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Branding Horses

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“Alright Surprise, better tell your ladies you love’em. You ain’t gonna see ‘em for a while.”

Cody winks and gallops off ahead towards the barn; seven mares, seven colts, and one stud glance at us, then at Cody, and gallop after him. Surprise Attack, the stud, has had 45 days with his mares and today’s the last one.

Cody’s riding War Paint, a hulking 17-hand blue-eyed beast so tall that Cody has to use the loading ramp to get on his back. His dinner-plate hooves trample half a mile before the bucking horses know where to go, and soon they’ve lost sight of their lead. They begin to veer off course to the right, up towards the innavigable sage-brushy crags.


Wade begins to arc around them, but we both know he’s already too late. The horses are already reaching the edge of the thick grass. One horse stops, and suddenly they all make an about turn towards the barn again. Wade pulls up, confused. Out of the grass rises a stalking grey tail, twirling in calculated coolness. The house cat was playing sheep dog with the bucking horses. He yawns casually, then makes towards the house without looking anyone in the eye.

Back at the yard, we get the horses into an iron holding pen which leads into a series of interlocking gates and alleyways. You’ll never sort a stud off from his mares, so Wade and Cody set about sorting the mares off, one by one, into the alley, until only Surprise Attack is left, sweaty and confused.

“Sorry man,” says Cody, “Fun’s over.”

Surprise whinnies for his ladies, who incidentally do not whinny back, and is then reluctantly moved out of sight until next spring, when he’ll get to do his job again.

The mares are standing in an inquisitive knot and sniffing at their new surroundings. The colts are quiet and pert, each one glued to his mother’s flank. They’re always a moment behind in their reactions, so their short necks get pushed aside by their mother’s stomach when they’re late on the inside of a turn, and their long legs get in a fluster when they’re on the outside of a turn and have to run all the way around to keep up. At 8 weeks old, they’re ready to be weaned, but the difference between their giraffe legs and piggy necks is such that when it comes to grazing, they have to bend their knees to reach the grass. I’ve seen more than one lose his balance attempting to do this in the pastures.

Weaning time is also branding time. Like in Colorado, state law dictates that all livestock must be branded. The United States considers all horses to be livestock. In the UK, a horse is only livestock if it does agricultural work. Until now, I hadn’t realised my perceived difference between American and English horsemanship was written into the law. English people really do consider horses to be pets. For identification, they’re legally required to be micro-chipped, and freeze branding is legal but not obligatory for horses and cows in the UK. British cattle must have two official ear tags. Research shows that freeze branding is less painful than hot iron branding, which was banned for cattle in the UK in 1968, but is still legal for horses.

Today, we’re hot iron branding. Ryan sets about stoking a wood fire whilst Wade sorts off a pair of horses from the herd. Horseback, he pushes them into the branding pen and grabs a little flag on a long stick for precision sorting. Cody’s on foot, running the gate to the branding pen, and I’ve been tasked with the mare pen. Everyone else is firmly out of the way.

The thing with sorting is that the position of your body is very important. Just like a cow, a horse will not run towards a person, so you can easily mess everything up just by standing in the wrong place. In the pen, Wade corners the mare and colt. The mare thunders past him, but one flap of the flag and the colt stays put. Now Wade’s between them, and the mare’s rushing towards the gate. Cody and I heave our gates open and she’s galloped into the mare pen before she notices she’s left the colt behind. Clunk. Sorted.

Unlike calves, you don’t rope and wrestle colts for branding. The easiest thing would be to use chutes, but we don’t have a chute small enough. Our low-fi is apparently widespread. You open the gate to the pen inwards, and push the colt into the narrow gap between the fence and the open gate. Russ is steadying the colt’s front end with a neck rope, Alaini is keeping hold of the middle by pushing on the gate, and Cody’s drawn the short straw at the back. There’s a rope closing the gap behind the colt’s tail. The colt can’t back out but, Cody reminds me, “it can sure as hell try, and you’ll bet it’ll kick ya while it does it, too.” I can see enough light on the inside edges of the neck rope to say you could easily fit a hand in, but Russ is ready to pull down on the rope if the colt jumps up. The pressure of the gate isn’t harsh either. It’s not operated by hydraulics, just our strength against a remarkably stout colt.

Colt number 001 was a dark bay roan. Ryan passed a hot iron through the fence. Wade took it with gloved hands, and stroked the colt’s shoulder for a moment. Ears already firmly back, the colt only moved its eyes and frowned suspiciously. The iron singed the colt’s coat and the colt didn’t move a muscle. He just breathed and watched. Even at the second iron he never faltered.

“Jeez Louise,” said Alaini, “This little guy’s a trooper!”

Six irons came his way and the colt never budged. Two minutes after he went into the gate-space, he was set free. He blithely trotted into the colt pen and rubbed noses with his mamma through the fence.

A horse’s skin is much thinner than a cow’s, so the brand is held to their skin for about half as long. No rancher wants to put an animal in pain for longer than strictly necessary. We’re talking 5 seconds for cows, 3 for horses. It takes that bit longer for cow-hide to burn into a scar, and cows tend to have more hair to burn through first. I was surprised to see how delicate the horse brands were. The iron is finer than cattle brands, and the numbers smaller. Horse-hide is likely to blotch under the heaviness of a cattle brand.

I was impressed with Colt 001. The process was simple, sanitary, and safe; the people made it as easy as possible for the colt, and the colt didn’t seem at all stressed. Colt 002 was a different story. The people were as responsible and caring as ever, but just the touch of Wade’s hand on the colt’s shoulder sent the colt into a complete tizz. We let him calm down and consider things before continuing. The brand came, and his reaction testified to a conclusion I hadn’t expected: branding is less painful than it is stressful. Colt 002 only flinched.

Branding hurts. There is no getting around that. The shoulder brand caused some colts to kick or dodge away, but every single one of the tough little nippers powered through the rump brand without so much as a wince. Like getting a tattoo, it hurts least where the flesh is thickest. The alarming thing was getting shut into the space, but every colt simmered down before long, and once calm, they stayed calm through all the brands. The shoulder carries the ranch brand, and up on the rump is the number which identifies the colt; the first ‘0’ for being born in 2020, the ‘02’ for being the second colt branded today. On other ranches, an alphanumerical code might point you towards the stud or the mare. Here, the numbering system is simple and the genetics are put into a database instead. The colt’s name will often carry clues to its heritage. Romeo is Shakespeare’s son, and Hubba Bubba is out of Hullaballoo. Domino and Sudoku are full sisters.

Colt 002 hasn’t been named yet, but his branding is done and dusted. Five more like that, and we’re off to gather the next bunch. It’s fresher in the pastures and, as Wade said, “Nobody’s bleeding yet”, so we’re feeling good. As much as Wade claims to have no time for saddle horses, I think he’s almost broken half a smile, but it’s hard to tell behind his perpetual aviators. This time, he brought a rope “in case the stud gets protective.” Right now he’s just practicing doing ‘the butterfly’, looping his rope in satisfying figures of eight on either side of his horse’s neck. I’m glad you can’t gather horses in a truck. Even in the timelessness of the analogue, the morning still feels new, and -

“Er, guys, there’s a rattlesnake?”

“Don’t jack with him Ali. I don’t have a shovel or a gun and I’m in no mood to wrestle him.” Wade puts his rope away and walks on.

Cody’s ears perk up at the back of the group. “Where?”, he says, squinting at the ground where I spoke. He stops his horse. Cody’ll never pick a fight but if one comes his way he’ll be sure not to lose it. This whole quarantine business has got him restless, and I’ll bet he thinks if anyone’s asking for it here, it’s the critters on his ranch.

“Oh I don’t know, Cody,” says Wade, exasperated, “Just leave him and remember where not to get bucked off.”

The sound of War Paint’s giant hooves clopping tells me Cody thought better of the snake fight. We approach the brow of a hill and the world opens up in front of us, scooping down into some once-upon-a-riverbed and rising again in steep, uneven knolls. There, on the other side of the valley, are the horses.

Life moved too fast for plans to be set in motion. The idea of moving the horses across the smoothest ground seemed plausible when the horses were specs on the horizon, but the devil-may-care free spirit of the bucking horse soon makes itself known, trampling our authority under its untrimmed hooves. Our plans aren’t so much abandoned as swept away by the current, and, as we get behind the horses, they fly into the valley in a cloud of thundering dust, and I find myself hurtling off the edge of something I’d be scared to walk down on foot. This time I stayed on my horse. A success all around, I’d say – especially given the rattlesnakes.

The pasture gate leads to a yellow track and suddenly the expedition turns rather civilised. The four of us are trotting along in formation, with the bucking horses steadily jogging in the middle. Moving horses along a public road is easy as long as a car doesn’t come. Into the pens again to sort, again to wean, again to brand. It’s far more intense than a calf branding. The stakes are higher because the colts are stronger and the mares are meaner, and we’re a team of six instead of 60 – just enough to get the job done with all hands on deck and no beer in sight. Without ropes, holding the colt is difficult, tiring, and often more painful for the people than it is for the colt. It isn't easy when there are several hooves and irons to keep an eye on at once. On the fifth set of colts, we’d just separated a mare from her baby, and I made a bad decision. I got on the mare’s side of my gate, trying to let the colt past me. She started pacing and whinnying. She should’ve kicked me. She didn’t. I learnt that lesson the easy way. I vowed right then never to be taught the hard way.

After every set of colts, the ground crew were horseback again and gathering a new stud and his mares. Sometimes, when we were near the yard, the corgi would work his stubby legs double-time to ‘help’ move the horses, but he didn’t have the talent of the house cat. They’d chase each other around the pens whilst the excitement wore off, before falling asleep in each other’s fur until it was time to gather again. Had we been branding calves, we’d have done 250 in a day, but as it was we branded 25, and by the evening I was ready to curl up with the cat and the dog. We turned the colts loose with a few 'nurse mares', who will keep the little renegades in check whilst they grow into their legs. The other mares were put out to graze and grow big with next year’s baby, and the stallions were kept in separate, but adjoining pens, so they can all get used to each other before they’re turned out together as bachelors until next year.

It’s the cyclical significance of a branding that makes it surge and echo. Today was work in every sense of the word, more so than cattle brandings, and even though I felt for the stressed colts, it’s special to know that anytime I see a horse with a zero on its rump, I’ll know I was there for these rites. Maybe in five years time I’ll spot Colt 002 in the NFR, doing his damndest in the arena, like he did today. I’ll be watching.

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