Tongue River Ranch

Tongue River Ranch

Good cow horses are what you find on Tongue River Ranch.

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By Jim Jennings

It was an unusual spring, and one like it everyone hopes not to see again soon. Dry and hot. Unusually dry and unusually hot. And windy. Of course, everyone knows the wind blows during the spring in West Texas, but every day? And 30 to 40 miles per hour? Yes, it was an unusually hot and dry and windy spring, but, just like every spring, Tongue River Ranch was branding, and the cowboys were living at the chuckwagon. At 5 in the morning, a scattering of white cowboy tepees can be seen in the dark, the canvas tents reflecting the lantern light from the nearby chuckwagon, where cook Charlie Ferguson has been up since 3, working on breakfast. One by one, the cowboys make their way from their tepees and step under the fly – or tent – that extends out from the end of the chuckwagon, pour themselves a cup of coffee and sit on one of the benches to await breakfast.

Although the wind had laid some in the night, it is still blowing enough to occasionally pop the fly, which other than the rattle of a few pots and pans is about the only sound heard. Most everyone is still too sleepy to talk much. When Charlie says it’s ready, everyone stands, grabs a plate and files by the lid of the chuckwagon, filling their plates with eggs, bacon, sourdough biscuits and gravy.

Breakfast at the wagon is served at 5:45, still an hour and a half before daylight, and once everyone finishes eating, awake now, the cowboys’ conversation ranges from bucking horses to who’s working for who and what kind of cowboy that person is. Stories are funny and entertaining, and although politics comes up some, invariably the talk goes to how dry it is and how hot it is for this early in the year. Most of the men don’t remember a year like this.

Soon the sound of hoof beats stops the conversation, and ranch manager Tom Moorhouse says, “I believe I hear the horses, boys.”

A couple of the cowboys had kept horses up during the night, and as soon as they had eaten, they saddle up and ride off into the dark to bring in the remuda. The 40 some-odd horses that make up the remuda this morning are herded into a corner of the small trap in which the group is camped, and the cowboys spread out around them, holding a rope to form a rope corral. Although it’s still so dark that only shapes can be seen, someone steps inside the rope corral and, as horses’ names are called out, ropes each horse and leads him out to the cowboy who will ride him that morning. Soon everyone is saddled, and they leave camp in a long trot, Tom in the lead. It’s still 45 minutes before sunup.

The Horses

Tongue River Ranch is headquartered near the small community of Dumont, Texas, and includes portions of four Texas counties: King, Cottle, Motley and Dickens. It lies about 10 miles southwest of Paducah and 20 miles north of Guthrie. Named for the river that runs through it, the ranch was founded in 1898 by the Swenson family, owners of the SMS Ranches, headquartered in Stamford, Texas.

Millard Morris of DeRidder, Louisiana, purchased the 89,000-acre Tongue River Ranch in 1997. In 2007, he added to it 30,000 acres located near the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to make up the New Mexico division of the ranch. All of it’s cattle country – the ranch runs about 1,250 cows and more than a thousand stockers – and to handle the cattle, the cowboys need horses, good ones.

But good ones are what Tongue River has. As a matter of fact, because of the quality of its horses, Tongue River Ranch was this year judged to have the best set of cow horses anywhere and was selected to receive the AQHA-Pfizer Best Remuda Award. The ranch will receive the award in November at the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo, a rodeo for which the ranch has qualified nine times, more than any other ranch. Twice Tongue River has been honored with having the top horse at that championship rodeo.

The horse program at the ranch goes back almost to when Millard first purchased it. One of his first moves was to purchase 20 broodmares with the breeding of such horses as King, Poco Bueno, Doc Bar, Tanquery Gin, Freckles Playboy and Tenino Badger. Those mares formed the basis for his program, and he started breeding to horses like Pepcid by Peptoboonsmal; Natural Enterprise by Surprise Enterprise; Paddys Irish Whiskey by Peppy San Badger; Medicinal Mecom Blue by Mecom Blue; TRR Gun Slinger by Real Gun; and TRR Big Iron by Playgun. Those stallions are well known for their performances in the cutting and reining arenas, and for siring some top cow horses.

This year, the ranch bred mares to Medicinal Mecom Blue, Pepcid and a new stallion Tongue River purchased, Cats Hillbilly by Highbrow Cat. Also, the ranch owns a share in the syndicated Paddys Irish Whiskey, so Tongue River sent two mares to him; bred a couple to a Pitchfork Ranch stallion, Nasty CD by CD Olena; and bred five mares to Seven S Shining Gold, a son of Shining Spark that ranch manager Tom Moorhouse owns. Tom is the owner of Moorhouse Ranch, which won the Best Remuda Award in 2008.

All the mares, other than those who went to Paddys Irish Whiskey, were pasture bred, and they all foal in the pasture.

Mares are not ridden; however, all the fillies are halter broken as yearlings and ridden 30 days as 2-year-olds to get them accustomed to being handled and to determine their suitability for the broodmare band. Approximately 30 percent of the fillies are kept each year for broodmares.

Colts and fillies are branded during the summer of their yearling year. A Crooked T – the ranch brand for the horses – goes on their left hip, the year on their left buttock and the stallion number on the right buttock. The mare number goes on the left jaw.

The cowboys ride geldings, although occasionally one of the stallions is ridden for ranch work or perhaps a ranch rodeo or ranch horse competition. Each cowboy has a string of horses that is considered to be his as long as he works on the ranch, and he is responsible for both the training and health of those horses.

The colts are started as 2-year-olds but only ridden lightly that year. The cowboys use them to prowl the pastures, check on the cattle and maybe check water in the pastures. There’s no pressure put on them until they are 3, and even then not much. As a 4-year-old, a ranch horse is expected to earn his living.

The Work

By 9 a.m., the cowboys have gathered all the cows and calves in the particular pasture they are working this morning and pushed them into a set of pens or corrals located in a corner of the pasture. The branding fire is set up – they are using a propane fire today, although they sometimes use wood – and Tom assigns everyone his duties. A couple of the men will start off roping, while others will flank the calves as they are dragged to the fire. Some will handle the branding irons, some the vaccinating syringes, and some will castrate the bulls. Jobs change as they work their way through the herd so that almost everyone gets an opportunity to rope.

It’s not long before the activity of the cattle, the horses and the cowboys churns the dirt in the corrals into a fine, powdery dust that the wind whirls round and round. From a distance, it looks like the corrals are on fire, as the dust swirls into the air; up close, it’s so thick that it almost obscures the ropers.

By noon, all the calves are branded and returned to their mothers, and the herd is turned back into the pasture. The cowboys trot the five miles back to the wagon for lunch.

Once there, they unsaddle and turn their horses loose; a fresh horse will be caught for the afternoon’s work, which will be a repeat of the morning, just in a different pasture.

Water at the camp is in a 200-gallon plastic tank strapped down to the bed of a pickup, and each cowboy takes his turn at the tap in the tank, rinsing the dust off his face and hands before he eats.

The water in the tank is also the drinking water. There is no ice at the wagon, other than what the cook needs to keep his meat cold. Tom, who is in his mid-60s and has been cowboying ever since he was old enough to walk, is well known for having only “warm water and hot coffee” to drink at the wagon when he’s running the outfit. And, even though the temperature by noon is near 100 degrees, as Tom steps under the fly of the chuckwagon, he immediately pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down on a bench, waiting for Charlie to announce that dinner (the noon meal) is ready.

After dinner, the remuda is brought back in, fresh horses are caught, and the cowboys trot out, heading for another pasture.

When the cowboys come back to camp in the evening, those who want to can take a bath. A concrete and steel water trough sits at the base of a windmill about a hundred yards from camp. Those who are so inclined can climb into the trough and sit down, bathing the dust away. However, a bath doesn’t take long – the water comes from far enough below ground to be in the 50-degree range.

Most turn in early, sleeping in bedrolls laid on the ground in their tepees. The next day will be exactly like the day before. It takes almost two weeks to work all the calves on the ranch.

At Tongue River Ranch, the ritual of spring branding has not changed much since the founding of the ranch in 1898. It’s done by cowboys on cow horses – good ones.