Soft Gates

May 1, 2020 | Back Country Horseman

Ya know I don’t believe that horse had all four hoofs on the ground at any one point the entire day! We had saddled early to get started moving cows from a five-acre piece we were renting across the highway to a 17-acre field we had also secured to graze for a month or so. Operating on a small scale, my friend Cecil and I had cows all over the place within a subdivision of 5-20 acre parcels. Our herd never exceeded 20 cows but that was plenty of bovine for two guys who were ill equipped. Cecile knew cows but I came on board with only one semester of Bovine health at MJC, an inexperienced horse and new Stetson hat. Fact is, we were really no different than the neighborhood kid raising extra money mowing lawns. Rather than a three-horse power Brigs & Stratton engine and wheels, our mowers were covered with hair and moved across the earth on hoofs. We also sold them, hopefully, for a profit each spring.

On this particular morning, a neighbor had asked to join us with his new horse which was fresh from the Turlock Cow Town Auction- credentialed there as “Cowy”. Vince was from France. He had little riding experience and other than walking through the meat section at Safeway, he had no experience with cattle. We rode out of my place before sun up. None of us had enough sense and too much pride to warm up a horse.

It took to the end of my driveway before the crow hooping, rearing and bad behavior stopped in the horses. Just in time to cross the same highway we planned to push the herd over not long after. The access onto the five acres which our cattle had devoured was through a soft gate.

Webster’s definition: (soft-gate) pronounced “soft gate” defined as “A pain in the ass!”

This is a gate made from spare pieces of materials commonly found on ranches & farms. Usually old wood or pipe tied with wire or bailing twine. These tend to be mounted on anything that will support them, typically between a couple of trees or well worn fence post. These type of gates require a cowboy to dismount and wrestle with it until it opens. Exactly how much engineering goes into theses gates is clearly visible to the untrained eye based on how easy or difficult they are to open and close. In our case, the engineering was dependent on materials at hand. Usually scraps!

As hard as these gates can be to latch or unlatch, they are even worse to open and close as they usually fold up like a wet pup tent once unlatched, making fast work of them impossible! At the first soft gate of several we would deal with that day, Vince got the assignment to open it by virtue of his experience level (or lack of). His horse (who for sake of this tale we’ll refer to as “Cowy”) wanted no part of this poor excuse for a gate as Vince dragged it toward him. Cowy pulled back, yanking the reins from Vince’s hand, spun and ran to the first patch of decent grass he came to.

About now I’m starting to wonder if having Vince along was just a bad idea or a terrible one! Quick to follow, Cowy was the 20 head we were there for in the first place, who were standing just inside the soft gate, which now laid unattended. I attempted an ill-advised block with my horse Buck, who not only detested cattle but had no interest in my interest at him getting better. He reared up and spun to the right landing on the unattended soft gate. Cecile tried to support me on Lady, a 26-year-old quarter horse mare, who was quite caddy around livestock but had lost a step or two (or four) in her declining years.

The cows blew by us both! Vince had now returned on Cowy. Sort of. Cowy’s body was present but his mind had plumb left and his feet were feeling extremely homesick! This brought on a jigging spree that quickly turned into a bucking fit that evolved into a full blow runaway! Vince somehow stayed on but resembled a rag dole being tossed around on pogo stick. He’d lost both reins, which were originally tied together earlier that morning–never an indication of good horsemanship. The saddle was leaning so far to the left, Val’s shoulder was getting dirty.

After picking my way out of the soft gate in which Buck and I were standing, Cecile and I struck off after the cows hoping to form up something resembling a herd that we could push across the highway before the traffic got heavy. The 17-acre field wasn’t too far, but it too had series of soft gates. The first would require one of us to be there before the herd to have it open, leaving just one of us to push. By now Vince had managed to right his mount and moved forward with us, although Cowy was still in a jig stirring up so much dust that all you could make out was the size of his eyes, which were bugging out of his skull. The only thing else visible was Vince’s eyes! Cecile managed a smile as he said to me, “I don’t think that horse has ever been around cattle“. Listing that comment as one of the greatest understatements in history, I nodded in agreement.

We managed to cross the highway and push the cows through the lower shoulder of the road to the gate I referenced earlier. Just ahead of this mini herd, I dismounted and dragged the gate open. Things seemed to be going better as the cows showed interest in entering the field which had substantial grass in it. Before I could let some air out and adjust my hat, Vince came flying by on Cowy who had also noticed the tall grass. Confirming this horse had no brakes! It was just enough to cause our heard to “Bout face“ right into Lady and Cecile.

If ever anyone lived the line from Toby Keith’s “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was“, it was Lady on this early Saturday morning making a strong comeback from 20 minutes earlier. She laid both ears back, dropped like a pup waiting for a stick to be tossed and held her ground! It was for me, the first time I’d really seen a horse work cattle. No surprise to Cecile, who’d been on her for many moments just like this many years back. Vince and Cowy jigged back out and pulled in behind Lady for support. In just a few moments the cows were all in and eating as if nothing had happened.

Dragging the soft gate back into place between a PG&E power pole and a bent t-post, I dreaded yet two more soft gates ahead of us to be negotiated. With us all mounted, we pushed these 20 cows to the back 10 acres of this 17-acre parcel and soft gate number three for the day. This one was a real masterpiece, with the two end posts made from a type of wood so loaded with splinters it was hard not get one just looking at it!

In an effort I guess to regain some respect, Vince jumped off Cowy (who was dripping with sweat as the gelding had never stopped jigging other than to steal a bite of grass now and then). Before I could warn him of the impending sliver fest, he grabbed one end of the soft gate and yanked it free from the bent and twisted piece of strapping which held it. “Shi%#$@T” was the expletive used as tiny pieces of wood penetrated his hands. In the process he dropped the gate towards Cowy again, who again pulled back and right into my horse, who pulled back and split off the herd in all directions. At least we were in a small fence field, so this roundup only took a few minutes and the cows were pushed into the intended field.

The last soft gate was near the back of this field and it was the worst. Mounted somehow into a rock, it seemed to defy gravity. When open, it allowed the cows onto another piece of property that we did not have permission to use but had a small seasonal creek running through it. It was our water source and since the owners lived out of state, we felt only obligated to help with their fire control in exchange for the water, although no formal agreement had been meant. In fact, no agreement of any type had been discussed!

Cecile by this time was in his seventies, so mounting and dismounting was unusually my job. I’d slacked a bit this day taking advantage of Vince but this soft gate was not only in a bad spot, it took the touch of a surgeon to open it without it falling apart and into the creek it was blocking. Cecile and Lady held Buck as I climbed up the rock and released the gate from a rusty piece of barbed wire acting as a latch. I carefully laid the gate open leaving it in position so cows could go in and out over the next month. Riding out, Cecile and I giggled as Vince and Cowy pranced to the highway and the soft gate which we’d passed through just prior. Off again, I got this one as well.

It’s been 28 years since that day, and I still find myself opening and closing soft gates at different ranches not to mention a couple here on our place. Just last week I was considering fencing off an area knowing a gate would be needed. Making my way to the “parts and inventory” department of the ranch (junk pile as Brenda refers to it). I pondered what materials I might use to conjure up a true Rembrandt in a class of soft gates never before seen! I also took a few moments to consider gates in general.

In the 28 years past, how many gates has life placed in my path? Some might represent a beautiful shiny new Powder River gate, hung with heavy steel hardware and easy to open. Yet others were so bent and worn that safe passage seems almost impossible. How many times have I stood and doubted what was on the other side of life’s many gates but went through anyway. When we see a gate, should it represent a stopping point or a starting point? It’s different every time and that may be the wonderful thing about gates.

I think for this next project in remembrance of Cecile and Vince, I’ll just run over to the Ranch Supply and buy a nice new gate. I’ll laugh about that day of soft gate misery every time I easily pass through it!