Sometimes ponies and children can astound you with the work they can do and the common sense they exhibit.
One afternoon, dad decided it was time to round up a herd of a hundred steers and bring them to the corrals. My youngest brother, Dale, was seven years old at the time and rode a Shetland pony we called Cheyenne. Dale was strong for his age, quiet, and didn’t miss much. The pony was, of course, small and tough as nails. He was mouse-coloured and sported white patches over his body. A fuzzy mane framed big brown eyes. Having lived on the ranch for a couple of summers, Cheyenne had a healthy respect for the length of our working days and had become a good little working horse.
My dad and Dale were riding into a pasture that was several sections (square miles) in size and was filled with poplars, small meadows, and dozens of lakes of various sizes, each of which sported at least one beaver house. Stuffed with wildlife and as convoluted as the most complex 3-D puzzle, few people rode without one of us as a guide. If you couldn’t maintain your directions (north, south, east, and west) in the trees and identify small landmarks, it was impossible to keep your bearings.
The steers would be scattered in small groups so it could take some time to find them all. In thick underbrush, you could ride by an entire herd and never see them.
So this is what they were riding into. Being seven, Dale was capable of handling Cheyenne. Riding bareback, he trotted after his dad’s big ranch horse. Cheyenne could almost walk beneath the bigger mount.
After riding for a half hour or so, they split up to cover more ground. Dale headed to the right. The sun was blazing and everybody who has ever worked cattle in the bush knows that they like to nap in the heat of the day. Tough to get them moving. Kind of like your mother calling you for school. And when you’re a child riding a cute-as-hell pony, it’s hard to get them to take you seriously.
Dale followed some of the well-used cattle trails until he found a half-dozen steers laying in the shade chewing their cuds. Comfortable. Don’t bother me.
He broke off some branches to chase them with, made some noise, and harassed them until some got to their feet. As others followed, he and Cheyenne got them moving towards the ranch headquarters then plunged back into the thick poplars to find more. As each group lurched to their feet, he pushed them towards the first. He kept prodding and pushing, sending them in the right direction. As a quiet, patient child, he never got stressed – but he also never gave up. The afternoon wore on and the first group grew in size as more companions joined.
Not only did my brother need to add more steers to the herd, he had to keep driving them towards the headquarters at a fast enough speed to keep them from scattering back into the trees and resuming their naps. Translation: this was a big job for a seven-year-old and one small pony. In fact, it was a big job for a cowboy. To bring in this many steers usually took three riders – one on either side to find and gather the small bunches out of the trees and one to keep the main herd moving.
Meanwhile, dad was scouring the other side of the pasture which was empty of cattle. As the afternoon wore on, he retraced his steps to see if he could find Dale and Cheyenne. In spite of loud calling, there was no answer. Not surprising with so many trees in the way muffling the sound.
Knowing that all our horses would go home if given their head (letting them go their own way), he wasn’t concerned about Dale getting lost. Cheyenne would always take him home and Dale knew it. The worse that could happen is Dale might fall off – and it wasn’t far to the ground.
The sun was nearing the horizon when dad rode into the yard, expecting Dale would’ve ridden around a few hours then given up and gone home.
The ranch yard was quiet. No Dale. No cattle. Hmmm.
He plunged back into the trees, taking a different direction, calling and hoping to run into the child. Since it would be dark soon, he was getting uneasy. Where could that kid have gotten to? If he’d fallen off, Cheyenne would’ve come home but there was no sign of the pony either.
More than two hours of fruitless searching later, he returned to the ranch headquarters wondering where he’d put that .303 rifle his wife had threatened to use on Old Yeller. When she discovered he’d lost their youngest son, there was going to be hell to pay and he didn’t want it anywhere near her.
He was sweating bullets, thinking about who to call to help search through the night when he rode into the quiet yard, the two yard-lights insufficient for the area. His last hope dashed to the ground when Cheyenne and Dale were nowhere to be seen. He rode out of the soft grass onto the gravelled loading area where the only sounds were those of his horse’s footsteps scrunching on stones and the squeak of saddle leather.
With a jolt, his horse jerked to a stop, threw up his head and perked his ears. Dad looked to see what had caught his mount’s attention. There was a shadow at the far corral gates. As he moved closer, he saw one of the pens was filled with steers. A hundred pairs of eyes stared out at him.
The pen gate was open – but a small boy riding a small pony was stationed between the posts. Those steers weren’t going anywhere. Not big enough to close the cowboy-sized gates, Dale had stood guard for nearly two hours waiting for his dad to arrive.
As a wave of relief washed over him, dad rode up to Dale who, with no change of expression, tipped his head back to look up at his father.
Still astride his tired pony, he said with infinite patience, “What happened?. . . Did ya get lost . . .?”