Feed operation rides with highly trained horses

Wes Killion/For the Capital Press Bonnie Hamlin prepares to work cattle at the Beef Northwest feed lot in Boardman, Ore.

No-nonsense work ethic is critical for horses, rider says


For the Capital Press

As in the Old West, horses can still do the best job when it comes to much of the work required in cattle operations.

Even with today's modern vehicles, a good horse piloted by a savvy pen rider can outwork anything with rubber tires when it comes to maneuvering the tight spaces in feed yards.

This is the case with horses and pen riders that work the three cattle feeding operations for Beef Northwest. With yards in Nyssa and Boardman, Ore., and Quincy, Wash., Beef Northwest has a one-time capacity of up to 95,000 head. As long as a horse has the mental and physical attributes to do the job efficiently, he's not likely to ever face the threat of unemployment.

Wes Killion, director of yard operations, said that most of the pen riders use horses that are in the range of 15 to 151/2 hands high and tip the scales at about 1,250 to 1,300 pounds.

"The reason they're not going to be very tall is because of the gate situation. If you have a pen rider that's constantly leaning over to open gates, that can be difficult with a tall horse. And because we are in tight quarters a lot, it can be tough for a big horse to get around," Killion explained.

For work at Beef Northwest, pen riders rotate work with their horses.

"During the fall and spring months, they'll bring four horses in for their rotation," he said. "I would say probably three out of the four are seasoned and very well-broke. Then, usually, they have one colt that's coming up through the ranks."

This is a job where a no-nonsense work ethic is critical, so if a colt is silly or likely to hurt a rider or the cattle he's moving, he won't be a candidate for the job. But the minds of already sensible young horses benefit a great deal from this work.

Killion explained that they mature "pretty quick. And the good thing about the environment here is that they get exposed to a lot of different things that they typically wouldn't see anywhere else. They're constantly working cattle and making pen moves. They're opening and closing lots of gates and they're around equipment. It's just a good environment to get a colt gentle and to get the right disposition on one."

Older, seasoned horses can work more hours than a youngster, so the pen riders don't work long hours on a colt. The rotation keeps all the horses fresh.

"In the winter," Killion said, "you might need an extra horse, whereas in the summertime when you've got good pen conditions and good weather, it's not near as taxing on them. We'd rather the pen riders have adequate horseflesh to get the job done."

Most of the pen riders come from about a 45-mile radius of the yards they work. They keep the horses at the yard and the company provides hay and gives the riders a shoeing allowance.

This is a plus for all concerned, said Killion. "It's a means for us to be able to recruit good pen riders, because if they know they can bring in four horses and can take care of them, that's appealing to a lot of people."


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