If you’ve been on Facebook since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas over the past week, you might have seen the videos of cowboys like Cody Mizell, Ketch Weaver and Chance Ward swimming cattle across miles of flooded landscape to safety. We caught up with some of these cowboys—and team ropers—to find out how they managed these heroics in some of the most treacherous conditions in the history of the cowboy way of life.
Tell me about yourself.
Ketch Weaver: I’m from Buffalo, Texas. I’m 29 years old and I trick rope for a living. I do about 400 performances a year. I’m a PRCA pickup man. I carry a contract act card and a pickup man card. I trick-roped at the Patriot there in Fort Worth. I did four or five performances for them. I work at the Fort Worth Stockyards every weekend. I’ve trick roped there since I was 11 years old and we ranch for a living.
Cody Mizell: I’m from Buffalo. We’re two hours from where was flooded.
How did you get involved in helping with the livestock rescues?
KW: A friend of mine, Chance Ward, catches all the cattle for the county—he’s the livestock officer. He works for the sheriff’s department. He called and asked if we could help. I had to come home last night though—my horses were worn out. I went down there Tuesday night. First we went to Conroe and then we went to Cleveland and then Dayton. We worked from 7 a.m. until dark. It was 8 or 9 p.m. before I left there last night.
CM: A friend of ours called us—we have a bunch of what we call OK Corrals—a set of cattle pens on wheels—and we can hold about 200 in the big pen and a little set that will hold 100. We took a bunch of trailers down there over the weekend and we’ve been going nonstop.
How did you navigate the flooded terrain to find the cattle?
KW: All of the cattle we went after, we knew about where they would be. Chance—he’s the one who videoed all of that stuff—is from there. He could get us around and knew the back roads. A lot of places we had to walk the horses a long way in water. I carried my personal, portable corrals down there. Some of them we couldn’t pen—we had to rope them. Those cows, after they get tired they started floating. That’s the best thing you can do. I laid out probably 20 head with a rope. I don’t know how many total cattle we saved, but as many as we could.
CM: What we do is we have like a base. We go to that base every morning, meet up with Chance and leave from there. He has good contacts with all of the police department. They locate the cattle, and the landowners will call and tell them the cattle are trapped. Yesterday, we swam our horses down the middle of a road for a mile. We got around all of them and swam the cattle a mile back. We penned the majority of them and had to rope a handful at the end. It is a sight nobody can ever imagine. The pictures do nothing. I mean, when we got there yesterday morning, there was a set of Longhorns under a carport. You could just see the cattles’ heads. We took the gate off the hinges and rode in there horseback and got around them cattle and got them on the road. We swam for a mile. It’s crazy.
How many cowboys were in your group?
KW: There were 16 of us—16 cowboys. We had to get a head count because 15 years ago, a cowboy drowned doing the same thing.
CM: We all go to a cowboy church in Fairfield, and we took our preacher with us, too. His name is Jimmy Cotton. He went with us and it was dang sure good to have him with us.
Have you ever been involved in anything like this before?
KW: I’ve been involved in things like that before but those times I knew the cattle and knew the place—I was rescuing cattle for people I worked for. Nothing like we did yesterday.
CM: We’ve been in a flood before, in Brenham, but it was not as deep as what we were in yesterday. Our horses’ heads were all that were out of the water. It was just crazy. We’re just fortunate enough to be blessed with the horses we have. Not just any horse would go across what we’ve had. We put dogs’ lives in jeopardy. We have dogs we think a lot of, who help us make our living. It took all we had to load them dogs up the morning we left. To put them in water like that—it takes a special dog to do what they’re doing. They don’t have to swim like that. They’re used to keep the cattle together. They stay in front of them cows and bark at them and the cows follow them. We’re blessed enough to have animals like we have.
What horse did you ride?
KW: One of my pickup horses that I knew could swim good. I knew he wouldn’t get freaked out by water. I call him Mickey Mouse—he’s 13 years old. I’ve had him his whole life.
CM: I’ve got a horse I call Bay. I bought him three years ago at a horse sale and he’s just a ranch cutter is what he is, and he’s just—I pickup on him, my kids ride him, he’s not but a 6-year-old. He’s got a heart of gold. We were dragging them cattle out of there, a horse in neck-deep water still dragging them cows. There were horses there that wouldn’t do it.
Were the ranch owners there?
KW: Everybody but one owner was there when all of this happened. They were more than thankful. They wanted to pay us but I didn’t let them. I couldn’t take their money. I would hope if I were in that situation they would come help me.
CM: We talked to the owners that actually owned the cattle, and when we got there they were in a panic. Whenever we pulled up yesterday evening, the cattle owners were in tears. Before we walked in that water, we told them to just give us a minute and we promised we’d have the cattle out of there. When we pulled in at dark, we had those cattle out of there. There was one guy who said to take his cattle and take them to the sale barn and get rid of them and keep the money for doing what we did. We told him we weren’t doing it for the money. We’re doing it to help our country and our fellow friends. Everybody kept trying to do this and that for us, but we aren’t doing it for money. We didn’t come down there for money off of anybody. There was a church there in Cleveland that welcomed us in and fed us. They prayed over us and everything. It was real nice of them.
Was the water running, or were you in standing water most of the time?
KW: The water was pretty still. If you ever got off your horse and were standing there, you could feel the current underneath you. I was afoot several times. You could still get around on the roads we went down. We were driving through tire-deep water. They weren’t letting traffic in, but they knew what we were going to do so they let us through. It’s crazy down there. You just would have to see it for yourself. The last place we went yesterday, you could tell there was a road. But you were chest-deep on the horses. Once you got the cattle on the roads, you could get them where you wanted. We still had to lead a bunch out with a rope that were being wild.
You saved a lot of cattle, but did you see some loss of livestock, too?
KW: We saw a lot of loss. I couldn’t give you a number. I tried to be positive and count the ones that we saved, not the ones we lost.
Are there still people in your group out there rescuing livestock?
KW: Everyone else is still in the middle of it. I’d still be there—I just ran out of horses.
CM: I’m still down here–just taking a short break right now.
Is there anything that’s going to stay with you from the rescue?
KW: If it happened again, I’d go right back down there.
CM: I’ve thought about it all morning long, how bad it is down there. Nobody will ever understand how bad those people have it. It’s a sight I’ll always remember. I’ve never had to swim cattle like that, that far. Them cattle were wanting relief. We were calling those cattle and they were following us. It’s something I’ll tell you I hope I never have to do again, but we’ll do it again if we have to. It’s unreal down there.
It’s hard to leave your house knowing you’re going to do your best to stay safe. I’ve got a wife and three boys. What if something happens? My kids were rushing home from school before I left so they could see me before I left. My wife is a school teacher and my kids are in school. It’s a bad deal—it really is. I hope nobody ever has to go through this again. There’s lots of cattle that were lost. There weren’t enough of us to save all of them. You can’t really get organized. They were wanting to split us up the whole time, but we told them it was our group so if something happened, we were all together. The group we had is, in my mind, one of the best crews anybody could have. All of our guys are cowboys. You don’t find many true cowboys around. We all try to stick together. We all stayed together all the time and it worked out. I don’t know what the number was, but we figured the dollars we saved for people and it was unreal.