Day Work; Owyhee County, Idaho

Monday the 9th of November I rode with a cowboy crew out of Bruneau Idaho. We loaded horses, cowboys and drivers to take vehicles back to Bruneau and headed south down highway 51 towards Mountain City Nevada.

Just out of Mountain City less than a mile heading towards Elko we pulled off a dirt road to the left and after 14 miles and another hour of driving we unloaded horses, swung a leg over cold saddles, after draining our bladders and started gathering cattle pushing them north towards Idaho and home. We wouldn’t make it all the way home but we’d make it to Sheep Creek and a good portion of the cows would continue home from there.

Last year about the same date it was 7 degrees and 7:00 A.M. when we got on our horses; this year it was 8:30 and 17 degrees. Overcast and no sunshine this year. Last year it was late in the morning when the sun started to drive the chill from our bones, no such luck this year.

Which day was coldest, this year or last? Not sure I can answer that accurately but knee jerk reaction, I’ll go go with this year. Still haven’t got all the feeling back in my finger tips. No frostbite just a slight loss of feeling. Certainly not the first time I’ve been cold and probably won’t be the last.

Day work; what does that mean? In cowboy lingo, it’s a days worth of work for a fixed wage. That day may be 12 hours or it might be 20 hours; either way you signed on for ‘the day’. No signature required, just a verbal, ‘I can use you such and such day or days’, ‘I’ll be there’.

Day work wages vary but in Southwest Idaho the going rate is around a hundred bucks. Tough way to make a hundred bucks; trust me.

So for a hundred bucks you provide your own horse, saddle and healthy body and attitude. Get up at 3:30. spend 5 hours more or less in a pickup dragging a horse trailer around, and another 8 to 10 hours in the saddle and finally find your bed around 11:00. Oh By the way that’s 3:30 A.M. and 11:00 P.M.; sorry for the confusion.

So why do it? That’s a hard question to answer, evidently not for the money. Well actually the money is pretty good incentive.

Why do we do it? I’ll let you decide.

Romance? Nope, that’s for the movies.

So we can write poetry? Cowboy poetry that is. Probably not, it’s hard to write poetry with frost bitten fingers.

While you are pondering ‘why we would do it’, I’ll fill you in on our crew.

We were all experienced cowboy’s, no cowgirls on this ride. We ranged in age from late teens to seventy. Three of us were late 60’s to 70, one was late 30’s to early 40’s; I’ve never asked him his age, some questions are impolite and too personal in a cowboy crew, and one was around 25, and then the teenager. I am guessing at ages but am pretty sure I’m close. The only age I can verify is my own and I’m one of the older cowboy’s in this crew.

All 6 horses were seasoned cow ponies, the mare I was riding is 15 and hot blooded. She’s built right with good legs and feet, standing around 15.2 hands and weighing in at about 1150 pounds.

On a ride like this one you need to start the day with more horse than you need. By noon you are about an even match and at the end of the day you got enough horse to peddle home. Tough country, tough horses and tough cowboys; not for the timid. Was rather glad that my mare didn’t unload me when I swung a leg over her.

I’ve spent a good part of my life when doing day work riding colts to season them and make them better. If you don’t challenge their mind and body they don’t grow into usable, broke and seasoned horses. One of the frustrations that I have had the past few years is that I no longer am a youngster and ride my colts as I want and like. It’s always been a huge passion for me and is hard to give up. I am still riding colts but pick and choose my days. Getting hurt as far out as we were is not a good idea. Actually getting hurt anywhere on a horse is not a good idea but out there you may not survive the pickup ride to town.

I spent quite a bit of time on one of my 3 year olds this spring and he’s doing great, but out that far and it was too big of a day for a 3 year old I passed on taking him; maybe next year. The spring work I did on him was perfect for a 3 year old.

Years ago in Montana I over rode a 4 year old and had to turn him out for a year before I rode him again. He came back okay but riding the heart out of a colt is a bad idea. Yet not riding them is not good either, the secret is the right amount for the individual colt for where they are in their development. On 2 and 3 year olds too little is better than too much. Anyway back to ‘Day Work’.

I don’t day work for a lot of outfits anymore, partly because I’m employed full time and have limited days that I can go. The Owyhee crew is one of my favorite crews to ride with. They are all savvy hands and I enjoy being in good company.

As I am no youngster anymore, I’m fairly picky about the company I keep and who I ride with. There are a lot of folks that think they want to do this because its cool but they really shouldn’t consider it seriously. I’m not vain or arrogant just want to spend my days on a good horse with folks I enjoy; glad this crew invites me to ride with them.

When I do head out to the Owyhee’s day working I often think of Brenda M Negri’s book ‘The Big Out There’. It’s a keen insight to what we do but until you experience it you can’t fully appreciate what it’s like. Just the same the country along with Brenda’s book is not for the timid. Her book is great reading though.

The past decade if you would have asked me to describe myself to you in a sentence I would have said ‘sixty something, bald, bow legged, busted up and broke’. Today I would have to say, ‘another decade older, but still bald, bow legged and busted up’. Have yet to lose my sense of humor though and feel like I’ve got a few more years left in me day working in the OWYHEES.

One minor addition to my story. Two weeks to the day after this ride I went again with the same crew, we didn’t ride as far but gathered and shipped. While one of the younger crew and I were working cows and calves that had been sorted and we were penning, we had time to visit a few minutes here and there.

This young cowboy had made a tour through JR’s feedlot at Grandview Idaho a few years after I had last rode there. While we were shoving cattle into their respective pens he mentioned the name of a gal that I am friends on Facebook with but have yet to meet. He used a term to describe her that I really like. Her name isn’t Jill but that’s what I’m going to use as I do not want to target my friends without their permission.

His words were something like this, ‘Jill was real savvy when it came to lining out the crews’. To me that means that she had a keen insight into horses, cattle and people. Very good qualities for a cow boss or lead man; man not being gender specific in this industry. What impressed me as much as anything is that this young cowboy has yet to say anything bad about anyone in our conversations. If he didn’t enjoy working for a specific cow boss he didn’t bad mouth them but was very objective in his opinion, a good quality in anyone. The entire crew is similar to his personality and that’s one of the things that make the long day’s of ‘day work’ in the Owyhee’s enjoyable.

My last trip to the Owyhee’s this fall found me in a horse race down a snowy two track trying to head some errant and runaway cattle. I was on my Superman horse and although I have never timed him at a quarter mile I’ve always felt he was close to AAA rated.

Superman got around all but 2 head and I decided to safety up, busted up or an inured horse had no appeal. Two other riders were sprinting across an open meadow with better footing and could head off the 2 escapees. I got the bunch behind me turned around and some good momentum heading them back the right direction. As I turned around looking for my escapees I saw them coming my way so side-hilled up and let them by. After falling in behind them it was fairly uneventful heading out.

When I got caught up with Phillip he told me when he saw me in head-long flight on a snowy two track he figured I had bigger cajones than him. I had to reply ‘not at all, just a complete lack of judgement’, at least for a moment.

The rest of the day was spent pushing the cattle across 6 miles of desert to a place the trucks could get in and out. The wind was off of our left shoulder and freezing the tears on our faces.


As we pushed the cattle across the desert I spent the next few hours guiding my horse with my body language rarely picking up my horse hair reins attached to a rawhide bosal. I think Superman appreciated not have a pound and a half of cold steel in his mouth that day.

I had on 6 layers of clothes from wool blend socks and sweater to a down filled vest and a Carhart coat that made me look like a tent perched on the back of a horse. No cowboy hats that day but quite an assortment of Scotch caps and Mad Bomber hats. My wild rag was pulled up around my face to help prevent frostbite and all in all it wasn’t a bad ride. It was about a 3 and half hour push; I’ve had worse days by far.

Like I’ve said, it’s not for the timid, and why do we do it? It’s in our blood.



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