Outside magazine, April 1995
Four or five years ago, I was interviewed by a Swedish photographer who leveled what I considered to be a bizarre accusation. "You are cowboy," he told me.
Hey, smile when you say that, partner.
The man was visiting the small Montana town where I live. He was working on a photo essay about the American West and seemed to believe that anyone who'd want to live in some tumbleweed tank town must, of necessity, be cowboy.
I endeavored to set my friend straight on those individuals who labor in the field of bovine animal husbandry. Cowboys, I said, are men and women who work with cattle on horseback. Such persons tend to share a certain philosophy, a courtesy, a prickly pride, and a tendency to exaggerate events, often to humorous effect. Many of my neighbors are working cowboys, and yes, you can tell them by their outfit. Wannabe buckaroos always get it wrong: wrong hat, wrong length pants, wrong boots, wrong life, big pathos.
So no, I told the Swedish photographer, I am not cowboy.
Sure, I ride horses now and again, but the awful truth is I keep falling off the sons of bitches. It happened again just last spring. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, I failed to stop when the horse did. Just kept going right over the horse's neck and landed, boom, on my back in a cloud of dust.
It occurred to me then that I was rather like those English seamen of a century ago who, shipwrecked in the Arctic, failed to adopt Inuit survival techniques and consequently froze to death. Just so, if I ever wanted to ride a horse with any degree of dignity, I had to learn from a cowboy.
Which is how I made my way to the All 'Round Ranch, in northeastern Utah, where Al Brown runs a kind of horsemen's clinic on the slopes of the Blue Mountains. You don't need any experience; you don't need to know the first thing about horses. Al swears he can have you galloping in an arena within a week. He'll have you herding cows. Rounding up strays. Running down obstreperous calves in knee-high sage.
So there I was in Utah, three months after my spring horsewreck, galloping along on Josh, a quarter-horse gelding, 11 years old and just coming into his prime as a saddle horse. He was easily the finest and fastest horse I had ever ridden. Dios mio, was he fast.
It was pouring down rain on the Blue Mountain plateau, near the Utah-Colorado state line. The trail was a narrow rut, running with water, and the horses' hooves threw up clods of mud. Al Brown, galloping easily beside me, shouted some words of welcome instruction. "Settle down a little deeper into the saddle," he called. I did that, and it smoothed out the ride some.
Josh was steadily gaining speed, however, and I was steadily losing confidence. Unfortunately, I know this drill well: The horse just keeps running faster, then faster still, until a kind of dumb terror informs me that it's time to stop or die. The stopping process involves tugging back on the reins and shouting "whoa" as the horse shifts down through several bone-jarring gears to a final stop. There's no cruise control, no way to drive the beast at a safe and sane 85 miles an hour.
As Josh gained speed, Al said, "Give him a little tap." By which he meant pull back once, quickly, gently, on the reins. Josh immediately settled back into his previous pace. If the horse had been a Ferrari, we'd be doing 55 or 60, and--hey, what's this?--I could keep him right there with only an occasional tap on the reins.
"All right," Al shouted, "now touch his ribs." That's what you do on a horse like Josh. No need to kick. When I did, my head snapped back and we were doing a figurative 85, instantly.
"You get unbalanced," Al said, "grab your saddle horn." Al didn't buy into the dictum that a real cowboy never grabs his saddle horn. He'd worked with cattle all his life and was always grabbing the saddle horn.
He pointed off to the right. We were going to turn "just beyond that big stand of sage," which was hiding the trail.
I thought about what Al had said about turns, about how a running horse in the wild turns in a sinuous curve, winding its body into the motion. In contrast, a horse carrying a rider will turn stiffly, all in a block. The back end of the animal tends to come around too far, like a car losing traction on an icy curve. "A horseback," as Al would have it, you correct this tendency by touching the animal far back on the outside ribs.
Which is what I did, and pretty well, too. Josh wound around the stand of sage, wrapping the turn so tight that stiff branches scraped against my thigh, and I was glad, for a moment, that I was wearing leather chaps. I say "for a moment," because rather quickly after that I wasn't glad about anything at all. We weren't on any trail, but were galloping over a gently rising plain littered with sage so thick that if I fell off, no part of my body would hit the ground.
You can't ride horses through thick sage. This ought to be self-evident to anyone. The horse is going to get his feet tangled up; he's going to go down, hard, and take you with him. This was dangerous. It was irresponsible. I was maybe a little scared.
Al was about 50 yards ahead, shouting cowboy shit like "yee-hah" and "ya-hoo," and he wasn't on any trail, either. Rain was sluicing off his oilskin slicker, and his horse was moving smoothly, splashing through standing water. It occurred to me that I ought to discuss responsibility with Al, and I touched Josh once, gently, on the ribs. Instantaneously, we were doing 120 and closing in on Al. I realized, with a start, that Josh had at least two more gears in him and that he could go 180, easy. Even through sage.
Josh wanted to run, to leave Al's horse in the rain and dust, but I tapped back on the reins so that Al and I were riding side by side. I wanted to tell him that what we were doing was impossible.
"Al," I shouted. "Hey, Al!"
He turned to look at me: Al, with the front brim of his cowboy hat blown flat against the crown, Gabby Hayes style; Al, with his goofy mop of a mustache mostly covering a maniacal grin; Al, at 100 miles an hour, sitting on his horse like he was part of the animal. We were topping a small ridge, and out ahead a sea of silver green sage fell down toward the Green River.
"Al," I shouted, "there's no damn trail!"
The man regarded me for a moment. He was squinting against the wind and rain, but there was a strange luminescence in his eyes, something that seemed to transcend joy altogether and to rise up into the realms of spiritual ecstasy.
Perhaps he had misunderstood me.
"No trail here," I screamed.
"Yeah," he shouted back. "Ain't it grand."
The point here is that I completely missed the point.
There were seven of us riding with Al that week, including three women from Switzerland. They had read about the All 'Round Ranch in a German magazine specializing in Western riding. The style, they said, was all the rage in Europe. In Switzerland, the women rode English saddles, with their legs folded under them like jockeys; they held the reins up under their chins, in the manner of a squirrel with a nut.
It's a tough, demanding way to ride, but the women wanted to learn Western riding--the buckaroo style--because it allowed you to sit in the saddle all day. It seemed to them "more natural." In Switzerland, they told me, there are plenty of places to ride, but it's all on trails. What the western United States offered was vast tracts of prairie and desert and mountain meadow. So the women had come to "ride the range," to do the very thing that had frightened me with Josh, which is to say, they wanted to get off the trail.
We were sitting around the campfire, discussing the matter, when Polly Golins, Al's partner in the business, pointed out that wild horses run through sage every day. Horses don't get tangle-footed in sage any more than Br'er Rabbit gets tangled up in the briar patch. While a rider makes major decisions in terms of direction, the horse does the micromanaging. Which means that if there's a stand of sage looming ahead, you have to be prepared for the horse to zig right, zag left, or simply plunge through the brush. You have to pay attention.
If I was embarrassed by my expressed fear of off-trail riding, Polly and Al pretty much made me feel at ease. They did this by making complete fools of themselves in the bad joke department.
"Say, Polly, I heard you had to shoot your dog."
"Was he mad?"
"I reckon he weren't too pleased."
The next morning, we were all up by seven, building the fire and making ourselves breakfast. At the All 'Round Ranch, clients are not called dudes. Dudes, Al explained, get waited on. By contrast, we enjoyed the privilege of setting up our own canvas tepees and cooking our meals. We caught our horses in the corral, cleaned their hooves, and checked the animals for saddle sores or suspicious swelling in the legs. We saddled them ourselves, and there was none of this single-file trail riding, the horses all bunched up, nose to butt.
The first two days, we had walked our horses, mostly in deference to John, a young insurance executive from New Jersey who had never ridden before. Loping along, I noticed that my stirrups seemed to be too short. I figured this out when Al said, "Your stirrups are way too short."
I had always ridden with the balls of my feet in high stirrups, carrying a lot of the weight of my body in the knees. As a result, my knees have always ached after riding. In buckaroo-style riding, the stirrups leave just and inch or two between you and the saddle. The knees barely bend, and they never ache afterward. If you have a good pair of boots you can use hoop stirrups, or simple metal rings. Slip the boot into the ring, right up to the heel. When you stand to smooth out the ride, you're resting on the arch of your foot, on the boot's shank. With good boots and hoop stirrups at the proper length, you feel welded into the saddle. Secure.
There's no talk about posting or cantering at the All 'Round. Al and Polly start you off at a slow lope, riding beside you, and things seem to progress naturally. This day, we'd be riding mostly at a stiff trot, a gait that has always been problematic for me. Al explained that it was the gait favored by men and women who work cattle on horseback. Walking's too slow to get anything done; a gallop will tire any horse; but the animals can trot all day long. You smooth out the ride by watching one shoulder of your mount. It's a little like dancing. The horse sets the beat, and you adjust from side to side, walking along in your stirrups to a rhythm that is more easily felt than described.
Al and I were trotting out over the range, chatting about hats. I asked him why he seemed to disdain stampede strings, strips of rawhide that are tied under the chin to keep the hat from blowing off at full gallop.
Al launched into a half-hour monologue on the philosophy of cowboy hats. The color, the shape of the crown, and the curl of the brim are all expressive of a rider's personality. And although Al didn't precisely say it, there's an element of initiation--of real pain--that goes with buying a hat. They're purchased small and should, brand new, feel like a band tightened around the skull. A week of constant headaches will stretch the thing out a bit, especially if there are rainstorms involved.
The hat becomes part of the rider. It keeps the rain and snow out of his face, shades him from the sun, and keeps him warm in the cold. If the rider has to do some brush popping, he ducks down, holding the hat on his head while the thick brush rises up over him. The wide brim protects his face from snapping branches.
The hat, as Al saw it, was a mystical thing. Kings wear crowns, Indians wear feathered headdresses, proper Englishmen wear bowlers. There was a weight of symbolism invested in hats. Cowboys understand this and associate their headgear with good fortune. No buckaroo ever lays his hat brim down; the luck just runs out of it that way.
When there's difficult work to be done, a cowboy wants to pull the hat down low, tight. If it still blows off his head, he has to understand that nothing is accidental. The missing hat is a matter of some significance, a signal winging in at him from the cosmos. Maybe it blew off because he was cocky or unprepared. Maybe he didn't need to be in that particular place at that particular time. When a cowboy's hat blows off, he is obliged to think about it. To philosophize.
With a stampede string, however, Al said finally, your hat never blows off. Therefore there is never any need to review your life, such as it is. Al seemed to believe that people who wore stampede strings failed to live sufficiently contemplative lives.
A cowboy's outfit is all cotton and wool and leather. Nothing much has changed in 150 years, primarily because the system works. There's a reason and a purpose for everything. Cowboys wear boots, for instance, because boots slide off the foot. This doesn't seem important until you fall off a galloping horse with one lace-up shoe caught in a stirrup.
Frankly, the functionality of the gear surprised me. I wore the Wranglers that Al recommended because the inseam is stitched on the outside and doesn't cause saddle sores. My hat and ankle-length riding slicker kept me bone-dry in heavy rains. The way my boots fit the stirrups had a lot to do with my new confidence in Josh. The leather chaps I wore took a lot of punishment from snapping sage. I liked the way they felt against the saddle--leather on leather--and imagined they contributed to the extraordinary fact that in 50 hours of riding, I failed to fall off my horse even once.
And some of the riding was demanding. The seven of us learned to herd cattle, to ride drag and swing, to read brands. John, the novice in our group, learned to ride at a gallop, and on our last day, we competed in an arena, racing around barrels and passing mailbags to teammates at a full gallop. This is not to say that I don't still have areas of invincible incompetence on a horse. Tight, galloping 180-degree turns have me bamboozled. Josh never liked the way I did them. He would nearly stop, get all tangle-footed, and sometimes rear up a bit.
Al's advice was to look at it from Josh's point of view.
"What do you tell him when you get to the turn?" Al asked.
"I tap on the reins to slow him up a bit."
"Are you perfectly balanced?"
"No, not really."
"What do you do to get your balance?"
And I saw it very clearly: On a tight turn, when I began to feel unbalanced, I tended to clamp my legs tight around the animal. This causes my boot heels to touch his ribs, which is, of course, the signal to go. Meanwhile, I was pulling back on the reins. No wonder Josh got confused.
I had to look at it from his point of view.
What I knew for sure about Josh and his point of view was this: The horse just purely loved to run. In our time together, we opened it up all the way and did 180 miles an hour out there on the range, with the rain or the sleet or the snow blowing in our faces. There were rainbows or storm clouds or both spread out across the sky, and the wind blew the brim of my hat back flat against the crown, and I was welded into the saddle, shouting "ya-hoo" or "yee-hah" or just "go Josh." What I felt in those moments was something so far beyond exhilaration that it was...well, it was almost cowboy.
Tim Cahill is Outside's editor-at-large. His most recent book is Pecked to Death by Ducks (Vintage).