THE OLD HANDS, by Vess Quinlan

vessquinlanphoto by P’let Tcherkassky


by Vess Quinlan

It’s good to set and listen
to their talk of long ago,
these men with skin like leather
and hair as white as snow,

to hear how the world was run
a little different then,
produced a tougher breed of cattle
and a rougher sort of men.

The cows were lean and ringy
and working ’em was hard;
you could melt a hundred head
and not get a pound of lard.

There were damn few gentle horses
like we’re used to now;
it don’t take much to figger horses
had to match with man and cow.

A horse was five or six years old
before they’d run him in;
the idea of starting colts
was considered wrong back then.

Their days were long and lonesome
and the camps were far away;
they got to town about once a month
to spend the hard earned pay.

But the thing you hear most often
is the whole damn deal was fun,
in spite of winter’s biting cold
and summer’s scorching sun,

In spite of rank and spoiled horses,
or maybe ’cause of them.
You wonder if you’d have made a hand
had you lived back then.

You say you wish the old days
would come rolling back around
to see who could stay the camp
and who’d go back to town.

A grey head shakes, “No son,” he says,
“Not that, leastways not to the letter.
We done some things the way we did
’cause we just didn’t know no better.”

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Colorado rancher, writer, storyteller, and poet Vess Quinlan has been described, “Vess Quinlan is an American Cowboy Poet, who is widely considered to be one of the most respected poets of his genre.” There is no argument with that.

Find more poetry by Vess Quinlan in our feature here.

In July 2019, Andy Hedges’ Cowboy Crossroads podcast aired an outstanding interview with Vess Quinlan. It is filled with thoughtful insights about work, cowboys, poetry, and people in general. You’ll hear about his family’s and his own history and learn something about his perseverance and the wisdom he’s gathered. Listen to the episode here.

Find Vess Quinlan’s recitation of his poem, “The Barn Cats” and find more video at the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel. Vess Quinlan has been a part of all but two of the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings.

The above photo of Vess Quinlan is by artist and friend-to-many Californian P’let Tcherkassky, taken at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. Find more about her at


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