Once a cowboy, always a cowboy
Just before daybreak and his first cup of coffee, sixty-two-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 which 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 a million times. After he loads the horses in 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.
Yes, true cowboys still exist, right here in Central Texas.
Dale might say his 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.
Finding His Niche
Dale grew up in Hugo, Oklahoma, as one of eight 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 twenty-five acre garden and raised our own food,” Dale says. But young Dale’s favorite chore turned out to be roping, caring for, and doctoring cattle.
In 1969, just as nineteen-year-old Dale was honing his craft, Uncle Sam lassoed him from his ranch and sent him, fresh out of high school, to Vietnam to fight in the war—number thirty-two in the draft.
“I served twelve months in Vietnam and was honorably discharged as an E-5 in 1971,” Dale says. Coming back home proved 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 upset him so deeply 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 says. After a year in the mountains, hunting and fishing just to survive, Dale got back on his feet with help from his dad, who talked him down from the mountain.
Dale thought he’d try the city life as things settled down after Vietnam. One of his best friends from Hugo helped get him a nine-to-five 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 life’s work only a few miles from where he grew up. As the ranch manager of the 2,000-acre Johnson/Seiger Ranch, he found that 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 on ranches in Texas and New Mexico. Since 1987 he’s worked for Schwertner Farms in Schwertner, Texas, 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 35,000-acre ranch and supervises a crew of seven 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 two horses with him, especially 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.
The main goal of a cowboy is to make sure the cattle are healthy, check that they have clean water and feed troughs, and make sure they stay inside the fences. On most ranches, cattle are divided among several pastures. 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 to rope and doctor them,” he says.
The Future of Cowboyin’
Dale believes that the cowboy way of life is fading. “Oh, yeah, it’s going away, because of the economy and 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, 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.