Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Memories of Joey Cabral, Vaquero

Joey Cabral

Back in 1978, my wife and I leased a rough, isolated ranch. On a hot, July day I looked west from where we lived to see a huge column of smoke boiling up from the property. The whole top of the place was in flames, and the fire was moving rapidly through the tall, dry season grasses. We got in our truck, raced down the highway, and drove up the long dirt road to the top of the property. I was surprised to see horseback riders come up over the hill. They were Joey Cabral and one of his daughters, Sheila. They had seen the fire from their place, several miles away, and had quickly saddled up and galloped across several ranches to herd our cattle away from the flames. That was typical of Joey, to help out in his unique way, to do what had to be done, and to use a horse in the process.
Joey was raised on the old Rancho Salsipuedes, a Mexican era land grant, just south of Lompoc on Highway 1. His father leased 1,450 acres on the western end of the ranch from the Hollister family, where he raised lima beans and cattle. Joey remembers riding with his father through over 600 acres of Bishop Pine forest on the Salsipuedes. That rare forest disappeared when those hills were later strip-mined for diatomaceous earth. Joey’s father bought an adjacent ranch where Joey and his wife, Barbara, raised their own family. For many years after his father’s death, Joey continued to lease the land. He told me that the two generation-long business arrangement was all based on a single handshake with Senator  Hollister.
Joey never had anything but praise for the Hollister family: Their business dealings were based upon mutual respect and complete trust, upon looking someone in the eye and then trusting that person for a lifetime. Back then, these values were intrinsic to the ranching community. No one ever came to count the bean sacks at harvest time. But soon after the Hollister era, Joey quit farming. Owners and values changed, but Joey didn’t. All his life he believed in that tacit code of honor, the one with which he grew up, where a handshake sealed a deal. Period.
Joey, like his father, raised his own horses. Unlike many horsemen, he preferred to train and ride mares. He told me a gelding is altered too much mentally and physically from his natural state by castration. Mares stayed whole, keeping their natural hormones, and, for Joey, that meant a more complex and interesting animal to train, to ride and to learn from.
Many times, Joey told me that the men who most influenced his life, the ones who made him dream about a future when he was a child, were the old Hollister Ranch vaqueros. Some of these men were descended from the Californios, the early Spanish settlers, and their own grandfathers or great grandfathers had once owned and lost large tracts of grazing land, such as the Rancho Las Cruces or Rancho Nuestra Senora del Refugio. Joey would follow them on roundups in the hills on the small pony his father had given him. One of the vaqueros, Paulino Vicente Guevara, saw that Joey was riding his pony with only a halter and a cotton rope, so Vicente stopped his horse, dismounted, and took off his own horse’s intricately braided rawhide bosal and gave it to Joey. From then on, Joey was hooked: He went on to devote his life to the vaquero tradition.
At the spring roundups on Rancho Salsipuedes, Joey helped chop and split the oak wood for the branding fire. He watched the cowboys rope, and the older ones, like Vicente and his brother-in-law, Vicente Ortega, still used the traditional 75 foot braided rawhide reatas. Vicente sported a large white handlebar mustache, and he wore shotgun chaps and a very small brimmed hat (because of the legendary Gaviota wind). He was a superb reata man, starting, as Joey described it, with a very small loop and building up to a huge one, which he could throw a great distance, and by the time it had settled gently over an unsuspecting calf’s neck, it would again be a small loop.” One day,” Joey told me,” Vicente actually missed a shot, and several of the Hollister women working in the corral started to tease him. Vicente never said a word, but he coiled up his rope, built up a big loop, and threw it straight up into the air above his head. Then he jerked that loop right down onto a big calf’s head. Man, that was beautiful! Those women got quiet real fast.” 
During his own long career working on ranches throughout southwestern Santa Barbara County, Joey always “took the gate.” That meant that when sorting the cows from the calves, Joey would ride to the gate and stand in the opening between two corral pens. Other riders would push mixed groups of cows and calves toward him, and he would deftly allow only cows to get through the opening, blocking the calves as the cows rushed by. He was a master at this position, and it was always naturally assumed that he would take this role. It was a wonderful show to watch Joey’s intelligent, quick sorrel mare wheel and spin and block the running calves eyeball to eyeball.
A few years ago a neighbor showed me an old home movie of a Hollister Estate Company branding in the 1940s. There was Joey’s mentor, Vicente Guevara, working the gate, erect, at one with his horse, the horse level headed, turning, moving with the mind of the rider, creating gaps for the cows, blocking the calves, all at the same time, mesmerizing in its repetitious and sudden, innovative moves. I took the film to Joey’s, and it opened up many more memories, more stories of the old people. He told me of the time Vicente was riding a colt on Rancho San Julian: “Vicente and Frank Begg rode up on some wild pigs. Vicente roped one and his colt took off and started bucking. He bucked so hard the saddle came off and slipped under its belly. Frank leaped off his horse and jumped on the pig and captured it. When he looked up, there was Vicente still sitting on the colt with the saddle hanging under its belly.”
 Joey was a genius with horses. He could put a rein on one like almost no one else. But his stories about Vicente and the others who came before him demonstrated a true and very rare humility, a sense that he was a small part of a great tradition. While Joey was the real thing, a genuine California cowboy, a horseman who knew cattle and horses from the inside out, he never let it get to his head. Joey once told me, “You know what, the best cow pony in the county is Bill Pata’s pickup! You know why? All Bill has to do is drive out on the ranch with a bale of hay and blow his horn and every one of his cows will follow him into the corral.”
My favorite moments with Joey would begin when I looked out my front window and saw his white Ford pickup parked in the barnyard. He would stop by periodically to see a new foal of my wife’s quarter horse mare, to return a book, or just to shoot the breeze. If it were a new foal, Sally and I would nervously follow Joey to the horse pens and wait anxiously for his comments. He was always positive, but we would mull over and interpret his comments for days. Once he helped us halter break a colt, and, after that, we never seemed to have any problems doing it ourselves. He who could read a horse’s instincts and fears, and then he could work around and through them with a calm and positive dexterity.
On one amazing visit, he came by to check on our unbroken two-year-old gelding, Paddy Whiskey. He was a huge bay colt, and we were a bit intimidated by him. We were going to get someone to green break him for us, but Joey studied him for a while and said, “Let’s see if we can saddle him.”  Joey got him slowly saddled and then put a snaffle bit on him. After a while Joey said, ”What do you think about riding him?” Sally slowly crawled up on Paddy and soon was riding him in circles around the pen. Joey took it step by logical step, assessing the colt’s mental boundaries and gently pushing his limits, never losing his trust, never triggering his fear. Joey intuitively knew just how far to push the horse, just as if Joey had been tuned into a mental frequency of the colt’s that Sally and I could not decode. Joey, like his own childhood hero, Vicente, has had a deep influence on how ranches are managed and cattle are worked, and how horses are trained and used. No one who knew him escaped his positive influence, his wry sense of humor, and his deeply embedded values.           
Whenever I could hide $300.00 from my wife’s careful bookkeeping, squirreling it away in my bedside table drawer in small bills, I would drive down the road to Joey’s with the latest Capriola Saddle Company catalogue. Joey would help me order a fancy bit. He liked was the half-breed mouthpiece. It was a compromise between an old time Spanish spade and a conventional curb bit. “Get that extra one quarter inch width on the mouthpiece,” he cautioned me. “That way the bosal will fit comfortably under the bit when you go to double reins.” He preferred the Santa Barbara style bit, the one with elaborate silver decorations, including a small Moorish moon embedded in the design.
 Once the bit was ordered, it often took months for the Garcia Bit Company to make it down in Mexico. I got my most recent bit in the mail and kept thinking,” I’ve got to show this to Joey.” I even carried it around in my car in case I might see him checking the water trough down at his cattle pasture. I kept racing by his place, on my daily, relentless commute to long days at work, thinking there will be time to stop, there will be time. But there wasn’t and I didn’t.
The last time I saw Joey, he was standing by himself on the Jalama bridge, making mental notes on the December water level, watching the creek flow by his house, through Rancho Salsipuedes and his life, out of the past and into the future, into the waves at Surf Beach.  The new Garcia bit hangs in our tack room, unused, waiting for a horse, and hands to guide it.
Several times over the years, Joey told me of an experience he had in the1970s while riding for the Bixby Ranch Company when they leased Rancho San Julian. They were running fifteen hundred Mexican steers in the backcountry. It had been a good grass season and the tall, wild oats were drying out.  Joey was on the roundup crew. They rode over the hills and came to a place where the whole Los Amoles Valley opened up under the morning sunlight. It was totally silent. The air was still. They saw over a thousand steers, spread out all over the canyon, dotting every flat and hillside of that broad basin, stretching out several miles before them. The steers had put on hundreds of pounds and were sleek and fat. Joey told me it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
And then they rode out, he and the other horsemen, and they spent a long day, a long day at work trailing in those steers, trailing them across the gullies and out of the oaks, doing exactly what Joey had always dreamed of doing when he was just a little kid, a kid with a pony, a pony and an old halter.

Joey Cabral