The longtime, stoic image of a cowboy galloping upon horseback may just need to be retooled a tick to more accurately portray how some area ranchers often drive cattle.
Just ask county rancher Chuck McLinden. Between what he owns and manages for other landowners, he tends a rather sizeable operation of approximately 5,000 head of cattle that roam about 18,000 acres of pasture.
“I’ve spent 30 summers as a cowboy in the Flint Hills,” McLinden said. “I’ve seen it all from old school to new school.”
He said the majority of county ranchers he knows use ATVs instead of or in combination with horses to drive cattle now days.
“I’m sure my granddad rolled over in his grave the first time I used a 4-wheeler to drive cattle,” McLinden said.
He started working on horseback for his grandfather, Bud, in 1987.
“Back then I rode a horse all the time,” he said. “Granddad ran a custom grazing operation. He was a horse trader, too, so we always had about 12 to 20 horses on the place, and we did everything on horses.”
He recalled 3-wheelers and 4-wheelers were in the county back then, which were typically used as utility vehicles for pulling burn sticks, doing fence work, and other jobs on most places.
However, somewhere in the early 2000s he noticed cattle he tended acted different around horses than they did around ATVs.
“We’d been having a lot of moisture that spring,” he said. “I was out in the rain on a 4-wheeler, checking on cattle, getting a head count, looking for strays and such, and they didn’t get nervous or run away. Then a couple weeks later I was out doing the same thing on my horse and it spooked them. I realized they may have never seen a horse before.”
Cattle didn’t seem worried about feed trucks or other ATVs either, he said. Pondering their journey to Kansas pastures, McLinden developed a theory why his cattle acted that way.
“Most of the cattle I got were from Missouri where they don’t have wide open ranges like we do here,” he said. “They have small ranges. Herds are usually about 40 head.”
A feed truck and couple of ranch hands on 4-wheelers typically bring herds into a sale barn.
“Once they’re bought, they’re put on a truck and taken somewhere west where they spend about six months in a preconditioned yard, then maybe they’re put on a wheat pasture or maybe they spend the whole winter in a barn before they’re put on a truck again and brought here,” McLinden said. “The doors open and all of a sudden they are staring at 620 acres of uninterrupted open prairie, and they don’t know what the heck to think.”
The vast majority of those cattle rarely see horses before they get to an open range.
“Most grass-fed customers use feed trucks and 4-wheelers to move herds before I get them,” McLinden said. “That’s just the way they were raised.”
Even with all his experience, the tipping point for McLinden was when most his cattle wouldn’t handle the way they needed to.
“They would run away every day,” McLinden said. “It got to the point where we had, say, 150 to 600 cattle that didn’t want to handle while we were on horseback. I don’t care how many good cowboys you have, when you have 400 cattle charging at once, you can’t stop them no matter what. You’re just screwed.”
Aside from the danger cowboys navigate during stampedes, he said cattle run off pounds, which decreases their value.
Now, McLinden primarily rides his 4-wheeled steed when butting heads with bovine ranks, but he still keeps horses around.
He said there are places in the country horses can get, like deep water and draws, and maneuvers they perform that 4-wheelers just can’t match.
“A well trained horse knows how to watch a cow and move accordingly,” McLinden said. “Even the best trained 4-wheeler can’t do that.”