A lone Longhorn steer leaves the herd. The steer trots off toward a nearby thicket along a creek. A cowboy turns his horse, loosens the reins, and uses his knees to nudge the trained horse in the direction of the wayward steer. The rider removes a lariat from the saddle horn while the horse closes on the Longhorn at a gallop.
Often, the steer can be headed off and returned to the herd by the horse and rider’s maneuvers. If not, the cowboy opens the slip-knotted loop at one end of the rope and twirls the open end above his head. He heaves the loop neatly over the steer’s horns and neck. The near end of the lariat is then tied off to the saddle horn. The horse braces, coming to a stop as the cowboy slides from the saddle. He dashes to the steer that is thrown to the ground, either by the cowboy or the rope held taut by the horse.
The cowboy takes a short line from his gun belt and binds the steer’s two hind legs together while the steer is still shocked from being thrown. The binding is deftly closed with a half-hitch knot. The steer is helpless and cannot stand up. Once the steer realizes its incapacity and the total dominance of horse and rider, the cowboy undoes the leg binding. The steer is either led back to the herd, or the lasso is removed and the steer is kept directed by the rider’s yells and solid whacks from the lariat .
Training for The Trail
Young Texas ranchers in the 1800s learned cattle handling skills early. So, too, did the horses. Herding and handling Longhorn cattle required a sense of dominance and courage to show authority over the often testy Longhorns. These skills were also critical on the cattle drives that took place along the Chisholm Trail.
After trail drives had begun in earnest, in the late 1860s, the stories of trail hands came back to teenagers on Texas ranches. Boys were anxious to leave the ranch and experience the adventures of a cattle drive. Some boys in their mid-teens were hired as extra hands, or for horse wrangler duties, if cattle drive organizers were short of the dozen or so experienced cowboys required. In later drives, the cattlemen who owned the herds usually used their own ranch foreman, or an experienced trail hand, as a trail boss.
The Cowboy’s Equipment and Trail Duties
Newly-hired Chisholm Trail hands were required to provide their own primary horse, and extra mounts if possible. The cowboy’s other required equipment included a saddle, a gun, and a parka that served as weather protection and bedding. Personal clothing normally consisted only of pants, a shirt, boots, a broad-brimmed hat, a pair of leather “chaps” or leg coverings, and a bandanna which helped protect the mouth and nose from dust.
Trail hands were often hired for “$100 and found” which meant the cattle owner provided food and extra horses, plus about thirty dollars per month for a normal three-month trip.Cowboys were required to herd the cattle all day, and sometimes through the night if needed, to reach available water. Two shifts of guard duty were required each night. If a herd stampeded, or outlaws attempted to rustle part of the herd, all hands were roused to recover the cattle. At flooded river crossings, trees might need cutting to build a raft for the chuck wagon. Together, these activities often left trail hands with less than four hours sleep a day.