By Carol Hutchison
Just before daybreak and his first cup of coffee, 62-year-old Dale Harrimon pulls on his boots and walks out to saddle his horses. As he knocks the dirt off their backs with a soft brush, he mulls over the pastures he'll ride first.
He flips a blanket up, then heaves on the saddle and draws the cinch just tight enough to hold the saddle in place — a task he's repeated countless times.
After he loads the horses into the trailer, Dale pats his coat pockets for gloves. Spurs ringing, he walks back to the barn for his yellow raincoat and ties it to a saddle in case the front blows up a shower later in the day. Looking east toward the horizon he gauges his time. He'll be at work and ready to ride by sunup.
Dale might say the profession chose him. "I was born and raised with cattle, and [being a cowboy] is what I like to do," he says. But it took a few bumps in the road to get him there. Yes, true cowboys still exist, even in Central Texas.
Finding his niche
Dale grew up in Hugo, Okla., 1 of 8 children on a 600-acre ranch. The family baled hay, worked cattle and cut firewood. "All of us kids worked. When we started getting into trouble our parents gave us more work. Our parents did bust our britches for getting into trouble, too," Dale remembers.
The Harrimons made their living as full-time farmers and ranchers. "During the winter Daddy would buy 200 head of hogs. We had a chicken house, and cattle, too. We had a 25-acre garden and raised our own food," Dale says. But young Dale's favorite chore, he discovered, turned out to be roping, caring for and doctoring cattle.
In 1969, just as he was honing his craft, Uncle Sam lassoed 19-year-old Dale from his ranch and sent him to Vietnam to fight in the war — fresh out of high school— number 32 in the draft.
"I served 12 months in Vietnam and was honorably discharged as an E-5 in 1971," Dale says. Coming back home proved to be difficult for Dale. "Back then, the Vietnam veterans were treated like dirt. It upset me for quite a while. We were just doing what Uncle Sam told us to do," Dale recalls.
The events of the war and mistreatment of veterans was so upsetting to him that he felt the need to be alone for a time. "I went to the mountains and camped out. It took me quite a while to get used to people again. Just things that happened, it's between me and the fencepost," he looks down and says.
After a year of being in the mountains — hunting and fishing just to survive — Dale says his dad helped him get back on his feet and talked him down from the mountain.
Dale thought he'd try the city life after things settled down from Vietnam. One of his best friends from Hugo helped get him a 9-to-5 job as a technician at Texas Instruments in Dallas. "I didn't like fighting the city and the traffic. [There are] too many people," Dale remembers.
Proving his parents' theory true — that idle hands are the devil's workshop — Dale hit the bars at quitting time. "I knew I would have ended up in jail. So I decided to go back to Oklahoma where it was quiet and peaceful," he says.
In 1974 Dale began his lifework only a few miles from where he grew up. As the ranch manager of the 2,000-acre Johnson/Seiger Ranch, the task of seeing after cattle and the serenity of being outdoors soothed his soul and welcomed him like an old friend. "I love the freedom, being outside and fooling with cattle. You'll have wild ones, but cattle are easy to fool with. When I get angry I can go out with my horses and cattle, and it helps," Dale explains.
Dale's been a full-time cowboy ever since. He's worked at ranches in Texas and New Mexico. Since 1987 he's worked for Schwertner Farms in Schwertner — one of the largest cattle brokers in the United States.
A day in the life
Today, Dale takes care of 3,500 head of cattle spread out on the ranch and supervises 7 additional cowboys. He rides his own horses, but the ranch furnishes a truck and trailer. Dale lives on a 2,200-acre area of the ranch.
After he feeds his horses in the early morning hours, Dale meets up with the rest of the cowboys out in a pasture.
The sun governs the workday of a cowboy, and enduring rain, snow, wind and extreme temperatures is just part of the job.
"I love being outside. I sweat when it's cold and love it when it's snowing. I don't mind working in the heat either. You just have to get adjusted to it," Dale says.
He takes 2 horses with him in the summertime. When Dale and his horse get hot and tired, he rides up under a shade tree, unsaddles the horse and cools off. When he's ready to go again, he lets the first horse graze and rides the other one.
The main goals of a cowboy are to make sure the cattle are healthy, have clean water and feed troughs, and make sure they stay inside the fences. On most ranches, cattle are divided into several different pastures of a ranch.
Six days a week Dale and the rest of the cowboys ride from pasture to pasture, checking, feeding, watering and doctoring the cattle. "If there are any sick ones I ride out to them, rope and doctor them," he says.
Schwertner Farms is a preconditioning ranch, meaning they buy cattle for various customers, have the cattle hauled to the ranch and keep them for 45 to 60 days.
A separate cowboy crew brands the cattle with the customer's brand, administers necessary vaccinations, and delivers them to pasture. "We get them over any sickness and get them to where they're gaining weight and then the owners take them," Dale says.
Sometimes cattle get sick after they've been moved. One round of antibiotics usually does the trick, but it might take more. Once a calf has been doctored, Dale marks the shoulder with oil-based red chalk and notches an ear. This permanent mark becomes a sign for the feedlot. "Once the cattle are shipped to a feedlot the cowboys see the ear notch and they don't have to ask any questions — they know it's been doctored," Dale explains.
The future of cowboying
Dale believes the cowboy way of life is diminishing. "Oh yeah, because of the economy, land development, and it's too much work for younger guys. I'm one of the old cowboys. All I've done my whole life is work," Dale says. Even after riding and roping all day Dale ropes in competitions. "My wife tells me I don't know how to have leisure time. I can't sit still," Dale says with a grin.
Broken bones, smashed fingers, wrecks on horses, and even being knocked unconscious can't keep Dale away from the job he loves. It's kept him busy, fed his family, and shaped his character. "I'll keep cowboyin' as long as I can — as long as my health stays good. It's what I was born and raised to do," he says.