Feb 16, 2021

I Ride With the Bison of Antelope Island


Chad Bywater

It’s not an easy ride.

Bison are wild. They can go wherever they want, when they want. Some years they’ve moved up to thirty miles per hour. It just depends what the pressure is and what the herd is doing. You get to see this majestic animal moving that fast and you can hear the thunder of their hoofs hitting the ground. You feel it. You’re right there with them. There are a lot of hills, washes, and really rocky terrain. By the end of the day both rider and animal are usually pretty tired.  

You can expect dust. You will hear horses whinnying, bison talking to each other throughout with growls and grunts, cowboys doing their calls and yelling and whistling. The island is fourteen miles long north to south, and we have to push the bison from the south side of the island all the way to the north side where our holding facilities are for the health check. Bison are not like cattle and they don’t move like cattle. You gotta be careful. You always gotta keep your eye on ‘em and during the push, they tend to get a little upset with ya and they try to break the herd. It takes every bit of our help to keep ‘em in line.

I maintain the buildings on Antelope Island and reconstruct them as needed. The day of the roundup, I am a team leader and I manage twenty riders: our job is to keep the bison moving. I feel a connection with them. When you’re working with these animals, you really start to care how the herd develops. You want these animals to thrive and you develop a care. It’s like your own child. Believe it or not, we started out with twelve or thirteen bison and it’s progressed from then on. Nowadays, we have around six hundred or more animals to move in one day. I feel a responsibility to watch over ‘em. To have our herds coming back now, maybe not in as magnificent of number as there once were, but to have private herds and ones managed by parks, like us, is really something. We’re trying to preserve some of the history.

I wanted to be a cowboy.

Not a lot of people get to ride somewhere that is prairie and primitive and Western and plains. I wanted to feel the Old West, to be on my horse, and to wear the gear. When I first got out here, we had a push, and I remember being called out. They asked me what my name was and if I wanted to do a job. I said “absolutely.” I spent nine hours on my horse that day pushing bison in and out of canyons that I would’ve never dreamed of being in unless I done it. After that year of going in and out and up and down and pushing these magnificent animals across the prairie, over the mountains, and into the corral system, by the time I was done riding, I thought to myself: “this is amazing. I actually got to do something that was done by the Indians of the old and by cowboys.”

During the ride, as long as you put pressure on their rear at an angle and in their line of sight, they will move. All you have to do is make a presence. We try to do it easily and as patiently as possible. Once in a while you get a few of the animals that get a mind of their own, and then we’ll put pressure on that particular animal to get back in the herd. You can’t run them like you run cattle. If you come up behind them hard and fast, it alerts them and then they turn on you. They’ll fight instead of moving away, which could potentially injure yourself or the horse. You have to come at ‘em at an angle so they can see you. With cows, you can probably walk right through the middle of ‘em. Our left flank and our right flank need to communicate — you have to know which line to push, which line to hold. Just so we don’t get the herd in a zig zag, which gives a mixed communication to the animals. We try to keep ‘em straight. We don’t necessarily want to go North-North-East or North-North-West.

Years back, they did it with trucks and helicopters, but that incited stress in the animals, so over time the process has changed. We use the horses because it’s less stressful on the animals. We’re not pushing them nearly as hard. It’s not equipment, it’s not buzzing, it’s not loud. When you have a stressed out animal, it makes ‘em harder to work for the health check. They’re not pressured all year long until we have to do the checks, which is part of range management. The park sells different numbers of bison each year depending on what the island can handle.

It’s like a big reunion.

There’s a lot of camaraderie between all the riders, and the three different posses or teams that we use. We get to know each other throughout the years — the people here are like family. We have experienced riders, intermediate riders, and greenhorn riders. If you’re not conditioned for the ride, you will not get out of the saddle walking. It’s just like preparing for a marathon, so it’s important to put in the time in the saddle. Growing up, my neighbors had horses and my uncle had horses. Horses were stabled just below my house and I used to ride ‘em bareback. I rode as often as I could and got more and more familiar with them. I’ve got a horse that I use for the roundup that’s a little bit quicker minded and I have one that’s more of a mountain horse that’s built to climb the hills. One is Rose and the other is named Shorty.

It’s best to be prepared, and know your horse. How you’re going to react. It’s really a self discovery because you need to know what you’re capable of. You need to know how horses react, too. If you’re in the saddle and you’re nervous, a horse will know that you’re nervous. Believe me, if a horse can feel a fly land on its side in a fifteen mile an hour wind and you’re in the saddle, all tight, he knows the difference. Our major hard push is after going nine or so miles. It’s pretty steep, it’s rocky, and they call it Heartbreak Hill because that’s where you’ll find out what the horse has and what the rider has. By the end, you’ve made the outcome your own. You’ve earned your spot for the day.

As told to Jason Schwartzman, True Senior Editor

Chad Bywater

Roundup Rider
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