Archive for the ‘Ranching’ Category

Divining Gift

SPECIAL GIFT -- Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or "water-witching", as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted  the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

SPECIAL GIFT — Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or “water-witching”, as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

© 2011 Story and Photo By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: This feature article first appeared in the Pecos Enterprise in 1986. Shortly thereafter, it was distributed on the Associated Press wire and was published in various newspapers throughout Texas (and I do not know how much further afield). Howard Collier was 66 years old when this article and photo were published. The story he related to me below simply flowed from his lips and thus rendered it probably the easiest writing I have ever done, and the most fun. He was quite a genial man; and I treasure the brief acquaintance we shared.
     Some of you might wonder why the paragraphs are as brief as they are. Well, that is newspaper style: it is a technique for augmenting readability. And, while it is true that I have condensed previous posts, retrieved from my stash of old newspaper articles, by combining paragraphs into “literary style”, in this instance I have retained newspaper style because so much of it involves quotations. Also, I believe that here at least the old journalistic dictum “white space is good” does speed up compre-hension.

* * * * * *

PECOS, Texas — Some people search for a scientific basis for dowsing — or “water witching”, as it is often called.

But not Howard Collier of Pecos.  He just accepts it as a gift

Still, he is aware of the explanations others have come up with for people who profess to have the power to find underground water with a divining rod. “It has something to do with the magnetism in that stick and in your body and in that water vein down there that causes the stick to come down,” he said.

The 66-year-old rancher said that he learned about water-witching and that he had the gift when he was 20.

Collier was working that summer on his father’s Screwbean Ranch in northeast Culberson county.  Early one fall day, he and the foreman rode horseback to a site on the ranch where his father had built a dirt tank.

“It was the tail end of a terrible drought,” he recalled. “The soil scientists had concluded we needed to conserve soil moisture better than we had.

“So the government had come in with the Triple-A program — what’s now called the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) — and part of that program was the ‘dirt works’ program. There were thousands of miles of terraces in West Texas. And they built spreader dams and dirt tanks.

“Just two weeks before, my father and I had ridden out to see it. The thing was about two hundred feet square and about ten feet deep with sloping sides. There had been some good rains and it was full. The water had backed up about a quarter mile past this dirt dam.

“But two weeks later, when Charlie Greer, the foreman, and I rode out there, there was not a drop of water. Instead, there was a hole in the middle of it where the water had slumped.”

Collier said he was shocked by the sight. “My goodness,” he told Greer, “with all this trouble, all this expense, it might be just as cheap to dig a water well.”

“Yeah,” said Greer, “but it might help if you water-witch for it first.”

“What do you mean?” said Collier, who had never heard the phrase before.

“Well, get down off your horse and let’s find us a greasewood forked limb,” Greer replied.

After cutting two forked limbs, Greer showed the young man how to hold the witching stick. Together they walked over a part of the ranch where the terrain showed promise of good water.

Suddenly Collier’s stick started pulling down toward the ground, so much that he had to use force to hold it straight in front of him.  The experience frightened him, he said.

“I could see it in your face,” Greer said. “Consider yourself lucky. That forked stick doesn’t work for everybody.”

Collier did not make much of the occasion at the time, he says now, “It was just an event in my life.”

More important was the experience of the Dust Bowl, the creation of the terraces, windmills and dirt tanks.  “As a teen-ager in the Dust Bowl days, I learned how precious water is to a rancher in West Texas,” he said. “Since that time, there’s been a lot of water wells drilled and water storage tanks and water troughs built.”

In the 1960s, Collier decided he wanted to locate windmills on his home ranch in Reeves County and irrigation wells at the ranch headquarters on Toyah Creek.  A brother-in-law, Fred Armstrong, did the engineering work, and Collier did the water-witching.

“By 1970, I’d water-witched about ten wells for us and other people,” Collier said. “Of course, that’s not many, but they all turned out to be good wells.”

Compared with some dowsers he has known, most of whom are dead now, Collier considers himself an amateur. “These old water-well drillers, they had that science,” he said. “After you told one of them about where you wanted the well and had staked it off, he’d say, ‘I’d better get a water witch,’ and he might move it over a hundred feet or more from where you had indicated.”

Every water witch prefers a certain type of wood for the forked stick.  Hackberry is a common source, Collier said, as is the peach tree. “I like greasewood,” he said.

Others forgo wood altogether, preferring metal rods. “Some people swear by brass welding rods,” Collier said.

Although most scientists dismiss any physical reality in dowsing, a few do not discount it so readily.  Zaboj V. Harvalik, a retired University of Missouri physicist, thinks it is real.  Harvalik’s experiments have indicated that a person holding a dowsing stick can detect buried electric wires, apparently because the human body is sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the currents flowing through wires.  Since water, ores and other buried substances also affect the magnetic field, Harvalik suggests, dowsing has a physical explanation.

Still, Collier’s accounts of what a few of the “old-timers” could do tests open-minded credulity.  Collier said, “Some people could take a single stick and count the number of bobs the limb would make to the ground and, when it ceased bobbing up and down, they could tell you where to drill the well and how deep it was to water.”

— Pecos Enterprise, November 19, 1986


A Day at the Vera Lewis QH Breeding Farm in Donley County

   The top stallion on the farm now is Goldfingers, whose titles include AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976.  He has serviced 80 mares this year on the Lewis farm.

The top stallion on the Lewis farm in the mid-1970’s was Goldfingers, whose titles included AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976. He serviced 80 mares in 1977 on the Lewis farm.

© 2014 Photo and Article By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER: This article was published in the summer of 1977 in the Clarendon Press, a small weekly newspaper in Clarendon, Texas, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. That was my first news-reporting job, and it was brief because I was not really prepared adequately for the responsibility, minimal though it was. The periodical’s name was changed to The Clarendon Enterprise soon after I left because orders for books intended for the Clarendon Press (in England) too often were received there. The town of Clarendon was friendly and pretty, and the air was sweet, which makes me regret that I had not done a better job and stayed there. I am leaving the verb tense and other time-related elements as they were in the original article, because to change them would be too confusing. Just make believe you have just arrived in a time machine. — BL

“You better grab the twitch, Jimmy. She ain’t gonna like this,” said Burl Hollar, 32, as he plugged a shearing machine cord into an electrical outlet.

The sorrel yearling filly tossed her head nervously as 19-year-old Jimmy Stewart brought two small steel rods, connected together like a pair of pliers, up toward the yearling’s head.  He patted her nose briefly and then clamped the rods around her nostrils. Hollar stuffed a cotton tassel into her ear and started trimming the hair growth within the ear of the young horse.  After finishing both ears, Hollar trimmed and curried the mane.

“She’s never had this done to her before,” Hollar explained. “That’s why we had to use the twitch. After she gets used to the shears, we won’t need the twitch anymore. I put the pompon into her ear to prevent hairs from falling inside and starting an infection.”

When the haircut was completed, Stewart led the prancing yearling into a sandy pen within the breeding barn, tied her halter to the back wall and then turned a hose on her at slow speed. The filly obviously wasn’t used to water either.  She tensed her muscles, flared her nostrils, whinnied and stomped about as much as the short halter’s length would allow.  As her hide wetted, gleaming highlights gave depth to her musculature.  Her eyes were at their widest, and short wheezing noises came from her flaring nostrils.  All the vitality of Nature seemed concentrated in that one being.

“This is her first bath, too,” Hollar said. “We’re getting these yearlings ready for a sale in Ruidosa Downs this coming Labor Day.”

Burl Hollar is the stallion manager and resident trainer on Vera Lewis’s 160-acre horse breeding farm in Ashtola.  He’s the archetypal trainer: tall, lanky, affable and patient.  He wears high-topped boots with his jeans stuffed into them and a red baseball cap while working.

Hollar loves horses enough to take exception to any suggestion that horses are less intelligent than cows.  “I guess what they mean by that is that a cow wouldn’t damage itself like a horse will,” Hollar said. “A horse will run straight into a fence. “Still, you can’t train a cow to cut out calves — or colts. You can train a horse to do a lot of things, and then he’ll seem pretty intelligent to you. It’s all in the training.

“Of course, I’ll get mad at them, and then I’ll call them the dumbest creatures alive. But usually, when they do something that makes you mad it will all be because of something you did that was wrong in the first place.

“Horses have personalities just as people do. That’s why you can’t say it takes such-and-such a time to train a horse. They’re just like children. If they’ve been trained to do something and they don’t do it right and you spank them, they’ll know why you hit them. “But if they don’t know what they should have done and you spank them, then they won’t know what the spanking’s for.”

He held up his right forefinger, which was swollen.  “A mare kicked me there,” he said, “and I was mad, but later I realized that it was all due to something I had done wrong, not the horse.”

Besides being stallion manager and resident trainer, Burl Hollar also functions as medic.  He filled two hypodermic needles with a sulfa drug and gave one to his visitor to hold, saying with a grin, “If you stick around here long enough we’ll put you to work.” Then he walked over to a chute where a four-month-old colt stood with flies about its eyes and a thin line of foam along its lips.  Hollar injected the sulfa into the colt’s neck and rump and set it loose.

“Distemper in a colt is just like the cold or flu in a human baby,” Hollar said. “The sulfa will help him get through it.”

Stitched into the front of Burl Hollar’s cap was a patch with the words: You can believe in Sonoita Blue, AQHA Champion.  Sonoita Blue had served as a stud on the Lewis farm for four years before he died last year after eating a rare poison weed.  He was seven years old at his death.

The top stallion on the farm now is Goldfingers, whose titles include AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976.  He has serviced 80 mares this year on the Lewis farm.

“Mrs. Lewis keeps one to two stallions here,” said Bob Boston, general manager of the farm. “She has about thirty brood mares of her own, and about four years ago we started accepting mares from other places for breeding. We get mares from as far away as Maryland. Last year we had one from Florida.

“Most breeding takes place around the first of February because the gestation period is eleven months and all the registering of new colts is done in January,” Boston said. “But we get stragglers in until mid-July. Most people quit breeding their horses by the first of July.”

According to Burl Hollar, however, it “just ain’t natural” to breed horses in the late winter.  “The mares aren’t settled yet,” he said. “From April to July is when the mares are more settled.” Hollar said that determining when a mare is in heat is probably the hardest part of his job.  “Every once in a while you’ll get one in ‘silent heat’,” he said, “some are so quiet about it.. And some might stay in heat for as long as ninety days after they’ve been bred.”

“Ordinarily,” said Bob Boston, “it takes twenty days to breed a mare and another forty days to tell if she’s pregnant. We don’t like to keep them in these stables and corrals any longer than we have to because it wears a horse down to be out of pasture too long.” In one of the stables a yearling filly whinnied excitedly, bucked and rammed against the gate as she watched another yearling being led out of the stable yard by Jimmy Stewart.  Shortly, however, Stewart returned and took the excited filly out, too.

“Jimmy’s taking them to the hotwalker,” Hollar explained. Around one corner of the barn under some shade trees stood a large metal-and-rope contraption that resembled a merry-go-round.  In the center of the “merry-go-round” — or “hotwalker”, — as Hollar termed it, stood Stewart.  Around him trotted four yearlings.

“They use hotwalkers at race tracks to cool horses down after a race,” Hollar said. “Here we use it as an exerciser. That’s all that filly was making the ruckus about. She just had excess energy and wanted to get out and play.”

A young horse’s way of saying, “Let’s go out and play!” certainly differs from a pup’s scratching on the screen door.  And giving a filly a bath seems in no way to compare with dunking a kitten in the tub.  Yet it’s all a matter of magnitude.  A full grown stallion pawing at the ground and letting out a hearty whinny is a good antidote for a man who, used to manipulating pups and kittens, has come to assume he can easily master the entire animal kingdom.

— Clarendon Press, Summer 1977


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