I don’t believe that anybody should work with horses unless they carry a sharp, easily accessible knife. Horsemen all over the world know this, although the kind of knife varies with the culture. The Argentine gaucho, for example, carries a non-folding knife in a sheath on his belt. In Australia, most commonly, stockmen carry a folding knife in a sheath attached to the belt that holds their pants up. The sheath is part of the belt and is attached horizontally, so the knife lies in the same direction as the belt, but is immediately available through the top of the sheath.

Both as a rider and a veterinarian, I always had a knife in my pocket. I preferred a knife that had, in addition to its cutting blade, a hoof pick. Only a couple of manufacturers made such a knife fifty years ago, but today more are available.

The hoof pick spared me countless trips from my patient to my vehicle in my practice. However, even for the occasional rider the hoof pick is valuable. Exploring and cleaning the bottom of the foot can prevent a lot of problems.

For over a century nearly all cowboys carried a folding pocketknife. They were called “Stockman’s Knives” and usually had three blades.

The stockman’s knife is still popular today, but changing times and technology have gradually replaced them. Ropes today are often made of nylon or polypropylene, which is very hard to cut with an ordinary blade. So, the serrated blade, or a partially serrated blade has become popular.

Rodeo calf ropers today, their lariats tied hard and fast to the saddle horn, mostly prefer a knife with a clip, rather than a sheath, or simply keeping it in the pants pocket. The knife with a clip goes in a pocket, but protrudes enough so that it is immediately available in case of a rope related mishap.

Back in my school days, I spent one summer packing for the U.S. Forest Service. Riding my lead horse with three pack horses behind me, on a very steep trail, the ground gave way and all three of the pack horses went tumbling and sliding down a mountainside. When they came to a stop they were terrible entangled in their lead ropes. I dismounted, went down the slope, and was able to quickly cut the rope. The horses were banged up, but there were no fractures and I was able to work them back up to the trail, and continue on their way. At the time of this incident I carried a three-bladed stockman’s pocketknife.

Cowboying one summer in Arizona, I foolishly caught a green horse with my lariat tied hard and fast. My target whirled; the rope went under his tail. He exploded and I was suddenly in a real mess. The rope wrapped around my wrist, but I was able to reach my pocketknife, open it (this took two hands) and cut the rope before any of the three of us were damaged.

As a veterinarian, I was on a ranch call. I was working on a foot when I heard a racket nearby. A stallion in a horse trailer had gone down. The horse was struggling violently. I ran over to help him, but I couldn’t reach the lead rope. I had no choice but to cut the nylon halter. By this time I carried a knife with a serrated blade. The halter was jammed tight against his head and I had no choice but to slice down on it.   I realized that this would lacerate the back of the neck, behind his ears, but I could sew that up.

As I sawed at the halter it tore when I had cut part way through it. So, the horse was spared the anticipated laceration and we got him out of the trailer with relatively minor injuries.

I relate these incidents to show how vital it is to always have a sharp and easily available pocketknife on your person whenever you work around horses.

The knife is not just to cut the twine on hay bales, or to slice meat, or to whittle when you’re bored. It can save lives.