Much of Southwestern New Mexico is an expanse of intermittent toboso flats, creosote-covered hills, and patches of grama grass, where the early morning colors of sunrise are as brief as they are dramatic, before the flatter greys and tans of the terrain quickly take over. The colors had already faded as we pulled our cinches tight and hopped for the stirrups, then gathered loosely around my foreman as he explained the lay of the pasture and how it would have to be rounded up. He sent one of the permanent men with a couple of riders to spread out along the near side of the pasture. As they trotted toward the slope of the nearby hill, the foreman sent the rest of the crew in the other direction under the lead of a cowboy whose horse had the legs and lungs for the outside circle, to scatter riders along the way and get around the outer perimeter in time to get the drive pointed back toward the corrals.
Shadows were still long, and the early morning breeze was banishing the last holdout of cool desert air as the foreman and I topped out on a ridge of hills rising roughly along the middle of the 20,000-acre pasture. The riders were just dots in the far distance, dropping off at intervals and spreading across the wide plain. Beyond them, puffs of powdery dust rising in the breeze identified the long-loping circle horse moving with dispatch along the outside fence. I could see cows, with calves in tow, moving out singly and in small bunches ahead of the wide closing circle of riders, and by late morning we had a couple hundred pairs in the drive. The point riders were keeping the leaders slowed down, not letting the wilder cows break out, while the swing, flank, and drag riders kept everything together and moving.
It is always a pleasure to watch good hands work cattle, and this crew was as good as could be asked for. The foreman knew how to recruit a branding crew of top hands, and the cowboys came from some distance for the chance to, for a couple weeks, join the permanent men in the spring works on an outfit covering a vast expanse of Southwestern New Mexico desert. Most were young, in their 20s, abundantly proving that good cowboys are not a thing of the past.
As quick as the herd was penned, the men set about the task of separating cows from calves, all done horseback. Not a boot touched the ground until it was time to pull the equipment in and make ready to brand. A couple ropers were picked out and the rest took up their positions as flankers, vaccinators, a dehorner, a cutter, and a brander. The ropers were signaled that irons were hot, and the pen was about to be turned into a roiling coordination of moving parts in a deceptively well-organized working system.
In the herd, the first roper’s horse slinked quiet and smooth, nodding into the bunch to make the calves break up and move. Swinging his rope in slow tempo, the roper laid a trap, the loop flopping under the flank of the first calf and snagging both hind feet. The horse ducked his head toward the branding fire and the action started. The calf was dragged near the fire and the flankers stepped in behind him, one grabbing the rope and one the tail. They took the struggling calf to the ground and held him as all the specialists crowded around, smoke rising, horns removed, injections done, and all the rest. The ropers snatched another calf, and then another and another, and the branding corral quickly fell into a busy routine.
In a couple hours, the last of the calves was stalked out and caught, and as the dragger brought it in, he signaled to the iron tender that this was the last of them. The propane fire was shut down and, even with the bawling cows and calves, it seemed suddenly quieter in the corral. The crew stowed the equipment and put the branding wagon in “march-order” for the next pasture. We mounted back up and drifted the cattle back to the pasture, loose-herding them until the cows and calves were paired up and settled. After a good dinner prepared by the foreman’s wife, we unsaddled, took care of the remuda, and made the plan for the next day.
The routine would repeat itself over the next 15 days as the spring work moved from pasture to pasture across the 300-section ranch. The pastures would be big, the rides long, and the work sometimes hard and hot, promising to pull the fat off both horse and man.
This was branding time at a ranch I managed, a seasonal event familiar throughout the ranching world. The techniques and time of year may vary, but the purpose is the same. Depending on location and management, the branding might be held in the summer or fall, but it is in most cases the “spring works” when that unique indelible mark of ownership—the brand—is put on the calf crop, the herd gets shaped up, and the ranch prepares for the rest of the season.
A few ranches still use a chuckwagon on the spring works, but these days, most rely on pickups and trailers to get to and from the action; nevertheless, whatever the style and means, the branding is a special event in the life cycle of a cattle operation.
I grew up on the Park Springs, a ranch in Northeastern New Mexico that pulled a chuckwagon in the spring. When the ranch was all a cow/calf operation, the wagon would be out for two weeks. We moved camp frequently, following a circuit with few roads and little proximity to the other ranches, so, although we had good neighbors on all sides, terrain and distance made neighboring difficult and impractical.
Neighbors at the wagon were few and infrequent, but 1982 was different. We couldn’t find a wagon cook that year, so my wife, Georgia, volunteered to do the essential work of managing the camp and feeding the men. That meant we would be bringing our daughters, who were just 6 and 8, along. Our older girl, Meredith, though only 8 years old, would be riding and working alongside the rest of the crew on her trusty bay cowpony.
The manager of the neighboring Conchas Ranch sent his two boys, along with the sons of one of his ranch hands, to work with us. There were five in all, between 12 and 14 years old. One might ask whether they were up to the task, or whether they ought to be given the work and responsibilities of grown men in a sometimes dangerous profession. Well, those questions would have been wasted on these boys, who took their assigned tasks with seasoned and businesslike bearing; there was nothing childish or immature about their work. After each day’s work was done, they would run and tease, playing the games of children, but when they walked into the corral or struck out horseback with orders from the boss, their demeanor was that of serious men on a serious mission. Their fathers and other men of authority had already begun to engrave a legacy on the centerline of these youngsters.
It was an unusual branding that year, with kids for much of the crew and a lady for a wagon cook, but it went well due to a ranch family’s commitment and the good will of good neighbors. We and the Conchas later agreed to throw in together for the next branding, combining our crews and hiring a professional cook with his own chuckwagon to work through both outfits, covering approximately 200,000 acres. The wagon was out 30 days that next spring.
Thinking back on those days, I remember many quietly conspicuous aspects of the ranch culture, like the generational handing-down of values and ways by instruction and example. For those who actually live it, ranching is a business and life waiting outside the front door every morning for owner and employee alike, and the entire family is part of it. Whether managing the books, doctoring sick animals, saddling up to help in the pasture, going for supplies, helping pull a newborn calf, praying for rain, cooking, or stepping in to fill the needs of the spring works, ranch wives and children by their own choice have a stake in the game.
We fortunate few partakers and observers of the ranch life have, innumerable times, seen a little boy taking on the set of his hat or the posture in his saddle that he sees in a parent or other grownup at the work, or a little girl, hat pulled down over her braids, following her daddy with the same “all-in” businesslike focus and intent on her face.
Over the years, reliance on neighbors has increased as a practical and economic necessity, and the branding is often an opportunity for neighbors and family to come together for a day or few in a common culture rich with tradition. Add to that a few friends who might join in from afar, and the branding becomes a reunion, where skills are honed, horses are shown off, friendships are renewed, and the enjoyment of a little sunshine, a little rain, a little dust, and a little cowboy-style action is shared. The chance to throw my “kack” and bedroll in the pickup and drive long distances to join old friends at branding time has always been an irresistible siren call.
Often, the branding is where many of a cowboy’s skills converge, and where teamwork is a necessary given. Anybody standing in the middle of a branding corral will agree that a lot is happening and, done wrong, can result in any variety of wrecks. To the untrained eye it is chaos, but, done right, it is a rough-hewn opera of ropers, flankers, branders, cutters, vaccinators, and dehorners working with common purpose and rapid economy of action, accompanied by the cacophonous mix of bawling cattle in the pens and roaring propane from the branding stove. For most folks, long rides, noisy dusty corrals, strenuous work, and sore muscles are not the criteria for enjoyment; but in the ranching world, satisfaction is found in a long day’s work well done, and joy is drawn in overcoming the wind and dust and hard ground, with assurance in knowing that there are always more good days than bad.
For the owner, it brings—among other things—satisfaction as the calves—the fruit of months and years of planning and management—are turned back into the pasture carrying a fresh brand. For all, the satisfaction is accompanied by qualities that make the branding more than a necessary annual chore, and the work more than seasonal agricultural toil. It becomes an expression of a way of life unique in today’s society, an interwoven fabric of tradition, community, professional pride, family, and legacy. Sometimes when one looks through the dust and among the moving cattle and horses, heritage in the making is readily visible. Often it’s a game-faced kid, relaxed in the saddle, hat pulled down, readily carrying out the assignment and learning, early in life, those cowboy code principles of “step up, pay attention, don’t get in the way, and make a hand”—principles that will serve well on any of life’s roads.
It is said that the first cattle to carry a brand in our part of the world were those brought by Coronado in his expeditions of the American Southwest. It marked the beginnings of a practice and tradition whose purposes over the next few centuries served to effectively identify and protect livestock ownership. Even today, most Western states hold the brand up as a final arbiter in civil as well as criminal law. The brand has traditionally been on par with a person’s coat of arms, and the emblem of identity for both the animal and its owner. Perhaps the importance of the brand in history, and in business, contributes to the mystique, alongside all the characteristics making the annual event of “the branding” special, enjoyed and celebrated by the folks of that world.
The branding is not an attraction, like rodeos or horse races, nor is it recreation in the sense of camping or ballgames. It is not accomplishment in the same way as running or climbing, with personal best performances or highest-rated achievements. To best see the intangibles of what branding actually is, we can look at the people who are part of that life. Often, the most accurate observer is the person who witnesses them for the first time, someone able to draw the picture on a clean canvas. A few years ago, I invited my son-in-law, a young Marine lieutenant, home from his third combat deployment, to travel with me to the branding on the Apishapa Canyon Ranch in Southern Colorado. Upon reflection he later wrote of his experience:
“…As I sat there taking it all in, it occurred to me that being a Marine and being a Cowboy are not that different. I am not a Cowboy, I don’t even own a pair of spurs, but sitting there with those men and women I felt the kind of abiding content that a man feels when he is with his own people and in his own country. In the weathered faces of the cowboys around me, I saw years of rough but honest living like I have seen in Marines countless times. I saw in the women there the beauty, strength, grace, and tolerance seen in women that have grown accustomed to an uncertain and challenging life with a hardheaded man. I have seen that type of woman before; I married one. These were my people and being there with them was what I needed.”
Why is “the branding” so special? Maybe a cowboy’s answer would be simply: “Its what we do. It’s our heritage. It’s how we raise our kids and enjoy our friends.”
That would be enough for me.