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Story courtesy of America's HorseStory by Jim Jennings
The 118-year-old Pitchfork Ranch breeds good horses by necessity, because no modern convenience can take their place in rugged terrain.
In 1881, Dan Gardner was looking for a partner. He and Col. J.S. Godwin had contracted to buy a herd of longhorn cattle, but due to family problems, Godwin wanted out of the deal. Gardner wasn’t strong enough financially to handle it all himself, so he began searching for help.
At the last minute, Gardner remembered his Mississippi boyhood friend Eugene F. Williams, who lived in St. Louis. When approached, Williams must have liked the idea of becoming a Texas rancher. He took a train to Fort Worth, and he and Gardner bought out Godwin’s interest in the herd. Williams then returned to St. Louis, leaving Gardner to manage their operation.
Gardner took delivery of 2,600 head of Longhorns, all carrying a pitchfork brand. Along with the cattle came 70 horses. The cattle and horses were on land that ranged through Dickens and King counties in central West Texas, and Gardner made a deal for the land, too.
Over the next few years, to help with business expenses, Gardner and Williams took in other partners and incorporated the ranch as the Pitchfork Land and Cattle Company. Each of the partners was named a director, but Gardner and Williams continued to call the shots. Under their direction, the Pitchfork became one of the most respected ranches in the state. Today, it is one of the largest and oldest ranches in American history.
Williams died in 1900 and Gardner in 1928, but by then Williams’ two sons, Eugene and Gates, had already picked up their father’s interests and worked closely with Gardner. Eugene’s son, Gene, followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle, and today Gene Williams is chairman of the board of Pitchfork Land and Cattle Company. From his St. Louis office, he works closely with current general manager Bob Moorhouse.
Moorhouse, an AQHA Director, is only the seventh manager of the 118-year-old ranch. He oversees the entire operation, which includes 165,000 acres at the headquarters near Guthrie, Texas, as well as 3,000 acres at nearby Benjamin, and another 3,300 in the Kansas Flint Hills. Together, the three ranches run about 6,000 head of cattle – either cows or yearlings, depending upon how each ranch is stocked – and 55 broodmares. Approximately 100 geldings make up the ranch’s saddle horse remuda.
In January, AQHA and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association honored the Pitchfork with the Best Remuda Award. The award, created by the two associations along with sponsor Bayer Animal Health, recognizes ranches that raise the best cow horses.
“We make use of all the modern conveniences we can,” Moorhouse says. “We have two-way radios in our pickups, and we use stock trailers to haul our horses to different parts of the ranch. However, we have not found anything to replace the horse on this ranch.”
The Pitchfork raises all its horses. Mares are divided into five bands, with a stallion turned out with each band. Stallions used this year were Mito Ltd, by Mito Commander out of a daughter of Shot O’ Gin; Pay Forty Four, by Preferred Pay out of a Genuine Doc mare; Mr Gray Fork by Gray Dee Bar out of a daughter of Forko; Jack Nasty, by a son of Jackie Bee; and Sirs Sir, by Sir Savannah.
Foals are halter broken and branded in July, then they’re turned back with the mares and not weaned until fall. Each foal receives four brands: the signature pitchfork brand on his left shoulder; a number on his left buttock denoting his sire; a number on his left jaw identifying his mare family; and a number on the right jaw indicating foaling year. With this series of brands, someone can recognize the horse at any time in his life, and tell his age and how he’s bred.
The cowboys ride only geldings. The fillies are either sold or used as replacements in the broodmare band. The Pitchfork held a production sale with the neighboring Four Sixes and Beggs ranches in 1997, and they plan to have another in the fall of 2000. Moorhouse says they sell some geldings as well as mares, but “I don’t want to sell geldings away from the cowboys when they need them to do their job.”
Currently, 10 full-time cowboys work on the ranch. Each is allowed 10 horses in his “string.” In other words, each cowboy has 10 horses that he can call his and use to perform his work.
Each cowboy adds a two-year-old to his string annually. Moorhouse says, “To me, it’s very, very important to get a good colt each year.”
The cowboys start riding their two-year-olds right after they finish branding, usually in late spring or early summer, and the horses are slowly introduced to cow work. As three-year-olds, they are ridden more, and by the time the horse is four, he’s fully dependable as a cow horse.
“The Pitchfork is known for its good horses,” Moorhouse says. “Cowboys have been known to stay on the ranch instead of taking another job because they didn’t want to leave their horses.”
Some cowboys live with their families in various “camps” around the ranch. The residences are not actually camps, but consist of a house near a set of corrals and a barn. A cowboy who lives in a camp keeps his string of horses in a small pasture or “trap” near his house, and cares for the portion of the ranch in his area.
Other cowboys live in houses at the ranch headquarters, and four of the single cowboys live in the bunkhouse there. All of these men eat breakfast and dinner (lunch) at the cookhouse, where Moorhouse and wagon boss James Gholson give orders for the day. The cowboys who live in the bunkhouse also take supper at the cookhouse, while the married men eat with their families.
At branding time in the spring, or weaning in the fall, each cowboy takes his horses and joins the other cowboys on the ranch at a designated location, where they all work together, moving across the ranch until all the cattle have been worked. Moorhouse sends the chuckwagon, which becomes the cowboys’ home for most of the week. A hired cook prepares three meals a day over a wood fire, and the cowboys eat all their meals under the wagon “fly” or tarp.
They stay with the wagon Monday through Saturday, sleeping in range tepees or tents. This eliminates the need to drive to work each day. By daylight, the cowboys have finished breakfast and are ready to catch their horses. A rope corral serves as a temporary holding pen, while the wagon boss, or foreman, ropes each cowboy’s mount.
Much of the Pitchfork Ranch is made up of extremely rough terrain. Small, steep canyons and cedar and thick mesquite trees make crossing some pastures by any method but horseback impossible. The terrain reinforces Moorhouse’s claim that there will always be horses on the ranch because the rough pastures require a unique way of gathering cattle.
As a drive begins, the cowboys ride single file in a long trot across the pasture, following the wagon boss, who periodically stops and drops off a man. Extra cowboys are hired when the pastures are gathered for branding or shipping, so by the time each cowboy is assigned a spot, there might be up to 12 to 14 men, 200 to 300 yards apart, in a line 1 1/2 miles long. The number of riders depends upon the size of the pasture and the density of the brush. In a real brushy pasture, where a cowboy might not even be able to see the man next to him, the wagon boss whoops to the closest cowboy, and the call is passed down the line until the last cowboy knows it’s time to move out.
As the line moves across the pasture, the cattle are pushed to a designated point and penned. Calves are branded, or weaned, depending on the time of the year and the operation underway.
On Saturday afternoon, most of the cowboys return to their homes and their families, but they’re back at the wagon by Sunday afternoon. Branding usually takes about a month, and weaning in the fall takes four to five weeks.
The work is hard, and the days are long, but the cowboys work on the ranch by choice. As one of them puts it, “It’s good to get home in the evening, take a shower and wash the dust off, but then you just can’t wait to get back out there and catch another horse.”
To nominate a ranch for the Best Remuda Award, sponsored by Bayer, call (806) 376-4811.
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