A real-life cattle drive: adventure travel in Montana

Cattle drives call to mind old western films, full of six-shooters and women in hoop skirts who faint delicately at the sight of blood. Most of all, they conjure images of cowboys – complete with hats, belt buckles and worn-in, dusty boots and spurs.

Once a main method of transporting herds to stockyards and markets, cattle drives had their heyday between 1865 and 1895, when more than 10 million cattle were herded between Texas and Kansas for delivery to Chicago and other major cities.

Despite the advent of motorized transportation, ranchers today still use the same basic principles to round up, herd and sort cattle as their cowboy predecessors did more than 100 years ago.

While visiting The Resort at Paws Up, I had the chance to participate in a drive, learning the basics of herding and driving cattle from Mike Doud (pictured at right), a rancher and true cowboy with more than three decades of experience. Before joining the Paws Up team, Mike owned his own ranch and regularly spent days or weeks in the saddle, herding his teams of cattle across thousands of acres.

Mike and his cowboy cohort Max, along with their two dogs, regularly lead guests on sample drives to showcase one of the West’s most iconic activities. While a real “drive” might begin at 3 or 3:30 AM in deference to the extreme summer heat, we began at the more leisurely hour of 9, first learning the basic principles of riding and what to expect from our horses and the cows we’d find. Our crew of six, plus Mike, included two experienced riders and four “newbies,” all of whom were eager to learn the ropes.
%Gallery-129848%Like most western-style riding, the horses were highly-trained and responded to neck reining cues – leaving a cowboy’s other hand free to move as necessary. We learned the basic principals of moving cattle – driving them from behind. Cows are pack animals and see both the horses and dogs as dominant, so they take a prey stance and move away from pressure from behind. The goal? To get our cows to “string out” and be “pulled” of their own momentum – when riding from behind in a fan or U-shape, we would (in theory) be able to get the herd to follow a pack mentality, simply exerting pressure on one side or another by turning our horses to form a barrier.

Movies often show cowboys galloping hell-bent for leather across open fields, cattle strung behind and in front of them, racing as if their lives depended on it. In reality, Mike explained, a cattle drive is a slow, leisurely process, most often experienced at a walk or “long trot.” The idea is to move the cattle at their natural pace so as not to “take pounds off,” as steers and beef cattle were priced by weight. Running the cattle would result in thinner, less profitable sales.

Drives could take place for a variety of reasons – to move cows to market, rounding them to separate a neighbor’s cows from your own, branding or vetting, or moving cattle from one pasture to another. Cattle typically graze across many acres of land, and while these animals often stick to groups, they don’t remain in tight pack. Ranches may range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of acres, with a variety of terrain surroundings, including brush, trees, and large hills.

Most cowboys employ highly-trained dogs to assist in herding. These nimble, agile creatures are voice-command trained and can dodge in and out of herds with ease, nipping flanks and ankles as necessary to get the cattle to move at a certain speed or in a certain direction.

Mike’s dog, Sis, was the eighth in a long line, he explained. We quickly learned that we were superfluous – Mike, his horse, and Sis could easily have handled the 35 or so head of cattle we were tasked with rounding, driving to a pen a few miles away, sorting, and putting the cattle back in their home pasture.

The eight-year-old dog was the star of the show, responding to commands that showed a human-like level of understanding to “get one,” “get two” or “get ’em all,” to “slow,” “round up,” or “go sit on that rock.” If Sis had opposable thumbs, I don’t doubt she could have done my job as a writer. (We learned later that Mike and Sis could have handled this job with three times as many cattle by themselves… we were merely observers.)

The horses aided in the drive as well, often getting right up behind recalcitrant steers and “encouraging” movement with a little nip on the rear.

When we eventually got the cattle to a pen (two hour later) we learned the art of cutting in and sorting out specific steer or heifer, using the same basic principals employed while driving en masse.

Four hours later, we dismounted, sweaty and saddle sore, but victorious. We’d moved cattle. Like any true cowboy, Mike tipped his hat and shook hands before walking off to care for his horses, leaving us with a newfound respect for the adventures of the (semi-wild) West.

And of course, for your viewing pleasure – don’t miss one of our favorite cowboy songs below:

This writer’s visit was sponsored by The Resort at Paws Up, but her opinions are solely her own.