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The branding corral

Richelle Barrett for Progressive Cattleman Published on 02 May 2017
branding corral

There is something about saddling up a fresh horse on a cool spring morning, trailing cows into the corrals and getting ready to brand slick calves that compares to nothing else. Early morning jitters from lack of sleep finally give way to good morning hellos and laughter among the help.

Riders set out in a line shoulder-to-shoulder, on horses in a steady trot toward the cows. The boss (henceforth known as Dad) gives direction to his help on the fly – and everyone listens to hear what they need to do to get the cows in as quick as possible.

It is likely that a few older cows will figure out what is going on, and take their calves and line out the way they are expected to go. Each rider knows their place, and knows the tricks that those old cows will try. Dad has spent a good bit of time making sure he has put together a group of riders that are both handy on a horse and competent when it comes to reading a cow, because there is really nothing worse on this day than bad riders on bad horses.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a tribe of good riders, good ropers, willing help and a good cook or two to make a branding go off without a hitch. Anymore, wrestlers and ropers are hard to come by in our area, so when you have a group of either one, we have learned to keep them happy with cold beer and great food. Most people enjoy going to brandings, to help out local ranchers and to catch up with good friends that may only be seen once or twice a year in the branding corral. That said, it never fails that crews get split to help out on more than one place, or life happens and people just can’t make it.

While I enjoy our branding – I love passing out caramel rolls and cookies to the help, the smell of burnt hair, the laughter and teasing that happens among friends of all ages – I have never been a fan of going to other ranchers’ brandings. I like knowing I have a job at ours – vaccinating calves or administering pour-on – because I am an extremely poor wrestler and my roping skills are nonexistent. I feel weird to just help ride, then sit on the edge of the corral doing nothing.

I wasn’t raised going to other brandings, and there is a sense of camaraderie between the family members and friends that have met in those corrals year after year. These are people who have a fluid relationship with each other and excel at their given job. I have always found it hard to get in the middle of that, no matter how kind and helpful everyone may be. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy brandings in general, but I am grateful my husband loves to go and help out instead of me having to tag along!

I hope that brandings remain a staple on cattle ranches for years to come. I love seeing young kids learn the ropes; I love watching the old men slap a brand on their calves and watch over the event with proud eyes. The instant the striker lights the propane and syringes are filled and the first legs are caught, work begins and everyone just knows what to do. It is teamwork at its finest, the sight of history happening all over again as it has every year for more than a century.

And while days spent in the branding pen may not be the first thing I sign up for, it is what my family loves, and I hope to raise our girls to appreciate the value of hard work, to have the confidence to just jump in there and get dirty, and to understand that brandings aren’t just a way to mark our cattle – but a chance to show stockmanship at its finest and to see that hard work can be fun. There are priceless memories just waiting to be made in the branding corral.  end mark

Richelle Barrett is a blogger and photographer from Havre, Montana.

PHOTO: There is nothing quite like a branding – even if you have no idea what to do, you just jump in and help get the work done. Photo by Richelle Barrett.

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