Last March, Ronnie Gene Crowder had his right thumb yanked off but for a sinew.
“It was the last steer I was gonna rope of the day,” the 65-year-old retired ferrier says, shaking his head. It’s always the last one, isn’t it?
Crowder, who grew up herding cattle from the Kern River Valley into surrounding Sierra high country, has been dally roping since he was 10 or 11 years old.
Team roping or dally roping, also known as heading and heeling, is a rodeo event rooted in the everyday work of range cowboys and cowgirls, who often have to catch cattle in order to treat their bovine injuries, to brand, or to re-brand them. In an arena setting, a 450- to 500-pound steer rampages from the chute when the cowboy on the left of the steer, or the “header,” nods his head. Any premature breaking of the barrier by the header requires a 10 second penalty assessed against the team. The “heeler,” the cowboy on the right — or in this case, Ronnie Crowder — is a hand back of his partner. Once the header has roped the steer around both horns, around half of the head, or around the neck, he “dallies” (wraps) his rope around the saddle horn and turns his horse to the left, also turning the steer so that it is in position for Crowder, the heeler, to rope the two hind legs and to dally his rope. Both horses must then be turned so that they face each other to “shape the steer.”
Dally roping originated in the grassy, oak-tended valleys of California. The word “dally” derives from the Spanish da la vuelta , meaning to take a turn, as with a rope around the saddle horn. Sometimes when dallying, a roper will catch a finger between the rope and saddle horn. And sometimes that roper will lose a finger. Or, as in Crowder’s case, he’ll come a horse hair away from losing a thumb.
“If you rope long enough, things are going to happen,” says Crowder.
And a year ago, things did happen.
On that March 4, 2007, after the last steer he was going to rope of the day, he looked down at his right hand and thought, “This hurts.” As usual, Crowder had wrapped pieces of inner tube around his saddle horn. So it was not unusual for his gloves to pick up black marks. This time, however, the right glove had a “burned black deal on it with a big dip in it.” When he could finally see through the black hole that was his glove, he realized his thumb was hanging on by a sliver of meat near the plump part of the palm. Luckily, the mostly severed digit had stayed in the glove.
It would be six hours before the wound got cleaned and had shots for pain. At Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, Crowder sat in the ER for 24 hours “next to a prisoner on a slab bed with stents in his heart.” It was a weekend.
But the surgeon who finally helped Crowder specialized in hands and thumbs. “He did a great job.”
For nine weeks afterward, Crowder wore a rod stuck into his thumb from the tip to the second joint. Then he did two weeks of what was supposed to be six weeks of therapy.
Today you can’t tell the difference between his right thumb and his left. The hands of a retired horseshoer bear constellations of scars from nails that nick them while shoeing horses.
“It didn’t hurt that bad,” the veteran dally-roper insists. “It’s the thought of it more than anything else (that’s disturbing). There’s a lot of guys in that game that cut their thumbs off.”