The Ties That Bind

We may have different tack, but our great traditions are the same.

Ranch Horse Journal

We may have different tack, but our great traditions are the same.

Certainly, things differ about ranching from region to region. For example, there are Texas- and Arizona cowboys and gear (split reins, shotguns, taco-style hat creases and Association trees), and then you've got your buckaroo/Great Basin cowboys (if you think flat hats and slick-fork saddles, you’re in the right neighborhood), and your Californio cowboys (tortilla hats, big horns, reins and romal, and armitas). There are also those who kind of just pick and choose what they love about that gear, the traditions, those “ways of doing things,” and try to make it their own.

As different as all those styles are, including the horsemanship aspect, there are plenty of things in ranching that are similar.

You’ve got kind, hard-working, handy people the country over, who enjoy making solid, dependable ranch horses or bridle horses. Some will start in the snaffle, advance to the hackamore, then to the two-rein, until they’re straight up in a spade bit, and some will take the Californio route, by skipping the snaffle altogether – choosing to start their colts in a bosal instead (there’s a great story about that in the August-September Performance Horse Journal). And there are plenty of people who go from a snaffle or side pull to a curb bit.

Pretty much everyone who ranches and works their cattle horseback has roped at one time or another, and they’re very often a handy team roper, a handier ranch roper and, maybe, they’re even good in the show ring. There’s even a handful of people who live on ranches who run barrels, ride broncs and can throw a dang fine houlihan.

The things that remain steady, regardless of who you are or where you ranch, are Quarter Horses, great dogs, great friends, quality gear and a lifestyle that’s often imitated but rarely duplicated.

The regional differences between ranches – gear and tradition aside – fascinate me. Folks in some parts of the country will start calving in February. Some, like us, not until the 15th of April, and some are even later yet.

Everyone has their reasons for why they do things the way they do – oftentimes born out of tradition or necessity. East of the river in South Dakota, you’ll find that a lot of the farmers that run cattle calve them earlier because they don’t want calving to coincide with planting crops.

We choose not to calve until the middle of April so we’re not fighting those potential spring blizzards. There’s a reason why – if you look around in the spring, when the weather is nice, there are babies of multiple species everywhere. It’s because with our “hands-off” approach to calving, they’ve a better chance at survival when there’s sunshine and warmer temperatures, as opposed to below-freezing temps with potential for snow.

While it seems as though this would lead to lower weaning weights, it makes more sense for our operation. By avoiding feeding hay or feeding less hay by calving later – made possible because the cow’s needs are at its peak when the grass is at premium nutrition – we are leaving more room for profit. When inputs are factored in, the difference in sale prices have been minimal for any lighter-weight calves.

That’s just how we do things on this outfit – in addition to raising and making excellent ranch horses. I love and respect that everyone has their reasons for doing things, whether borne out of tradition or years of trial and error. I think that’s how a lot of good horses have been made, too – we’ve discovered that this works or doesn’t. And so traditions and techniques become what they are – passed down from one generation to the next. Regardless of the why or the how, we’re all here, enjoying fine horses, open country and a pretty awesome way of life.

Until next time – Happy Trails!

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer, freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens. She resides in South Dakota on the DX Ranch, a third-generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows, as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at