Cowboy Up: Stop a stampede

A crucial skill for cowboys on the trail.
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Credit: mckilbo illo

Credit: mckilbo illo

Perhaps the most dangerous peril on the trail in the late 1800s was the stampede. Cowboys often lost their lives when their horses stumbled in front of a thousand running steers. However, the skills they developed to cope with the runaways are still in practice today. Excerpted from men who went up the trail, here’s how to stop a stampede.

Keep ’em happy
“If cattle have had plenty of grass and water just before they are put on the bed ground, they will be more contented and lie down and rest,” explained Fay Ward in The Cowboy At Work. “But when cattle are hungry and thirsty, they become restless and will keep getting up and disturbing those that are down—all of which gets them well primed for a run at the slightest provocation.”

Ride alongside
“The only thing to do during a stampede was to ride in the lead of the cattle—not in front, but alongside—and try to head them into a mill,” wrote Teddy Blue Abbott in We Pointed Them North. “Once they got to milling they would stop running after a while.”


Fall back
“If a rider on the right-hand side of the running herd is closer to the leaders than the rider on the left side,” Ward explained, “the rider on the left side should fall back and let the riders on the right side bend the leaders to the left. If the riders on one side don’t fall back, the cattle will be laned and will run straight ahead until they are exhausted.” 

Turn the herd
“There were about fifty or sixty big steers in the lead of our bunch,” wrote Andy Adams in Log of a Cowboy. “We opened in their front with our six-shooters, shooting into the ground in their very faces, and were rewarded by having them turn tail and head the other way. I rode to the lead, unfastening my slicker as I went, and on reaching the turned leaders, flaunted my ‘fish’ in their faces until they re-entered the rear guard of our string, and soon we had a mill going which kept them busy and rested our horses.”


Sounds of safety
“We would sing or make some kind of noise while we were riding with a stampede,” Abbott explained. “Because if you could hear your partner you knew he was all right, but if you couldn’t hear him, he might be down. And if that happened, you stopped trying to mill the cattle and let them run in a straight direction to get away from him.” 

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