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Slip sliding away

James Beckham for Progressive Cattleman Published on 29 January 2019
working cattle at dusk

Turning on the light over the back door at 5 that morning revealed a layer of ice on everything, including the cattle trucks that had arrived in the compound overnight. Too bad a few hundred pounds of ice on the trucks wouldn’t work in my favor at the destination feedlot.

An hour later, neighbors’ trailers rattled into the compound behind pickups with small holes scraped in iced-over windshields. Some neighbors reported stopping multiple times trying to keep the hole in the ice on their windshield open with whatever tool they could find on their flatbeds.

Thankfully, the herd gathered without incident in the continuing sleet. The cattle just kept their heads down and stayed with the lead cows. The only sounds on the way to the pens were the click of cattle hooves and the clop of horse feet.

The cows knew the weather was too rotten for what we were doing, so they refused to cooperate in the pens. After several attempts on horseback to get cows separated from their calves, half of us began sorting on foot.

Several counts and recounts later, we concluded there were two cows and their calves missing. Somehow, neighbor Bill Crisp and I drew the short straws to go search for the missing bovines. The sleet had not let up while we were on foot, and my glasses were impossibly iced over. Bill’s mustache was decorated with a series of icicles, making him look like a cartoon character, and the ice on the pipe fencing in the corrals was now a quarter-inch thick and growing.

While Bill watched, I discovered that my 40 layers of clothing kept me from being able to lift my left leg high enough to hit the stirrup. Holding my left knee with both hands to get my foot at stirrup height, I hopped on my right foot toward the horse. Having never seen this unique approach to horsemanship, my horse jumped two steps in the opposite direction. Continuing to eye me suspiciously, the horse refused my offer of a foot in the stirrup a second time and nearly knocked me down using what was undoubtedly a defensive move designed by the NFL.

When I regained my composure, I noted that Bill was doubled up in laughter (or at least as bent over as you can get when you are dressed like the Michelin Man.) Ignoring Bill’s gales of laughter, but being pleased that the tears running down his cheeks were freezing, I took another approach. Coaxing the horse close to the fence, I attempted to use the bottom pipe rail as a step stool. On the first try, my foot shot off the icy pipe, and I was left flailing to get a grip on the equally icy top rail. After a couple more tries, I somehow end up horseback and winded. When in the saddle, I noticed that not only was the fence solidly iced up, but so was my saddle. With every flex of the fenders, chunks of ice fell to the ground.

Either Bill was having an apoplectic fit or something had seriously struck his funny bone as he couldn’t breathe or speak by this time. I realized I might have accidentally said something less than charitable when Bill wrenched his mustache into a smirk and said, “Oh, yeah? Let me show you how that’s done!”

Grunting as he pushed the haunches of his unwilling horse toward the fence, Bill muttered something I couldn’t hear. With varying degrees of amusement, other cowboys paused to watch Bill plant his left boot onto the bottom rail of the pipe fence and make his launch. (On later reflection, I decided Bill was using the get-your-butt-in-the-saddle-and-worry-about-the-stirrups-later method of mounting his horse.)

As Bill slammed his boot heel into the bottom fence rail and leapt for the saddle, his horse moved … away from the fence. Realizing his trusty steed was no longer where he had first aimed, Bill gave a last-second push off the fence and was headed toward the iced-up saddle with admirable aim.

All the onlookers agreed that Bill would have stuck it except for two factors – momentum and ice. When Bill’s right leg met the icy saddle, the slide began. No amount of grabbing for the equally icy saddle horn could slow Bill’s momentum and keep his manly derriere from sliding right off the saddle and onto the ground on the other side of his horse!

I spent the rest of the morning humming the Paul Simon song, “Slip Slidin’ Away.” Each time Bill heard me humming, his frozen mustache would gather into a sheepish grin and more tears would freeze on his cheeks.  end mark

James Beckham is a writer and commercial Angus producer in Amarillo, Texas.

PHOTO: Neighbor Todd Kimball helps Pat Riley push the herd into the pens. Photo by Marc Stich.

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