I met Julia Slater years ago, and caught up with her again recently. She is one of a handful of women who works on horseback in the feedyards of the central and western USA, a job she has done since the 1980s.
Feedyards, or feedlots, are the places where cattle are brought for fattening before being sent to market. Thousands of cattle are held in acres of pens, and working horses are still an important asset. The riders' working days start at 6 am, when they feed and saddle their horses. An hour later they mount up and head out. Julia explains one of the basic daily tasks, "riding the pens" to check the health of the cows.
"We have to get each cow to his or her feet, and they have to move out a bit so we can check them over. In a day I typically look at 5,000 head, on the weekends it'll be 10,000. My horses learn that each and every cow has to get up, and they actively cooperate getting the job done. If the calves are little and spooky, we will try to calm them down by the way that we walk thru the pen. If they are fat and lazy, we'll trot thru the pen, to stir up energy, which transfers to the cattle."
Several days a week cattle that are ready for slaughter are moved to shipping pens. Julia explains how this is done:
"Sometimes it'll just be 2 or 3 pens, and sometimes we have 6 or 7 to ship. How long shipping takes doesn't actually depend on how many pens we have to ship, but where they are located in the yard. If they are at all 4 corners of the yard, then it'll take longer than if we have 6 in the same alley.
"We have to take them out of the pens. Now at this yard it is fairly easy, cause we actually spend time training our cattle to respond to being moved by our horses. It typically takes us 2 minutes to shoot 300 head out of a pen and into the alley.
"These cows are fat... so moving the cows down the alley towards the shipping pens is a tricky business. We don't wanna run them or stress them, cause it heats the fat cattle up too much, and when they get butchered, the meat will have a bad flavor and sometimes even a darker appearance. So we try to move them towards the shipping pens as calmly and easily as possible."
And there are more complex tasks, too:
"Vaccinating, for example, is one of those situations where it gets tuff. The cattle are in a holding alley, and we'll count off 7-10 at a time to put them into a tub. From there they have to go into a snake, a single space alley that leads up to the chute. At the chute, they'll get squeezed so they can't move for a few seconds. The cowboy gives them a couple of shots, then turns them loose into a holding pen. When all 250 head are done, we take them back to their home pen.
"We all work together pretty good, each at the spot where we are the best. I'm often in the spot to push cattle into the tub, using my horse. I'll use a stick with a plastic bag on the end to spook the cattle into motion. If you handle that plastic bag just right, you can usually get the cows to file into the snake fairly easy. It don't take the horses long to figure out that the plastic bag makes their job easier. Even tho it's flying by their head all the time."
Another complex task is managing the gates - the pens and alleys can all be interlinked by opening and shutting different gates, to move the cattle easily from one area to another. Check out this fascinating short video to see the delicate "dance" required to work the gates.
All this talk about Julia's work led me think more about the type of horse that works best in this kind of environment, and how she trains her (and clients') horses:
GHC: What skills or attitude on the part of the horse really help you get your job done?
JS: Nothing helps more than athletic ability and brains. Today's Quarter Horses have what I'm looking for, but there are others that compensate by sheer grit and intelligence. I'm riding a pony right now, about 14hh, who is the tuffest, most ambitious little critter I've ever ridden. She'll literally out-work and out-cow any other horse on the yard, including my super well bred Quarter Horse. She's not built to get her hindend underneath her, and I have to help her out a lot when the work involves a lot of rocking back and rebalancing. But if it comes to getting the job done, she just won't quit. She grunts, huffs and puffs, get's hot and mad, but she's gonna be the winner.
Down side of that is that I don't see her being suitable for kids in the near future. And of course, that is her destiny in life. Course, keeping her in the yard don't really help. She's proud of her skills, and loves to show them off. I'm hoping that if I send her home to a boring family horse life, she might settle and learn that her job is taking care of riders. You never know, she might just do it.
GHC: What problems are the most difficult to deal with, or make a horse not worth the effort to use?
JS: For me... hands down... that would be a bucking horse. I don't ride a bucking horse very well. Oh, yeah, if they try me every once in a while, that's no problem. But a horse that I can count on to sell me down the road when things get tuff, is a horse that is too much for me. I don't ride them as aggressively as I need to. Course, that just makes the problem worse.
The horse market being what it is, those kind of horses are just not worth the effort and risk. It takes a certain amount of time and effort to develop a good horse. You might as well put that time and effort into a horse whose predisposition sets him up for success.
GHC: How often would you say you end up using a horse that needs a fair amount of training, versus one that already knows the job?
JS: I always ride colts. I don't like riding broke horses. The horses I own, who are broke, I usually borrow out to folks who need them. Say a friend's horse goes lame, or is sick or other wise unusable, and he needs a horse. I'll borrow my broke horse to him, so he can do the job. I might ride him afterwards to make sure my training is still there, and my friend's mistakes don't stay. But generally I enjoy riding the young ones and sweet talking them into becoming experienced, seasoned horses. I like them, they like me, everybody is happy.
JS: No set time on that, seeing as every horse gets developed for each individual owner. I rode a sorrel mare, whose owner wanted to improve his riding skills. So I rode her very correct. When he rides his horse now, he has to ride her correct, so that she will do things correct.
Another mare belongs to a lady that just wants a nice trail horse. So that mare got rode with the goal of accepting all things, riding sideways, backwards, halter, no bridle, bareback. I also rode her to forgive little mistakes. For example the cue for lope often comes with an "ohmygosh-we're-going-so-fast" reaction with those types of riders. So every time I loped the mare, I gave her a check. "Please lope--check".
For each and every owner there's a different solution. That might take different amount of time on each horse. I'd love to have the pony I'm riding right now for another 3 months, so I can teach her to control herself, not to rely on me. But I don't think that is gonna happen. Folks run out of money.
GHC: What are the hardest parts of working in the feedyards?
JS: The mud. It takes a lot of strength for a horse to keep 4 feet underneath himself when he's sloshing thru 3 inches of mud. Course, we only have so much time to get the pens rode, so we don't allow them to take their time. It is very hard on a horse. We will be at a walk all day long, and my horses will be blowing hard.
GHC: Are there other women riding in the yards?
JS: There are other women working in the yards, but most of the time they will be doing other jobs, like driving feed trucks, processing, or doctoring. I only know of 4 other women who, like me, ride all day. I imagine the ratio is something like 50-1. Feedyard jobs are good jobs for women. They pay good, you have regular hours, so you can go home to the kids at a set time everyday. But riding all day is hard. The weather, the physical wear and tear, the potential for getting hurt. Over the years I've figured out how to make up for things I don't do well (like jumping into a tight space with lots of big cows) with other things I can do well (like using my horse to maneuver that same tight space). I also laugh at myself a lot, giving the men freedom to laugh at me too, when my being a woman is an obvious drawback. I'm not as gutsy, not as fast and not as strong. And it shows up sometimes. But I really know my job, and I'm very good at helping someone else's job go easier.
PS - Julia's website is full of interesting and funny cowgirl (and cowboy) stories. There are practical training tips, photos, and videos, too.
Photos provided by Julia Slater.