Today’s post is written by author L.D. Bergsgaard, who currently lives in sunny Arizona, but for many years braved the Minnesota winters. Larry is a retired Special Agent with unique experiences adding a rare dimension to the crime story genre. Fellow writer William Henry says, “There are many authors who dream of being cops. Few do. There are many cops who strive to write. Few can. L.S. Bergsgaard is the rare exception of a street harden cop who can write like a poet.” In addition to writing crime novels, Larry also pens some darn good western stories.
By L. D. Bergsgaard
I had spent the better part of a year preparing to rope my first calf at round-up. I had, so I figured, paid my dues on the ground, what with flanking calves, notching ears, and generally getting in the way during branding. I looked up to those cowboys on horseback as they effortlessly roped the calves and brought them to guys and gals waiting in the corral with inoculations, branding irons, and razor sharp knives. Perhaps it was a desire to escape the flaying hoofs, the aching back, and the bruises. Maybe it was latent ambition to prove my worth and earn the title “Cowboy.” So I set about my goal; next year I would be astride my horse and roping.
It was a tall order for a number of reasons. First, I am by nature an autodidact, a self-learner. I read books, looked at photos, and watched videos. Second, my buckskin mare needed to learn the secrets of working cows. Turns out she was a faster learner than me. Soon we were putting the moves on those plastic Corrientes that would turn Tee Woolman green with envy. I could, with great accuracy, rope either end of the plastic dummies who hadn’t learned to duck off. I could dally with lightening speed and my faithful mare would back up and hold them still. In short, we were ready.
By May, I was ready to display my talents to Old Gus, a lifelong rancher. Now riding only his golf cart he watched, flashed a crooked smile, and offered a few suggestions like roping my own horse’s legs. Was this some practical cowboy joke? No, he assured me, once the action begins in the corral you’re as apt to rope your horse as a bovine. I had my doubts but added that to my resume of skills anyway.
The cattle and their offspring were very cooperative during the roundup and cattle drive from the harsh mesas to the home ranch. As I rode drag, I envisioned snaring the straggling youngsters with my lariat. I was sure it would all come together the next day in the corral.
I sat tall in the saddle as I rode into the arena. I acknowledged those left on the ground with a tip of my straw hat and rode in among the cattle that were milling and mooing in anticipation. “Get’em boys!” Old Gus shouted from the golf cart. My mare moved forward aiming for a red calf standing in the open by his mother. An easy target, I squeezed my mare closer swinging my lariat high. The little guy didn’t move an inch as I laid the loop upright between his legs. He stepped into my trap and I pulled up snaring both legs. I dallied. The red calf bolted.
It was but a nanosecond before I realized I had never taken my learning beyond the stationary dummies. Like learning to fly but not land, Old Gus later offered.
By H. Alan Day
In 1989, the Bureau of Land Management shipped 1500 wild horses to my ranch in South Dakota, the first government-sponsored wild horse sanctuary. These were “unadoptables,” the horses that the public did not want to adopt. Many were one-eyed, crippled, scarred, and just plain old. But some of the horses were young, and some of them even beautiful.One horse in particular stood out in the herd. He was a strong black and white paint about 18 hands tall. He had white fetlocks and a white tail. A splotch of white swopped from mid-neck down around his shoulders, almost to his belly. If it had been further back, it would have looked exactly like a white saddle. A white streak ran the length of his nose. The rest of him was pitch black. We named him Happy for his demeanor.
Happy preferred to hang out on the periphery of the herd, rather than in a family unit like the majority of horses belonged to. Maybe his coloring make him a pariah among his peers or maybe something inside him, a feeling of uniqueness or the desire to be a loner, pushed him to the edge of his community. If he had been human, he might have chosen to live off the grid or explore the world alone, a backpack his only possession. He was the philosopher, the Thoreau of the horses, who galloped to the beat of his own drum. But he did it with a smile and a sense of contentment.
Almost every visitor at the ranch commented on him. The BLM reps that visited quarterly even knew him. “Happy’s looking good,” they would say. When I rode out to check on the herd, Happy always landed on my radar first. If I rode within a few feet of him, close, he would raise his head and chew a hello. He never invited being petted or loved on, but I believe he loved us in his own way.
One time while the cowboys and I moved the herd across the Little White Rive, Happy decided to meander upstream and splash in the fresh water. When I went to gather him, he willingly obliged, a twinkle in his eye and a grin and his face. “You’re a funny guy,” I said to him.
Out of the blue, the BLM, an agency always scouting for positive publicity, decided they wanted Happy as their poster child. Someone had the brilliant idea of sprucing up the Flathead Lake area of Montana, a remote but popular fishing area.
The lake had a large island, named Wild Horse Island, and this dreamer envisioned making fishermen and tourists very happy by showcasing a painted mustang on the island.
“Are you telling me you’re deporting Happy to an island in some godforsaken northern part of Montana?” I said to the BLM rep on the phone, who had just told me about the absurd plan. I tried arguing but to no avail. By contract, the BLM had the power to do anything they wanted with the horses. They owned them all.
On the appointed day, a BLM rep drove to the ranch. I loaded Happy into the trailer. He didn’t argue, but once inside, he shook his head like he was trying to clear out confusion. Or maybe a bad memory of being shipped on the road. I hoped not. I wanted him always to be happy. Maybe going to a remote island was his destiny and he had been preparing for it by being a loner on the ranch. Take it easy, I told the driver.
Years later I met some people who talked about fishing on Flathead Lake. I asked if by chance they had seen a black-and-white paint, a big horse, on the island in the middle of that coldwater lake. They had not. Knowing Happy, he probably chose to hang out in the middle of the island as far away from humans as possible. For all I know maybe he’s still hanging around. In my daydream, I envision him there, noble and regal as ever, smiling to himself over the follies of mankind.
I was eager to get up to Tempe. The Arizona Historical Society had invited me to give a presentation about The Horse Lover book to their donors and members at their museum in Papago Park. Various family members from Prescott, Santa Fe, and Houston had decided to come into town and attend. The museum has a number of historical items related to Sandra and her amazing career and also to the Lazy B Ranch where the two of us were raised, and I was eager for everyone to see them.
I also wanted to show the family the O’Connor House, the original home that Sandra and her husband John had built in Paradise Valley in the late 1950s. The adobe bricks were made out of mud from the Salt River and the floors were poured concrete, an uncommon material back in those days. In 2009, after much negotiating and fundraising, the home was moved brick by brick, shingle by shingle, to the Historical Society’s campus and is now used to encourage civil discourse. It’s always a delight for me to visit the house.
When I arrived at the museum, it didn’t take me long to catch site of a small glass-enclosed exhibit positioned close to the entrance. I walked over to examine the items in it and was hit by a full-blown case of nostalgia. There sat my old cowboy hat, the one I wore everyday while working the cattle horseback or doing one of a hundred other jobs demanded of a rancher. Just in front of it was the beautiful horsehair rope that Jim Brister, one of our longtime cowboys and my personal hero, had hand woven. And there were my dad’s spurs, the ones that he wore for at least 50 years. The fact that they didn’t match touched a special place in my heart. And finally, the display included a Lazy B branding iron, old, rusted and well-used. These four special items unleashed a flood of memories.
The thing that overwhelmed me most, however, was a realization of just how old I am. Museum artifacts are almost always from people who are dead; the objects memorialize the individuals. Although the ranch that these objects came from is no longer in the family, Sandra and I are still alive. It takes some thinking to accept the fact we are so old that objects, which are part of our life, are objects of historical significance. We may be part of history, but I don’t feel old enough to be memorialized in a museum.
So I made sure to give a vital talk.
It was a ton of fun and afterward, the family visited the restored O’Connor House with Sandra as docent guide.We may be in museums, but we’re still determined to make history as much as we can.
By Rod Miller
This was the rule: if you made it past the pigpen, it was a qualified ride. My initiation into grown-up rodeo wasn’t exactly a high-toned affair with banners and flags and crowds and queens. One summer during my early high school years, I would load up with a handful of older boys from my hometown for a trip to a ramshackle ranch about thirty miles south to attend “rodeo school.”
The place was home to a cowboy—he seemed old at the time, but was probably in his thirties—who was a fine saddle bronc rider; the former champion of the regional semi-pro rodeo association in our part of the country. This cowboy had a handful of bucking horses, kept for practice and to consume any excess hay he might have on the place. Only two of their names remain in my memory—The Bay Mare and Old Fooler.
Out back of the house was an arena with a bucking chute, all assembled from used railroad ties, weathered two-by-fours, and assorted planks and poles and wire and any other item that might serve as a fence. About halfway down the west side of the arena was an unused enclosure and low shed attached to the outside of the fence, empty at the time, but meant to house a few pigs. Then, it marked the official end of a qualified ride—if you stayed aboard your horse long enough to pass that point it was good enough, and our teacher/pickup man would pull you off.
While that place was home to my first experiences climbing aboard full-grown bucking horses on purpose, it was not my first rodeo. I had, for years, got on (and fell off) calves at junior rodeos and ridden a few feisty Shetland ponies in “Little Buckaroo” rodeos. But there remains the question of why I, or anyone, would want to mount, on purpose, a horse you knew would try to buck you off.
[The first recorded evidence of Rod Miller’s adventures in the rodeo arena, from a 1970 high school rodeo in Ogden, Utah. (Photo by James Fain)]
It’s like this, at least for me.
I grew up in a cowboy family, with saddle horses ever present. We fed them morning and night as part of the daily chore routine, rode them to handle the small herd of cattle we kept, and used them for recreation. Dad was a natural with horses. He knew how to handle them, with just the right touch in training. An intuitive understanding of when to go easy and when to be firm is necessary for any good horseman, and Dad had it.
Unfortunately, those genes landed in my older brother and there were none left over for me. So, while I grew up horseback, and followed Dad’s lead in training our own horses and breaking and training a few for others, I made a frustrating pupil—never quite able to understand the finer points of horsemanship, always having to muddle my way along as best I could, which wasn’t very good.
Then there’s a fact that everyone who works with horses for any length of time knows: any time, any place, for any reason (or none at all) any horse is likely to pitch a fit. They’ll shy, spook, rear, run off, or buck at the most inopportune times. And it’s often a complete surprise to the rider—at least it was for me, lacking, as I do, the ability to read a horse’s mind.
Which brings us back to rodeo. When you run a horse into a bucking chute and strap a bareback rigging onto its back, you know what’s in the offing. You expect it to buck—you even hope it will buck, because if it doesn’t your chances of winning anything for your efforts are fat and slim. I guess I was drawn to the certainty of the situation; knowing the horse would try to buck me off, and knowing when and where.
I straddled bucking horses for several years, first in high school and amateur rodeos, then as a member of the Utah State University National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team, and at weekend professional rodeos around Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. My greatest success was in the college arena, but I was never good enough to ride with the pros and make money at it.
Still, I liked it. It was fun. Even when you’d end up in a mangled heap in the arena dirt, spitting sand. And it changes your way of looking at horses. One of my old traveling pals who was a good bareback rider and better bull rider until crippled by a brain hemorrhage said it best. Whenever we’d drive past a herd of horses in a pasture along the road, he would cast a wistful glance their way and say, “Think those horses would buck?”
# # #
Rod Miller is winner of Western Writers of America Spur Awards for Best Western Short Story and Best Western Poem, the Westerners International Poetry Award, and Academy of Western Artists Award for Best Poetry Book. He writes novels, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and magazine articles about the American West, most of them with a horse in there somewhere. Visit online at www.writerRodMiller.com.
July 26th was the 10th annual celebration of National Day of the Cowboy, and to commemorate it, I did quite a little celebrating at Borderlands Brewing Company in downtown Tucson.
Here’s some background on the hoopla. Ten years ago, Bethany Braley from Prescott, AZ was working at a magazine when her boss asked her to make his pet project “Vote for a Cowboy Day” happen. First thing Bethany did was change the name to “National Day of the Cowboy.” Then she took of running, and she hasn’t stopped since.
The purpose of the day is to celebrate the contribution of the Cowboy and Cowgirl to America’s culture and heritage. In the words of former President Bush, as posted on the organization’s website, “We celebrate the Cowboy as a symbol of the grand history of the American West. The Cowboy’s love of the land and love of the country are examples for all Americans.”
I was raised a cowboy and loved being a cowboy, but I never thought of myself as an icon of the American West. Maybe that’s why I’m uncomfortable with a day dedicated to cowboys. When you work your career as a cowboy, the glamour points are few and far between. During spring and fall roundups, days start at three am, end 14 hours later and continue in that vein every day for a month. Talk about some long, hard dusty days. On the other hand, in true cowboy tradition, do I like to go to a bar, throw back a few brews, and tip my hat at a pretty girl that comes in? Hell, yes.
Our hoedown included a radio interview with Matt Russell of On the Menu Live! I talked about making beef jerky (a cowboy staple) and my cowboy friend and author Richard Collins, who wrote a wonderful book called Riding Behind the Padre: Horseback Views from Both Sides of the Border, talked about Father Kino introducing wheat in to the American diet. Every time you bite into a cheese crisp, thank Father Kino. We had a trivia contest and shared some cowboying and horse stories.
I hope the founders don’t try to tie the day to some lofty purpose, but keep it as a day of fun, and a happy day to look forward to, because for me, that’s exactly what it was. So mark your calendars now for the 11th annual celebration, July 26, 2015. We’ll tip a few at the bar.
I came to writing in a very oblique way. I never had dreams of writing a book while I was growing up or during adulthood. But then one day, the phone rang and my sister Sandra, who is pretty plain spoken and gets to the point in a direct fashion, said, “Alan, I think we should write a book together.” (more…)
Today’s photoessay comes from Becky Standridge, a professional photographer whose work focuses on the wild horses living in the Salt River Canyon outside of Phoenix. I met Becky at a book signing and she was kind enough to send a copy of her beautiful 12-month Salt River Wild Horses calendar. You can see more of Becky’s work on Facebook.
Spring is a favorite season, not only for what it symbolizes but also for what it actually brings. Symbolically, it heralds the renewal of life. It breaks the grip of winter, frees the spirit and fills the senses with hope for the coming season. It’s an incentive for fresh starts and new beginnings. Anticipation abounds. (more…)
I’m thrilled to be embarking on a twenty-day virtual book tour and look forward to meeting new and interesting people along the way while sharing my memoir The Horse Lover. Thank you very much to my hosts who have agreed to be part of this journey. (more…)
Flip open a travel guide to Tucson, Arizona, my current hometown, and you’ll find a healthy list of interesting events and places. We have Rodeo Days at the end of February, a four-day stretch of barrel racing, team penning, and bronco riding. Earlier in the month, we host the largest gem and mineral show in the world. Our Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum houses insects, reptiles, mammals and plant life that intrigue young and old alike. Trails for hikers and bikers crisscross through washes and over hills. Golf courses are found every-which-way you turn. Then there are the mountains. And margaritas. And mountains of margaritas. (more…)
The time had come to retire Chico. He was my first horse, a little wild mustang captured by a local cowboy in the flanks of Steeple Rock Mountain, just north of Lazy B. Somehow my dad ended up with him before I was born, so my sisters Sandra and Ann also claim him as their first horse. (more…)