Friday, June 13, 2014

Lace Your Tree Up

Part 2: I-Z

What would the Old West be without a discussion of the typical mode of travel: horseback riding? Anybody who could afford one owned at least one horse, and many working folks kept several. A cowboy had a whole string of mounts that he used for different jobs. So lace your tree up (tie on your saddle) and get aboard – today we’re going riding.

Iron out, Kick the frost out, Ride the kinks out, Smooth out the humps: to ride a troublesome horse until it stops bucking and gets down to business

Jack-knife: the action of a wildly-pitching horse in the middle of a jump

Jigger: to over-run or over-heat a horse

Jiggle: the normal gait of a cowpony

Kettle: to pitch and buck

Kick the lid off: to break into violent bucking

Kinks: what’s found in the backbone of a cowpony when first mounted, causing it to buck

Let out: to kick

Light rider: one who sits lightly in the saddle and so does not need to adjust the cinch ring often, or chafe the horse’s back with the saddle

Mounting: Westerners mount a horse from the left side or “near” side; the “Indian side” (right or “off” side) is “wrong.”

Pitcher: a horse given to bucking

Pussy-backing: a gentle kind of bucking with an arched back

Riding slick: riding a bucking horse without a bucking roll, locked spurs, or other “cheaters”

Roughing out: the first riding of a bronc

Single-foot, rack: a gait halfway between a trot and a canter

Spanish trot: an easy, swinging trot

Spike your horse’s tail: to bring a horse to such a sudden stop that it practically sits down

Spinner: a horse given to bucking in tight circles

Stargazer: not said kindly; a horse that keeps its head high in the air, the result of the trainer being rough with the bit

Sunfish: a dangerous jumping twist with first one side toward the ground and then the other; called sunning his belly, sunning his sides – the horse is a sunfisher

Swallow his head: the horse puts its head down between its legs when bucking

Throw-back: the horse throws itself over backwards to try to crush the rider

Thrown: Here are some of the colorful euphemisms for becoming separated from your horse – dirty your shirt, eaten dirt without stooping, chased a cloud, chewed/eaten/tasted gravel, gone forked-end up, gone grass hunting, gone picking daisies, gone up to fork a cloud, gotten busted, gotten dumped, gotten dusted, gotten flung away, gotten grassed, gotten piled, gotten spilled, gotten spread-eagled, kissed the ground, landed on your sombrero, lost your hat and gotten off to get it, lost your horse, met your shadow on the ground, picked daisies, sunned your moccasins, taken a squatter’s rights, taken up a homestead

Untrack a horse: to lead a horse forward a few steps before mounting. If the horse is in a mood to act up, it will show it at this time. No old timer ever mounts a horse without untracking it.

Walking-beaming: bucking so that first the front feet and then the hind feet are in the air


A Dictionary of the Old West, Peter Watts, 1977
Dictionary of the American West, Win Blevins, 1993

J.E.S. Hays


  1. Great info. Puts me in the mood to do some bronc writing!

  2. I have a couple minor quibbles. Many, perhaps most, did not own a horse at all as they were expensive to feed and the darn things eat whether working or not. Hands generally rode horses owned by their employers. And only rich townspeople kept horses. Also about mounting: when in the mountains you jolly well get on from the uphill side and never mind if it is left or right.

    So endeth my quibble.

  3. If you've never been thrown, you've never really ridden. And Frank is correct. Most horses can be mounted from either side. It's a fallacy that a horse won't allow himself to be mounted from the right.

  4. I love it when people find niggles - you know, every one of my reference books had that bit about mounting sides in them?

    Thanks for pointing those out to me!

    1. Generally speaking, you are right about the near and off sides. Though I've gotten off and on from both sides of the horse, I prefer to mount from the near side--as your books suggest. If the off side was uphill and terrain didn't keep me from it, I just turned the horse around so the near side was uphill.

  5. Again, fascinating and useful. Doris

  6. I know nothing about horses so I was wondering how far can a cowboy ride in a day? How fast can a rider push his mount before stopping? How long should his horse rest and what does he eat on a long trip?

  7. Horses don't like me. Great info, Jes! thanks, will come in useful... Frank and Jim too.

  8. I had a vaquero once tell me what it meant to let you favorite personal horse loose in a ranch's remunda. It meant you were throwing in with the ranch and the other hands for the good or the bad of it. It is a sign of trust.

  9. Rick, Thirty miles is a good day. More than that is really pushing it. Fifty would be exceptional.

  10. to continue. A horse can go full speed for no more than a couple of miles. You'd have to walk, jog,(trot), and lope your horse, varying the pace to cover a lot of territory. As far as stopping to rest, it depends on how hard you are pushing the horse and his condition. I can ride Yank for half a day or more if we're just walking, with the occasional trot of lope. But I generally give him more rest stops than that. Minimum thirty minutes. Far as food, it's what's available. Grass, grass, and more grass. That's why a cowboy would want a tough mustang type horse, not a purebred like a Thoroughbred. One reason the Indians were able to give the US Cavalry fits is their horses were tough, used to living off the land, while the Cavalry horses were bred for less rugged conditions, and grain-fed and comparatively pampered. The Indians' horses could far outlast the Cavalry mounts. Today that;s not the problem it used to be... you bring along grain and hay in the trailer.

    1. I have wondered about that for a long time. Thank you for taking the time to answer.

  11. Good info, Jim! I hate it when you see TV or movie horses going full speed for hours and hours.

    Gordo, I'll keep that tidbit in mind - hadn't heard it before.

    Meg, you should meet mine - he likes everybody