Longhorn cattle were hardy, resilient and resistant to disease, but they were also ornery, sly and could have vicious tempers. Cowboys admired them for the fight in them. When they said a steer was ‘gentled’, they didn’t mean that it was in the slightest bit tame – just that it was used to seeing men on horseback.
Over the hundreds of miles of trail that the cowboys drove their steers to market, they often relied heavily on a dominant steer, sometimes called the Judas steer because it took its fellow animals towards the slaughterhouse. This beast would push to the front each day and lead the way. It could even, supposedly, find the best river crossings, and once it started across, it just ploughed on and the other steers followed it without hesitating. This was important because rivers created tense moments on the trail. Charles Goodnight, who lent his name to one of the trails, had a lead steer called Old Blue who wore a bell round his neck and was used year after year until he was finally retired to die of old age.
Longhorns might actually put on weight during a drive, but their well-being and compliance depended among other things upon being able to drink their fill. An individual steer could drink as much as 30 gallons a day. If sufficient water wasn’t available, this was one of the many possible reasons for a stampede.
The word used by cowboys in Texas was stompede and it was rightly dreaded as about the worst thing that could happen. Longhorns were very prone to running. The cause could be lightning, a coyote barking, a rattlesnake hissing, a bee sting, or it could be something as apparently insignificant as a cowboy striking a match or sneezing.
In an instant the previously calm herd was a solid wall of panicked bodies. They didn’t low or bawl, but the thunder of their hooves and the clashing of their horns was deafening. The heat they generated could burn a man’s face.
A stampede was dangerous not because a steer would charge at a man – they didn’t for the most part – but because the massed bodies were moving without any logical aim. The steers themselves were just as much in danger as the cowboys were. Worst was if they were close to a cliff or gully, when they could easily go plunging off the edge to their deaths, rather in the manner of the buffalo jumps organised by Native Americans.
The only way cowboys could try to control a stampede was to ride ‘ell for leather to the front, yelling and waving their hats, and do their best to drive the leaders round and back on themselves so as to break the forward momentum. Sometimes men were killed when their horses were crushed and they fell under the hooves of the cattle.
The aftermath of a stampede was very trying. The longhorns might have scattered over a vast area and cowboys would have to ride many miles in order to round them up. They found them sometimes in groups, but more likely singly. A steer being driven to market to achieve the best possible price would be exhausted after running on a hot night and might have lost as many as 40 pounds.
It’s no wonder that stampedes were to be avoided at all costs. Cowhands had to be very careful about their movements particularly at night, not that the tiny catalyst that might spark the stampede could be prevented. It must have been difficult to rest when at any moment they might be required to swing into the saddle and strive, fully alert, to stem an unpredictable tide with no rhyme or reason behind it.