They Ride Good Horses
The Van Normans ranch in the Great Basin area of the Northwest. They are horseback every day. And their remuda is one of the best.
By Jim Jennings in America’s Horse | January 1, 0001
When I arrived in Elko, Nevada, the evening of June 10, 2002, I called Bill Van Norman to see what time he wanted me at his house the next morning. “Oh, about 6 o’clock, Jim.” “Bill,” I asked, “what time does it get daylight here?” “About 5.” Relieved, I realized that at 6 a.m. it would be light enough to take pictures. Back home in Amarillo, two time zones away, it’s barely light enough to see at 6 in the morning. Bill added, “By the way, Jim, did you bring a jacket? It snowed two inches here this morning.”
Not only was I two time zones away from the 90-degree heat in Amarillo, I was 3,500 feet higher and several hundred miles farther north. Elko is in northern Nevada, and although the small community of Tuscarora, near which Van Norman Ranches are located, is only slightly north of Elko, it is even higher, up around 6,400 feet.
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But the snow didn’t last, and shortly after 6 the following morning we were in Bill’s pickup truck, climbing a mountain. We were looking for a group of yearling colts, turned out for the summer in a mountain pasture. Bill wanted to show them to me. He was proud of them and wanted me to know why Van Norman Ranches was the 2001 winner of the AQHA-Bayer Best Remuda Award. The Van Normans ride good horses. It was Bill’s father, Charlie, who put the ranches together. He and his wife, Della, bought a small homestead in Independence Valley, near Tuscarora, in 1945, and through the years they added to it. In later years, their sons, Bill and Robin, and their respective families, took over operation of the ranches. When Charlie died in 1996, and Della in 2000, the ranches were firmly established and continue to operate today. Van Norman Ranches is a cow outfit. They run about 1,400 cows, calve in the spring, usually in April, and carry those calves throughout the winter. They are then sold as yearlings the next fall. But winter comes early in northern Nevada and lasts a long time. Most years find the Van Normans feeding their cattle by mid-December, and they don’t quit until the middle of April, when the snow melts. There have been years when they had to start feeding as early as the first of November, and the demands are high, from one and a half to two tons of hay per cow. Winter temperatures can get as cold as 40 below zero, but that’s rare. Most winter nights are in the 10 degree range, and daytime temperatures are usually in the 20s and 30s. Cow outfits in the Great Basin – that high desert, sagebrush sea that touches the states of Utah, Idaho and California, but lies mostly in northern Nevada and eastern Oregon – are typically big and cover some rough country. Horses are a requirement, and the Van Norman Ranches is no exception. Bill and Robin’s dad, Charlie, grew up in northern California, where Charlie’s father was superintendent of the Gerlach Livestock Company. Good horses were a way of life on the Gerlach, and when Charlie came to Nevada, he brought that tradition with him. Charlie and Della bought the geldings they used as they were establishing their ranches, but when Bill returned from the Army, he introduced a new line of thinking to the family. He felt they should start raising their own. They knew the kind they wanted to ride, so why not start breeding them? In 1969, Bill leased a band of mares and a buckskin stallion named Johnny Carlo from Melvin Jones of Carlin, Nevada, and they had their start. Johnny Carlo went back to Nick Shoemaker on the top side and Joe Bailey on the bottom. He was foundation bred and sired cow horses that had good bone, size and disposition. As Charlie and Bill continued to upgrade their horse herd, those were the characteristics they were looking for. And the breeding of their horses today reflect those characteristics. All the mares are pasture bred, with the stallions turned out in May. They raise all the horses used on the ranch and ride mostly geldings, although they try to ride all the fillies that go back into the broodmare band and will occasionally ride a mare for ranch work. Those not used are sold. As mentioned before, winters are harsh, but the horses are accustomed to it. Bill said, “We don’t feed our mares much hay or grain. There’s normally plenty of grass in the hay meadows in the summer, and during the winter, if the grass is down there, they’ll paw that snow off. “Besides,” he continued, “they winter with the cows. When we feed the cows, the mares push in there and get some hay. But two months before they foal, they start getting alfalfa. “These mares were born here, and they know how to survive. You go to California or Texas and buy one, and bring her up here, she’s going to die if you don’t take care of her. It takes them a couple of years to get accustomed to the weather.” It’s a horseback operation, and when there’s work to be done, everyone is horseback, including Bill’s wife, Geri, their son Ty and Ty’s wife, Ronda. In the Great Basin, cowboys – or buckaroos, as they are called there – take many of their traditions from the early day California vaqueros. That includes their equipment and how they ride their horses. “We will start riding our colts in the spring of their 2-year-old year,” Bill said, “but we will only ride them about 10 times and then turn them out for six months. We’ll start using them when they are long 2’s. They’ll still get some breaks, but from then on they are pretty much a part of the string. “We’ll ride them in a snaffle bit until they are 4 or 5 years old,” he continued, “and then put them in a hackamore (bosal) for a year or two. Then they’ll be in the two-rein for a couple of years, and then into the bridle. Bill explained that with the two-rein, the horse is ridden with the hackamore, but under the hackamore is a full bridle with a curb bit, usually a spade or half-breed. The horse might carry the bridle with no reins attached to the bit for a few days, as he learns to hold it in his mouth. Then the reins are added, and for the next year or so, he is ridden with both the bridle and the hackamore. As the horse gains experience, the reins to the hackamore are used less and those to the bridle more.
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“We believe their teeth aren’t mature enough for a bridle until they are at least 6 or 7,” Bill said. “Of course, there are a lot of horses that are not done that way, but if you’ve got a nice horse and you plan on showing him in the bridle, it’s definitely the best way to go.” It was midmorning as we drove down off the mountain. We had already shed our jackets in the rapidly warming morning, and Bill figured that Ty and the others had the cattle gathered and were at the branding pen, which was the plan for that day. Bill’s mind hadn’t been far from there all morning. Even though our mount so far had been the pickup, he had been wearing his chinks (chaps) and spurs since before 6, and his horse was patiently standing in the trailer waiting on him. Bill jumped his horse out, pulls up the cinch and steps aboard. As he shook out his rope, he motioned for me to follow him into the branding pen. He wanted to show me another reason why Van Norman Ranches was judged to have the best remuda.