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Buffalo Roundup 2007

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I have to tell you guys, those are some hellish good mules!!!

The Story

Sept. 9th, 2007 and it was spitting snow when Loren and I pulled into Keystone, South Dakota. We were out on an ADVENTURE!!!

If you aren’t familiar with Custer State Park, they have a herd of some 1300 buffalo that roam the 9 X 12 mile area of the park and every year about October 1st they have a "Buffalo Roundup and Festival" where they have 10,000 or more people at the buffalo corrals to watch the herd come running wide open down through the hills and over the grassy bluffs into the corrals. It’s a big event and to ride your horse (mule) in the roundup is a kind of lottery thing you sign up for and it is pretty much the "luck of the draw" to get invited. I have tried a couple of times through the years to get drawn for the roundup without any luck.

We took our mules and spent a week at Custer this year to celebrate my 55th birthday. We stayed at Elkhaven Horse Camp. I recommend it highly, nothing fancy, just a nice place with nice people and it’s right outside of the gates to the park. (605) 666-4856 www.elkhaven.com …. (they told me they are going to add "Mule" to the name)

There is a small restaurant at Elkhaven and a local man, Richard, comes up for coffee about every morning. Richard rides the park a lot and rode with us in the spring and kinda showed us around the north end. He helps out at the park a lot and I asked him about the Buffalo Roundup. Richard said moving a herd of buffalo is not for the faint of heart!! For the most part buffalo are moved at a high lope, and where they go, you go, at a high lope, up, down, over, under, around … and that you HAVE to go when and where they go as there isn’t anyone to watch after you as everyone is busy keeping the herd moving. He explained that getting invited is really hard. It is a "luck of the draw" thing.

Richard explained the entire round up procedure. The park has a pre- roundup and then they have the http://www.sdgfp.info/Parks/Regions/Custer/round.htm Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival with maybe 10,000 people watching.

The easiest way to explain is this. If you think of the park’s size and shape like a sheet of notebook paper. The corrals and staging area are in the bottom 1 or 2 inches of that sheet of paper. During the "Roundup and Art Festival" they move the buffalo around the staging area and into the corrals. During the "pre-roundup" the buffalo are gathered from all over the park, the rest of that sheet of paper, and moved into the staging area!! Long story short …… the Pre-roundup seemed like a bunch more fun to me and I managed to get invited back for the pre-roundup and I could bring a guest!!!

Loren Basham has become a good buddy of mine. He has got me hooked on hog hunting and we have been trail riding enough that I knew he has the same "about half crazy" gene some of us suffer from. I told him all I knew about gathering buffalo and asked him if he would be interested in going with me. His immediate reaction was "THAT SOUNDS PRETTY WESTERN!! WHEN DO WE LEAVE?" … like I said … suffers from the same gene!!!

So, 1st part of September we set off for Custer State Park. We got there a day early to allow Ol’ Noggin and Wounded Knee, our mules, to relax and get over the long trailer ride before starting.

When we got to Elkhaven we met up with a group of (horse) fellas from Ohio that had been on this roundup thing a few times and they invited us to go trail riding the day before the roundup started to "loosen up" our stock. We went off on a nice little ride into the park and we noticed right off that they weren’t really mule fans. They were "cutter / reiner" guys and we spent a lot of time hearing about how great their horses were and how much they were worth and …….. How do you get a mule and why do you ride one? Aren’t they really stubborn? Do they call you "mule skinners ‘cause you have to beat them ‘til their skin falls off? ………….. on and on. The same stuff that most of us infected with the "long ear disease" have heard over and over.

At one point Loren and I were going up a hill, pretty steep, our mules just walking along and you could hear these PPPPP, HUFF, HUFF, PPPPPP …. "Come on, come on" noises behind us as they were trying to run their horses up the hill. We stopped at the top and a couple of them came up and said we should probably take it a little easy as this was "the 1st day and we have a lot to do in the next few days". I heard them saying amongst themselves "these mule guys don’t know what they’re in for the next few days!! They will have those mules worn out before we start", so Loren and I decided to be nice and just ride along and sure enough had a nice ride.

If you haven’t been to Custer it is a really interesting place. The north end is really rocky, big hills, bluffs with a few grassy draws while the south end by the corrals are great big grassy hills…… like the ones in the buffalo hunt in "Dances With Wolves".

We met at the corrals the 1st morning and waited and waited and waited (we were excited and got there an hour early) then they asked us all to gather up and told us the rules. "If a buffalo starts chasing you go straight away from the herd because normally they won’t chase too far if you go away from the herd. Don’t try to angle away or they can and will catch you. We get a horse gored about every year. We would rather keep the big bulls out of the mix when they get the herd in, so we will try to get them into a different area, but you can’t do much with them, so be careful!!" and "We can’t really drive buffalo, just try to convince them to go the way we want". That was pretty much the rules to live by! Then they had us sign a waiver!!

There were 26 or so of us that went out the gate that 1st day. About 8 Park people, 3 or 4 of us "first-timers" and the rest were "veterans". I KNOW we were filled with excitement and anticipation. We could see a few of the 1st bunch we were to gather from the corrals on the grass hills to the north. As we headed out the gate I felt Noggin "soft step" and commented to Loren that he shouldn’t be doing that as I had put pads on with his shoes. As we went along he did it a couple of more times. That’s when I figured out he had lost a shoe!!!!!! Here we were off on this big adventure of a lifetime and my mule had lost a shoe!!!! GOSH DARN IT!!!! (or something like that), I said. "Well, we can’t stop now and he’s tough as nails. He’ll be alright, those hills are grassy" …. Off we went!!!

It ended up being 2 miles to the 1st herd. Everyone and their critters were excited and anxious. Wounded Knee and Noggin are both good walkers and we were cruising across the grass hills, which turned out to be, when we were on them, rocks with grass growing amongst them. We came over the top of a big hill and looked upon a herd of, they estimated, 600 buffalo!! Off to the north we could see another 200 or so. Our group was split so both bunches could be brought at the same time and combined before wew got to the trap….. maybe. While we waited, and waited, and waited for the other group to get around their bunch I noticed Noggin kept trying to turn away from the buffalo herd some 400 yards away and look off in another direction. I turned him back so we would be ready when duty called, then he turned back, then again. All of the sudden, this antelope came up out of a draw and walked straight up to us. Noggin wasn’t sure what it was, but he kept watching and watching. This antelope came to within 20 feet of us, then circled around us and kept on his path.

FINALLY we got the word it was time to GO!!!

Bullwhips cracked, yelling, whistling and we were off!!! Several buffalo in this group were lying down and they shot to their feet when the commotion started and up over a big hill we went. Ya know, when you go up over a big hill you have to come back down, and we sure did. I won’t say it was a dead run, but it was darn sure a fast lope. Some 600 buffalo and maybe 18 riders on horses …. and 2 dang ol’ mules …. going up and down and up and down, across a blacktop road, a couple of ditches, to the trap (a big double gate in the corner a half mile or so from the corrals) and into the staging area. Smooth as silk and pretty darn quick!!!

I can’t talk for anyone else, but Ol’ Noggin was a little….. unsure …. when this whole big commotion took off, but after a few jumps he said "Ya, I like this a whole bunch. Let’s go!!!!" Someone asked me later if it was loud, the "thundering hooves" and all. All I could answer was "I don’t know!" I was so wound up I can’t really say. I do know the smell seemed to be more like sheep than cattle.

As we got to the trap, Loren and the Herd Manager cut off some big bulls. Think about chasing 3 or 4 bull buffalo standing 6 or 7 feet tall at the hump and weighing 1800 - 2000 lbs!!

Then the other herd came over the hill ½ or ¾ of a mile to the north and we took off to help get them through the trap. In a matter of maybe 2 hours we had some 900 head in the staging area and had ridden about 9 or 10 miles, at least half of that at a fast lope. ADRENALIN PUMPING!!!!!

We took a break for an hour or so then went off to gather another bunch that was 3 or 4 miles away. It was a great ride over a couple of big hills then dropped down over a steep bluff down into a narrow valley, 200 yards wide or so with a blacktop road and a ditch snaking through it. Several cars were by this bunch and people were taking pictures of the buffalo.

The Parks people had to convince a couple of people they couldn’t stand in the middle of it all, camera on a tripod and take pictures while the herd ran past them.

They asked Loren and I to sneak around to the back side of this herd to block this bunch when they started and we did. Again, it was time to go!!! Bullwhips popping, lots of noise and we were off!!! Running through the valley, 100 or 150 buffalo and all of us jumping ditches, through the trees…….WOOOOOOEEEEEE!!!! wild, wild stuff!!!! We went a mile or so down the valley, up over a steep wooded bluff, onto a high grassy flat, then over a rock wall drop off. (this was ½ a mile long and 10 or so feet down except for the spot we dropped off which was a 4 foot drop off) down through a ditch and across a flat. When we got to this point I was beside the Herd Manager and he pointed and said "We’re taking them through that gate". It’s a 12 foot gate in the middle of a ¼ mile stretch of fence. I slowed down and he said "No, Keep ‘em going" so we took off. I had no idea that 150 buffalo could go through a 12 foot gate at a run, but I have darn sure seen it now! After we got them through Loren had to throw a loop over the gate post and pull it back up so we could close the gate. They use Powder River gates, they are really heavy and it was all we could do to get the gate shut before a bull, that had fallen behind, came slow loping up, everyone "trying" to turn him to no avail, and banged into it a little, then turned off and walked down the fence looking for another way in. It was a 5 or 6 mile ride back to the corrals and the trailer and we got back there at about 2:30 pm. We had done all this between 9:30 and 2:30 …. the 1st day! It would have been worth the trip if it stopped here! Oh ya, and Noggin on 3 shoes!!!!!

To relieve your worries, he was fine. We got a shoe put on that evening and all was good.

That evening Loren got a call and was invited to the Craig Cameron Extreme Cowboy World Finals, so we celebrated …. a little.

The second day we were to move 150 or 200 so that had moved clear to the north fence line. (the top of that sheet of paper) The way we were to take them it was about 16 miles to the trap. We started off……… had a little issue with an interior fence that seemed to "disappear" as the herd went by……..and we went south!!! It got pretty warm that day and they wore down pretty quickly. It was an hour or so after we started that I figured out the "go straight away from the herd" rule when I was riding up a steep bank and a cow came out of the herd and wanted to play with me an Ol’ Noggin. We followed the rule and took off!!

Buffalo are really interesting critters. As they are moving in the herd, it normally isn’t the outside ones that come out to get you. It will be one that is in 2 or 3 inside the herd, the others split, and she comes out and will be at a dead run when she leaves the herd.

As the day went on, this same cow decided she really didn’t like either me or Noggin … or both of us …. and I could get her to come out at whenever I wanted to. I could, literally look at her, make eye contact, and she would start woof, woof, woofing. If I would face up to her she would come out after Ol’ Noggin …. and me!. She was so predictable that I would do that and Loren would chase her back in. It was a game ….. and it was fun ……. since it all worked out o.k!! It got too hot that day and we stopped after 9 or 10 miles with the herd. They were really tired and grouchy, so we decided to finish the following morning. We had a 5 or 6 mile ride back to the corrals and the trailer. Just so you know, those 2 dang mules, walking all the way, got back first, by several minutes. About 5 hours riding. Another great day!!!

Again, buffalo are really interesting. We had let them stop at a waterhole to drink and take a break. A few cows that didn’t go to drink, but stayed between us and the herd and watching us. They were guard cows. If we would go towards them, they would chase us back. They didn’t drink until all others had. The cow that didn’t like me and Noggin was one of those. A guy that lives by the park was telling me that he had come upon a small bunch of cows in the spring and a cow was having a calf. Several other cows moved between him and the calving cow, kept walking toward him, eventually forcing him to leave the area.

The last day we just had to move that bunch on down to the trap. Easy!!! No problem at all!!! …………………………. Right!!!?!!

They had actually moved closer to the trap when we got to them……….. except ……… one of the Ohio guys decided he wanted to take his dog with him. He has a nice Catahoula named Cait. She looks about like our Catahoula we call Cajun. My vote after it was all over is that "DOGS AND BUFFALO DON’T MIX …………. NOT AT ALL"!! The buffalo were much more interested in chasing the dog than they were in going where we wanted them to. We started trying to move them and they went about 3 different directions at once, and none were the right direction!!!. At one point a cow came out after the dog and was striking at her and trying to get her horns into the dog, but it got away. After a half hour of running circles and getting nothing moving in the right direction the herd went into a "defensive stance". This is when they group up and all stand facing out. They protect the calves in the middle and …well …won’t move. As I sat there on Noggin some 20 yards away, I was noticing that there were 2 bulls really close that were huge!! Their humps were about eye level with me, sitting on Noggin, and he is 15.1h! We must have sat there for 10 minutes!!! Someone would try to get them moving and they wouldn’t budge. Finally Chad, the Herd Manager said, "On Three….. One …. Two …. Three" and he took off cracking the bullwhip and we all took off at the herd. As I said I was 20 yards away and … well, I have to tell you I was REALLY glad when they turned and started off right before we got to them!!! They did take off and it was, again, wide open up, down, over and under toward the trap!

We were running up to the trap and I noticed a different gate was open as well. This gate went in to another pasture that isn’t part of the staging area. I heard the Herd Manager yelling, "Who opened that gate?" and I knew it was a mistake! The first 20 or 30 buffalo ran through the wrong gate and Loren, Chad and I cut through the herd, went through that gate to bring them back, as we did the rest of the herd started through the right gate. The 3 of us got around them and brought em’ right back out the gate and they melted into the big bunch going through the trap. It might have taken 2 minutes to do, but it was very …….. exhilarating …… for 3 of us to bring them back!!!!! We were still in that pasture as the last of the big bunch went through the trap.

Well, that is all but the very last one!! A young bull, 2 or 3 years old was the last one and someone was pushing to close when he spun around and took off the wrong direction running wide open! A couple of horses took off after him along with a Park guy in a pickup. The truck got past him and squeezed him to the fence so he pulled up, paused a half second, then took off hell bent for election going out to the park!!

It is important that you visualize the terrain we were in. If you picture a big slope, maybe ¾ of a mile wide, with a couple pretty good sized ditches running down through it and the ground is literally covered with rocks. The majority are softball to baseball size, but up to basketball size.

That darn Loren on Wounded Knee took off after him!! The bull was a 200 or 300 yards away from us at that point, and … having that same gene I talked about earlier ….... me and "Noggy" jumped in after them!! Everyone else had given up and nobody but us two dang fool ol’ "muleskinners" went after him!!! "Knee" has a 454 running nitrous oxide and she was hot after him and Noggin trying his best to stay in the game. Wide open, piling down through those ditches and across the rocks!! Loren got past him and turned that crazy young bull back!! We held him towards the trap. Back through the ditches! Back across those darn rocks! We were going wide open a hundred yards out parallel from the trap fence when it dawned on me he wasn’t even thinking about the trap gate. He was going to run straight through the fence in front of us!!!

They have built the fences for buffalo, which means they have 6" wooden posts 8 or 10 feet apart with double 36" woven wire, one overlapping and above the other to make a 5’ high fence. Then they do the same thing on the other side of the posts so it’s a 5’ high double fence.

This young bull, 900 or 1,000 lbs hit that fence running wide open. I wondered who would get the best of end of the deal, and the fence won!!! It took that bull running, stretched a little and shot him back on his rear end. He stood up, a little shaken, turned and we went through the trap gate. I ran up and threw my hand in the air like you would at a team penning! It got a big laugh from the "horse riders" that had sat there watching the whole thing.

Me and Loren were pumped up, to say the least!! We knew we had just done an amazing thing. To bring move a single buffalo anywhere you want it is next to impossible, but to do it with only 2 riders in a huge, huge area!!!!!!! ……. Again, EXHILARATING … to say the least!!!!!

We were really proud of what we had accomplished, but nobody said a dang word about it!!!!!!!!

When we got back to the corrals there were several folks setting around that had been watching the whole thing through binoculars and spotting scopes. We were all setting around congratulating each other, rehashing the events of the last 3 days and hoping we would get invited back when one of those guys that had been watching came over, walked up to Loren and I and said really loud "That was pretty darn cool to see the 2 mules go out and bring back that bull while all the horses sat watching!!!!" We said thanks and that it was pretty cool and just smiled at each other. Again, none of our cohorts said anything.

A few minutes later we said our good-byes and were loading the mules to start home when one of those "cutter / reiner" guys, the one that had been the biggest ASS about mules came walking back and said, " I have to tell you guys, those are some hellish good mules!!!"

I’m can’t remember hearing many things I liked better than that!!!!! Me and Loren haven’t stopped grinning about it since!!! Grinning about the comments he made and grinning about the whole experience. I know our families are surely getting tired of us talking about it, over and over and over. Remembering little things we have to tell someone about.

At T Cross Farm, www.tcrossfarm.com, we raise and train athletic mules that have the brains, the heart and the conformation to do all of these things I like to do and I have a couple of great coming 3 year old johns that need time spent on them. One of them, my next "personal mule," T Cross Farm’s Gill Favor will be headed to South Dakota next fall and try his hand at gathering buffalo ……… because Noggin won’t be.

Ol’ Noggin is an amazing animal that has a heart the size of a water tank and the willingness to do whatever I can come up with, and he has more than paid his dues and after a lot of thinking, going back and forth, cussing and discussing and thinking what is best for Noggin……. he has gone to live out his life with a wonderful family, Brent and Mary Lou Layton, the 5L Ranch, in Midway, UT where he can enjoy life trail riding and live "the good life". He dang sure deserves it and they are really nice folks that deserve an AMAZING MULE!! Thanks and Congratulations Brent!!!

Loren’s a bunch younger than me, but I know he feels the same as I do. I am surely thankful that I got to go do this once before I die and hopefully, God willing, I will be able to do it 10 times before I die. According to the GPS’s we had with us we had ridden 65 or 70 miles in 3 days, in maybe 15 hours of riding!!! I can’t imagine that there is anything more exciting, more exhilarating or more WESTERN than what me and Loren did this fall!!!!!

 

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