Montana is the place I feel most at home. I was raised here. I have been doing cattle drives here for over thirty years. Why? I get to yell at the cows. I get to ride a smart horse. And at the end of the day, I have the satisfaction of having worked with a group of people who get a couple of hundred animals to a new grazing area. It’s fun, physical, full of surprises and most importantly, offers lessons in the power of a self-organizing team.
Lesson one: The leader is the one who has the confidence of the group and a goal in mind
As with any team-based activity, leadership represents the biggest challenge, particularly in the face of sometimes scary surprises. John, who owns the ranch and the cattle is our leader. He has the most extreme bow legs and best mustache I have ever seen – his looks alone tell you he is both a veteran and a leader. John’s leadership for the cattle drive is undisputed.
The goal is deceptively simple: move a group of unruly mother cows and their calves several miles to a new pasture. While John explains that he will provide direction about what needs to be done as the day goes on, there are no job definitions or instructions about how we are to reach our goal. It is evident that we need to self-organize, taking on roles as circumstances require. John tells us he may have to yell when things get tight; but we are not to take the yelling personally.
Lesson two: The team is a mix of abilities, experience, and engagement
John puts his trust in one or two experienced wranglers, someone like me (who has done the work before) and eight to twelve newbies – guests of the ranch who may (at best) know how to ride a horse. The wranglers and riders, who are meeting for the first time at the beginning of the drive, are happy to be here. They are prepared to do whatever needs to be done. The excitement is palpable and I can sense each person thinking about how they will spend their day and what roles they will assume.
The first thing we must do is to gather the herd, which involves regrouping the visible animals and rousting out the ones that have decided to move into ditches or dense copses. The cows are afraid of the horses and the herding dog, and when dislodged have the tendency to go anywhere but back to the rest of herd. They will take off, up a hill or down a gully, forcing a chase.
My horse is intent on getting the cow, and could care less that he is running full tilt at a big pine tree with a large branch right at my chest level. I duck, but end up with a torn shirt and a bit of blood. We are lucky and have gathered the cattle into a more or less coherent herd by lunchtime.
Then the true challenge begins.
Lesson three: A team focused on a goal doesn’t need an instruction manual, just directions
John gives us the description of the journey—over a ditch, through a couple of fallow fields, up and around a hill, etc., etc.—and then leaves us to make things happen. We know that he will intervene if need be, but otherwise entrusts the herd to us.
Gradually, we organize ourselves with eye contact, verbal cues and our horses. A couple of people decide to act largely as observers at first. As the day goes on, they get involved. We learn the fine art of moving a large group of animals is NOT riding hard on them. Six or so horses and their riders gently prod a bunch of dirty, dazed and recalcitrant beasts from the rear and the side of the herd. There are two or three bulls in the group, who add to the general air of unrest among the cows. Push the animals too hard and you are certain to cause a rupture of the herd, suddenly seeing thirty or forty animals running 180 degrees from where you want them to go…. And then the whole herd structure is broken. A few of us run after the fleeing cattle, try to calm them and return them to the correct path. We just get the job done by keeping the herd together and moving forward.
Around 4 o’clock, tired and hot, we push the cows over a road and through a gate, letting the mothers find their calves. There is a salt lick, some water in a stream, and fresh grass. We are done. John thanks us and the team disbands.