Ride ’em Cowboy

Here’s a great article on one of our members, Vince Felty (dobro) from the Ravalli Republic.

Range rider
by JOEL GALLOB – Ravalli Republic

Vince Felty is a man who knows how to take care of his tools – and according to Felty, the most important tool a cowboy has is his horse. That’s why Felty has spent a lifetime developing his training methods, which can be summed up in a few simple words: communication, consistency and patience. WILL MOSS – Ravalli Republic

Vince Felty grew up in Wyoming and Nebraska, working with horses and cattle on his grandpa’s ranch as a kid, learning things that would serve him well in his later years as a cowboy in Montana. Now, he’s a cowboy who talks about animal neuropathways as easily as about roping cattle.

Based at his Double Star Ranch on South Sunset Bench Road, the tall and thin Felty trains horses and moves cattle around the range land of the Bitterroot Valley and below the Tobacco Root range.

“I love the independence, and working with animals,” he said. “Animals are honest; what you see is what you get. You’ve got to be honest and consistent with animals. I’ve trained a lot of horses for people here. Most people do not have the time to train them; they think they’ll get it done in a couple evenings.”

One key, he said, whether working with horses or cows, bulls or calves, is to learn how to communicate in their language, which is body language. Another key is to work with their instincts. And finally, it is crucial to be fair and consistent, he said.

There are two approaches to doing the work of a cowboy, Felty explained, one that originated in Texas and Oklahoma, which is rougher on the animals; and another, called the Californios, that originated with the Spanish in California.

When Felty gave presentations at the most recent county fair, he told groups of youngsters the number one tool a cowboy uses is his horse.

“Consistency and fairness and honesty, they understand that, like a 2-year-old does,” he later said. “They do not understand if you let them get away with stuff and it gets on your nerves and then you chastise them. It’s inconsistent. You try to understand where they are at, and where they need to go and you help prepare them. Everything is keyed to what’s coming up, whether you are breaking a horse or fixing one that somebody messed up.”

Recently he worked with a pony that had a problem of kicking at people; she didn’t want people to touch her feet.

A previous handler had improperly driven a horseshoe nail into her foot, hurting the animal, he said. Undoing that damage was “a test of patience and consistency,” he said. “You reward the smallest improvement. You’re working with a brain in there accepting signals, smells and movements, assimilating it all, sorting it out, sending signals to muscles to do something. There is an instinctive response to a lot. You learn to work with those instincts, and things go better.”

One of them is the instinct to be gregarious. Horses in the wild live in small herds. Within each such group, the horses must have ways of working out who is the leader.

“We used to kind of intimidate them into doing what we want. But their instinct is to be friendly. They’ll come around and want to be with you. If you watch wild horses, they get along together. Say you have two horses eating grass. One has his head down eating, the other has its head up, looking for danger, and then they change and its vice versa, vice versa again. If the up horse spots something, it’ll run off, and the horse with its nose down will see the movement. He’ll instinctively follow the movement. The instinct is to follow the other horse. You use that.”

If you introduce two horses in a field, he said, they’ll chase each other, bite at each other, maybe even strike each other.

“It’s to see who’s the leader. Neither cares which is which. Once it’s established, they have a good relationship. So you are trying to establish that you are the leader. Then everything goes better. A cowboy and his horse must work together well. When the chips are down, you’ve got to have him listen to you and react. They have to pay attention to you; it’s your body language. They understand and react fairly predictably.”

The horse can see that human body language even when the cowboy is sitting on its back because the shape of its head and position of its eyes combine to leave only two blind spots. One is immediately in front of the nose, the other behind the head where the mane is. Everything around them, including the man in the saddle, they can see.

But the cowboy or other trainer can’t push a horse beyond what it can do at any given moment. Instead, the trainer must notice even the smallest improvements, appreciate them, and move the horse ahead by another small improvement.

“It conditions their brains, signals the muscles and it makes that neuron path stronger and stronger ‘til it overpowers the response you didn’t like. That memory will be in her brain the rest of her days, but with the right consistency you can build new neuropathways that overpower the old ones.”

Some folks in upstate New York had a wild pony that nobody could catch, which they were going to shoot, when somebody suggested calling Felty.

They had a 10-acre pasture with a round pen, and Felty used that to train the horse. In that process, the various insights he describes came together.

“We can’t run with them like another horse would in the wild, where they run together, gesture together, ‘til they become buddies,” Felty said.

But in a round pen, they can run and run and the person in the middle can be running, and gesturing, with them, so that the animal experiences the person in a positive way, understand the person won’t hurt it and accepts the human as the leader.

“Then they look at you as the boss, and the rest of the training goes from there,” Felty said. This procedure, Felty said, saved the life of the horse with the hurt hoof.

Most people see cowboys trying to ride cattle, going fast and furious, at a rodeo. But that is not how a cowboy works with cattle outside the rodeo.

There are “four or five” cattle ranches Felty works with in the Bitterroot, and several others by the Tobacco Root Mountains.

“You’re real gentle, moving them along at a steady pace, and the animals understand that. If you go at a rodeo pace, soon everybody is so shook up you can’t get anything done.”

When roping cattle, he continued, “you sneak up on them nice and easy, throw a rope around them and get your job done. You don’t do like you see in the rodeo, that’s about competition and speed. Working with horses and cattle, you can’t do anything with speed. You have to get the job done without hurting the animal. It can take longer, but you don’t burn fat off your cows.”

On the range, if the cowboy gets behind a cow and she is new to the situation, “she’ll go off in all directions, unless you teach her. If you’re consistent,” he said, “they’ll drive straight. And, as with horses, the cowboy uses the animal’s instincts to get the desired results.”

He takes them pasture to pasture, separating the bulls from the cows, keeping them several miles apart, and then later brings them back together again, also sorting the calves out.

The goal is to properly time the mating of the bulls and cows, to produce offspring who get born 9 1/2 months later, as the good weather arrives in April.

After they breed, the cowboy separates them again.

“You drive your bulls to your cows in July, and in September or October split them up again. In the spring and fall you have roundups.”

Today’s cowboy is also, at times, an on-the-hoof veterinarian. If a cow is sick with scours (diarrhea) or pink eye, it’s the cowboy who may go out and rope every calf and give them a shot, or for pink eye, a spray of medicine in the eyes.

And it’s not only the cowboy who does that job. His horse is as involved as he is, following the cowboy’s directions to keep the rope, and the roped cow, where the cowboy can administer the medicine.

A cowboy’s number one tool, Felty told the kids at the Fair, is his horse. But it’s a lot more than that.

“If you train a horse right,” he said, the horse and rider “truly become one.”

Reporter Joel Gallob can be reached at 363-3300 or jgallob@ravallirepublic.com