By Joseph Robertia
Motorists along College Loop Road typically have to keep their eyes peeled for a moose just around the bend, but it was an entirely different hoofed animal that motorists saw moving en masse down the curvy road Sunday during the Soldotna Equestrian Association’s second annual cattle drive.
The SEA roped in even more riders than the inaugural event in 2011, and had roughly four horseback riders to every cow in the herd of a dozen animals, which also included a feisty young bull and two wide-eyed calves that stuck tightly to their mothers’ sides. The riders themselves were an equally diverse group, varying in age from 8 to 65, and bringing with them an equally expansive range of experience.
“That’s one of the reasons we like doing this,” said Chris Sorrels, SEA president. “It gets people who haven’t done it in a while back in the saddle, and gives new riders and new horses a chance to get involved and learn how to do it.”
Riding at home or even competing in a rodeo event, riders are typically alone or perhaps partnered up to rope a cow. Opportunities to come together and ride in such a big group are few and far between, particularly in Alaska.
“It’s definitely not something you do every day,” said SEA member Christy Bitterich, of Nikiski.
Bitterich has taken part in numerous cattle drives across the Lower 48 and Canada, some of which involved only 10 riders moving 500 to 1,000 head of cattle more than 30 miles. By comparison, the Soldotna drive took the small herd just a few miles, from a grazing pasture near Diamond M Ranch, through the Duck Inn parking lot, down K-B drive behind Save-U-More, to Poppy Lane, around College Loop, and then out to Kalifornsky Beach Road to the rodeo grounds.
“This drive was more fun than work,” she said.
Despite its short length, the cattle drive offered riders the unique opportunity to expose their horses to a variety of situations that would be difficult to impossible to simulate at home, and all of which are good for socializing the equines. Unlike grassy pastures, the horses were exposed to gravel, paved roads and the muddy trails along the route. They experienced downed trees, small creeks and lots of passing cars, motorcycles, people and even a few pets.
“These are all things they don’t normally see,” Bitterich said. “Also, like us riders, the horses like to get together in big groups and be with each other.”
While the cattle herd may have been smaller than she was used to, it still required skill to move through town without any cows breaking off from the group and running through a parking lot, down a side street or into traffic. The riders took up positions and each job had a specific duty.
Those in front led the herd, to give the cattle an idea of where they were going. The riders along the sides kept the cattle as a herd and could turn the group at corners by riders on one side giving way and the other side closing in. The riders behind the herd pushed them forward and made sure no strays dropped too far back. It’s a system that hasn’t changed much in 100 years.
“They key was staying in the proper positions, moving slow and having a lot of communication,” Bitterich said.
Sorrels added that they also utilized the newest riders as close to the cattle as possible to allow them to learn by doing.
“We had a lot of young guys and gals doing the pushing, and we kept the older, more experienced riders nearby to give them direction and to help out in case there were any snafus,” he said.
Sorrel was speaking from experience. Driving the cattle through an area that is both industrial and residential in places has its challenges. During last year’s drive a homeowner, not realizing cattle were coming through, let the dog out, which promptly ran into the herd and panicked a cow with a young calf.
“She got defensive and we ended up having to rope her to keep her away from it,” he said.
This year’s drive went smoothly, particularly since the riders had to first gather the cattle from the pasture they were in before attempting to drive them down the road.
“They ran around quite a bit before they got them together. That took the edge off some of them, wore them out a bit, so they just trotted along once they got going,” said Carrol Martin, who allowed the cows being used by SEA to come from his grandson’s memorial Mattie’s Foster Farm.
“It’s no skin off my nose to let them have them for a few months because they take care of them and feed them good grain, so when they come back in fall to be slaughtered for beef they’ll be fat and delicious,” Martin said. “Also, they need cattle to work to teach a lot of the young people getting involved, and that’s something I want to support, too. Kids raised around farm animals and rodeo animals — with all the work and responsibility involved — they turn out a lot better than kids raised in the mall.”
Sorrel said that he was thankful to be able to have the cattle drive, because it draws a lot of attention. By people seeing the drive, they’ll hopefully become aware that there is an active equestrian association in Soldotna with rodeos held all summer long.
“We’re lucky enough that while the Kenai gets more built up each year, it’s still rural enough to be cattle and horse friendly,” he said. “And this drive really draws a lot of attention to us at SEA and what we do. When we get the cattle out along K-Beach Road, folks pile up like cordwood to stop, wave and take pictures.”
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