Lost Skills of the Branding Pen

Though practiced for over 150 years, the subtle techniques and etiquette of the branding pen aren’t always honored. Here are a few of the most important.
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Though practiced for over 150 years, the subtle techniques and etiquette of the branding pen aren’t always honored. Here are a few of the most important.
Illustration by Erwin Sherman

[NO LOPING]

Sometimes, slow is fast. Most rope-and-drag brandings prefer the work be done smoothly and efficiently. A horse loping will likely stir up the herd unnecessarily.


[STICK TO YOUR SIDE]

Although it depends on the corral setup, often just two ropers will be in the herd at a time. If that’s the case, it’s best to stick to your side.


[NEVER ASSUME]

Once the cattle are gathered and in the pen, tie your horse up and find a way to help afoot. The boss will assign you a job and if you are to rope, you will be asked.


[TEAMWORK]

Branding requires working together. If it’s a California-style event, calves are headed and heeled, creating a completely different set of rules and nuance. Even at a traditional rope-and-drag event, you can help your fellow roper with subtle moves to shift a calf to a position where he can be more easily caught. Never cut a fellow roper off by riding in front of him and never rope a calf in a way that might put other ropers or the ground crew at risk of injury.


[KNOW YOUR PLACE]

For the team on the ground—flankers, vaccinators, branders, and castrators—the object is to work quickly and efficiently and stay out of the way. Wait until the calf is flanked and restrained before approaching to do your job. Once you’re there, do it and get out. Keep your eyes up; there are hot irons and sharp needles everywhere. And, in all cases, horses have the right of way.


[REMEMBER THE FLANKERS]

Good ropers will always bring their calves out of the herd roped by two hind feet. It’s much easier on flankers to get the calf on the ground that way. Different brandings have different expectations, though. If you’re new, watch and learn. If you’re asked to rope first, clarify with the boss. Sometimes it is catch as catch can. Ropers who repeatedly bring out big calves roped by one leg above the hock might not get to rope again. Exceptions include smaller, weak calves or sneaky calves that have managed to escape the snare until the end.