Surface Work

I started writing this a while ago after Wife Tammy’s production “Art Of The Cowgirl”.  We had a little discussion  on the ranch rodeo and the way cattle were handled.  It got me to thinking about why I do things the way I do.  So here it is, kind of long, but I think it is worth your time if you are interested in improving the way you work livestock.

I’ve been in a whirlwind for the last few of weeks.   From one event to the next with not much time between and also trying to get things done on the new ranch and getting sick in the middle of it all made for a long couple of weeks.

I had one of the best demos ever in New Orleans at NCBA convention.  Ron Gill and I had done it the day before and it didn’t go so good.  Our pressures didn’t match up very good and the cattle didn’t work very good and I didn’t feel good after the demo.

I got to think about it and figure out how to do better.  Ron had a different obligation so Dean Fish and I did the demo together, and it worked out a lot better because I changed the way I pressured and was able to talk about what I was doing better.  The cattle worked great and we were able to present it in a way that folks could really see and understand what we were talking about. I learned and changed and in 24 hours it was a much different demonstration with the same facilities and similar cattle.

I have been working very hard for the last 20 years on getting more done with better pressure and trying to present this to people in the horse and livestock world, and have never backed off what I feel is right for production livestock and  working with animals.

It is very difficult sometimes to put your thoughts and opinions out to the public and not get thoughts and opinions back from folks with their own thoughts and opinions or representing what they feel are thoughts and opinions of the pioneers or “Gurus “, in my case in the horse world Ray Hunt and the cattle world Bud Williams, the two I admire and study the most

I did not know either one on a personal level, but invested a lot of money and time in trying to get what they were offering for money to improve my skills with livestock.  I didn’t really think they were the kind of people I wanted to be friends with, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t really want to be friends with me, but they both took my money and I took their teaching for that money.  I really worked hard studying what they offered, then put it in my own mind and environment to help me with what  I wanted for my horsemanship and stockmanship.

This is very important to realize, and it took me some time to figure this out.  I would go and learn from other folks that claimed to be students of one of the Gurus, but from my observations it was nothing near my interpretation of what I learned from the teacher.  You can’t be someone else no matter how you try. You can wear the same clothes and use the same equipment but it doesn’t make you recreate what the “teacher” did to be the teacher.

Many years ago I spent a little time at Tom and Margaret Dorrance’s place.  One of the talks we had was about “Surface Workers”.  It was a talk that really effected me, and I really worked hard at not being a surface worker, but really understanding what created what I was looking for in working with livestock and horses.  The important word here is what “I” want and think is important.

I am a production agriculture guy.  The way my mind was shaped growing up was raising livestock (horses were livestock, not companion animals) for profit.

My grandfather Leonard was not a cowboy even though he wore a cowboy hat sometimes, and was probably had as many horseback miles as anyone, but he wasn’t a cowboy.

He was a horse trader, cow trader, small rancher, and somewhat of a real estate investor even though I don’t think he knew it.  He bought stuff to make a profit, and was very good at upgrading things to make that profit, or buying things right to not lose money.  He was very frugal and didn’t like spending money on anything if it wouldn’t make him money.  


He was pretty good at getting animals to do what he wanted, and was really good at getting animals to eat and get fat.  He bought a lot of horses for slaughter, and said the best color for a horse was fat.  He liked horses, but he didn’t fall in love with them.  They were for sale at a profit. He really loved his cows, always made sure they had everything they wanted and more, but when it was time to sell, he sold and didn’t let emotion get in the way.

He bought and sold small numbers of livestock and trucked cattle for people with a truck with a twenty foot bed.  We weighed a lot of small numbers of cattle and when I was around twenty years old I was really good at guessing weight on cattle.  We were always sorting and working cattle and I was good at it.

I spent much of my youth with my Grandpa Len and was really influenced by him more than anybody else.

My other Grandfather, Ed Pate was a cowboy, and worked for other people his whole life.

I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as he lived and worked in Idaho, but really liked spending time working with him.  He made a lot of money for other people taking care of their livestock, and was willing to do whatever it took in human sacrifice to make sure the man paying him had his livestock cared for, and I think he helped a lot of people die with a lot more money, while he died with not having many possessions, he instilled in me the desire to take care of animals and work hard for someone you hire out too.

I put up a lot of hay in my in my younger days but I didn’t have a passion for it.

I like feeding animals and grazing animals, so when I started looking for jobs I was focused on only jobs caring for livestock and was not very interested in farming.  I got a lot of experience and worked around some real good stockman with both sheep and cattle.  The people I learned from were more stockman than cowboy, even though they were horseback outfits.

So even though I like roping and have worked hard at getting good at it, and like riding horses that are real handy, and enjoy using dogs to help handle stock, my mind has always been on the production of livestock first, and using cowboy skills to enhance that production.

So when I started to study stockmanship skills, I had a certain mindset on what I thought was best, because of all the influences in my life.  It might have created a different desired result than you or other folks have.  That’s ok, and just because we may have different desires for the outcome, we can still share and learn ideas.

I am very happy with were I’m at right now, but not satisfied.  I know I’m going to get much better, as I have lots of desire to get better and know I can tweak the things I know and make what I know even better.

I have been riding three horses real consistent for the past couple months.  They are all a little different and none of them are pets but I’ve been getting by them pretty good.

I’ve been busy for about three weeks and it’s been cold and snowy so I haven’t been riding them for a month or so.  We had a fellow come to do some filming for a couple of days, and I saddled all three in that time, led them out of the barn  and stepped on and rode em off and went to work.  No ground work or anything and they just rode like they did when I put them up a month ago.  No surface work there.


We have had bucking bull stock around here for the last several years and they have been real good at teaching me to work with and handle lively animals.  I feel I am pretty good at working these cattle.  We moved all those animals to Oklahoma for a better climate and daughter Mesa has them.

I wanted something different to work with last winter so I found a small heard of Mini cows for sale.  They are a real ranchy looking bunch.  I am not sure if I can ever get them sold as there is not much demand for them, but I sure have had fun with them.

When I went to get them the fellow that had them used feed to move them.  They would not drive.  He used feed in a yellow bucket to get them in the corral to load them and then had to put the bucket in the trailer.  The ones that wouldn’t go on Son Rial and I had to physically put them on.  They were gentle but you couldn’t move them.


Well it’s been a year since I got them and boy they are nice to handle.  They really respond well to pressure and make real nice turns and you can park them at a gate, open the gate and they will file right through.  They are not gentle and a couple are kind of on the wild side, after they got their freedom.  They are fat and healthy and I feel like I could “put em down a gopher hole or up a telephone pole (a Tom Dorrance saying).  They are fun for me to work with and I feel like they are very well taken care of and content.

So what I am saying is not every one has the same idea of how to and what’s right with working livestock.  I think it is how you were influenced and what your goals are.  I have really taken the things that I used starting Colts for the past thirty years and put those same techniques and philosophies to use handling livestock.  I am real satisfied with that style of handling.

Bud Williams had talked about his methods of starting Colts and his thoughts on it a little, but I couldn’t get much out of him.  I finally got hold of a video he had made of his method for starting one.  It was nothing like I thought it would be and it didn’t fit what I wanted.  It fit him and I’m sure a lot of people like it but I didn’t.  It’s no problem and I still am watching his stuff trying to get better with cattle and sheep, but I am not interested in the horse stuff.

I never got to see Ray Hunt working cattle in a ranch situation, but watched him work a bunch of colts in an arena and get control of them as a herd and he could really control the movement and turns of the horses.  I have used what I learned from observing that when working with herds of cattle.  If you can get a bunch of colts ready and handling for people that maybe shouldn’t be riding colts, you can surely handle cattle and put em where you want.  His horses were incredible for that kind of work.

I’ve also been studying Temple Grandin for the past several years.  She is a sponge of all knowledge.  She learns things to add to her way of seeing things in pictures and shares them with others.  Some people don’t agree with what she is saying, but if you don’t listen to her you are missing some very good things to improve stockmanship.

So what I am trying to say is be yourself but create yourself with the help of others that create what you like.  Then really ask yourself if you are just working without really understanding, like doing and saying what someone else is doing and saying without understanding why.  

Don’t be a surface worker, even if it causes a little disagreement.

10 thoughts on “Surface Work

  1. Polly

    Nice job Curt! Really insightful, your posts remind me to be more aware and thoughtful when we are feeding and moving livestock around. It’s so nice to read your blogs and realize that other people have the same passion and desire to constantly improve their skills. I sometimes wonder why I feel that way, and after I read your post I know why. Thanks for sharing your thoughts –

  2. Jim Fleming

    Morning Curt:

    Received your delightful email this morning. It’s content was refreshing and well thought out and presented. I’m retired now, 76 years old, but when I was involved professionally I served a university graduate school program for 25 years as a professor of counseling psychology. Essentially, I educated people to provide psychotherapeutic services to clients. That’s just what I did, because I had a knack for helping students understand the subject matter easier, and this helped them to become interested in the subject matter before them. It helped them to become customers for what I was essentially “selling” them. Knowledge. The stuff from which power flows.

    I’ve read your Western Horseman publication, Ranch Horsemanship. I’ve ordered several copies for friends, so they can get off to a better start, or continue in a better way.

    Your musings this morning: This is not a critique but a, from my heart perspective, a huge thank you and expression of my appreciation for your personal introspective presentation of an extremely important concept: meta-cognitive processing (MCP). In other words, thinking about your thinking. You also provided examples of pre-mortem and post-mortem thinking in your MCP examples. The reason I mention these things to you, the things you did, is because of the very simple idea I learned from my mentor during my graduate studies for my terminal degree. And I thought I’d like to pass it along to you. “If it works, do more of it.” “If it doesn’t work, don’t do it, do something different.” All to simple to think about, but difficult to put into action. In addition, I recall my doctoral degree advisor asked me one you day what I thought I wanted to do after I graduated. I replied with, become a counselor educator. He asked me if I knew that there was only one thing I needed to do, well. I said no. He then replied with, “The only thing you must do with your students is create the need to know!” As I read your book and read your comments in the email you sent out, it is absolutely apparent that that is exactly what you do when you work with horses or cattle or people. You interface with them so that they look for more information from you. This is a good thing.

    The upshot of what you do and who you are, I know you didn’t ask for this and please believe me when I say I’m not critiquing your comments, merely putting them into context in another human endeavor, or venue, is that there are to few of you! I’ve read the books, most all of the books, and I’ve yet to read what you have written. No other author who lives with livestock and has devoted his life to livestock has captured so succinctly the essence of the value of one’s “self” as have you. Because of this I know you don’t need an applause for what you think, or do. Your own way of thinking and doing what you have discovered is right for you, and what works, is affirmation enough. I do get that. However, I think it is important for someone, along the way, to simply say, that he knows there are a lot of young people who will have learned as much from you, and more, than they have from their own father’s. One of the questions I would consider to ask, of my own clients, and one that I encouraged my students to ponder for themselves was, “How many father’s have you had ?“ most would start off by saying, “One!” And then after some “thinking about their thinking” they would say, something like “5 or 6.” The obvious question to follow is, “How come?” It’s what we learn from others and choose to use in our own lives to help make our own lives better, that we grow. I know you know this. And it is here, in closing, that I say, to you, thank you for providing me the opportunity to learn from you. You set an enviable example for us all to follow.

    All the best. Kindest regards, Jim

    Dr. J. Slate Fleming Spearfish, SD


  3. Russ Jones

    Thanks Curt, I know way to many surface people. They are living their whole lives that way. They need to find out who they are to know how to work stock. When you watch them handle stock you can tell a whole lot about them.

    Thanks, Russ

  4. Debra

    In other words Be true to yourself and continue to learn, adding and subtracting? Out with the old in with the new? I like the picture of the yellow bucket to get the cattle loaded, like a Mama duck or goose or even a Bell Mare to keep horses close. The child in me knows if you bond with any animal they will do your bidding, Evan a bull in your yard! Had one wonder in or he jumped the fence . I just looked him in the eye and told Okay both gates are open pick one and GO back to your pasture two more turns around the yard and he moseyed on he way !! True Story I have witnesses 🐂🐂

  5. Joel Brown

    Congratulations on your new chapter in Bozeman; that will be so rewarding following thru with; from a stockmanship perspective from the start, true kinship with a purpose.

    When it’s right you’ll know it; enjoy building and setting the “tone”.

    Thank you for all you do; be blessed

  6. Dylan Ongle

    Very insightful. I love the term surface worker. As I’ve been one many times. Though I try not to be. It’s tough sometimes when you’ve a good handle on a nother man’s cattle. Till they show up. But we make it work. Thanks. Very well said.

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