Modern-Day Brush Popper

As west Texas cowboy Michael Seaton says, it just takes heart.
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As west Texas cowboy Michael Seaton says, it just takes heart.

It was Ramon F. Adams, that prince of cowboy lexicographers, who nailed forever the definition of that underappreciated term, “brush popper”:

“The brush popper knows he will never catch a cow by looking for a soft entrance into the brush; therefore, he hits the thicket center, hits it flat, hits it on the run, and tears a hole in it.” Adams also had this: “Like his rider, the brush horse is a brute for punishment and as game as they come…. Between rides each horse is given a rest to allow the thorns to work out and the wounds to heal. Yet no matter how stoveup he becomes, he is always ready to break into the brush at the first opportunity.”

If anyone thought this breed of cowboy, and this kind of gameness in horses, was extinct, they can rid themselves of that notion with a visit to West Texas. As long as wild cattle, and merely elusive cattle, “brush up,” someone has to cowboy up to keep the wheels of industry turning.

Michael Seaton, of Merkel, Texas, likely would not call himself a brush popper. Like so many of his peers in the cowboying trade hereabouts, Seaton won’t even allow that he is a cowboy in the tradition of the old-timers, men who would spend weeks on end, even months, working and sleeping in the roughest and remotest country. With a family to support, Seaton confines his cowboying more to day-work.

And brush popping— though it is a workplace reality that Seaton and his peers face with some regularity— isn’t the bestdefi nition of Seaton’s occupation. He’s into a little bit of everything cowboy. Rather, a whole lot of everything cowboy.

Besides training horses and cowdogs, Seaton day-works at many of the largest ranches in the area—places like E-Z Land and Cattle; the Guitar; the Nail; and Spasney’s Cook Ranch.

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And more than that. In every part of the world where cattle run on rough country, there is always that one person who gets the call when all else has failed and cattle can’t be moved or found or caught. It can be life-or-death for the bovines that can’t be brought in, if drought has dried all water sources. Around these parts, “Michael’s the one who’ll get ’em in,” says Merkel rancher Billy Bob Toombs.

Seaton, 28, is no rancher; no landowner; no cattleman. There’s no check coming in from this fall’s crop of calves. Everything is earned. Everything is wages. You live by your skill, your savvy, your wits, your try, and your reputation. It’s the last refuge of the cowboy careerist, a job that has fewer takers today than any time before because the skill set is so hard to master and the cattle business is changing so fast.

Brina, his bride, cares for the kids—Hunter, 9, and Daylee, 6—and works some weekdays at the Abilene Livestock Auction and the Sweetwater Cattle Auction. They are a couple of modest means, chasing a dream of a good life in the occupations, and the whereabouts, of their choice.

What plays out in Merkel plays out all over the West and everywhere beef is raised for market. If times are hard for the capitalists, they’re harder for the labor pool. Getting or keeping a foothold in this trade is tough enough that only the dedicated hang in there the way the Seatons do.

“Michael’s as good as anybody going down the road,” says Ace Gorbit, speaking from the Brackettville ranch where he works. “And he is dedicated. That [cowboying work] is the love of his life. It’s what he’s wanted to do since he was a kid.”

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As Seaton himself says, “Money’s what makes the world go ’round, but I’d rather enjoy my day with my horses than be paid big money and sit at a desk and be stressed.” Gorbit, who has worked with Seaton, says the cowboy route is a hard go, especially now. “When you can go work in the oil fields and make $20 an hour, especially with a wife and a couple kids to support, well, a lot of them, they are going to go with that. It’s seven days on and seven off , whereas [Seaton] might have to work every day doing something. It means giving up doing the [off -time] things he most likes doing, all to be the kind of man he wants to be.

“Out here [in the Brackettville area], the cowboy business is not ten percent of what it was. Everybody is building high fences, and you can make more money putting wildlife in for hunters. Or you can improve the ranch, put in the high fence, and sell it to a corporation that can let their people come in and hunt, and it’s a tax write-off .”

Meanwhile, the economics have squeezed the hired help. “You have to fi ll up that truck with diesel or gas, and you’re hauling $25,000 in equipment and gear, covering lots of miles, all to make $125 a day,” Gorbit says. “If you blow a tire, you haven’t made any profit. It’s a tough old road.”

But the flip side, if such exists, is that the fast changes in the cattle trade have meant that hardly anyone out there—hardly anyone under 30, for sure—has what it takes to work cattle or make horses. If there is a salvation for the Seatons of the world, and those couples live in doublewides and shotgun houses on every dirt road in every state where grazing really matters, it’s that the beef industry’s falloff of talent—and its diminishing knowledge base—will open a hole of opportunity. That is, if the players can just ride things out.

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“People don’t know how to raise cattle anymore,” Seaton says. “It’s partly because the land is so divided up—lots of 10-acre, 20-acre parcels, and not so many 640-acre sections. People leave bulls on their herds all year long. You get calves at all times of the year. Calves are all sizes. Every time you bring up cattle you have calves that have to be worked.” It’s the same with horses. “The way this world is going, there ain’t people that savvy a horse at all.” But those are the conditions that will keep Seaton and his kind at their posts.

As for matters like brush popping, it all comes with the territory for Seaton. “You just bow your head and take it,” he says. “At some places it is real bad. You’ve got prickly pear cactus up to your knees, and catclaw above your head. All kinds of stuff . Tickletongue—that’s the worst. Wait-a-minute vine. Jumping cactus. There’s slick-rock washes. Big holes in the ground. Up and down terrain. You just gotta drive ’em ’til you can get them roped, and then you gotta lead ’em out.”

Steve Campbell, another longtime acquaintance of Seaton’s, tells of an outing they had together. “I was working with him, but that does not put me on the same plain with him,” Campbell says. “We went out to get a bull that a guy had trouble getting. It had been busting out of the fence, getting into the neighbor’s herd. It was big—I’m talking about 2,500 pounds. A Charolais. It took off for the brush. Michael was on a horse that only weighed 800 or 900 pounds. When he caught it, there was all this crashing in the brush, and when I got there to see, he had that thing held with the rope bent around a pretty large mesquite tree. That was for leverage—it’s all about angles. That tree was bending like a bow and arrow. But he got it out.”

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Another of Seaton’s cowboying partners told AC of an incident when they were out catching a wild cow and, with dogs baying and chaos all around, Seaton had been forced, for a few moments, onto the back of the cow as the only safe place to be.

More recently Seaton was called in for eight head that no one could catch. Helicopters had been used, but the animals had learned to run through the pressure. Times like that require Old School methods, when only horses and dogs can succeed.

“We went in there and bayed them up with the dogs,” Seaton says. “They busted out over the dogs, but went to roping them and tying them down. We caught six that way, and the dogs [then] caught two.

“If you can get a horse or dog to love you, they will do anything for you,” he adds. “They will die for you. Do anything you ask. All about getting them to accept you and love you.” Mandy Larremore, co-owner, with her husband Jim, of the Big Bend Equine Center in Alpine, Texas, calls Seaton “the most optimistic person [she ’s] ever met.” “They are an awesome family,” Larremore says. “They go everywhere together—to ranch rodeos, to cutting horse competitions. Someone in the family is always winning something. He came here and did a dog demonstration [at the Equine Center]. I was amazed.” She laughs. “I’ve had dogs and I didn’t realize dogs could really listen.

“It’s Wild Kingdom around their place,” she adds. Besides the 16 dogs and handful of horses the Seatons keep, there is there’s occasional wild deer being nursed back to health and, now, a wild pig that’s become a pet. Jessica Simpson, by name. We’re leaning on the railing of the round pen at the Seatons’ place as Michael works a young horse while keeping his dogs in practice working a handful of Corriente steers. Brina, Michael’s wife, remarks that just the day before, working with only his animals to help him, he had caught and trailered someone’s runaway, gone-wild Longhorn steer—one that had a 6-foot horn spread.

“I don’t know how he did it,” she says. “He had to get its horns turned to get it into the trailer.” The thing weighed 1,900 pounds. Seaton’s take: “He was pretty heavy on the end of that line.” Later, asked if it takes a big horse to hold such a big steer, Seaton doesn’t hesitate. “Heart,” he says. “It takes heart.”

As Gorbit notes, “The way he makes a horse, he puts the miles on them. He exposes them to all the things they need to be exposed to. And you can find a lot of people whoare good with horses, but it is hard to find people who can work with dogs, too. Michael can.”

Brina, when asked what their dreams were, as a couple, says they hope to pass something on to their children. “It would be wonderful if Michael could pass his talents on to the kids,” she says. “Besides that, I’d just hope that we can someday have a nice big home, and an arena, and all those fancy things.” They’ll keep working on it. “Michael is always telling me that he couldn’t do it without me,” she says. For his part, “I just want to kick along, raise a family, and smile,” Michael says.

To quote Ramon Adams: “There ain’t much paw and beller to a cowboy.” No sir, there’s not.