Blue Ridge Day Work

Horseback riding with a day-work cowboy in Virginia.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Derrick Hicks pulls on his boots, grabs his hat and heads for the door; a faint “clink, clink” sounds with each step. Sunrise is hours away. Outside, the mountain air is still and cool, and the slight spur jingle is the only sound. The gooseneck stock trailer waits in the driveway; he hitched it up to the dually the night before when John Rhudy, foreman of the Steele Cattle Co., called for an extra hand.

The mares, Santio Roany, “Rose,” and MJG Scottish Hickory, “Hickory,” stand calmly in the corral. Derrick opens the gate and deftly slips halters on them, mostly by feel. The trailer rattles when they step inside, but these American Quarter Horses settle quickly. They know the drill. Derrick checks his gear – saddle, rope, chinks – by the truck cab light. A moment later, he fires the diesel up to begin the two-and-a-half-hour commute to where he’ll help gather and sort cattle.

The scene is typical enough for an average day-working cowboy making a wage with a truck, trailer, a string of good horses and a well-earned knowledge of cattle. But there’s something unusual about this one: He’s not in a rough, arid Western state, but in the lush country of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, some of the steepest, most unforgiving country in the Appalachians.

Day Work in Virginia

Cowboying as a profession is certainly less common in the mid-Atlantic than in the western regions of North America. Working cattle from horseback, however, is still done back East for the same reasons it remains viable in other parts of the country.

“Mostly, you still need horses because you can’t get over all of the terrain with four-wheelers,” Derrick says. “It’s kind of a vast difference in terrain (around here). You go from flat to hilly, to bushes, to woods, and you just can’t get four-wheelers everywhere. Of course, you can work your cattle slower on horses most of the time. That’s a real good thing.

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“A four-wheeler has its place, but it’s not really in cattle as far as going and getting them up, because even just the noise spooks them sometimes. If you approach the cattle right, even if they’re not used to a horse, they still respond to (the horse) in a positive way.”

Part-time and full-time positions for experienced cowboys exist in Virginia at some beef cattle operations. Derrick has been offered full-time work at two Virginia farms in the past several years – both of which would have required him and wife Tanya to relocate.

So he sticks to his regular job in the family logging business that he runs with his brother, Jeffrey, and father, David. The family also raises beef cattle, mainly cow-calf pairs, on its deeded farm and several hundred acres of leased land in Floyd, Virginia. The farm work includes a sizable haying operation that provides winter feed for the livestock.

Even with its demands, it is the flexible family work schedule that makes it possible for Derrick to day-work at other cattle operations. Sometimes he’ll be gone up to a week or two cowboying, especially when cattle are coming in and being herded to pastures, or being gathered, sorted and shipped out.

Trailering horses for two and a half hours to brave the elements and ride for an hourly wage – sometimes for only a single day – might seem like an unprofitable alternative to logging and farming close to home. For Derrick, however, working cattle from a Quarter Horse and bringing his horses along in their training while on the job are their own rewards.

Well Mounted

“I think they actually like to work,” Derrick says of his mares. “(It) seems like they have a different personality about them whenever you pull them off the trailer, and you’re actually going to work instead of a trail ride or something like that. I like my Quarter Horses. They’re just more made for (the cattle work). And if you do have to rope, they can hold up to it. They can go all day, and the next day, and the next day if you need them to. The Quarter Horse generally tends to be a little more laid back than other horses I have seen.”

Derrick adds: “If I’m just going to be working one day, I usually take one (horse). If I’m going to be working anywhere from two days to a week – sometimes more – I take two horses with me. That way, I can give one a rest.”

When at home between jobs, Hickory and Rose typically stay in a paddock just across the fence from Derrick’s front yard. There’s a round pen and a couple of longhorns in a cattle pen by the house, too, which he often uses for training horses for roping and ranch work. He has a list of folks lined up wanting him to train their horses, but between the day work and the family businesses, he rarely has time to ride outside horses.

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“I’ve always rode horses,” he says. “Mom’s got a picture of me at 6 months old, sitting on the back of a horse, and I guess it started from there. I’ve never been without one, and I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have one. I’d be lost.”

Where Cowboys Are Scarce

Another job for a Virginia cowboy with a seasoned ranch horse, Derrick has discovered, is dealing with the occasional rogue bovine. Word travels about a serious working cowboy in a region where they are scarce.

“Every once in awhile, some farmer around will have a cow that for some odd reason breaks bad,” Derrick says. “Something mishaps or she gets out, or it’s the first time she’s ever been out and they can’t get her in with feed. Unfortunately, it’s usually after she’s been run with a four-wheeler and they couldn’t get her in. It makes the job even tougher because we have a cow that’s already on alert, and she’s looking for any reason to run, and then we have to go get her up and rope her.”

Derrick was even hired to catch a horse that, all saddled up for a trail ride, got away from the rider and spent several days roaming the countryside, tack and all.

One reason more farmers don’t hire local cowboys in the East for help, he says, is simply the lack of truly experienced hands. Sometimes a bad stigma exists from the misadventures of some not-so-knowledgeable rider.

“A lot of local people don’t like horses in their cattle,” he explains. “I know a couple outfits that run stockers, and they use four-wheelers, and the reason is they had a burn-out on horses. They got a weekend warrior – he may have known what a cow was and what a horse was, but he didn’t know how to go about working the two together. So he would get in a bunch of cattle and just run them trying to get them up. If you get the wrong person or two, then you might have a big wreck. That’s one reason that it doesn’t happen as often around this area. They don’t know the benefits of the horse.”

Regardless, Derrick thinks working cattle with horses in the mountains where he lives is the best way for both people and cattle.

“I just feel really blessed that there is this type of work in this area to be able to do it, and say that I have done it, and will still be able to do it as long as there are cattle and horses.”

Tom Moates is a regular contributor to America's Horse and The American Quarter Horse Journal, and is also the author of six horse books. His newly realeased book, “Going Somewhere,” is available at www.tommoates.com, or you can visit Quarter Horse Outfitters to purchase his other publications.