Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Most Common Dangers of Cattle Drives

Last month, I told you all about the western cattle drive, from the trails they took to the jobs on the trail. This month, we’re talking about the dangers the young men faced on the drives—and believe me, there were plenty!

Cowboy on Horseback
Riding Accidents
As I’m sure you can imagine, when one lives life on horseback, the potential for accidents is great. Taking a tumble from a horse can leave one with minor scrapes and bruises, more serious broken bones and major cuts, or it can even be deadly. If you’ve watched western movies, you’ve likely seen the old trope of someone falling from his saddle with a foot stuck in the stirrup. Unfortunately for many men, this wasn’t just a trick of the movies to add drama. It was a true hazard of saddle tramps everywhere. To have a foot caught in the stirrup and be dragged by a horse very well could lead to death. Or, if a man fell in the midst of the herd, particularly when the cattle were restless, that could lead to a trampling. I would venture to guess this was, in large part, why the least experienced riders tended to be given duty riding drag (at the back of the herd).

Of course, another huge threat to the safety of a cattle drive was nature itself. Imagine living your life for months at a time with no structure in which to take shelter. They slept under the stars, rode through rainstorms, and took shelter under their saddles if it began to hail. Should lightning strike, the men would do their best to find cover—but on the open prairie, there wasn’t much. So in those cases, they’d shuck their pistols (which could act as a lightning rod) and lie as low as possible until it passed.

River Crossings
I’m sure you can imagine the peril in trying to get several thousand head of cattle from one side of a deep river to the other. They would have to find the best spot to cross, taking into account the water’s depth, current’s speed, how steep the banks were, and how swollen from rain or snowmelt. Once a suitable crossing was found, the men of the cattle drive would have to lead the cattle into the water, watch to be sure none were swept downstream in the current, and pray they could find solid footing on the bank on the far side to get out of the river again. When cattle did get caught in the current and swept away, someone had to ride along the banks for the river to find the animal, hoping it made it out alive.

If the rivers were swollen, they might choose to delay the crossing until the water levels reached a less-threatening level, but this also presented its difficulties. The cattle trails were busy, and many drives would be traveling the same way. So in delaying a river crossing, you ran the risk of a cattle drive traffic jam, where several herds were stacked up and waiting. This led to the risk of herds becoming intermixed if the cowboys weren’t diligent to keep them separate.

The N Bar crew crossing the Powder River in 1886

Lack of Water
As dangerous as a swollen river could be, even worse was the danger of no water. In seasons of drought, known water holes might have gone dry. Some of the cattle trails had shortcuts and “cut-offs” that would shave days or weeks off the trip and perhaps avoid other dangers, but the difficulty of taking them was often the possibility of less reliable watering spots. Not only was the concern for the men and horses/cattle dying of thirst, but cattle were far more prone to grow irritable without water. This irritability led to the herd being harder to control. Even worse, cattle are purported to be able to smell water from many miles away, and if they’ve gone without a drink for a time, then get the scent of water, the potential for a stampede grew exponentially.


Aside from a water shortage leading a herd to stampede, other things might also rile the herd into panicked flight. Sudden loud sounds like thunder or gunfire, particularly at night, might be the catalyst. Rustlers often used this ploy to break up the herd and steal cattle in the resulting chaos. Even one ornery steer with a mind of its own could lead the herd to follow suit and run.

If a herd stampeded, the men were required to jump to action. They must get on horseback and chase down the herd, then work to turn it. If they could get the herd turned, they’d slow it, and eventually stop the charge. Of course, a night stampede was worse, since the inability to see obstacles or judge the soundness of the ground you’re racing over could lead to falls from horseback, tramplings, horses or cattle breaking legs, etc. And after the stampede was over, then came the work of combing the countryside to find any animals who broke from the main herd. The potential for losses was great in a stampede—both from the deaths of man, horse, or cow, as well as never finding the scattered herd.

Native American father teaching his son to hunt.

Almost every major cattle trail ran through Indian Territory, or…what we know as modern-day Oklahoma. The likelihood was, each drive would see Indians of one tribe/nation or another. So as they came to the border of Indian Territory, it was expected that the Trail Boss would negotiate to secure safe passage. He paid an agreed-upon price, whether he gave up a few head of cattle or he paid a small dollar amount per head. If the negotiations went well and all agreed to the price, the herd was allowed to pass without incident. But, if the negotiations faltered in any way, there could be trouble—anything from attacks, rustling, stampedes, even the men murdered in their sleep or while on night watch. It paid to have a savvy Trail Boss with lots of negotiation skills.

Just like today, there was always someone looking to profit by ill-gotten means. Rustlers watched the cattle trails and didn’t hesitate to steal as many cattle as they could. As mentioned above, they would often stampede the herds to collect up the strays, then either feast off their stolen spoils or sell it themselves. 

It’s your turn: Of the above dangers, which would you fear most? Least? Why?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

The Cowboys

Taming the west—one heart at a time.

Healing Heart
Lonnie Holt’s external scars remind him of his failures, his internal scars torment him. Genny Collins seeks safety at the ranch once owned by Lonnie’s uncle. When Lonnie and his brother arrive, sparks fly and distrust abounds. While Lonnie and Genny fight the love growing between them, his past haunts him, and her past pays them a visit.

Becoming Brave
When Coy Whittaker stumbles upon a grisly scene littered with bodies, he wants nothing more than to get his boss’s cattle out of Indian Territory. But when a bloodstained Aimee Kaplan draws down on him, his plans—and his heart—screech to a halt.

Trail’s End
Wade Chadwick has no money until his boss’s cattle sell, so he takes a kitchen job at Abby’s Home Cooking. The beautiful and prickly owner adds spice to his workday. Abby Cox hires the down-and-out cowboy even though the word cowboy leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Just as she’s ready to trust Wade with her heart, money starts to disappear … and so does her brother.

Loving a Harvey Girl
Eva Knowles can't imagine why the local preacher doesn't like Harvey Girls—women who work serving tables instead of finding a husband and falling in love. But if Eva can get the handsome and wayward cowboy Cal Stephens to join her in church, maybe the reverend will accept the girls. Or maybe she'll forfeit her job for a husband, hearth, and home!


  1. I think a stampede would be the worst danger, there are so many variables as you mentioned. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great post. I think I'd want to be the cook so I wasn't that close to the cattle. I camped in the rain once. YUCK! Those men were very brave. Falling of the horse into the cattle would be my greatest fear. Cattle up close are much bigger than they appear on TV.

  3. This is a great post and more helpful than you may realize. For me, I’d fear lack of water. Each of the other dangers could pose a serious threat, but if there is no water available you will be in a world of hurt. I think I’d fear nature the least because on the open range you would think you could anticipate what weather or natural occurrence was facing you. My two cents 🤠