How to swim cattle

From the words of Fay Ward''s The Cowboy at Work(1958), how to safely and successfully swim cattle.
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From the words of Fay Ward''s The Cowboy at Work(1958), how to safely and successfully swim cattle.
illustration by mckibillo

Water crossings could be deadly for both cattle and cowboys. Fay Ward crossed more than a few rivers during his time cowboying all throughout the United States and Canada, and wrote about safely fording waterways in his book, The Cowboy At Work: All About His Job and How He Does It(1958). We offer his advice on swimming cattle from the book, unedited.

Lead the way

Getting cattle across streams is a pretty big job at times. Once cattle balk at crossing a stream, it is hard to get them into the water again. If the lead steer will take to the water, the others will follow. Generally they will also follow a rider who goes ahead of them to pilot them across.

Peer pressure

When they will not follow a rider, it is necessary to cut off a small bunch of stock and hold ’em together. Then the riders in close formation charge the bunch into the water before the bunch has time to turn back. As soon as they are started, another bunch is shoved behind so it will follow the critters already in the water. If the cattle are dry or thirsty they are easier to get into water and across.

Stay downstream

The riders crossing with the cattle, except for the pilot, swim their horses on the downstream side of the herd to keep it from drifting downstream. The leaders are held up on the opposite side to be used as bait to induce the others to cross. This method is used when it is necessary to force the cattle across in small bunches.

Loosen up

A rider should loosen up the cinches on his saddle when swimming him across a wide stream, so the horse will have plenty of room to breathe and have more freedom in swimming. A horse should be given his head at such a time, and if he has to be guided, this is done by splashing water alongside his head. Many a rider has been lost because he pulled too much on the bridle reins; this is apt to cause a horse to go over backward and drown both himself and the rider.

Trust your horse

Most horses are good swimmers and, given their head while swimming, are pretty sure to pack a hand across a stream in good shape. If a horse turns over on his side and refuses to swim when he gets into deep water, the rider should get a good hold on the horse’s tail and slip off behind him; by kicking and paddling the rider can keep from going under, and splashing water onto the horse’s head may make him straighten up and go swimming.