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Gary and the Wild Horses


I just searched through my blog to find something I wrote about my rodeo experience ten years ago and realized it wasn’t a blog post, it was a newspaper article. I did mention this in a blog post (Rodeos, beer, and cancer), and even included the picture below, but I’d like to share it here on my blog today. This was first printed in the July 2008 issue of The Local Rag newspaper.


Like any PRCA-sanctioned event, the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana draws contestants from all over the U.S. and Canada. There are two events, though, that are all about the locals: mutton busting and the wild horse race. A few years ago, a fellow came into the bookstore and asked me if I’d be interested in joining his team.

The wild horse race uses a team of three. The horses are assigned by random draw, and the team is allowed to put a halter and a long rope on the horse before the event. The rope is threaded through the gap on the latch side of the gate to the chute, and one of the team members is assigned to stop the horse when the gate opens, so the others can get hold of the animal and put a saddle on it. This person, known as the anchor, is generally a big guy. Size alone isn’t enough to stop a mustang, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Since I was 6’5″ and 260 pounds, he figured I’d be perfect for the job.

It was long before the event, and I had plenty of time to think over the offer. I was–how shall I say this?–a few years past my prime, and had never done a wild horse race before. The other team members assured me that all I needed was strength and persistence: there really wasn’t that much agility or technique involved. I agreed to do it.

Now, we fast-forward a few months. I had an odd lump in my chest, which puzzled my doctor. The dermatologist, equally puzzled, had taken a biopsy. I received a phone call with the results when I was on a business trip in Las Vegas. “Come home now,” he told me. “You have an appointment with an oncologist tomorrow morning.”

Oncologist?

Cancer?

Yes, indeed. I had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and they needed to start me on chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies right away. Obviously, a lot went through my mind those first few days, and my plans for the summer were changed dramatically. At first, I forgot all about the wild horse race.

Then, the doctor began explaining the effects chemo would have on me. It would destroy my immune system, meaning that seemingly minor cuts and scrapes could develop into nasty–possibly even fatal–infections. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked the oncologist. “My ranch is a small one, but I still have two miles of barbed-wire fence and a bunch of critters with horns and hooves. Someone has to take care of things, and my wife can’t do all of it.”

He assured me that I could go about my business, except for the days right after a treatment, which would knock me flat. If I got a cut, scrape, or scratch, I just needed to clean out the wound and watch for signs of infection. He said I could do anything I felt up to.

“Even including a rodeo?” I asked him. I could almost hear my wife thinking, “Tell him no! Tell him no!” but the doctor said if I thought I could do it, then more power to me. The Wild Horse Race became my goal in the battle against the lymphoma. If I could compete between cancer treatments, I could do anything.

I explained everything to my teammates. The Home of Champions Rodeo would be right before a chemo treatment, so I’d have maximum recovery time from the previous treatment. I’d be shaky and have little endurance, but I thought I could do it if they’d still have me. They said yes, and we were on.

Gary in the Wild Horse Race

Day 1: July 2nd

Day one of the rodeo arrived. There were only four teams signed up, so we actually had a shot at this. We met the other teams, and drew our horse. A spunky little mustang filly. I had a case of butterflies in my stomach like I’ve never had before. As the bullriders took their rides, we got ready. We were up next.

They got the horses in the chutes and marked the finish line across the arena. It looked miles away. We haltered the horse and ran the rope out to the arena. I stood there with my partners, holding the rope. What did I think I was doing? Thousands of people crowded the stands, and I was about to get knocked silly by a horse. I braced myself. The chutes opened…

The horse didn’t know what was going on, but she knew she wanted out of there. She charged straight at me, and I got a good grip on the rope. She stopped, unsure of which way to go, and one of my teammates stepped in and grabbed her halter. He pulled her head down and looked her right in the eye. She reared up, kicked him in the head, and charged me. My partner went down like a sack of grain, the horse pulled me off my feet, and I lost the rope.

We managed to catch the horse again, and this time two of us (I and the poor fellow with a big bruise on his forehead) managed to hold her still while teammate #3 got the saddle on. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the latigo and we couldn’t get the saddle cinched securely. He hung on valiantly, but by the time we hazed our horse to the other side of the arena, it was too late. The 90-second timer went off.

We lost, but I still felt good as I walked out of the arena. All PRCA-sanctioned rodeos must have a doctor on site at all times. As it turned out, my regular family doctor–who specializes in sports medicine–was on that day. As I approached the gate, I saw him standing next to my wife. She turned to him and said, “is this the kind of therapy you recommend for all of your cancer patients?” He just shook his head. “Yeah, I thought that looked like Gary out there.”

Day 2: July 3rd

We’re down one team member. His forehead contusion turned out to be a mild concussion and the doc said, “Don’t compete.” Our fearless leader, however, had come up with a substitution. He found a wiry little bullrider ready to step in and join us. Like many bullriders, he was small, but full of muscle and spunk.

This time, since we had only four teams, the rodeo committee decided to make things a bit more exciting by putting horses in the empty chutes, too. When the gates opened, I was focused on holding our horse. When one of the “extra” mustangs ran into me, I lost the rope. Our bullrider buddy had a good grip, but didn’t have the sheer mass to stop the horse (he was probably half my weight). The horse took off for parts unknown, and our new teammate held onto the rope and got dragged along behind like a water-skiier. He stayed upright the full length of the arena, and then went down and got dragged on the ground.

I caught up to them and grabbed the horse again. I got a deathgrip on the rope, and held on even when another horse bumped my back. I took a step, and found myself standing on another team’s rope (see picture). It was a scary moment–getting tangled in that rope would not have been a good thing–but I held on this time.

Our team leader arrived toting the saddle, and threw his arm over the mustang’s neck. She took a jump sideways, right into the fence. His arm was caught between the horse and the pipe, and I could tell it hurt. He’d already taken a blow to the face and he was spitting blood, but he was determined to get on the horse. Alas, by the time we got the saddle on, our 90 seconds was up again.

One fractured arm and one concussion. Two days, and two teammates out. We hadn’t even made it across the finish line. But I felt good. We pulled our team from competition on July 4th, and I watched from another team’s chute.

I didn’t win a buckle, but we bought one as a souvenir. Two treatments later, my chemo was done, and this summer will mark five years cancer-free. I doubt that I’ll ever compete again, but I’ll treasure the memory of that 2003 Wild Horse Race forever.

Corriente cattle


Acres USA May 2011 cover[This article first appeared in the May, 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.]

CORRIENTE CATTLE
By Gary D. Robson

Although doctors and nutritionists encourage lower-fat diets, most Americans prefer higher-fat beef. Breeders, wishing to cater to the wishes of their audience, continue to produce relatively high-fat beef cattle. For those who like their beef on the lean side, however, there is an alternative: a lean, athletic, lower-fat breed called the Corriente.

The History of the Breed

When the New World was being settled by the Spanish, they brought along many of the things they considered necessities of life. Among those were Spanish cattle. In November of 1493, Columbus, on his second voyage to the Americas, brought cattle to Hispaniola, and herds were established there. In the 1500s, Cortes (among others) took these cattle to Mexico, where herds were largely left to roam wild. Natural selection in the harsh deserts of inland Mexico helped to refine a hardy breed we now know as Corrientes.
Corriente cattle were considered beef cattle until well into the 1800s, when modern beef cattle based on other European breeds displaced them. Corriente cattle, known as Criollo cattle in Central and South America, were all but abandoned. A few of their cousins, descended from those same Spanish cattle, still exist in Florida — where they are known as Scrub cattle or Cracker cattle — and Louisiana, where they are known as Swamp cattle. Texas Longhorn cattle were developed from the same original stock, but those bloodlines diverged centuries ago.
As rodeo rose in popularity, people grew interested in Corriente cattle again. They are athletic, small, and lean, with prominent horns that grow out and then bend forward. The horns are easy for a bulldogger to grab or a roper to catch a loop on. As interest built, a breed association was formed, and the food value of Corrientes was rediscovered. The N.A.C.A. (North American Corriente Association) now has over 500 members, and you can find Corrientes all over the United States.

Keeping Corrientes

Corrientes are known as “easy keepers.” Unlike Angus cattle, which are brought into the barn and carefully watched during calving, Corrientes often wander off in the field and have their calves on their own. During the time I raised Corrientes, I didn’t even own a calf puller, and didn’t set my alarm during the night to check on the pregnant cows, as most of the Angus ranchers in my area do.
A mature Corriente cow is typically around 700 to 800 pounds, yielding 400 to 500 pounds of beef. Because of their smaller size and the breed’s origins in the wild, they consume considerably less food and water than today’s big beef cattle, and will wander farther if given the opportunity. They will also subsist on scrub and poor-quality hay that might founder other breeds, but if you’re raising them for meat, you’ll get better results with high-quality feeds.
They are generally easy to tame and non-aggressive, although a bit flighty. I made a point of handling all of my calves as soon as possible after they were born, and touching the cows whenever possible to keep them used to being handled. My children were also encouraged to handle the calves, and we never had a problem with mamas getting defensive.
Bulls, of course, are bulls, which means they can be aggressive. If you intend to show Corrientes or sell them into the rodeo market, you must leave the horns on, and any half-ton animal with horns can be dangerous. We had a secondary reason to leave the horns on our Corrientes: protection. We live in an area with a lot of large predators, including grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions, all of which can take down a small cow. The horns give them some measure of protection.
The large horns have side effects on the cows as well. More than once I had to remove a Corriente’s head from a fence or gate. This is where the time spent gentling the cattle paid off. In one case, after a half-hour of wrestling with a heifer to twist her head out, I ended up having to cut a bar out of a metal gate with a hacksaw. In another case, I had to remove two boards from a fence when a yearling bull got his horns stuck in it. Both animals were panicked and would have been likely to hurt me had I not been able to calm them down a bit as I worked.
Unfortunately, some of the same characteristics that make Corrientes easy to raise and feed make them harder to contain. They can easily jump fences that heavier, slower beef cattle wouldn’t consider. I have watched small groups of them trot across a field and jump a traditional four-strand barbed wire fence without breaking stride.
It can be tough separating your bull(s) from the cows. We found it easier to buy a young bull and fatten him for the freezer after he finished impregnating the cows than to keep them apart after breeding.

Lena the Cowcat

The author's cat, Lena, pulls some cows & calves together for a picture.

Buying Corrientes

The first thing you need to watch out for in buying Corriente cattle is the word “Corriente.” Many Mexicans use the term to refer to any horned small cattle of unknown breeding. What we call “Corriente,” they would call “Criollo,” or in Baja California, “Chinampo.” If you’re buying in the U.S., your first contact should be with the N.A.C.A., which can connect you to certified breeders.
Like any breed association, the N.A.C.A. handles registration of cattle, and they publish their member list on its website. If you are only buying Corrientes for your own use, this is obviously optional. If have any intention of selling your cattle, however, it’s well worth spending a few extra dollars to buy registered Corrientes and transfer the registration.
Although the original Corriente bloodlines are long-since lost, the N.A.C.A. is working hard to establish the concept of “pure” Corriente cattle.

Corriente Crosses

Some ranchers are looking for ways to preserve the higher fat content that the American markets look for while gaining some of the advantages of the Corriente breed, such as easy calving and lower feed requirements. One such rancher is Jim Morgan, of Bridger, Montana.
“I got into the crosses by accident,” Morgan told me. “I had a herd of Corrientes and a herd of black cows. Once the Corriente bull finished his side of the fence, he jumped over and went after all the Angus cows. I just couldn’t keep him in.”
It may not have been intentional, but he liked the results. He began using his Angus bulls with the Corriente cows, but he ended up losing his entire herd to brucellosis in 2007. Since then, he’s experimented with a variety of other bulls with his Corriente cows, including Black Angus, Hereford, and Simmental. He was happiest with the Simmental crosses.
“They were the beefiest calves, with a red baldy look,” he said. “The crosses are still a smaller-framed animal, though, which helps with birthing.” The beef is leaner than a purebred Simmental would produce, but without the different flavor of the Corriente beef.
Morgan sells his crosses at auction to the beef market, where he said they bring “about a dime less per pound” than beef cattle. That’s an easy tradeoff in his eyes, through, because he calculates that the Corriente cows use about 75% less feed than the Angus. He also found that the Corrientes would range farther from water, using dry ranchland that the beef cattle wouldn’t use, which kept the feed costs even lower.

Corrientes in Rodeo

There are two PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) events that use Corrientes: roping and steer wrestling. In both cases, they’re looking mostly for animals that haven’t been used in sport before, as experienced steers know what to anticipate and over-roped steers learn to duck. Note that both sports use steers, not bulls or cows.
The PRCA now mandates the use of horn protectors. These can range from a simple “figure 8” horn-wrap to a padded device that protects the steer’s ears and forehead from the slap of the rope in addition to protecting the horns themselves from being broken.
If you’re planning to sell steers to the rodeo market, keep in mind that the PRCA now has a mandatory weight limit. All steers must be between 450 and 650 pounds, so don’t fatten them up before selling. There’s no incentive to have heavier cattle, anyway, as rodeo people pay by the animal rather than by the pound.
You’ll also want to pay attention to when you calve. A steer is generally ready for rodeo use at 12-15 months of age. Add their 9-month gestation period, and you’ll want the bull in with the cows in late spring to hit the rodeo season two years later.
If you find the rodeo stock companies hard to sell to, you can do very well selling directly to rodeo cowboys who need practice animals.

The Beef Market

Corriente beef has more of the color and texture of farm-raised elk. There’s less marbling than other beef, and a somewhat different taste. My family got used to the flavor and texture quickly, and grew to like it, but Corriente beef is not mainstream in America. If you are planning to raise cattle to sell on the beef market, a modern beef breed will be easier to sell and probably net you more profit overall.
If you are planning on raising beef for your own use, Corrientes are an excellent choice: healthy, easy to breed, and less expensive to feed.

Rodeos, beer, and cancer


Eight years ago today, I competed in the wild horse race at the Red Lodge Home of Champions Rodeo. At the time, I was between chemotherapy treatments for a life-threatening case of large B-cell lymphoma. It was, shall I say, an interesting time in my life, which I wrote a newspaper article about three years ago [update: the article is now here on my blog]. The oncologist had informed me that the treatment (CHOP chemotherapy plus monoclonal antibodies) had about a 50% chance of success in cases like mine.

Gary in the Wild Horse Race

I didn’t win anything. But I set my sights on being there that weekend, doing my part, and walking away under my own power. It meant a lot to me, and I still wear the buckle I bought myself to commemorate that event almost every day. They say fighting cancer is all about your attitude. Perhaps they’re right.

The whole experience of having cancer in 2003 changed my point of view on what’s important in life. Family and friends count for a lot more than money and possessions. Enjoying life is paramount. I’ve become less concerned about what others think of me, and my attitude these days is generally “live and let live.”

That is probably what upsets me so much about legislators hurting people who could have used help instead (see my post about the changes in Montana’s medical marijuana laws), or vicious personal attacks during political campaigns. Unfortunately, many diseases still carry social stigmas with them (e.g., AIDS), and it seems like most of the attention — and money — goes to just a few hip diseases. I see more posters, ribbons, news articles, bumper stickers, and talk shows about breast cancer than all other types of cancer combined. Ever see a fundraiser for non-Hodgkins large B-cell lymphoma?

My other bout with cancer happened just last year, and it was one of those that you don’t generally discuss in polite company. Prostate cancer is one of the “icky” diseases. Your average man on the street doesn’t really know what his prostate gland does, and if he’s heard anything at all about treating prostate cancer, he’s probably heard about the dangers of impotency and incontinence as possible side-effects. I know that scared the heck out of me when I was diagnosed.

Now, I have received my second “all-clear,” leaving the current score at Gary: 2, Cancer: 0. Although I wouldn’t call either experience enjoyable, the side effects have been minimal and my life can continue as normal. But not as it was before.

Pints for ProstatesIn our little town of 2,300, our “Pints for Prostates” fundraiser pulled in over $1,200, and over 50 people showed up to have a great time, hear my quick talk about prostate cancer, and leave with some discount coupons for PSA tests at the hospital. That made me feel pretty good, and I’m hoping to do even better next year.

Although I like to think of myself as a generally easy-going kind of guy, I have a lot less tolerance for intolerance these days, and virtually no tolerance for incompetence. It’s a good thing I haven’t set my sites on public office, because I’m too darned blunt for it. Legislators from Federal level to city level are passing laws that don’t address the problem they were purported to solve. We’re spending billions of dollars interfering with other countries when we aren’t doing an adequate job of fixing problems at home. Our health care system is badly broken, and legislators are working overtime to fight attempts to fix it rather than working together for a solution.

Ah, well, I’m rambling. I’ll go back to my regularly-scheduled posts with a focus next week. I hope you all enjoy your Independence Day weekend!

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