DOC WEST – Ranch Roping

Illustration by Dave Elston.

Doc West returns with his sage advice for the lost and lonely gunsel.

Q. Doc West, explain if you will, the nuances of difference between ranch roping and team roping?

A. The answer to this question if asked a few years ago would have been as simple as team roping is what the cowboys do at the rodeo, and ranch roping is what the cowboys do back at the ranch. Today however, ranch roping has grown into a popular “off circuit” competitive event that has reached an almost cultish status complete with its own set of rules and even governing associations. As a general observation both competitive events are similar in the sense a team (usually two, but sometimes three) of cowboys (or cowgirls) on horseback armed with ropes or lassos embark upon the act of roping a bovine. However, that is where the similarities end and the many differences begin: for example, team ropers rope a single isolated steer, ranch ropers pick a target out of a herd; team ropers start in the box and blast forward in pursuit of a running target, ranch ropers meander at a walk through a herd. Team roping is a timed event where runs are won or lost on a fraction of a second, ranch roping is scored on a point system of bonuses and penalties, so long as you get your calf roped within the time limit – a generous three or four minutes.
 
Differences in rules and regulations do little justice to what is a truer answer to such a question – a long meandering tale that does not easily lend itself to this column’s short and glossy smartly edited words, as it finds its beginnings 500 hundred years ago when conquistadors such as Cortes and Coronado and De Soto were the first explorers to bury into the North American continent in search of gold to take, but paradoxically leaving a much finer gift, the Spanish horse. Spain’s colonization of the new world brought with it the hacienda system of ranching, which gave life to the pillar of that system, the vaquero. Of Spanish origin and Mexican blood, the vaquero trailed up the Baja travelling the El Camino Real into California, where the gentle climate over time molded the California vaquero into its own unique creation – the “California Tradition” of the American cowboy. Later yet, when the big ranches in California started breaking up, many of the California vaqueros moved northward once again and spread out into the “Buckaroo-dom” of the great basin region of Nevada, Oregon and Idaho where the traditions evolved once more. As a collective, the California Tradition – the vaqueros and buckaroo’s are first and oldest cowboys – Spanish in origin and Mediterranean in mentality.
 
In the California tradition, style rules supreme – flat hats, silvered spade bits, rawhide romel reins, bossels and hackamores, elaborately finessed loops, and a horse tuned as finely as a Swiss watch. A vaquero was not just a hired cowpuncher, he was a caballero, a citizen, a gentleman, an aristocrat of the saddle. An emphasis on form and lifestyle permeated Spanish cowboying where cattle were moved leisurely over the rolling green hills, “it took as long as it took” – if it didn’t get done today, there was always mañana or tomorrow. Modern day ranch roping is a derivative of the vaquero traditions and those high plains riders, and the nature of the competition is rooted in the west coast mindset that faster is not always better; cattle were roped slowly, methodically and with as little stress on the animal as possible – 60-foot lariats are dallied to a leather wrapped pommel which allowed a soft catch and the ability to let loose if things got hairy.
 
The second part of this story finds its genesis in the mid 1800’s when Anglo settlers moved westward into historic Spanish territory and took up ranching, initially in the great plains of Texas. The English adopted the many of the fine vaquero cowboy traditions, however many of these were modified to adapt to a much more unforgiving environment and gave birth to what is known as the “Texas Tradition” – or as modern lore has coined simply as “the cowboy.” Over time the Texan style also spread – following the great cattle herds driven north up the Rockies eastern slopes into the wilds of Wyoming, Montana and across the 49th into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Cowboys of the Texas Tradition were practical individuals, not as concerned with the “how” as with the “is.” By way of example where the California Vaquero enjoyed a pleasant climate they could work all day and mañana too, by contrast most cowpunchers were beat by the panhandle sun into sweltering goo by noon, as such most cowboying needed to be done quickly and efficiently in the morning hours – there was no mañana for the Texas cowboy. Tack was practical and tough, durable clothing that could take thorns, basic working bits, heavy leather split reins, plain saddles, gritty cowponies and maybe a saddle gun too. The Texan roped hard and fast. The big “purdy” open country throws favoured by the buckaroos were impracticable in prairie scrub, cowboys ropes were shorter, throws were tighter and faster, ropes were often tied on to the saddle horn as dallying was deemed too slow and according to the seasoned cowpuncher were reserved for those afraid to commit. The team roping that we all see in rodeos is all about two things, making the catch and how fast you did it. In the Texan Tradition that’s all that mattered on the range and that’s all that matters in the arena.

A Modern Rider

Tammi Etherington utilizing the Pneu Dart air rifle to medicate cattle.

BY JESSI SELTE

Scabbard securely fastened to the saddle, Tammi Etherington is outfitted for a tough job. Pasture Riding. The Marwayne, AB, born rider has experienced the job in every aspect throughout her life and continues to pasture ride today.

Advancements in technology have furthered the ability of many modern jobs but are considered separate from the western lifestyle. Pasture riders, in particular, have always made an art of performing their multiple tasks with only that of a steady mount and lariat.

Often Lone Rangers, these caretakers must deal with all aspects of bovine health, management, difficult terrain, inclement weather and all kinds of wildlife. The job – typically learned as an apprentice – develops a unique set of skills and a new set of tools. Still, there is no replacing a good horse. With their ability to travel effectively and keen sense, the horse can help a rider detect cattle before they are seen.

A rider must be able to fix fence, locate and doctor cattle all with the tools carried on their saddle. Fencing pliers that double as a hammer, staples, binoculars, a knife, and matches are in the pack. These days however, there is a new addition to the saddle: The Pneu Dart Gun. This air rifle can administer up to 10cc of medicine in a single dart, allowing a rider the ability to treat an animal without the use of a lariat, or take the animal to a set of corrals that may be miles away. Riders try to make use of their individual abilities, and for Tammi Etherington, with her sharp aim, and quiet demeanour, the Pneu Dart gun has changed the job for her.

A cow with medicating darts.

Etherington, and her husband Bruce ranch in northeastern Alberta. The couple, run 200 head of Simmental cross cow/calf pairs, and during the grazing season, Tammi also rides herd for a private pasture.

The youngest in a farming family of five girls, Etherington and her sisters were raised working alongside their parents, involved in every aspect. The initial years were spent without the convenience of power or running water. Work ethic was paramount. Etherington describes her father Tom in his memoir In My Long Life as a man whose, “…hat could change from that of a hunter, a farmer, a pilot’s helper, or a cowboy, in the sweep of a hand. They all fit him well.” Mother Moira will forever be known as “Dr. Mom the Encyclopedia.” Etherington inherited her own personality from these traits.

Work created comfort and that mentality stuck with Etherington. As a teenager, her mother’s keen observation, and tireless support helped Etherington hone her riding skills. They were further advanced when at the tender age of 13, Etherington started her first job as a pasture rider. She used the job as a training ground for young horses, under the careful council of Terry and Sonia Franklin. Etherington continued to work off and on through the years at various pastures. She also made time to train, show, judge and give clinics.

The rewards of pasture riding look very different than those in the show ring, but also have a lasting effect. In the early years if an animal needed treatment, Etherington would trail the animal, sometimes miles, to a set of corrals in order to administer the appropriate medication. When the circumstances did not allow for extensive travel, a rope would be used to detain the sick bovine just long enough for treatment.

“I’ve been blessed to have worked for, and with very good managers, and riders with good roping skills.”

Now part of their low-stress management Etherington and her husband, have also started using a Pneu Dart Gun to treat animals. As a World Championship qualifying team roper, Bruce is more than capable for treating with a lariat, but with less help at home and animal husbandry a constant concern, the Pneu Dart gun is a natural fit. Etherington finds it imperative to follow the set protocol. This involves administering medication in the prescribed area on a bovine and recording the treatment properly, with cattle identification. This guarantees the safety and quality of meat for the end user. A clear shot is essential to success.

At 20,000 acres and with much of it featuring tree-covered hills and swamp, the northern Alberta private pasture is vast and unforgiving. The Pneu Dart gun brings a new dimension, to an old job. A rider is able to treat multiple animals in a day with minimal stress to both the cattle and the horse.

“Your horse needs to tolerate being shot off, whether they are up to their hocks in mud and deadfall, or just standing quietly in the middle of a herd,” says Etherington.

A good mount needs to have strong legs and feet, as well as cow sense. A horse that understands the expected job is crucial. Etherington is not looking forward to the day she has to retire her current horse. At 19 the solid little mare has clean legs and no saddle marks. This is a testament to a well-fitted saddle and Etherington’s habit of dismounting and walking both up, and down the long hills.

“We are both getting a little long in the tooth,” Etherington says. “If I’m going to ask her to go all day I need to be willing to do the same.”

When asked if being alone out on the range bothered her, Etherington chuckled, “I expect when the good Lord wants me, he will come and get me. Other than that, I expect he will give me a leg up.”

 

A Stunning Gift

In the July/August, 2011 issue of Western Horse Review, Darla Rathwell visited and wrote about the historic OH Ranch near Longview, Alberta. At the time, three of the four individual ranches belonging to the OH had been sold following owner Doc Seaman’s death in 2009. One remained, the original ranch, a foothills paradise in southwestern Alberta. On the ranch stood a few historic buildings – the 1885 ranch house, the old cookhouse and a replica Northwest Mounted Police cabin. It was acquired by philanthropist, rancher and businessman Bill Siebens later last year, and on June 19th, Siebens did something incredibly remarkable. He gifted the entire almost 8,000-acre southern portion of the OH Ranch – along with the historic OH brand – to the Calgary Stampede Foundation for continued preservation of its environmental and cultural heritage values.

OH Ranch, photo courtesy Calgary Stampede.

The vision and generosity shown by Bill Siebens is stunning. All westerners have received a beautiful gift this week, for the gesture now ensures the preservation of the ranch and land for future generations.

According to a Calgary Stampede press release the Foundation will work with the Calgary Stampede to develop a management plan for the ranch that “furthers the organizations’ shared mission to preserve and promote western heritage and values.” In operation as a ranch for close to 130 years, the OH ranch consists of deeded (private) and leased (public) land. Siebens’ gift is valued at more than $11 million and is the largest private gift ever received by the Stampede Foundation.

Bill Siebens, photo courtesy Calgary Stampede.

“Alberta has been my home for 54 years. I made my career in the oil business, raised my family here and have a deep attachment and love for the Foothills country west of Calgary,” said Bill Siebens, who also owns the neighboring Tongue Creek Ranch. “Things turned out well for me and I want to make this gift to the Calgary Stampede Foundation for a few reasons. The Stampede is 100 years old this summer. I’ve been at 54 of those Stampedes. I know that in their hands the southern portion of the OH Ranch will be well cared for for the next 100 years,” noted Siebens. “This is my gift to the people of Alberta. The Stampede is way more than 10 days of rodeo, corporate parties and fireworks. It is an important link to Alberta’s past – the ranchers, the homesteaders, the cowboys and the Aboriginal people. This land will give Albertans a big, beautiful connection to their past – a connection that will endure for many future generations.

“I know this corner of Alberta very well. I have ranched out here for over 33 years. My kids and my grandkids and I ride out here, fish, chase cows and enjoy the wonderful scenery. I want my kids and grandkids to remember that, and I want other Albertans to have that as well. I want people from all walks of life to be able to bring their kids out here to see a working ranch with working cowboys and horses and cows and all that,” said Siebens. “Thanks to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the OH Ranch will always be protected against development. That is, of course, what I want for the part of the OH Ranch I am keeping, and that is what I am most excited about for the land I am giving to the Stampede Foundation.

“The Calgary Stampede – the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth – was and is run by volunteers. I know that the volunteers now, and the next generation of volunteers, will honour my wish to encourage and allow Albertans and others to come out and enjoy this special place. That is what is important to me. That is what the Calgary Stampede Foundation and I have agreed to. The Calgary Stampede has celebrated Alberta’s culture for the past 100 years, and this gift will encourage that for the next 100 years,” concluded Siebens.

At an announcement held Tuesday morning at Calgary’s Stampede Park, Siebens also handed over the OH branding irons, thereby giving the Stampede Foundation the rights to the OH brand – one of the oldest brands that has been continuously registered and used in Western Canada. The ranching property given to the Stampede Foundation will continue to carry the OH Ranch name.

OH Ranch, photo courtesy Calgary Stampede.

“The OH Ranch is an authentic, living embodiment of Western Canada’s ranching heritage,” said Steve Allan, vice-chair, Stampede Foundation. “This historic land will further the work of the Calgary Stampede Foundation and the Calgary Stampede –to promote and preserve western values.”

The OH Ranch is Alberta’s second ‘heritage rangeland’ protected area, and operates under an easement agreement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada for the purposes of the protection, conservation and enhancement of the environment, biological diversity, natural, scenic and aesthetic values, natural habitat and similar purposes. As a historic rangeland, the ranch is not focused on recreation opportunities and the area is under grazing lease – with hunting and access restrictions.