Tony Vagneur: Family tradition

It was the day we’d been waiting for — moving cattle to the high country — get them out of the valley and up into the cool mountains — and with an uncanny internal mechanism, they themselves knew it was time. Never mind they’re living in a pasture with deep-green, foot-high alfalfa mixed with timothy, orchard and brome grass, plentiful clear water, towering cottonwoods for shade down by the creek, and all of it mostly covered by blue skies. I would guess that if you’re a cow, that’s their idea of some kind of heaven.

At the pasture early, closing and opening gates, the entrance of the long aluminum trailers comes into my view along the horizon, leaving no doubt that something big is about to happen. The cattle, hanging down by the creek at my arrival, barely visible, are now awakened out of their early morning somnolence and make a hurried trek to the upper edge of the pasture, undoubtedly curious and anxious alike about the arriving line of shiny aluminum.

There’s my son-in-law Ty, cow boss. Come to help round them up, and in a rite of passage, he has his son with him, my grandson Cash, 8. What a good-looking kid, riding his favorite palomino, Doc, and sporting a big-brimmed straw hat in the tradition of cowboys everywhere. His smile is big, infectious, you can tell he’s stoked, and he’s made my day, already.

Takes me back to my youth, about the same age, riding my coal black gelding, Spades, and feeling about 10 feet tall, allowed to go on the drive along Woody Creek, trailing the cows destined for the Denver market down to the waiting stockyards near the confluence of Allen Way and Upper River Road. The D&RG railroad had previously left cattle cars there for us to load and before long, the big, black steam engine huffed and chuffed its way up valley, blowing smoke and making the day memorable. My grandfather hopped in the caboose and disappeared down the line with our cows. We turned our horses toward home, the excitement fairly well spent.

On this current day, we had more cattle than trailers, so we needed to make a second run to get them all to the drop-off site, the end of the road where the actual trail drive would begin. As the trailers headed back to the ranch down below, the mighty triumvirate of Cash, his grandmother Bambi Burtard, and I stayed behind to keep the herd together and from wandering off in all directions. It’s kind of like being a night herder on the long drives from Texas back in the day, only in the daylight with little chance of stampede.

We had them in a large swale, covered in plenty of grass with a couple of small water ponds to slake their thirst. You can learn a lot about your horse and the cattle doing a job like that, and with curiosity I watched Cash work his assignment. He stuck it out with me for a while, then informed me he was going around to the other side to help Bam-Bam. After he worked with her for a while, and having had the benefit of working with both of us, he fairly well knew what to do. “Turn those cows back, head ’em off from going that way.” Innately, or maybe by osmosis, he could tell if he needed to lope, trot or walk that direction, and he did a damned fine job. He and his partner Doc worked well together.

It might be hard for some folks to understand, or maybe even for those of us on the trail, but there is supreme benefit to working cattle in a manner like that. It’s the watching of nature all around, not just the animals. Pick a high spot, take a break off your horse, and sit in the grass, marveling at the lay of the land, getting sandy soil on your pants, wondering about the bugs and birds that land or crawl across the landscape. It’s quiet as the three of us sit there horseback — a fair distance apart — too far for conversation, each with his/her own thoughts, but minds simultaneously held together with the task at hand.

Here comes the second load, cows and calves running to join the rest of the herd; look at that, Cash’s mom brought lunch, along with her budding cowgirl daughter, Charli, 5. A quick, late lunch and we mount up, gathering in the herd and sending them up the trail. Charli is independent this year, handling her horse, Hoss, by herself. She’s gonna be a hand.

Moving cattle is fun and exciting — I’ve been doing it all my life, but watching my family continue on the tradition is special. At one time I was the young grandson, now I’m the grandpa, with no regrets.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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