By Jerome Tharaud
The stars are still cold and bright in the sky when Lon Waid walks across the corral to the barn to prepare his team.
Four black Percheron-quarter horse crosses, all related, take their accustomed places in the same stalls their ancestors used. In the predawn darkness, they conjure up images of the mythic horses of Phoebus, impatient to pull the sun across the sky.
Waid slings a tangle of straps over his shoulder and moves alongside the first horse, making swishing sounds with his mouth so the animal makes room. He spreads them over the horse from back to front, the way four generations of Waids have done.
With the martingales, the belly bands and the quarter straps fastened, dozens of brass studs and buckles wink and jingle in the light when the horses move. In the doorway the heads of two more horses emerge from the lingering darkness, a study in black except for the white diamonds on their nodding foreheads.
One of the last ranchers in the area to feed with a team instead of a truck or tractor, Waid says working with animals is in his blood.
"Anything working with the horses is kind of bred into us," Waid says. His paternal great-grandfather, Marshall Waid, drove a stagecoach from Malta to Landusky and bred horses for settlers who came to the valley. Marshall Waid's uncle, L.C. Waid, hayed with a team when he started this ranch in 1897 with just 360 acres. One day L.C. Waid rode the 11 miles to town and bought a new contraption - a Ford. He made it back 10 miles before rolling the car into a brush patch. A team of horses pulled the newfangled thing out, and it was parked in a shed where it couldn't hurt anybody.
When Lon Waid's paternal grandfather, Carl Waid, bought the ranch in the 1920s, that car was still in the shed with just under 11 miles on it. Carl Waid raised his four children on the ranch, which had grown to 2,000 acres.
Waid's father, Robert, took over in 1965 and expanded to more than 5,000 acres and raised his six children there.
All along they used teams of horses to feed their cattle. So when Waid bought the ranch in 1993, all 6,900 deeded acres, he knew what to do.
"My father always worked with a team, fed with a team, and we still do."
Even the barn itself has history in it.
"This old barn's had a lot of horses tied in it over the years," he says.
Each horse reaches about 16 hands tall and weighs 1,200 pounds when full-grown. They are smaller than Clydesdales but last longer, Waid says, up to 20 years. They are the kind of horses that would have been used to pull a stagecoach. They can trot all day.
When all six horses are harnessed and fed, four here and two in a lower barn, Waid does his morning chores. The outline of the pines begins to appear faintly against the eastern sky as he crunches across frozen mud and hay to the sound of gobbling turkeys and lowing cows. "You could probably count on one hand the people in Montana that work six horses," Waid says. "There's a few of us that work a team, but not even very many of those anymore. ... I'm the only one left on this whole road that works a team."
It wasn't that way 15 or 20 years ago. But now the bales are bigger, weighing 1,800 pounds each instead of 75 or 80 pounds. Waid sells horses to supplement his income, so he needs to break them anyway. Besides, pulling hay with a team of horses is the cheapest way to feed a cow. Where feeding a cow with machinery might cost $8 a season for labor, and wear and tear on equipment, using a team costs a fraction of that.
It's not just an economic decision, though. There's a different kind of profit from having three pairs of reins between his fingers and giddyup on his lips.
First, Waid makes a stop at the house to eat a sit-down breakfast with his wife, Stacey, and their five children before the three eldest head off to school.
Once the children leave, the Waids linger a while in the kitchen to talk horses.
"A horse was a big factor in the development of this country," Waid explains. "A horse built the roads, and horses turned over the fields. A man and a plow and a horse built this country."
For Stacey Waid, the appeal is more basic.
"I just like being outside and I like working with Lon and just doing things together - that's the best part," she says. On the weekends, the whole family helps drive the team.
"We're not Amish or trying to live in the past by any means, because you've got to be modern and think modern to survive in this business," Lon Waid says. "By the same token, you've got to keep something alive from your past."
Some day, he says, hopefully one of the children will want to take over the ranch and drive a team.
"It's happened now for four generations, and I would certainly hope that chain wouldn't break." But the business is more complicated than it used to be, Waid says.
"It used to be, even in my dad's time, that you could sweat and labor to make a living. Today ... there's so much more thinking behind it - marketing, paperwork. She's our secretary and our treasurer," he says, referring to Stacey. "We make a team."
In this way families and generations are linked together like the horses: Each team of two is hitched together, connected to those before them and those behind.
When Waid goes outside again after breakfast, the sun is not yet showing over the eastern hills, but the snow-covered fields to the west are glowing in the morning light under a dome of light blue sky. The hired hand, Trevor Cupitt, helps Waid gather and yoke the team to the sleigh. Cupitt, 26, an Australian on an agricultural exchange, has never been as cold in his life as he has been the last few months in Montana. He expected to come to Texas, but ended up farther from the equator than he intended. The last time he saw snow, he says, he was 11 or 12.
The two youngest horses, Holly and Hannah, are the swing team. They pull in the middle, behind the lead team, Willie and Wanda, and in front of the wheel team, Harvey and Harriet. When all six are attached to the sleigh, it is 54 feet from the lead team's noses to the back of the sleigh. About 30 feet of chain helps keep the apparatus together. Four leather lines connect the horses to Waid's hands. When the snow is too sparse for the sleigh, the horses pull a wagon with rubber tires instead.
Today's a sleigh day. On his command, it jerks into motion and slides briskly over the snow into a nearby field. The horses learn from repetition to go left when they hear "Way over!" and right when they hear "Bye!" and to stop when they hear "Whoa!"
The team slows as it comes alongside enormous hay bales, 4 feet wide by 6 or 7 feet long, set on a pair of logs. A little blizzard of hay dances on the air as the horses pull up. Waid coaxes them to move the sleigh closer to the hay.
"They're living, breathing, feeling animals, and they'll do what you tell them. There's nothing like it," he says.
Waid and Cupitt tip two of the bales side by side onto the sleigh and stack smaller alfalfa bales on top.
Waid climbs atop the bales, joined by Cupitt and Annie, one of the family dogs. The horses pull a short way up the county road, slipping occasionally on the ice as they pull.
"Get yer feet, get yer feet!" Waid calls as they strain at the straps before pulling into a new field.
Once there, Cupitt chops the twine around the bale with a metal tool and pushes off neat slices of hay from the moving sleigh onto the ground while the cows - about 70 in this field - run behind. Waid says being on the sleigh right next to his animals helps him tell how they are. If a cow is dehydrated or about to calf, or is coming up lame, he'll see it.
"You're right there every day driving through them," Waid says.
Waid directs the team across the Bullhook drainage, and they run through the drifts of snow to feed two stud horses before moving south to another field to feed about 80 cattle.
"The biggest thing about stringing horses is to keep them honest - make sure they're pulling their full share," Waid says.
By 10:30 a.m., he will have fed about 200 head of cattle. More of Waid's cattle are in pastures about 5 miles away. It's hard on the team's feet to take them that far up the road, so he feeds those cattle every other day with a truck. Later in the spring, those cows will join the others and Waid will feed 300 to 350 cattle every day with his team. In previous winters, he has fed with a team of four horses. Whether he feeds with four or six, he brings out a team every morning from right before Christmas until the grass begins to come in late in April or early in May. He also uses his team to haul firewood.
"A lot of people would say, 'Man, don't that take a lot of time?'" Waid says above the scraping of the sleigh. "But as far as right around here, I can feed just as fast with a team ... and it's just a lot more enjoyable."
To train a colt, Waid harnesses three horses abreast, with the colt between two experienced horses. Once trained, the horses are put in pairs. Harriet and Harvey, both 2 years old, are going out for their first time today.
"You go every day and you tell them every day which direction to go and that type of thing. They don't take long to pick it up," he says.
Neither do people. Waid learned how to drive a team from his father on the weekends. Now, he said, his children do it on their weekends.
"Some things never change. I can remember telling my dad, 'Go faster, go faster!' and now my kids - it's the same thing. A horse only trots so fast," he chuckles.
Partway through his route, his second-to-youngest, Loni, 4, runs out of the house and joins him. She helps hack the twine away from the bails and push the hay onto the ground sliding by.
After it's over, she looks up shyly with a grin on her face.
"I like to help my daddy."