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Lost Skills of Livestock Doctoring
Professional veterinarians were few and far between in the open country of the frontier, and those who inhabited it were often left to their own ingenuity when it came to doctoring their livestock. Here are some common cures and home remedies used by the cowboys and cattlemen of the Old West*.
In a pinch, a potion of black coffee, whiskey, and linseed oil could help a colicky horse. The black coffee acted as a mild laxative, the whiskey reduced muscle tension, and the linseed oil lubricated the digestive track so blockages could more easily pass.
From sores and scratches to proud flesh and lameness, cowboys—then as now—had to deal with the minor injures that seem to plague livestock. The more popular cures included:
· For cuts, bacon grease, pine tar, or tallow would be applied to keep away flies and encourage healing.
· Mud was used on insect and snake bites to draw out poison and infection.
· Cactus leaves—split in half and with the thorns removed—were bound to wounds; their healing properties were similar to those of aloe vera.
· Powdered lime and meat tenderizer could be used to treat proud flesh.
· A poultice of sauerkraut was thought to cure mud fever.
When hooves were looking poor, a tonic of pine tar, lanolin, and turpentine could be liberally applied to toughen up soles, encourage new growth, and keep them from splitting or chipping.
Pinkeye in cattle was painful and contagious. One popular remedy was to apply condensed milk directly into the affected eye; the milk both soothed the inflammation and flushed the eye.
If a horse was choking, pouring water into his ear would cause him to shake his head so violently that that blockage would dislodge. Jumping the horse off a high place or over a wagon tongue was also thought to help.
A little bit of snuff mixed in with a normal ration of grain was thought to control parasites in livestock. To rid a horse, cow, or hog of worms, an ounce or so of chewing tobacco mixed with a scoop or grain was fed to the animal, and within an hour, they would pass the worms. Pouring kerosene or motor oil on the waste killed any surviving adult worms and eggs.
One of the most grievous cowboy faux pas you can commit is placing your cowboy hat on a bed. At best, putting a hat on a bed is said to invite mischievous bad luck or foretell an argument; at worst, it’s a premonition of injury or death. This superstition has practical roots; back when bathing was a monthly affair, head lice were a common affliction, and placing a hat on a bed was a good way to spread the itchy nuisances. Bad luck, indeed. Placing a hat brimside-down on any surface is also considered inauspicious, as all the good luck will run out of the crown (it also ruins the shape of your hat!).
Don’t tempt fate by ignoring these rodeo superstitions: if you compete with change in your pocket, it might be all you win; shaving before a performance is fortuitous—if you clean up for Lady Luck, she’ll favor you; make sure you don’t eat chicken before an event, since you are what you eat; and never wear yellow in the arena—it’s just plain bad luck.
In some regions, it’s believed that gifting someone a knife is ominous, that such an act will “sever” the relationship between the gift giver and recipient. To negate misfortune, the receiver should “pay” for the knife; a penny will suffice. It’s also considered unlucky to hand someone an open folding knife, and whoever opens a knife is responsible for closing it—these superstitions likely stem from safety practices.
Horseshoes have long been considered lucky charms—but why? In Celtic Britain, iron—what horseshoes were traditionally made of—was said to repel evil spirits. The proper way to hang a horseshoe is heels up, so that the shoe collects good luck. If the heels point down, all the good luck will run out. A horseshoe from the hind of a gray mare is particularly lucky.
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