The Chutes

Life is Like a Rodeo

"You pays your entry fees, you takes your chances. When you nods your head for stock, the results are up to you. And the result was your choice - win, lose or draw."

"Tom Harsh and Drifty, Hazing. Mike Thomas on Blue, Dogging. Early 60's"


One Day with Ray, Tom and April

By Mike Thomas

I am not writing a profile on these two great horsemen of the Trinity of fine horsemen as I am not sure I am qualified to do so at this point, even if it has been over 30 years. Rather I would like to relate to the reader when a very incredible event between these two great men and a very fine bay mare that I can see just as clearly today as I did on that day.

The Clinic was over for the day, in the late 1970s…

I was standing and visiting with Tom and just about all the people that were at or in the clinic had left for the day at Bozeman, MT outdoor arena and I was still trying soak up anything Tom might have to say. Ray rode up on April and asked Tom if he had a few minutes to watch him and April in the indoor arena and maybe check them out. Tom of course agreed and he invited me to walk over with him to watch Ray.

We arrived through the north door and Ray rode April in and started to warm her up for what he had in mind. I had known for quite a while how great April was but had no idea on what was about to happen next.

Then it happened..

Tom and I stood in silence watching Ray and April. The first most profound thing happened right away. Tom watched every move that Ray and April were doing with an intensity of sight that I had never seen anyone do. Ray and April moved like they were floating on air, every move extremely accurate! Transitions in gaits were done seamlessly, no change in expressions on either of their faces. The transitions up and down were pure perfection. The multiple spins on the outside hind leg in both directions were seamless and amazing as they transitioned up and down in speed smoothly, without any visible effort from either, each giving 100% to the other. The slide stops were a total thing of beauty and peaceful to both, as like every other move.

I had been around Ray for a few years at this point and had just expected to see this profound work. That sentence means: “I didn’t have any clue about what my eyes saw and my mind completely missed.”

After about 15 to 20 minutes into Ray and April’s work I looked over at Tom on my left and Tom had tears freely running down the cheeks of his face and he had that big wonderful grin on his face! I was virtually stunned at this reaction! It dawned on me that I just did not have the knowledge to see what Tom Dorrance could see and it quite frankly shook me up beyond belief. I knew right then and there that was so much more to this high level of horsemanship that I could not/did not comprehend!

Tom looked at me after the entire time in silence and said. “Mike you might never see another moment like this in your life. It might happen to you someday and then be gone for a long time or it might never happen. There is a moment in this horsemanship when the horse and the human are truly physically one, a moment when at the same time they are mentally one and also spiritually one and you have reached true unity, true perfection.”

His face was dry after that and he finished watching Ray and April. Now it was my time to realize that I had one hell of long way to go to understand what Tom and Ray and April showed me that day. Soon Ray and April rode up to us, dropped his mccarty reins on April’s neck and they were still one. Ray asked Tom: “What do you think Tom?” Tom said: “It looked great Ray, it looked great.”


These two great horsemen and one fantastic bay mare April then quietly rode out of the barn and over to the trailers. Both had an incredible moment in their combined lives and I was a witness that day. Their combined attitudes, demeanor and time flowed with vivid respect for each other and April as well. Later I knew that I had just witnessed a display of horsemanship and lifemanship that maybe one in a million people could ever see, appreciate and remember for life.

I went back to the ranch and in near shock trying to understand what I actually witnessed that day. By the way, I am still in shock about what I saw that day and never got to see it again at that level of perfection and incredible respect for each other.

I have tried to tell this story many times to others and got this kind of response: “Oh yes, I have had many of those moments of perfection!” I always walk away knowing that person has no clue on what happened that marvelous day. Is it a limit of their knowledge and experience or is it a genuine semantical limitation of our unfortunate language?

Friends in case we forget: isn’t this the level of horsemanship and lifemanship that we all want? I don’t know what you are doing but I am still working on it at 68 years, with 64 years in the saddle and I still don’t have it right! But I Still have a lot of TRY and I am not going to QUIT!

With Incredible Respect to Ray, Tom and April (Herself)

Mike Thomas (Himself)


Rocky Bob: Story One

Part One: Uncommon Horse Sense Series


By Mike Thomas

February 1, 2010


I got a phone call yesterday from a ranch friend that was going through another MT winter and all the difficulties that brings when wintering a bunch of Mother Cows and calving has not yet started. We got to ‘tradin & swappin’ MT & CO Winter Ranch Stories and we both had a bunch of them. Many of you that read this will know exactly what we were talking about, and then again many of you will not know what this kind of life is like. An old friend of mine said about Cowboying and Ranching: “Days and weeks of endless boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror!”

I had to laugh of course! It only took 2 minutes for me to do a 41 year “flash back” in memory to a time in 1969 on Mike Cervi’s Stoneham Ranch, just before and after a real bad fall blizzard hit, just before Halloween! Over many years of ranch and feedlot experience in CO, we kind of dreaded the real bad fall and spring blizzards because they were most often very wet and could “ice over” a cows eyes and nose to the point of suffocating, or worse, drift into a snowed over creek or bar ditch and suffocate in a self-inflicted upside down avalanche.

Fall & Spring CO Blizzards..

A huge fall blizzard hit in October that year, which was not unusual, nor is it now. Anybody that has run cattle in Eastern CO has many stories about the tragedies that can happen and they are all very true. The first year I was in CO (1967) working for a 22,000 head feedlot and a spring blizzard hit and we had about 2.500 yearlings out on “after-feed (crop residue of corn, alfalfa and beet tops) grazing behind ‘hot wire fences, and the next morning they went through the shorted out fences and drifted from ten to twenty six miles south with the storm, it took us 6 months to find the last one, still alive. A friend of mine Jim Osborn and I flew over many a set of corrals going 26 miles S of Fort Morgan, CO (Glen Miller’s Home Town), swooping down close enough for me to read the brands on the penned up cattle. About five years later, a Halloween Storm Blizzard killed 20,000 head in one night in Eastern Colorado, in many counties.

The Call From Freddie…

I got a call from my friend Freddie Thomas (no relation) that had recently suffered a heart attack the previous summer at a roping in Fort Morgan, CO and we both knew that the blizzard was coming. I loaded up my “ever faithful Rocky Bob” in Brush, CO and was at the ranch in about an hour, penned and fed him good. The Blizzard hit and you could feel the force of the wind and snow throughout the house that was higher on the hill, looking down to the corrals surrounded by big trees, out-buildings and buffered from the storm, all night. The house shook in the Blizzard, even the water in the toilet bowls went east to west and then north to south. Freddie, Jean, Wes and “Little Fred” a work of art and we knew this was a bad one.


The next morning after waking up and hearing the wind, snow, shake the house made for an interesting lack of sleep! In the morning, Jean fed us all while Freddie and I looked out the S facing window (towards Stoneham, CO about 10 miles S) to thousands of acres on the eastern plains of CO. We both know that cattle would drift SE w/ the blizzard and pile up in corners of fence lines and would be trapped, we both knew that cattle would go into draws and creeks that ran from the NW to the SE , or drift and plunge into snowed over creeks and be buried in the snow that drifted over their backs and suffocate. We both knew that the ones drifting with the blizzard and hit an E/W fence would collect, some would go through the fence and keep drifting to the SE. We also knew that their eyes would freeze over with “wet snow” and nostrils as well and maybe suffocate, standing on their feet. Not the kind of snow that draws people to CO, mountains for fun. No Fun here! We both new but only focused on what needed to be done and had no need to discuss the above.

Freddie due to a summer heart attack at a Fort Morgan, CO roping, could not ride at all, and this damn near gave him another heart attack. Like all real Ranch Managers, to be incapacitated at a moment like this is and can destroy everything in you and can’t help one single cow or calf! Freddie was only 36 years of age. The pain was more than evident on his face, he was old beyond his years at that moment.

Freddie Thomas calls the shots!!

While eating a great breakfast served by Jean; Freddie laid out the plan for the day. “Well, let’s gather the cattle we can this morning that are closest to the HQs to start with after we get the horses and leppys (orphans) calves fed, grafted and taken care of. Then we will gather the ones out of the fence corners and be real careful how we knock the ice covering their eyes and noses. Then make sure when you use a stick to knock the ice off or ride by and kick one in the eye with your stirrup, be prepared to get the hell out of their, because “she” will be on the “hook!”

The important thing here is that Freddie was still the Ranch Foreman and even if he could not go; he knew “lining out the cowboys for the day” is the most sacrosanct and respected role in life. Real good cowboys over the last 100+ years learned early on: Never ask the Boss anything, nod your head and get your ass in the saddle and line out!

Our Cowboy Crew was Wes Thomas and I, Little Fred was only 6 yrs of age going on 40 yrs with a “snooze can” in his hip pocket. Little Fred did the barn chores while Wes, age 13, if I remember right, and I followed the plan for the day. Oh Yeah! Little Fred said while Wes and I rode out the yard: “You Boys gather them, I know you can get it done!” That was Little Fred, old beyond his 6 years, already running the outfit!

The Afternoon Clean Up of Stranded Cows and Calves..

Wes and I got the job done in the morning and all went pretty well with a few ‘cows on the hook’ when we busted them out of a snow drift and we had a lot of laughs over that. We also found more calves smothered by the snow as well, some dead, some orphaned. It could have been worse! Wes went off to the east to find some more while I went west of the HQs to look for some more. The morning gather was hayed and they stayed on feed and water with no ice.

Then I spotted a NW to SE Creek about 10 feet deep fully covered over from the same diagonals from the Blizzard. Rocky Bob and I followed the creek NW and in just a few minutes spotted “one stinking Cow and Calf on the South Side of this 10 ft deep, snowed over creek!” Rocky Bob and I both knew that a direct line across the blown over creek with over 10’+ of snow would be our grave, at least for a month! The wind was still blowing hard (40+MPH) enough to make Rocky Bob and I make slow progress in the NW direction on the N side, with drifting snow stinging both of our faces and eyes.

We rode about a mile+ up that creek and came over a small ridge and jumped out about 8-10 antelopes and they took off in the same direction up the creek and by damned they found a low spot on the creek and crossed to the south side. Rocky Bob and I said: “Great! If it is good enough for the antelope, it’s good enough for us!”

With antelope tracks across real fresh, Rocky Bob and I agreed: “We Will Cross here!”

Rocky Bob Disappears!...

El Stupido (me) rides my friend Rocky Bob across and within two strides his head and 1225 Pds, completely disappeared along with my saddle horn. I was chest level and no Rocky Bob! I don’t know even to this day that I can possibly explain what goes through a “know it all, stupid ass Cowboy of age 29, infantile mind!” Shock would be a great start!

I rolled off to the side and started scooping snow down to his left eye and it was bigger than a hub-cap on a Semi-Truck in a blank scared stare at his so-called pardner! Another, small period of time I cleared his left nostril first and then the right one. I was scooping snow with my hands faster than a dog digging a hole to China, with snow flying between my legs like a human snow blower! Then I started freeing up his legs with my head down, my ass now at nostril level in front of him! Shortly when I got him free enough to lunge forward, my friend Rocky Bob lunged forward and shoved me under the snow, head down under the snow and my ass exposed to the CO Sun!

I crawled out and there was Rocky Bob on the S creek bank, looking at me, El Stupido, like ‘slick move Sherlock! That is when I first realized that Rocky Bob was way smarter than the dumb ass, previously on his back! That was just one of many times in the last 65 years + that I have had to apologize to a horse that was way smarter than me. If you don’t have humility when around the horse, he will soon find a way to humble you!. Like Ray Hunt said for many years: “What you need to know first is what you learn last!”

You Ain’t Going To Believe This…

Rocky Bob actually let me get back on and we rode the south side, circled around that stranded pair and pushed them back up the south-side of the creek for about a mile plus, into the wind and cattle don’t like being driven into a 40+ MPH wind. Again, Rocky Bob was smarter than me and with eyes and mine 80% closed from the icy snow, he made all the right moves, but I took all the credit you know. (Those of you that might not know: in all bad storms of any kind, horses and livestock turn their butts to the wind and hunker up.)

Here my friends; is the worst part! About 50 yards NW of where I made a stupid decision, that Dumb Ass Cow and Calf found “the rocks to cross the only spot where no snow existed! A crossing with no #@**!!^^!!***## snow At ALL! Not only was Rocky Bob smarter; so was that Dumb Ass Cow & Calf!

We crossed and took the pair back to the HQs, normal 1.5+ mile ride that turned out to be about 5 miles, due to the snowed over creek, and when I got there I said something just as dumb as this: “Yeh, Rocky Bob and I saw her across the creek and got the job done!” It has only been in the last few years that I could admit how my impatience could have killed us both; me and my Friend: Rocky Bob! To this day when I hear someone say: “This is a stupid horse!” or “That is one stupid cow!” I grin and walk off with a smile knowing that stupid horse and stupid cow was way smarter than the jerk and his opinion!.

When I brought that pair into the HQs, I sure as hell was not going to admit to Little Fred what happened when I got back and wanted to know: “How come it took so long?” Age 6 in 1969! Later I told his Dad Freddie what happened and he understood why I did not want to tell: “Little Fred!”

Thanks Rocky Bob……….

You took care of me for several years, even in the middle of ignorant decisions I made, and you always made me look good, never took credit, and loved me deeply in your horse way. I still don’t know why? You were ridden by World Champions of Rodeo, but you could care less, You took care of the stupidest person that probably ever put a leg over you. We roped hundreds upon hundreds of cattle, sorted hundreds upon hundreds of cattle a horse back, many rodeos and ropings in at least six states, drug lots of dead cattle out of feedlot pens, gathered, doctored hundreds of sick cattle and so much more. You stood by when I got off you and would brag to anyone listening what a good job I did that day. You always listened my friend, you always listened. I wish now I listened more to you, my friend. Thanks for making me look good over several years (1962-1971).

You were a winner from the day you were born until your last day!

A word or two about Rocky Bob…

Rocky Bob was by Rocky Bob Jr. by Rocky Bob, by Flying Bob (Louisiana Bred) and had lots of “running blood” on both sides of his pedigree. He was probably the fastest horse I ever rode to a cow, calf or anything when I nodded my head and called for stock. But he had something very few horses ever have: “He craved to be riddin seven days a week; He craved cattle; He craved any job!” When you came out of the back door he would watch you like a hawk and if you backed the pickup to the trailer he would just go nuts!

He would run up and down the fence in huge anticipation. When I would swing the trailer gate open, he nickered, whinnied, jumped, farted and bucked like a Big Kid! When I would go towards the gate he ran to it, waited for me to open it and then shoved his nose in the halter. He always had halter manners and would never think of pulling on you for any reason, but he would get so excited about going somewhere that he would do the most beautiful “Piaff” beside you, all the way to the trailer and with float in the halter rope. There are thousands of so called Dressage Horses that could not then or now, do so well.

Sometimes, just for fun I would only open the gate and he ran to the trailer with no halter and jumped in and stayed there, while I walked up and closed the gate and off we would go. He was an AZ bred horse and like most did not like to get his feet wet if he had a choice and his first CO Winter/Spring he spent it standing in a huge feed manger of 15 ft planks and when there, the top rail of the fence only came up to 4” above his pasterns! He could have jumped over the fence and be gone, but he never did. It was a heart warming sight for me to pull into the feed yards at 5AM and pull up to the gate, step out, get a huge nicker while standing on his feed manger pedestal, and he could not wait to be saddled for a long or short day, as long as we were riding together and had a job to do.

Feedlot Work…Outside Pasture Work..

When we spent hundreds of hours of cutting up to a 100 sick cattle/day out of pens, he did not worry about the slick pens at all! He was hooked onto each and every bovine and he did not like losing one and in fact would get mad about it. Not one ever got by him twice, even when the pens were slicker than snot with ice as well! At least a couple of times/ day I had to lass one and drive/drag out of slick semi frozen pens and he never fell once.

In 1969, I took on a thousand head or yearlings to run on wheat pasture around Otis, CO and my partner in the venture never showed up, not once. So it was up to Rocky Bob and I to doctor at least 20-40 hd of short yearlings/ day. The real sick ones were easy because they could not run anywhere, so you rode up double hocked them, rode up short, tied off, got off and treated them with a battery of injectibles and boluses that we packed with us.

Then we got one that was wild and on the hook! Some near dead and some just not quite sick enough, but wild. Since we were alone in the middle of nowhere CO, Rocky Bob and I “tripped them in a whamo slam down and we were tied hard & fast at that point! He got to really liking it when I would runup, rope one, ride by, lay the trip and the bovine would make a half gainer in the air and slam to the ground and drag (500 pds ) them while I got off while he was still dragging, using a Steer String, tie up 3 legs! As soon as I got to the bovine, Rocky Bob was watching and quit logging but damn sure kept the bovines head pinned to the ground. The doctoring was plum simple after this!

Rocky Bob always understood the job we were doing and he was way smarter than me in preparing himself. It did not make any difference where we were or what we were about to do, he knew what his job was and understood it. He craved it! He loved it!

Rocky Bob Loved Life & Any job presented..

A couple of years later Rocky Bob passed away in my arms while writhing with a twisted intestine and was in the throes of death and I held his head so he would not smash his head on the hard ground. He was smashing me into the ground, but I held tight with tears flowing and crying like a baby and this did not quit for many hours later and even now. I am popping a tear while I write this and I am not embarrassed at all. He died on the same ground where just a week before the trailer was parked and he ran to get in. He is still buried there now 41 years later on the S Side of the curve of the Brush/Sedgewick Hwy; just N of Brush, CO..

Two paintings and many rodeo pictures exist in Sharon’s house for our girls, Michelle and Shannon, and our grandchildren to enjoy and I am glad. I am also sure that not one of my children or grand children will ever know how incredible that horse was that is pictured so well. “Pretty Horse, Pretty Horse” they might say and that is the way it should be.

Thanks Rocky Bob, You were always my Pard, I will always love you!


PS: This is Rocky Bob One. Yet to come are Rocky Bob Two, Three and Four and another phenomenal horse Quartermaster Born: Aug 31, 1940 Died In Winter 1971.

[ SideBar….

By the way; Little Fred was Descents (Many time Bucking Horse of Year) best buddy and best friend. Descent (well named) is in Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Little Fred put the first and many qualified rides on him, while he ate grain at age 6! He grained Descent every day when the bucking string was held over during the winter and Little Fred haltered him, led him to his grain, crawled up the fence and crawled on while he ate. Descent loved Little Fred, he belonged to Little Fred and he knew exactly who Descent was. They spent hours talking to each other! (Google Descent). Descent during those early years was undridden until another friend of mine: Ned Londo rode him to the whistle at the Denver National Western Stock Show! (Cervi-Butler Bros Rodeo Stock Contractors).]