A cowboy trailing a herd across big country might be the typical scene one pictures when imagining the working environs of a cowboy, but some of the best hands operate in the tight confines of feedlots. The unsung heroes of working cowboys, pen riders play an integral role in the beef industry.
“A pen rider’s primary job is to maintain the health and welfare of the cattle on the feedlot,” explains Steven Seymour, who worked as a pen rider in Texas for just shy of a decade. “You ride the pens looking for signs of injuries or illness. Ideally, you don’t want to treat cattle after something is wrong. Your goal is to never let them get that way in the first place.”
Pen riding isn’t for the faint of heart. The days start early, and the work can be grueling.
“It can be a tough job,” says Seymour. “You put in up to 15 hours a day. You have to come to work and actually work. The cattle don’t know it’s Sunday and they don’t know it’s a holiday.”
A typical day starts at dawn, “regardless of the weather,” says Seymour. For the next six or seven hours, the pen rider rides his section—which can contain upwards of 6,000 head—looking for ill or injured cattle, moving them from pens, and doctoring.
“You have to have a good eye for the subtle signs of distress,” says Seymour. “The most obvious sign is an animal laying down or standing with its head in the dirt, but by then, it’s usually too late. Before it gets to that point, you want to be aware of how the animals move, if their flanks look normal, if their eyes are saying anything.”
Cattle-handling skills are a must for anyone seeking a pen riding job, as are horsemanship skills.
“It’s not for beginners,” warns Seymour. “It can be a fast-paced, high-stress environment, and between the tight space and inherent dangers, if you’re green, it’s easy to get hurt.”
Just as necessary as horse and cattle sense is a love for job.
“There are some groups that portray feedlots and the beef industry as something horrible,” laments Seymour. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth. The cowboy’s job is to take care of cattle, and he wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t actually care for them. It’s certainly not for the money. The pay and conditions aren’t great, so pen riders are out there because that’s exactly what they want to do and where they want to be.”
Steven Seymour spent eight years as a pen rider for the Swisher County Cattle Company in Tulia, Texas, where he maintained the health and well being of 16,000 head of cattle.