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The Great Divide: Horse Power

To ride or to drive? Ranchers John Rice, of California, and Mike Rivera, of New Mexico, weigh in on the pros and cons of working horseback.

PRO: John Rice
Terrain is the major factor that aff ects whether to use a four wheeler or not. Granted, we use four wheelers for fence work, some salting, and hauling supplies, but not for gathering cattle or corral work. The country where we live is rough and steep, with open grass ridges, oak trees, and fi r forests; there are streams and gullies, rocks and cliffs, and dense, brushy areas. Many places on our ranch are simply inaccessible except by horseback.

The weather and the seasons also determine my preference for horses. In the winter, there are calves and yearlings that must be checked and doctored and sometimes moved when it's wet or the snow is deep. We ride our horses to brand, and as summer approaches, we move the cattle to summer range, making sure the cows and calves are paired up. In late summer and early fall, we gather and separate the cattle to ship our calves. We use horses to do this work. And by the time we get through the year, we've probably made a good horse or two.

Ranchers with a few cows can lead them back to a corral with a bale of hay on the back of a four wheeler. If you're going to corral your cattle on wheels, though, you'd better have some good dogs to help, because you're going to do the rest of the work on foot. Our country runs one cow to 30 acres, and with 700 cows, we cover a lot of ground. One full-time cowboy and I do most of the day-to-day work. Family and friends help during branding, gatherings, and shipping. Almost all of this work is done horseback.


There may be a time or two when a horse stumbles or falls, and you may get banged up. That's just cowboying. When your four wheeler runs out of gas, however, has a flat tire, rolls over on you, or gets stuck, you're basically out of luck. I'm obviously biased, but on our ranch, we work with our cattle horseback.

CON: Mike Rivera
As a fourth-generation rancher, I often think fondly on my younger days when my father and I would trail sheep and cattle to and from summer grazing ranges in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. We did the work horseback for years, but, as modern conveniences became available, we didn't hesitate to make use of new technologies to help us work more efficiently.

I remember getting a homemade mini-bike for my 10th birthday. It may not have had brakes or shocks, but I used that bike nearly every day to catch horses, move livestock, and to do other ranch chores. It made many jobs easier, especially in the spring when it was time to catch and corral horses that were half-wild from not having been ridden all winter. The mini-bike also fit easily in the back of a pickup for transport, required only a few gallons of gas and some oil to keep going, and I didn't have to worry about it running off on its own like a horse might want to do.

In the early 1990s, as my Dad got older and could no longer feed and keep up with horses, we sold the horses and bought our first all-terrain vehicle—a Honda 300 cc. I found the ATV to be useful for many of the same reasons as my trusty mini-bike. Today at the Brazos Meadows Ranch & Recreation Co. (, we use ATVs for moving and trailing livestock, carrying tools and supplies, doing ranch chores, and just for fun.

I do miss the companionship I've enjoyed with some horses, and it can be tough or impossible to get an ATV into rough terrain, but neither my 85-year-old dad nor I miss
handling hay, feeding, shoeing, paying vet bills, or dealing with unruly horses. ATVs save us both time and money, and my dad and I can still ride side by side any time we like.

Pro Horseback: 90%
Con Horseback: 10%

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