Horseback riding isn’t a day in the park for feedyard horses, who encounter sometimes-harsh conditions, commotion and cattle.

From America's Horse

Rain, heat, snow, sleet or hail, the cattle's needs always prevail. Journal photo.

Feedyard horses are like mailmen - nothing keeps them from making their appointed rounds.

At any given moment, there are around 11 million cattle on feed nationwide being pampered so they’ll make consumers the tastiest hamburgers, roasts and steaks. Feedyard horses spend most of their time patrolling pens while their Wrangler-clad riders scout for and doctor sick or injured cattle. The rest of the time, they’re moving critters from one pen to another. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night keeps these sentries from taking care of cattle.

Working here is anything but glamorous. It’s a mundane, routine chore. Besides that, there’s a lot of commotion – slamming gates on semi-trucks, the grinding gears of feed trucks and that annoying “beep-beep-beep” of backing trucks and tractors. The horses become acclimated to the noise and extremes.

In the summer, it’s hot enough to fry a steak, and there are no snow days in the winter - after all, cattle still have to be fed. Some days, the dust and odor (cattlemen say it smells like money) make you want to strap on an oxygen mask.

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The cowboys clock in before dawn and might not hang up their saddles till after sundown. They either bring their own mounts or the yard supplies them.

These horses need to know the basics - stop, back, turn around, sidepass - to be able to open and close gates, quietly sort a single steer from a pen of 75 head or push a load of cattle down an alleyway. They can be up to their fetlocks in mud and manure or trodding on ground as hard as concrete.

“It’s asking a lot of a 2- or 3-year-old to do the kinds of things we expect,” says Kevin Dwyer.“You’ve got to have a horse that can stand getting poked in the ribs once in a while by a gate handle or steer and not come unglued.”

The perfect feedyard horse - durable, coarse, big-boned with big feet - won’t win any beauty contests.

“But they’re good-minded, they’re solid, and they put up with a lot,” Kevin says.

It’s no place for a green-broke horse. Well, it used to be until horse-related workman’s compensation claims started piling up. Cowboys were getting hurt because they lacked good horsemanship skills or were using horses that didn’t have the basic abilities required to work in feedlot.

“These days, the guys that come to work in the feedyard are either good sick-cattle detectors or good horsemen, not both,” says Jerry Riemann of Garden City, Kansas.

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Because of this, and to reduce workman’s comp claims, a lot of feedlot managers send their cowboys to special safety seminars to learn horsemanship principles and understand what’s safe and what’s not.

These days, the feedlot - formerly a factory for well-broke horses - has become a consumer of well-broke horses.