New Mexico Cowboy Rufus Brown 45 Years At Turkey Track Ranch
By John Bradshaw
MALJAMAR, N.M. — Rufus Brown never suffered the wanderlust that affects so many cowboys. He hired on at New Mexico’s Turkey Track Ranch as a teenager and did not quit until he retired.
Brown, the son of an oilfield man who traded horses and tack on the side, was raised in Artesia.
“He didn’t bring in many broncs,” Brown said of his father. “They were just good, gentle horses.”
At 14 years old, Brown began breaking horses for a couple local horse traders who brought in all types. These traders were Burt Newberry and Buck Pounds.
“Buck used to buy horses from everywhere,” Brown said. “I’d ride horses for him and kind of knock the edge off them. If he took them to a sale, he’d pay me to ride them through the sale ring.”
Burt Newberry bought horses from area reservations, mainly the Mescalero, Navajo and Jicarilla Reservations. Newberry bought these wild horses in bobtail truckloads and brought them back for Brown to break.
“I’d break those horses, then we’d take them to Roswell or El Paso and sell them,” Brown said.
Those horses Newberry bought off the reservations were typically two to four years old, and most were not very big. When it was time to break those reservation horses, they loaded them in the bobtail truck and hauled them to some stout railroad pens made of crossties and two-by-twelves.
The horses were wild enough that if one was sorted off it would panic and run into the fence or try to jump out. So, Newberry and Brown kept all the horses together, and then Newberry would go in horseback and rope one of them. Brown would then let the others into an adjoining corral.
“Then I’d go down there and tie a foot up, then put on a hackamore and saddle,” Brown said. “Then I’d get on and off a few times.”
After a little of this treatment, Brown would step on and Newberry would turn them loose. Not too many of these horses even bucked, though.
“They were too scared,” Brown said. “They just ran three or four circles.”
It didn’t take many minutes of this before Newberry would open the gate and turn Brown and his new mount into a big water lot. The horses always ran off in this larger area, but Newberry would catch up and begin waving a coiled rope in front of or beside them.
“He could kind of turn them,” Brown said.
After this first ride, Newberry and Brown typically began staking out the horses, and soon Brown could pull them around some.
“After 30 days of that, they were gentle,” he said. “When you first started, they were wild as little deer.”
Brown later owned several of these reservation horses, and they all made nice ranch horses.
“I rode a lot of them,” he said.
Burt Newberry also had cattle turned out, so Brown helped with them. He worked at times for other area cattlemen, including The 100 Ranch.
In 1970, just after graduating high school, Brown hired on at the Turkey Track Ranch.
“That’s mostly where I grew up,” Brown said.
He moved into the bunkhouse at the Turkey Track, where he stayed for three years until he was married. There were usually four or five single cowboys living in the bunkhouse, plus the four camps.
The Turkey Track Ranch was made up of 660 sections in those days. Some of it has since been sold, although the ranch is still 350 sections.
“It was a pretty big outfit when I first went there,” he said.
One morning a few days after Brown hired on, he was told to go gather horses out of the horse pasture. He was told to ride an old drive horse that was in the corral.
Brown, being new to the place, didn’t know all the horses yet. He caught this older horse and went and gathered the rest of the horses. Coming down a hill toward headquarters the loose horses began to run.
“I should’ve let that horse lope along with them, but I didn’t want Millard to think I was bringing in those horses at a run. It was taboo to bring in the horses at a run.”
The horses went off the hill bucking and playing. Brown held his horse, which got excited and began to paw and buck and even tried to fall over. The horse could buck hard, and it even pawed off the curb strap and cut the side of its head with a front foot.
“You could see scratches on my headstall where he had been pawing,” Brown said.
Brown lost his cigarettes but rode the horse. When he finally had the horses in the corral, he went back for his smokes. He found the cigarettes, and he even found some coins that had been in his pants pocket.
“I don’t know how that change came out,” he said. “I had a pair of chaps on.”
He began to wonder about this ranch where he had just gone to work, if this was how the horses behaved.
“If that was one of the gentle horses, I didn’t know if I could ride one of the outlaws,” Brown said.
It turned out that this particular horse was not a gentle drive horse after all and was never used to gather horses. The older cowboys had played a joke on the new man.
When Brown went to work on the Turkey Track Ranch, he was more horseman than cowboy. That was where his experience had been to that point. He was soon breaking horses.
“I wasn’t a good horseman, like they got now,” Brown humbly stated.
Colts were started between two and three years old, but back then the horse breakers did not spend much time in a corral, perhaps three days at most.
“Then they wanted us to get them outside and take off on them, get them moving out,” Brown said.
He did not really see what the hurry was, since the cowboys weren’t going to use those horses on a drive until they were four or five years old anyway.
“We wouldn’t take them in the remuda on the works. Some of those drives were pretty big,” Brown said. “But they didn’t want us spending a lot of time in the corral.”
Brown began breaking most of the colts, along with another Turkey Track cowboy named Danny Ball.
“I started most of them, and he started a few,” Brown said. “We could kind of get them going that way.”
Once Brown had the colts riding some, he sent the gentler of them to the other cowboys. The Turkey Track Ranch is known for its horses, and more so all the time. But back then there were some broncs mixed in.
“We had a lot of good horses. We had some ornery ones too,” Brown said. “They have some really good ones now.”
Brown believes there wouldn’t have been so many broncs and bucking horses back then had they all spent more time when starting them.
“It was probably more how I broke them. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with them on the ground,” Brown said. “They were good horses. A lot of them wouldn’t even buck. But when you did get one, he was something else.”
Brown had one horse in his string for many years named Little Brownie. This horse had been bucked out in years past and would still often buck. On drives, Brown regularly rode to the top of sandhills, so he could look around and spot the next man on either side of him.
Every time he rode up on a sandhill and stopped, this horse would scratch its head on a front leg. Then when Brown asked him to leave, Little Brownie would leap off the sandhill and buck a few jumps. This all happened every single time for many years.
“Then we’d go on,” Brown said. “It was more playing than anything.”
When the ranch finally sold Little Brownie, it was through the Clovis sale, where Little Brownie bucked off a man in the sale ring.
“That was Little Brownie,” Brown said. “We had quite a few like that.”
Brown told of a horse wreck he was involved in that was both fortunate and unusual. He was riding the outside of a pasture, loping along just off the Caprock, when his horse stuck both front feet in a hole and did a somersault.
Brown was thrown slightly to the side, and he landed on his feet. The horse just missed him as it went over, but it never touched him. The horse got to its feet and stood there, right next to Brown, neither the worse for it.
“He didn’t get scared, so he didn’t try to jerk loose from me. I just pulled him around and got back on,” Brown said. “I was the only one there. There wasn’t anyone there to see it.”
Many of the Turkey Track horses back then were not too tolerant of things waving or moving on their backs or sides. A flopping rope or latigo might set them off. Brown bought a pair of batwing chaps, but many of the horses he rode were scared when the batwings blew up and hit them on the shoulders. Every time that happened Brown trimmed a little bit of leather off those batwings.
“About 10 years of that and I had them cut off until they had fringe and no batwings,” he said. “And I had a string that I could tie them down.”
One morning Brown went to gather horses, and he rode a young horse to do it. On the way in the loose horses began running. His young horse began running with them, and Brown couldn’t stop it. In the melee, a loose horse was knocked down, and Brown couldn’t turn his colt in time. They ran over the horse just as it was getting back up.
“It just flipped us out there,” he said. “We were going a pretty good clip.”
Brown landed face first, breaking his nose. Then the horse rolled over top of him. Another cowboy was with him, so Brown sent him to catch his horse, which had run all the way to the other side of the pasture and had to be roped to be caught.
“When he brought him back to me, I told him, ‘Look at that saddlehorn,’” Brown said. “It had a big old wad of dirt on it about that big where he jobbed that horn in the ground.”
Brown tried to keep his boss from finding out he had been gathering horses on a colt, but the truth came out soon enough.
“I ought to have known better than to be getting those horses on that half-broke horse,” Brown said. “Those horses start running, they want to run and play with them. That usually makes them buck.”
One morning in the saddle corral, Brown stepped on a four-year-old that was known to buck. The ground was muddy from a rain the night before, but Brown thought he could get outside into the grass before the horse blew up.
The horse did not wait and began bucking in the muddy lot. It bucked across the pen and into the gate, then slipped and fell over backward onto Brown, breaking Brown’s foot.
That evening the cowboys had to stack a load of hay, and the boss was there. Brown helped and had to pretend he wasn’t hurt.
“He wouldn’t have liked me getting on a horse like that when it was so muddy,” Brown said.
In his younger days, Brown traded some horses on the side. The Turkey Track allowed its cowboys to keep one personal horse, or two if they overlapped for a time.
“Of course, we used them on the ranch just like their horses,” he said. “We threw them in the remuda with the rest of the horses. We didn’t separate them or baby them around. If they had to go on a big drive, then they had to go on a big drive.”
He had a personal horse years ago that was very gentle on the ground but would buck often and hard.
“He was gentle to walk around and pick his feet up,” Brown said. “But he kind of liked that bucking.”
The horse had bucked off Brown a couple times, and then one day he was riding the horse on a drive when the horse shied at a cow then bucked him off and ran away. Another cowboy came to help, but his horse wouldn’t let them ride double.
“He wouldn’t tolerate that,” Brown said.
Once they made it to the herd ground, Brown borrowed a saddle and put it on his herd horse. When they were done working, Brown tracked his other horse and found where it went to the trailer where they had unloaded that morning.
“He couldn’t get in that trailer and there wasn’t anybody to drive it, so he went on to headquarters,” Brown said.
The other men got to headquarters before Brown, and they had caught and unsaddled his horse. Brown saddled the horse again, planning to do a little training.
“I was going to give him a what-for, so I swatted him with those bridle reins,” Brown said. “Hell, he bucked me off again.”
Brown always tried to keep at least one horse around that he could step on and get something done easily. Often the Turkey Track cowboys found cows with thread protectors stuck on their feet, and they had to rope them and cut off the thread protector. He wanted a horse he could unload out of the trailer and go rope something.
“And not have to ride him two or three miles to knock the edge off him,” Brown said.
In 1973, Brown was married to Pam, and the young couple moved into a trailer house at the old Turkey Track headquarters. In 1980 they moved to Bond Camp, replacing Clyde Derrick when he changed camps.
Bond Camp was about 90 sections under one pasture, and Brown was the only cowboy there permanently. There were 400-500 cows in his country, depending on the rainfall.
“We didn’t stock it heavy,” Brown said. “There were five head to the section.”
The Turkey Track had many pastures back then that were 80-100 sections each.
It took the cowboys three days to brand Brown’s country at Bond Camp. Shinnery is plentiful there, so every year they had to move the cattle in the spring when it was budding. In May they brought the cattle back.
A drive required seven or eight cowboys. Five or six was too few and too scattered.
“There would be too much country between you,” Brown said. “Most of the time we were three-quarters of a mile, or a mile apart. It depended on how that pasture laid. Some of those outside circles were pretty big.”
Pastures were so big that they usually took three or four days to work one pasture. Oftentimes the cowboys had to work in bad weather, if it came in, because if they stopped for weather in the middle of a pasture the cattle would mix again.
The Turkey Track back then ran Braford cows. It didn’t take much pressure to get them moving on a drive. When they moved, the cowboys had to be careful turning them.
“You had to get around them and bend them,” Brown said. “You couldn’t just ride down the side of them. That would make them run faster.”
The cowboys also had to be cautious not to let those cows run too far before they got them bent, because the cows were quick to get on the hook.
“Then they’d just fight you and leave,” he said. “You couldn’t waste too much time on them. If you were fooling with the ones on the hook, you’d lose some more, if you didn’t stay up with the drive.”
In a corral, the cowboys didn’t put much pressure on those cows when they needed to sort. The cows were wild enough and smart enough to bring themselves to a gate.
“They were the smoothest-working cattle you’ve ever seen, if you didn’t try to fight them,” Brown said. “You couldn’t go in there and whip and spur and cut and slash on them.”
One day Brown roped a 1200-pound Braford cow that had a horn growing back into her head. Brown roped her deep, tied on, and his horse was jerked down. Brown stepped off and into the clear, but his horse was not.
“When that horse hit the ground that cow was leaving with him, dragging him,” Brown said. “She was leaning into that rope, dragging that horse on his side.”
His bit was bent, and his saddle skinned before the other cowboys got another rope on the cow.
“We used to get into quite a few of those deals,” he said.
When Brown first went to the Turkey Track the ranch owned one bobtail truck and one small trailer that would hold three horses.
“Some of us would load our horses in that truck, and we’d have to jump those horses out,” he said.
However, the cowboys typically just rode their horses wherever they needed to go.
“We rode them a lot more than we ever hauled them,” Brown said.
In 1972 Brown began competing in the saddle bronc riding at amateur rodeos. He had ridden plenty of bucking ranch horses, but he also began intentionally practicing. He had a few ranch horses that would basically buck on command, and he brought them in and rode them. Some he could get on and get set before asking them to buck, others he had to get behind a gate since he didn’t have a chute.
One of his practice mounts was a horse named Rusty, a horse so talented he went on to be the PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year in 1981. Ty Murray later purchased Rusty and retired him, along with some other notable bucking horses. Murray later buried Rusty on his place.
A new hand once bragged too much to Brown about how good a bronc rider he was, and how he could quirt a bucking horse. Brown told the young man he had a horse in the lot that needed a quirting.
“I put my association saddle on him, and I told him, ‘I want you to quirt him. That horse needs some of this,’” Brown said.
The horse stood still for the cowboy to get on, and Brown told him to set his feet in the horse’s shoulders to make it buck. He told the rider to quirt the horse every time it hit the ground.
“He stuck his feet up there, and that horse jumped out across there and jumped straight up,” Brown said. “Pretty soon, I seen him throw that quirt away and get ahold of the fork of that saddle.”
The young man rode the horse, but there was no quirting involved. Brown told him he might better go to the kitchen, put on an apron and help cook.
In 1977, Brown was planning to get his PRCA permit. He wanted to pursue bronc riding more seriously.
“I was going to rodeo instead of work on a ranch all my life,” he said.
Before that occurred, he was working on the ranch when his herd horse hit a run then bogged his head and began bucking. The sudden move popped Brown’s head so violently that he was knocked unconscious and then thrown. Brown got back on before everyone realized he was severely injured.
It turned out that when his neck was popped so severely it broke two small bones at the base of his skull. It took several uncomfortable years for him to heal completely, and it ended his saddle bronc riding permanently.
“That was all because of one jump by that horse,” he said.
Brown team roped some over the years until a worn-out shoulder prohibited it. He has a collection of trophy buckles in his home, many of which were won at ranch rodeos. The Turkey Track ranch rodeo team had plenty of success back then. Brown pointed out that many teams now have ringers who might not really be ranch hands.
“They let them come work on the ranch for a few days so they can say they work there and get on the team,” Brown said. “A ranch roper isn’t going to contend with those arena ropers.”
Brown was able to build a cow herd of his own, which he ran on lease country near Maljamar and also between Whites City and El Paso where his daughter Angie and son-in-law Ronnie Derrick have a ranch.
“I had about 35 cows down there,” Brown said. “I had to get rid of them because of this drouth.”
His wife, Pam, passed away this past May. The couple raised two children on the Turkey Track Ranch, Angie and Brandon. They have two grandchildren and one great-grandson.
His son Brandon, followed in Brown’s footsteps and became a bronc rider. In 2002 the pickup he was riding in was struck by a drunk driver near Williams, Arizona. Brandon narrowly survived, but a head injury ended his rodeo career and affects him still.
On a shelf in Brown’s home are a pair of Kelly Bros. chihuahua spurs that he wore during his entire employment at the Turkey Track Ranch.
“I wore those for 45 years,” he said.
In 2015, Brown retired from the Turkey Track Ranch. He was still at Bond Camp.
“I never was big on that traveling from ranch to ranch,” Brown said. “I got enough riding in on that one.”
STAYING PUT felt right so when Rufus Brown signed on at the Turkey Track Ranch in Eastern New Mexico, he meant it. He broke horses and punched cows on the 660-section ranch for 45 years, until his retirement a few years ago.