The cattle are gathered up. About 200 head are moving across open land at a steady pace. A dust cloud wafts up into the blue sky as the herd passes. An American Quarter Horse at the back of the bunch coaxes the cows onward. The horse is barely visible, as is the silhouette of the rider?s hat with big brims upturned on the sides.
You squint to see the rider under that big hat--he must be there somewhere--and there he is, all 3 feet 10 inches of the little squirt. He?s just a kid who lives on the ranch, loves horses and knows for a fact that his heroes are cowboys, especially his dad, who?s riding nearby.
Family traditions are part of the weave of ranch life in the West, fostering the passage of knowledge between the generations who take part in this unique way of life.
So what's it like to grow up on a big outfit where your ?yard? stretches endlessly to the horizon in every direction, and you see way more horses and cattle than people? The Neubert family can shed a little light on that.
Jim Neubert, 31, makes a living these days starting colts. He and his brother, Luke, spent the past several years traveling across the country working together and even flying to Hawaii, starting batches of young Quarter Horses for various ranches.
It's a career they came to naturally. They, along with their sister, Kate (now a professional horse trainer in Santa Maria, California), spent their younger years on the Las Aguilas Ranch in San Benito Valley, California. They are the children of Bryan and Patty Neubert.
Bryan was cow boss on one end of that ranch back then and now is a prominent horsemanship clinician. Jim was featured with his father and another celebrated horseman, Joe Wolter, in the now-classic colt-starting video ?The First Week,? where the trio started 20 head of American Quarter Horses at the Four Sixes Ranch.
?On that ranch, they would get in between 20,000 and 25,000 head (of cattle) a year. They come in the fall and leave in the spring,? Jim says. ?My dad was in charge of the horse program there. We?d help him break them to lead when we were little.?
Jim started his first horse when he was eight. The next year, as the kids were halter-breaking nine yearling colts, an extended rainy period set in. Jim says he hardly weighed 50 pounds, and with work on the ranch temporarily at a standstill, his father suggested he play around with starting those young horses under saddle for something to do.
?I was too short to saddle them,? Jim says, ?but I would get a bucket and get them saddled up, lunge them both ways and get them up to the fence and get on them. Trot them around both ways, get my rope down, I had a piece of plastic I could pack around. I put 10 rides on all of them. I probably wouldn?t have done it, but it was just kind of rainy and miserable, so we were killing time. I was pretty little. Rode them all with my pony saddle and pony bridle.?
The Neuberts moved away from the ranch the next year, and another cowboy started the colts as 2-year-olds. He couldn?t believe how easy they were to ride, and years later, Bryan told him about the early start Jim had put on them.
?He said, ?I couldn?t figure it out, it was like they had been rode, but they were only two. They were the best colts I ever started!? ?
It made sense, since Jim?s life as a ranch kid revolved around horses--and renowned horsemen.
?Growing up there, we didn't have any television. Pretty much all our heroes were either guys that worked on the ranch or friends like the Dorrances. Once in a while, Tom Dorrance would come over there, and everybody talked about how good a hands those guys were. So growing up, that was your heroes.
?I liked it. It was pretty much total freedom.?
Tom Moates is a freelance writer from Floyd, Virginia.?