and utility are only the most superficial qualities of a trusty saddle horse; were it otherwise, you'd be better off with a pickup truck. Something far more ineffable resides in the relationship between a man and his horse. Indeed, a cowboy can measure his entire life by the horses he has known.
My rancher friends Bill and Mickey Ridings keep a photo album devoted entirely to the horses they've owned over the years. Bill might bring it out on a cold winter morning when the subject turns to horses. There on the first page is a photograph of Bill as a boy, in full Indian hunting garb, bareback atop his first mount, Pogo, whom he loved and who died early. "Fact is," Bill will say, tapping the photo, "that horse tempered me not to get too attached to animals." But of course he still does. And he remembers the bad horses as well as the good, like the "crazy white mare" who would tip over backward every time someone got on her. His family kept trying to give the horse away, but as Bill puts it, "That crazy white mare was kinda like a booger you get on your finger and can't get rid of." Then there's Sonny, the horse atop which he roped more than 5,000 calves in his prime cowboy years, and there's Mickey's gentle gelding, 29-year-old Joe, whom they can't bear to sell to the "killer," which is the final fate of many a broken-down ranch horse. "That old horse stole the kids' cookies," Mickey remembers, smiling, "ate their sandwiches, and taught them all to ride." Now Joe is teaching their grandchildren to ride. Thus in their horses lies the history of these people--the events and the affections and the heartbreaks--the years trotting by.
So it is that I've been watching my neighbor, old Ray Stephens, drive down our road nearly every single afternoon for the past 15 years, trailering his horse from his nearby ranch to check on the cattle he pastures behind my house. Honestly, I don't think Ray really needs to check the cattle as often as he does. He drives down the road at about three miles an hour and stops at the gate. Then he gets out of his truck, walks over and opens the gate, trudges back to the truck, drives it through. He then walks back and closes the gate behind him, pulls the truck off the road and gets out of it once again to finally unload his horse from the trailer. Every year, it takes Ray a bit longer to perform this ritual. In tiny, imperceptible daily increments, he moves a little slower.
But then as I watch Ray mount up, an amazing transformation takes place. He arranges his reins in one hand, painstakingly fits his foot in the stirrup, and slowly swings himself up into the saddle. Now, all of a sudden, he's a cowboy again. He neck-reins his sidestepping horse around in a tidy half-circle and, standing straight in his stirrups, sets off at a brisk trot, he and the horse one being, forever youthful and high-stepping.
Jim Fergus is a longtime Outside contributor and the author of A Hunter's Road (Henry Holt).
Open a World of Adventure
Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.