The Western Trail

Western Trail is a competitive class for horses that demonstrates their ability to negotiate obstacles in a fast time. This requires attentiveness, the ability to pay attention to what is going on around them and a horse that can choose its way through a course of fences, poles, water hazards, and other challenges. Rules and regulations vary between different breeds and show organizations, but most have similar requirements. A judge will be looking for a horse that negotiates the course faultlessly, but also one that displays the willingness to learn, points its ears and appears interested in the obstacles it encounters on the course.

The Great Western Cattle Trail was the most important cattle route in history, spanning from Texas to northern Nebraska and even the Dakotas. It was followed by millions of longhorn cattle and mustangs in five short years before barbed wire fencing and quarantine laws brought it to a close in 1885.

As early as the 1870s cattlemen realized that a better trail to the north was needed to bypass farm settlements and prevent Texas tick fever from contaminating the herds with tick-borne diseases. The Chisholm Trail was soon followed by other trails, but the most popular was the Western Trail. It started at Brownsville and detoured to Dodge City before heading across the plains and into northern Kansas, where it merged with other routes toward points north in the Dakotas and into Canada.

The rutted and muddy trail was dangerous for both animals and humans. As herds moved north the cattle had to be spread out so that each animal could find grass and avoid stampedes. If herds were pushed too closely together they would become agitated and likely to turn back toward the south. Trail bosses never pushed more than twenty percent of the herd, and herds were allowed to graze for ten or twelve miles a day. When conditions were favorable herds actually gained weight on the trail.

Once herds reached the northern range they were shipped to Indian reservations or to railroad depots for shipment by rail. A trail boss, ten cowboys and a cook could trail 2,500 head of cattle for three months for sixty to seventy-five cents a head. This was far cheaper than shipping cattle by rail.

While the herds were traveling through the west they encountered wild weather, river crossings and, occasionally, hostile Indians. Many cowboys, especially those who rode the herds into Texas, developed reputations as skilled gunfighters that owed more to Hollywood than to their actual skills. Few, however, carried pistols, which were prone to discharge and were usually the weapon of choice for Indians who had taken up residence in the plains. Trail bosses favored younger cowboys, who were less apt to shoot themselves or their companions. Older steers, four years and older, had unusually long horns, which became known as a trademark of the Texas trail herds. Younger cattle had shorter horns.

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