Back at the Ranch: Cowboy Poetry & Music / In Praise of the Horse

In the Droving Days
Written by A. B. "Banjo" Paterson. Recited by Bill Gunn
Audio Source: Poetry of the Australian Outback / Western Folklife Center, 1990.
Recorded at the 1990 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

"A Kind Eye" Photo © Barbara Van Cleve. All Rights Reserved.

"A Kind Eye" Photo © Barbara Van Cleve. All Rights Reserved.

IN THE DROVING DAYS, A. B. “Banjo” Paterson

"Only a pound," said the auctioneer,
"Only a pound; and I'm standing here
Selling this animal, gain or loss.
Only a pound for the drover's horse;
One of the sort that was never afraid,
One of the boys of the Old Brigade;
Thoroughly honest and game, I'll swear,
Only a little the worse for wear;
Plenty as bad to be seen in town,
Give me a bid and I'll knock him down;
Sold as he stands, and without recourse,
Give me a bid for the drover's horse."

Loitering there in an aimless way
Somehow I noticed the poor old grey,
Weary and battered and screwed, of course,
Yet when I noticed the old grey horse,
The rough bush saddle, and single rein
Of the bridle laid on his tangled mane,
Straightway the crowd and the auctioneer
Seemed on a sudden to disappear,
Melted away in a kind of haze,
For my heart went back to the droving days.

Back to the road, and I crossed again
Over the miles of the saltbush plain --
The shining plain that is said to be
The dried-up bed of an inland sea,
Where the air so dry and so clear and bright
Refracts the sun with a wondrous light,
And out in the dim horizon makes
The deep blue gleam of the phantom lakes.

At dawn of day we would feel the breeze
That stirred the boughs of the sleeping trees,
And brought a breath of the fragrance rare
That comes and goes in that scented air;
For the trees and grass and the shrubs contain
A dry sweet scent on the saltbush plain.
For those that love it and understand,
The saltbush plain is a wonderland.
A wondrous country, where Nature's ways
Were revealed to me in the droving days.

We saw the fleet wild horses pass,
And the kangaroos through the Mitchell grass,
The emu ran with her frightened brood
All unmolested and unpursued.
But there rose a shout and a wild hubbub
When the dingo raced for his native scrub,
And he paid right dear for his stolen meals
With the drover's dogs at his wretched heels.
For we ran him down at a rattling pace,
While the packhorse joined in the stirring chase.
And a wild halloo at the kill we'd raise --
We were light of heart in the droving days.

'Twas a drover's horse, and my hand again
Made a move to close on a fancied rein.
For I felt the swing and the easy stride
Of the grand old horse that I used to ride
In drought or plenty, in good or ill,
That same old steed was my comrade still;
The old grey horse with his honest ways
Was a mate to me in the droving days.

When we kept our watch in the cold and damp,
If the cattle broke from the sleeping camp,
Over the flats and across the plain,
With my head bent down on his waving mane,
Through the boughs above and the stumps below
On the darkest night I could let him go
At a racing speed; he would choose his course,
And my life was safe with the old grey horse.
But man and horse had a favourite job,
When an outlaw broke from a station mob,
With a right good will was the stockwhip plied,
As the old horse raced at the straggler's side,
And the greenhide whip such a weal would raise,
We could use the whip in the droving days.

"Only a pound!" and was this the end --
Only a pound for the drover's friend.
The drover's friend that had seen his day,
And now was worthless, and cast away
With a broken knee and a broken heart
To be flogged and starved in a hawker's cart.
Well, I made a bid for a sense of shame
And the memories dear of the good old game.

"Thank you? Guinea! and cheap at that!
Against you there in the curly hat!
Only a guinea, and one more chance,
Down he goes if there's no advance,
Third, and the last time, one! two! three!"
And the old grey horse was knocked down to me.
And now he's wandering, fat and sleek,
On the lucerne flats by the Homestead Creek;
I dare not ride him for fear he'd fall,
But he does a journey to beat them all,
For though he scarcely a trot can raise,
He can take me back to the droving days.

Equus Caballus
Written and recited by Joel Nelson
Audio Source: Elko! A Cowboy's Gathering / Western Jubilee Recording Co.
Recorded live at the 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

"At a Hard Run" Photo © Barbara Van Cleve. All Rights Reserved.

"At a Hard Run" Photo © Barbara Van Cleve. All Rights Reserved.

equus caballus, Joel Nelson

I have run on middle fingernail through eolithic morning,
And I’ve thundered down the coach road with the Revolution’s warning.
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail.
I have strained before the caissons and moved the nation’s mail.

I’ve made knights of lowly tribesmen and kings from ranks of peons
And given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons.
I have grazed among the lodges and the tepees and the yurts.
I have felt the sting of driving whips and lashes, spurs and quirts.

            I am roguish – I am flighty – I am inbred – I am lowly.
            I’m a nightmare – I am wild – I am the horse.
            I am gallant and exalted – I am stately– I am noble.
            I’m impressive – I am grand – I am the horse.

I have suffered gross indignities from users and from winners,
And I’ve felt the hand of kindness from the losers and the sinners.
I have given for the cruel hand and given for the kind.
Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when surrender had been signed.

I can be as tough as hardened steel – as fragile as a flower.
I know not my endurance and I know not my own power.
I have died with heart exploded ‘neath the cheering in the stands –
Calmly stood beneath the hanging noose of vigilante bands.

            I have traveled under conqueror and underneath the beaten.
            I have never chosen sides – I am the horse.
            The world is but a players stage – my roles have numbered many.
            Under blue or under gray I am the horse.

So I’ll run on middle fingernail until the curtain closes,
And I will win your triple crowns and I will wear your roses.
Toward you who took my freedom I’ve no malice or remorse.
I’ll endure – This Is My Year – I am the Horse!

© Joel Nelson

Where the Ponies Come to Drink
Written by Henry Herbert Knibbs. Recited by Randy Rieman
Audio Source: 2001 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering / Western Folklife Center Archives

"Cool Water" Photo © Adam Jahiel. All Rights Reserved.

"Cool Water" Photo © Adam Jahiel. All Rights Reserved.


Up in Northern Arizona
            there’s a Ranger-trail that passes
Through a mesa, like a faёry lake
            with pines upon its brink,
And across the trail a stream runs
            all but hidden in the grasses,
Till it finds an emerald hollow
            where the ponies come to drink.

Out they fling across the mesa,
            wind-blown manes and forelocks dancing,
--Blacks and sorrels, bays and pintos, wild as eagles, eyes agleam;
From their hoofs the silver flashes,
            burning beads and arrows glancing
Through the bunch-grass and the gramma,
            as they cross the little stream.

Down they swing as if pretending,
            in their orderly disorder,
That they stopped to hold a pow-wow,
            just to rally for the charge
That will take them, close to sunset,
            twenty miles across the border;
Then the leader sniffs and drinks
            with fore feet planted on the marge.

One by one each head is lowered,
            till some yearling nips another,
And the playful interruption
            starts an eddy in the band:
Snorting, squealing, plunging, wheeling,
            round they circle in a smother
Of the muddy spray, nor pause
            until they find the firmer land.

My old cow-horse, he runs with ‘em:
            turned him loose for good last season;
Eighteen years’ hard work, his record,
and he’s earned his little rest;
And he’s taking it by playing,
            acting proud, and with good reason;
Though he’s starched a little forward,
            he can fan it with the best.

Once I called him---almost caught him,
            when he heard my spur-chains jingle;
Then he eyed me some reproachful,
            as if making up his mind:
Seemed to say, “Well, if I have to---
            but you know I’m living single….”
So I laughed.
            In just a minute he was pretty hard to find.

Some folks wouldn’t understand it, ---
            writing lines about a pony, ---
For a cow-horse in a cow-horse, ---
            nothing else, most people think, ---
But for eighteen years your partner,
            wise and faithful, such a crony
Seems worth watching for, a spell,
            down where the ponies come to drink.