Trouble in a Leather Sack

Let me state for the record that I am not a cowboy. I can not throw a rope. I can not brand a cow. I don’t own a 10 gallon hat. I do know that “trouble in a leather sack” means “cow” in the Sand Hills. Seth Adam told me so.

Roped: A real cowboy, Doug Adam, ropes a calf that needs doctoring. Yes, it’s not so pleasant for the calf. But the doctoring goes quickly and minutes after the calf is lassoed and doctored, it’s grazing contentedly with its pasture mates.

I may not be a vaquero but I do like spending time with cowboys, especially if they let me tag along while they’re out working cattle. It’s always interesting to learn how things get done in different parts of our country. Soaking it all in from the saddle is a bonus. Besides, some one has to guard the gate so the cows don’t escape.

Trailing Seth and Doug

The mules and I are taking a week-long break in Hyannis, Nebraska while I spend some time with my wife Julia. Hyannis is in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, home to thousands of cattle that are still tended the cowboy way.

Julia arrived on Monday. Tuesday morning, in a series of twists and turns that involved a lanky cowboy and a log cabin, we ended up tagging along with 2 brothers – Seth and Doug Adam – as they doctored cattle and moved bulls.

Seth and Doug train horses and raise cattle in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Our “job” (I’m sure they could have done it without us) was to open and close the odd gate and hold their mounts as they doctored cattle.

The Sand Hills region is part of what many call the “fly over” states. This really is an injustice to what goes on here. Here are some photos from this region I thought might interest you. I hope they give you a better understanding of the workings of this little-noticed part of America.

Getting Ready to Work Cattle

Unlike the movies, where the cowboy gallops onscreen twirling a rope after a fleeing calf, working real cattle takes a lot longer. Horses have to be caught, hooves trimmed, mounts saddled. Only then does the cowboy ride out on to the range to do what needs to be done. And so it went for us.

Seth helps Julia unload the mounts Seth and his wife Jenna have provided for us. The buck skin is Sadie, the grulla dun behind her is Dally.
Seth already had two horses, Panama and Dollar, on site. Here, he’s catching Panama. Feed helps! The shed is made from a steel storage tank.
Trimming Dollar’s feet before saddling
Using hoof nippers to trim hooves. Instead of using a rasp to smooth the trimmed hoof, Seth relies on the sandy soil to do the final shaping. I often use the same technique on my mules.
The hoof before it’s trimmed. Seth, like many Sand Hills cowboys, doesn’t shoe his horses. The sandy soil doesn’t require it.
Ready to ride
Seth and Julia heading out toward the cows.

Shifting and Doctoring

Seth and Doug run what’s called a cow and calf operation. They raise Angus Hereford crosses. At a certain time of the year, they turn bulls loose with their cows and heifers. The bulls pasture breed the cows (as opposed to artificial insemination which is very common in the cattle industry). The calves are born around March, are raised to a certain weight, then sold at a livestock sale. The buyer then raises the calves to market final weight (or sends them off to a feed lot that puts on the final pounds).

Our first order of business was separating 9 bulls from the cows.

Cowboy-eating country: Seth and Doug are barely visible in the center of the photo. They’ve gone off to gather a bull that needs to be moved to a separate pasture. This photo shows a small fraction of the pasture.
Julia doing her job guarding the gate. The cows have other ideas.

After the bulls were moved, it was time to doctor calves.

Not as Seen on TV

Thanks to TV and John Wayne movies, many people think that ranch work is all about ropin’, heelin’ and dallyin’. At top speed.

Not so.

Sure, cowboys gallop after cows but for the most part, they work quietly, calmly. The whole point of raising cattle is to make money. The calmer and more relaxed the cows, the healthier – and more profitable – the endeavor.

Seth and Doug rode slowly through their stock looking for signs that a calf might need a bit of attention – droopy ears, ear discharge, a sluggish gait, an infected ear tag or a bloated body.

The vast majority of the calves were in great shape.

Riding quietly through the herd.

Still, a few calves needed doctoring. This is where it got ranch-y.

Seth (white shirt) prepares to rope a steer that needs doctoring. In ranch-speak, he is the header. That is, he lassos the calf’s head. Once he’s lassoed the calf Doug’s job is….
…to rope the heels after which…
…there’s a bit of a tug of war that often involves…
… the cowboy flipping the calf after which…
…the doctoring can begin. Note how calmly the rest of the herds keeps grazing as Seth and Doug do their work. A real testament to how quietly the go about their business.

What impressed Julia and me the most was the steadiness of Seth and Doug’s mounts. Seth has started hundreds of young horses, preferring to put mileage on them behind cows, not in an arena. He starts them as 2 or 3 year olds. Often, after a few early rides, he will turn them back out for a period of time. Then he’ll resume training them.

He (as are Julia and I) is critical of people who push their young horses too hard, too young. Long term, these early “stars” wind up with soundness and mental issues. A patient man after Julia and my heart.

Looks like a seasoned ranch horse, right? Actually, Panama is a 3 year old. Seth said today was the first day Panama had headed and held a calf while it was doctored. Very impressive.

Cattle sorted and doctored it was time to water the horses.

4 Amigos: they are (L to R) Dollar, Dally, Sadie and Panama
It’s not a stock tank if it doesn’t have a frog in it.

Wyoming Bound

Yesterday, to remind Brick and Cracker they’re resting, not retired, Julia and I took them for a ride among the grass covered Sand Hills dunes.

The Sand Hills. Brick is wearing a saddle because Julia was riding her. (Hyannis, Nebraska)

Tomorrow, Julia returns home. The day after that, I saddle the mules and, half hour before first light, swing in to the saddle and head west. From Hyannis, I follow Highway 2 toward Ellsworth and Alliance. We are Wyoming bound


A man can ride across America alone but he doesn’t do it all himself. The people of the Sand Hills have been hugely generous to me. This week, they extended that same generosity to Julia. Thanks:

  • Tim Billingsly: for putting me in touch with Seth and Jenna Adam
  • Seth and Jenna Adam: for providing Julia and me with a cabin, repairing my pack gear and letting us ride the super-behaved Dally and Sadie.
  • Keiko Sakakibara: for the shower, runza, washed clothes and great conversation
  • Mose and Micky Hebbert: for putting up the mules while I’m visiting Hyannis
  • to everyone else in town, from grocery to feed store, that made our stay so restful and memorable.

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Kelli Griffith
Kelli Griffith
4 years ago

Another great read! Thanks for capturing so well in words & photos the life of a ranching cowboy, whose work is NEVER done, which is partly why, I’m quite sure, it’s a dying industry. So glad you got experience real ranch life, with honest to goodness ranchers, & (more importantly, in my humble opinion)true horsemen & cattlemen like Seth & Doug Adam….who don’t run their horses, who DON’T scatter the herd, who know that quiet work makes for quicker/smoother work; who understand that the terrain & grasses of the Sand Hills is an ideal landscape & diet for healthy livestock. Their father, Leonard & grandfathers taught those boys well. I don’t know if you’ve seen the new tv show on Paramount cable channel called “The Last Cowboy”, but what you experienced is what it SHOULD be about, rather than being based on professional trainers competing in the reining discipline. Not to discount the sport of reining, but they don’t even swing a rope or track cattle! Happy trails & safe travels to you & your long-eareds! Looking forward to reading more!

Matt Ethington
4 years ago

Great story. Jenna is my first cousin’s little girl and she has been wild about horses since birth. As the city slickers in the family, we appreciate the pics. Thank you.

Deni McIntyre
Deni McIntyre
4 years ago

Greetings, Bernie! Great post. Glad you and Julia had s visit. Where in Wyoming will you be, and for how long? We’ll be out at the A Bar A next month ourselves.


[…] in the week Julia and I had spent time sorting and doctoring cattle with Seth and Doug Adam in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The ranch rodeo was a great chance for us to see some other cowboys […]


[…] in the week Julia and I had spent time sorting cattle with Seth and Doug Adam in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The ranch rodeo was a great chance for us to see some other cowboys […]

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