The ultimate trail ride

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

If you were headed West in the 1860s, you probably carried two bibles – one for spiritual guidance and the other one, “The Prairie Traveler” by Captain Randolph B. Marcy, for advice on all your other needs along the trail.

Published by the U.S. War Department in 1859, 16 years before the last free band of Native Americans surrendered, and billed as “The Best-Selling Handbook for American Pioneers,” Marcy’s manual covers everything from the topography of specific routes to how to supply a wagon; select a camp; track and pursue Indians; ford rivers; descend mountains; and all other vital information for such a journey.

Fascinating from an historical perspective, “The Prairie Traveler” is also packed with practical observations on the behavior of horses, mules, oxen, and wild animals.

“For prairie service,” Marcy notes, “horses which have been raised exclusively upon grass, and never been fed on grain, or ‘range horses,’ as they are called in the West, are decidedly the best, and will perform more hard labor than those that have been stabled and groomed.”

A footnote points out that a “recent” experiment at the veterinary school in Alfort (founded near Paris in 1766) discovered that horses actively exercised after being fed digested their feed within three hours, while digestion for stalled horses had “scarcely commenced” in three hours.

Mules, in Marcy’s opinion, were superior to oxen, where good grass was available, because they could travel faster on firm ground and better endure the heat of summer. For a journey of 1,500 miles or more, over rough or muddy ground, oxen were more practical and economical.

Foreshadowing inherent risks of the trail, Marcy also explained that oxen were less likely to be stampeded and driven off by Indians, and, if necessary, they could be used for beef.

On the other hand, mules were easily induced to follow a “bell mare,” and except if they got water in their ears, in which case they were “often drowned,” made excellent swimmers.

“Whenever a mule in the water drops his ears, it is a sure indication that he has water in them, and he should be taken out as soon as possible,” Marcy cautions.

Horses and mules, he also notes, make good sentinels in Indian territory, often alerting, with heads raised, the direction of approaching danger, long before a dog would notice.
When crossing Indian country, Marcy recommends being on the alert for tracks: “Mustangs….leave a trail which is sometimes difficult to distinguish from that made by a mounted party of Indians, but if a single pile of dung is found, this is a sure indication that a herd of mustangs has passed, as they always stop to relieve themselves, while a party of Indians would keep their horses in motion, and the (dung) would be scattered along the road.”

A chapter titled “The Buffalo” describes in detail two methods for hunting buffalo: running them on horseback, and stalking or still-hunting. Running them requires a fleet, fresh, and fearless mount.

“As a long buffalo chase is very severe labor upon a horse,” he points out, “I would recommend to all travelers, unless they have a good deal of surplus horse-flesh, never to expend it running buffalo.”

“The Prairie Traveler,” which includes maps of the principle routes between the Mississippi and Pacific, noting landmarks along each trail, and the availability of water, wood, and grass.

It also features a map of the Pikes Peak gold region (a major lure for travelers) and numerous illustrations, including those of saddles and tack; horse tracks; the proper technique for fording a river and swimming a horse; and ones simply titled “The Grizzly,” and “Keep Away!”

The Prairie Traveler” is available as a free download for the Kindle e-reader on, where the soft cover book is also available.

The Time It Never Rained

Monday, August 29th, 2011

The Time It Never RainedElmer Kelton’s classic novel “The Time It Never Rained” called to me last weekend, as drought conditions here in Texas worsened under relentless triple-digit heat.

It had been 20 years since I last read the book, and this time, I was especially struck by its timeliness. Not only because of the drought – Kelton’s setting is Texas during the seven-year drought that began in 1950 – but because of some of the hard-wired principles and prejudices that we still struggle with six decades later.

No one understood the struggle better than Kelton, who, as the son of a ranch foreman, grew up on West Texas ranches in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1950s, after graduating from the University of Texas and serving in the U.S. Army during WWII, he worked as a farm and ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard Times.

“In a broad sense this book is dedicated to the old-time Western ranchman, whose lifestyle gave him an inkling of Heaven and more than his proper share of Hell,” wrote Kelton in his dedication for “The Time It Never Rained.”

On the far side of fifty, Charlie Flagg, the book’s crusty, old protagonist, struggles as much with changing lifestyles, as from the drought. When Big Emmett Rodale, the local banker, advises him to sell his cattle, Flagg stubbornly points out that “there has never been a day since I was good grown that I haven’t owned some cattle.”

But Rodale, also a long-time friend, reminds him, “Tradition, Charlie. Tradition’s fine as long as a man can afford it. You can’t.”

Earlier in the book, when the new county agent wondered if Flagg was “one of the rich ones,” Kelton’s omniscient narrator explained that…

In this part of the country it was often hard to tell the rich man from the poor one by looking at him. The rich man was likely to be wearing patched trousers and run-over boots as the most destitute Mexican cowboy in town. One could not afford to put up a front and the other did not have to.

Charlie Flagg is not, of course, “one of the rich ones.” He is one like Kelton’s own father, Buck, to whom the book is also dedicated. One, as the county supervisor points out to his boss, that has “gone out of style, but the world will be a poorer place when it loses the last of his kind.”

If like me you are fortunate enough to have known some old-timers like Charlie Flagg, you will love Elmer Kelton’s book. If you haven’t known any, there is no better book than¬†“The Time It Never Rained” to meet the genuine article.

Kelton, who won numerous prestigious awards for his fiction, was a master at depicting characters as unvarnished and prickly as the cedar fence posts and barbed wire that separated their pastures.

I also highly recommend two other Kelton books – “The Good Old Boys” and “The Day the Cowboys Quit.”

The Good Old Boys” was also made into a terrific movie (1995) starring Sam Shepard, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Frances McDormand, Wilford Brimley, Larry Mahan, and Matt Damon.

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Sunday, August 28th, 2011

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Advertise your book, CD or DVD

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 offers special author rates for writers, musicians and video producers.

Terms are $50/month, with discounts for longer duration.

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The Wake of Forgiveness

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Wake of ForgivenessI admit I was put off by the cover of The Wake of Forgiveness – a profile in black and white of a horse wearing a snaffle bridle. Good fiction is one of my passions, but I outgrew “horse fiction” with Black Beauty, when I was 12. Then I read a blurb for the book by Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, a riveting read about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam war, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart, isn’t about war. But it is rife with life and death struggles. And although it’s not a Western, horses and cattle are an integral part of its story. Here’s what Tim O’Brien says about it:

“The prose is polished and evocative, the physicality of rural Texas in the year 1910 shimmers with loving exactitude, and the story of Karel Skala is a gripping American drama of misplaced guilt, familial struggle, and a search for identity. What a fine, rich, absorbing book.”

The setting of the novel is Lavaca County, Texas, once a haven for mustangs and cattle, but by 1910, country dominated by cotton farms, owned by frugal Czech immigrants, who like most Texans love good quarter horses horses and a good horse race.

Machart’s seamless prose draws you into the story. Here’s an excerpt from page 20:

The horses reared and surged and the smoke from Lad’s gun flew up in a windswept whirl and circled itself like a confused spirit into the creekside trees. The boys got up fast in their stirrups, and by the time they urged their animals up to speed, hoof sod flying behind them as they tore past the cheering line of men and between the two fires and into the darkness, eleven-year-old Karel was laying it on thick with his whip.

This boy had been outriding his older brothers since he was nine and when his old man bragged on one of his sons – which was rare and only brought on by drink and never within earshot of the boys themselves – the words he found himself slurring were always the same: “That youngest of mine, men, he could whip some fast into a common ass.”

The book, in fact, opens with Karel’s birth and his Mother’s death – “…blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it” – and the themes of love, loss and redemption carry through.

Pick this book up and, I think, you will find it hard to put down.

Ranchman’s Recollections

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

There were no blueprints for breeding cow horses 100 years ago – no magic crosses or pedigree nicks – just a need for tough “ponies” to fill ranch remudas.

“A large number of Texas cow outfits have had their notions about cow-pony crosses…but in the main, cow horse breeding has been a pure case of “scrambled eggs,” noted Frank S. Hastings in his classic A Ranchman’s Recollections, first published in 1920, as a series of articles for the Breeder’s Gazette.

Hastings had worked as meat broker and Hereford herd manager for the Armour Company before he became manager of Texas’ famous SMS Ranches in 1902.
Founded by Swante “Sven” Swenson in 1854, by the early 1900s, SMS Ranches ran 25,000 cattle on 350,000 acres. It was Hastings who pioneered a large-scale 5,000-head feeding operation in Stamford, Texas, where cattle were fattened on cottonseed meal and molasses.

In A Ranchman’s Recollections, Hastings recalls that in 1902, the SMS, sold a surplus of 200 mares for $7.50 a head. The herd traced to 50 Spanish mares purchased in 1882, as the original SMS breeding band.

“Spanish horses, as I understand them, were a pure Mexican breed – small, mean, tough, quick as a cat, and had all the ‘cow instinct…practically no producer of cow horses, however, appears to have been satisfied with to stay with the Spanish blood in its purity,” Hastings wrote. “Probably meanness had much to do with the popular desire to breed the strain up without losing the cow instinct.”

Intent on breeding “the strain up,” the SMS acquired an Arabian stallion. Several “Missouri saddle horses,” as well as a Saddlebred and a Thoroughbred stallion were then used ¬†on the Arabian’s daughters. Later, several grade Percherons and Clydsdales from Spanish mares and a German coach horse were added to the mix.

Nine registered Morgan stallions were acquired during Hasting’s tenure (from 1902 until his death in 1922). By 1920, the SMS Ranches horse herd totaled 1,100 head for all purposes, with 500 used specifically for cattle work on 400,000 acres.

Cow horses were broken in the spring of their 3-year-old year and served  an average of 12 years, although it was not unusual for cutting horses to work until they were 18 or 20 years old.

Hastings mentions that the rage for polo ponies threatened to drain Texas cutting horse stock in the early 1900s, and the U.S. Army’s demand for horses in World War I depleted supplies of young cowboy stock.

Ninety years ago, when a Model T Ford cost $290, Hastings noted that there were “more buyers for a $300 cow horse than there are horses good enough to realize that price or owners willing to sell.”

A Ranchman’s Recollections, which includes some great Frank Reeves photos, is available here.

Empire of the Summer Moon

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Empire of the Summer MoonHorses, women and children Рthose were the stock in trade of Comanche Indians on the Southern Plains and especially in Texas from the mid-1700s to 1875.

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner 2010), tells the story of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful tribe in American history and, not coincidentally, the most skillful horsemen of the Plains.

“On their feet they are one of the most unattractive and slovenly looking races of Indians I have ever seen, but the moment they mount their horses, they seem at once metamorphosed.” Gwynne quotes from artist and author George Catlin’s writings.

“I am ready, without hesitation, to pronounce the Comanches the most extraordinary horsemen I have seen yet in all my travels.”

Texans won their independence from Mexico in 1836, but found the Comanches in full control as settlers pushed West into the rich Cross Timbers and river valleys. It was during the 1836 massacre at Parker’s Fort that nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped by Comanches. Her son, Quanah Parker, fathered by Chief Peta Nocona, would collect his share of scalps before surrendering at Fort Sill, OK, in 1875, as the last chief of the Comanches.

Gwynne’s engrossing book¬†covers the whole saga, from an obscure band of Indians, transformed by horsemanship to become the most feared tribe in North America, to the “civilizing” of Quanah Parker,¬† who participated as an honored guest in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade.

It’s a page-turner even if you are acquainted with the history of the era, and especially¬†if you are interested in horses.