Charley Snell is the real deal, in every sense of the word, when it comes to American cowboys. Among the few who have spent practically their entire lives in the saddle, Charley’s ability to start, train and troubleshoot horses stems from his lifetime’s worth of firsthand experience.
Born in 1947, Charley grew up in the remote, rugged plains of eastern Montana, the eldest child of a ranching family. The first time he got plunked into the saddle was when he was about two years old.
In this first of a four-part interview, Charley talks about his early childhood.
by ©Eileen Chambers
Writer – Filmmaker – An American Storyteller
The first memories I have, being out in the country as we were, are of horses, dogs, sheep and cattle. When I couldn’t get out of the house during the winter, I would play a game with a sack full of marbles and a six-inch flat sticks. I would pretend that I was riding and sorting out cows. I even made myself a set of corrals out of dowel sticks.
Living where we did, I really didn’t have other kids to grow up with and my father was a tough man to be around. He didn’t talk to me much and didn’t have time for me either. Working the ranch, and me not getting in his way, was about the extent of our relationship.
Isolated as a child in a hardworking, austere ranch family, horses soon became a source of companionship for the young boy. Charley’s first friend was an old bay named “Handy.”
A friend of the family had given us this old bay and, every day possible, someone would saddle him up and set me on his back. I would ride around for hours, making up my own little games, until Mom dragged me off for lunch or supper. Handy sure took care of me. He was gentle enough for anybody, and I mean anybody, to ride. I guess more than anything, that old bay taught me that I had a friend in life. I can remember many times just burying my face in his mane and crying over whatever pain I was dealing with.
The Snell family had a long legacy in Montana. In the late 1870’s, Walrond Snell and his wife settled in eastern Montana, soon establishing themselves in livestock and banking in Miles City, even serving the community as a county commissioner, the director of the First National Bank and founder of the Custer County Building Association. By 1910, the Snells were well-established Montanans.
However, until Charley came along, few of the Snells were horse people.
Around the turn of the century, my great aunt, Mary, was kind of handy with horses and was a rebel of sorts. I still have her Coggshall saddle from around 1915 that is inscribed, Captain of the Cowgirls. In Appreciation of Service. Miles City Roundup. From all I can tell, Mary was the black sheep of the family.
Charley’s grandfather, W. Carter Snell Sr., a man who had seen some difficult times in his life, was the one person who truly influenced Charley’s childhood.
The Snells had fairly extensive holdings in eastern Montana until the Depression came along. As an intelligent, very entrepreneurial man, Granddad could sure pinch a penny. He never gave me anything without me earning it. No. You could never get a nickel out of Granddad but he was fair. When you did earn it and made a really good effort, there was always some bonus on top. At his funeral, I heard story after story from people who had struggled. They would say how Granddad would buy their calves or lambs but also shoot the family a good deal, something that he didn’t have to do but did it so that they could continue make a go.
Granddad always got up at the crack of dawn, every day, to go out for a walk. Even when I was very little, I would hear him, getting up, having his cup of coffee and toast and I would go walk with him. I knew he had faith in me. I just knew.
LEARNING THROUGH WATCHING AND DOING
From early childhood, Charley wanted to be a cowboy and a good one. By watching other cowboys, he soon discovered that he could get some things done with a horse that other people could not.
I would watch who was good at getting the job done – from saddling their horse to coiling their rope to getting on – and I would copy what they did. Of course, as I got older, I started having a feel and understanding for myself.
By the time I turned ten, in the summers I would routinely get up before daylight to move sheep to the springs south of the ranch by myself. Like most things on the ranch, moving them sheep was nothing romantic; it was simply a job that needed to be done. During the winter, on my old horse, Handy, I would sort calves for hours from the corral to the pasture and then back to the corral again until I got too cold.
When Handy was given to his younger sister, Charley would begin to ride a string of castaway horses, ones who were more than contrary, that his father would buy. Those horses proved to be a big challenge for someone so young.
My father would send me to do a job on something that would be difficult for a grown man to ride. Some of those horses were real cagey about putting you afoot. Many times, my mom would follow behind me in the car, shouting, ‘Charles, ride that horse! Ride that horse!’ just to encourage me.
Riding difficult, ornery horses made a significant impact on Charley’s life.
Kids like me should not have been riding crap like those horses. Hell, they could dump you on your head as easy as not. As a kid, I lived with a lot of fear, knowing that I was going to have to ride one of those horses. You can imagine the fright but there were no ‘if, ands or buts.’ No other option than get on those horses. If I refused, the verbal abuse I would have gotten would have been pretty tough. So, in order to hide my fear, I learned to grit my teeth, ‘By God, this or else,” and be tough.
I can see today how those experiences shaped how I seek to help both the human and the horse. Because I know firsthand what it is like to get up on a horse shaking like a leaf, I don’t want anyone else to live with that kind of fear. The horse doesn’t like to operate that way and neither do people.
So, when I work with riders, it is with the belief that fear is something that needs to be faced down because fear will not be denied or go away on its own. Although, sometimes when people say to me, ‘I am a little afraid to get on,’ that fear can be God-given wisdom — which is different than living in fear. From all I have learned in life, though, fear is something that has to be conquered.
By the time Charley was twelve, he was already working alongside seasoned cowboys who were experts at roping and handling livestock.
Today, we have a totally different viewpoint than those men who made their living on a horse. Back in those times, you tied up a horse’s hind foot, tied him to a post or did whatever you needed to do in order to get a saddle on his back, all the while hoping that he didn’t buck you off. If a horse did buck, you would try to foul him in some way; yanking on his head or doing whatever you could to get him traveling.
When it came to working with horses, back then, everything was pretty rough. If a horse didn’t do what you wanted, you would grab a hold of his face or stick a spur in him. If one blew up, he would get a cussing and beaten on the head with a doubled-up catch rope. That was simply the culture for some cowboys at the time. Horses were not pets. Work had to be done. Everyone needed to pull his or her own weight. You did whatever you had to do to get that horse working because you had to work to do. You and your family’s welfare depended upon it.
Those horses worked so much with cattle that you didn’t need to do much training. If a horse moved cows enough, pretty quickly, you could drop the bridle rein, fold your arms and that horse would see those cows and do the work.
Still, when it came down to it, the horse, no matter how good he turned out, was totally expendable. When the time came that he couldn’t make the winter, you would either shoot or can him. Even then, the horse had to have some purpose, even if that purpose was feeding a dog someplace in Manhattan. This might sound harsh today but if a horse didn’t come along and turn out to be something decent, can the damn thing because dogs needed to eat, too.
That was the Eastern Montana mindset. Everything had to have a functional purpose. You didn’t grow up on the Montana Plains being frivolous or you wouldn’t survive. It wasn’t like it is today.
Still, those old cowboys would, at times, speak well of a horse that they managed to ride for a number of years. Through all that crustiness, there was still a soft heartedness in those tough men, this fondness for a particular horse. When everyone else’s got three quarts of oats, that one got four. You would see it in them. Little things like that.
My father had this system of livestock management where he kept some cattle on the ranch but another hundred or so out on a lease somewhere. The method to get those cows from one place to another was to walk ’em. Generally, in the fall, we would trail those cows, like an old time cattle drive, a few days to a fresh lease. Generally it was late in the Fall. Most likely pretty chilly and sometimes snow.
One year, we had cattle way north on the Missouri Breaks (a rugged badlands area known for its steep cliffs and gullies running along the Missouri River). Because there were seven ranchers with cattle on the lease, the pairs needed to be sorted out because of the seven different branding irons in the fire. These old time cowboys knew how to mother up these cattle, sorting pairs and roping the young calves with their mothers. It was great. I just ate that kind of thing up.
We went down there for about a week, sleeping in bedrolls at night. I must have been about twelve years old and I was riding this barn-soured buckskin horse that was really tough.
About 3:00 a.m. on one of those mornings, we were about to haul the horses quite a ways from of the branding trap. I had just gotten my horse saddled when this old timer, Dan Haughian said to me gruffly, ‘What the hell are you doing, kid?’
‘Well, I am saddling my horse,’ I answered.
‘Well, you aren’t going with us,’ he responded flatly. ‘There is no kid that can make this ride.’
That was when I heard by father say, ‘He can make it.’ I was shocked. This was probably the only time in my life that my father had ever said anything positive about me.
But Dan put his foot down. ‘I ain’t seen no kid make this ride.’
Dad came back as strong. ‘Well, he can make it.’ And, well, that settled it. Off we went, loading those horses in the truck and driving miles into the Breaks.
While we were unloading the horses, Dan told me, ‘Kid, you come with me.’ Yeah. That old cowboy was wise enough to know that you didn’t turn a kid loose in the Missouri Breaks. One look at the Missouri Breaks and you would understand why. It is pretty rugged piece of country. Lots of deep canyons. Groves of cedar trees. If I got myself lost, I would have never found my way out.
All that day, Dan would get some cattle started along a rim and then push them to me shouting, ‘All right, you keep those cattle going down the canyon. You watch them.’ And we did okay. We got those cows and calves down to the lake and to the branding trap. In the end, Dan took a liking to me and, for years afterward, that old crusty cowboy would talk about the kid who had made the ride.
Dan was such dang good cowboy himself. I think he was about sixty years old at the time. He really knew what to do with livestock. Put a bunch of cattle together and Dan would know exactly what needed to be sorted and how to get things to happen. I learned by simply watching him, doing exactly what he told me to do.
Now, old cowboys like Dan, if they liked you, they would tease or holler at you in some not so very kind ways. The only way you knew if you were doing something wrong was when they hollered at you, ‘What did you do that for, kid?’ If you did something right you never heard about it.
That was how you knew that you were on track. If you weren’t getting hollered at, it meant that those cowboys had no use for you. However, if one of those old cusses thought that you could make it and if you had brains enough to realize that, you could learn a lot by watching them, they would teach you a lot.
Later that same year, Dan was selling a number of weaned colts. I was at the sale, looking at the horses when Dan asked, ‘Kid, what do you think of these horses?’
‘I think they are pretty nice,’ I answered.
‘Which one do you want,’ he offered. ‘You can have any horse for the average of what the sale brings.’
Just like Granddad, Dan wasn’t about to give me a horse but he was offering me a good deal. Even if I picked out the best horse he owned, I would get it for the average price of all the horses sold.
Skeeter. That’s what I called him. Bought from Dan that day, Skeeter was the first horse I ever owned. Cost me $100 bucks. Dad was sure mad, though, because Skeeter was just another mouth to feed. But that horse was mine.
ON HIS OWN
By the time he was in high school, Charley had left his father’s ranch, striking out on his own, working at various ranches during the summers. Turning eighteen, he put himself through Montana State University by shoeing horses, starting colts and doing artificial insemination of cattle, a practice that was just coming into vogue.
I was probably one of the youngest people in that kind of business. In fact, too young because everywhere I went they thought I was just a dang kid.
In a few short years, in 1969, fresh out of college and newly married, Charley started working as a cowboy for a ranching outfit along Montana’s Mizpah Creek, ironically, not too far from where from the place of his earliest memories of horses. There, Charley’s roping and horse skills grew significantly.
Before I got to that ranch, you worked with a horse by essentially brute force. The horses there were good, big, stout horses, excellent travelers who could stand a long hard ride, with lots of cow and a reputation for being able to buck a little. The owners were known as horse people and I saw quickly that the horses worked better, not this jerking and stuff, having a better mouth on them from being treated differently. Working there, I learned how to drive a horse and pull a rein to get something to happen before you actually rode him.
With seven boys in that ranching family, they were very good ropers because they practiced a lot on anything that moved. The cattle tended to be wild and snorty to handle, maybe because we used a 30-foot of nylon catch rope tied hard and fast too frequently, which is a lot rougher on the animal. Every time those cattle saw somebody on horseback, they would put their tails over their backs and be over the next ridge. Today, everyone uses a longer rope and takes dallies.
It was around this time that my life began to take shape as a horseman and not just a cowboy. I met and became friends with Bob Robinson out of the Broadus area. Bob was a pretty well known horseman and taking a liking to me began to shape some of the things I did with horses. He would bring me colts to start and refer others to me which was a big help. Bob used to cut most of the young studs for folks in the area but it was getting hard on him so he taught me how to lay one down and tie it to be castrated. For a number of years I took over his place until we moved out of the area. Nowadays they do everything with drugs. Don’t tie’m down. Been so many years I may have even forgot how.
During that time in my life, I learned how to work with cattle in ways that are really foreign to people today, really foreign. Today, folks generally have no idea what to do with a cow that is honky or a horse that wants to buck.
Back then, cowboys could do a lot with horses and livestock because they spent so much time in the saddle. To them, the welfare of the livestock and their horses was often more important than their own lives simply because it was your livelihood and the well being of livestock paid the bills. So, you gave the boss everything you had plus a little more.
Some parts of Eastern Montana land are rough, white clay gumbo filled with what is called ‘ghost holes.’ At a distance, the ‘hole’ looks like it is solid but in fact it is hollow from water erosion almost like honeycomb, something that can break through when you ride over it. It wasn’t uncommon to have ten mares in a brood band but only bring in eight foals because the land was so full of those ghost holes. The foals that survived were real smart and knew how to keep themselves out of trouble.
Case in point, one afternoon, I was going after cattle that had gotten out into awful rough country. They were pretty snorty, trotting off as they were, and I tried to get my horse into a lope in order get around in front of them. Pushing him too hard he started to buck. As he did, I saw that we were heading right for ghost holes. Suddenly the horse’s ears go dead flat and he came to a complete stop. No. He was not about to get to fall into one of those holes. When you were on those horses, you never had to worry. You could be traveling hard and be as safe as if you were sitting in a rocking chair. Those horses knew how to take care of themselves.
Today, you would be hard pressed to find someone who could work with that kind of touchy, sensitive horse.
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