Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Pablo ‘El Prieto’ Vaquero

Cowboy and Indian Days 2013 (Casa Grande, AZ) recently honored one of Arizona’s great working ranch cowboys, Pablo Osuna. He is legendary among old-timers. Known as one of the best ropers, cowboys, and horsemen in the last half of the twentieth century, you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that would do a better job recounting the life of a “true cowboy” than if one could be done on Pablo Osuna.

Pablo was born on September 16, 1917, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora in an area known as La Temporal or “The Temporary.” Basically, when it rained a lot, crops were planted, livestock grazed, and things were good. When it didn’t rain however, folks barely got by – a tough life.

Pablo’s parents knew early on he was destined to be a cowboy. For example, after being shown the basics of braiding, his mother thereafter had to hide towels, linens, and such from young Pablo. Whenever he got ahold of these things, he would take them apart and then braid tack out of them!

His first cowboy experience came when he went to work with his father at Rancho El Alamo (Cottonwood Ranch) near Magdalena, Mexico, as a mere boy. In addition to his cowboy chores the youngster attended school there.

A Harvard man – turned cowboy – had built Rancho El Alamo many years prior. Its headquarters resembled an ancient English castle. A photograph, taken when Pablo was about fourteen, later appeared in National Geographic Magazine, February, 1955. In the photo, Pablo and other cowboys pose with the famous “Alamo castle” in the background.

Pablo struck out on his own when he was about fifteen. Within a year, he went to work at the well-known Rancho La Cananea, outside of Cananea, Mexico. Rancho La Cananea had mining operations in northern Mexico and ranching operations in southern Arizona and Mexico. It was reported the ranch in Mexico covered 667,000 acres and ran as many as 24,000 head of Hereford cattle.

In 1934, an event happened that changed Pablo’s life. At the urging of friends, he went to talk to an American rancher named Bud Parker about a job. Bud had just leased Rancho Pozo Nuevo (New Well Ranch) near Magdalena, Mexico. After going to work there, Parker became a mentor to young Pablo. He eventually considered him sort of like a second father.

Soon after, Parker brought Osuna over to Arizona to work on a ranch north of Benson. Bud had come to appreciate the roping skills of his hired man so much that he also entered Pablo in his first rodeo. He won the event! Bud wound up entering Pablo in numerous rodeos around the state after that and both men supplemented their incomes from it.

A couple of notable professional cowboys from the era once commented to the author, “We’re sure glad Pablo never ventured out of Arizona much, because if he had, winning would have been a whole lot harder on the rodeo trail.”

Another thing Bud did for Pablo was to help him get his “papers” straight, so he could become a citizen of the United States. Pablo worked for Bud until his death – a total of about sixteen years. Bud Parker gained the respect and admiration of the teenager and still lives on today in the heart of a man – approaching ninety-six.

After Bud’s death, Pablo worked on many well-known Arizona ranches. During those years, he continued supplementing his income through roping. He competed at many major jackpots and rodeos in Arizona, such as the Fiesta De Los Vaqueros in Tucson and the Jaycees Rodeo in Phoenix. At this time he gained a reputation as one of Arizona’s best ropers. Luckily for Pablo, he could make extra money with his rope because he had a growing family as well. He married the love of his life, Maria Valenzuela, in 1946. The happy couple then had ten kids over the next couple decades.

In 1960, Pablo tried a new venture in hopes of bettering his life and that of his family. Back then, it was not legal for Americans to own property in Mexico. However, there was an American in Tucson who wanted a ranch in Mexico as an investment. The man spoke to Pablo about it, and the two formed a partnership. The ranch would be in Pablo’s name, and Pablo would run it. This fellow put up the money and they were full partners.

Pablo and family ranched in Mexico for about six years. They loved it there, but things did not work out financially as expected. A friend of Pablo’s from Casa Grande, Arizona got a hold of him one day, urging him to come help on his ranch. Pablo came for the roundup – then wound up staying. He sent the family a letter telling them he wasn’t going to go back to Mexico. As soon as things were “tended to” down there the family would return to Arizona. They were enjoying Mexico, but finances were better on this side of the line.

Shortly after returning to the United States, Pablo began working for a local feedlot. Then another feedlot in California offered him more money. The Osunas moved there, but were soon homesick for Arizona.

On a day off, while visiting a friend at a feed yard near Maricopa, Arizona, the cowboy boss there drove by and saw Pablo. Once spotted, he was offered a job immediately. It didn’t take much urging for Pablo to accept, and soon the family relocated to Maricopa – much to their delight. He spent the next twenty years working for Producers and Pinal feed yards of Maricopa – until his retirement at age seventy in 1987.

After retirement, he couldn’t stay put. He then “day worked” for ranches and did odd jobs related to horses for the next several years. It was only as he approached ninety that he finally quit working so hard.

Local cowboys often comment, “Pablo is a great horseman.”

He has trained countless horses while going about his cowboy duties. It has been said he has a special connection with them. Many an Arizona cowboy have owned a Pablo Osuna trained horse. Whether they used them in the arena or in the open country, they could always count on the horse having a good foundation from its trainer.

A local veterinarian even calls him “El Brujo” (loosely translated “The Wizard” or the “The Witch Doctor”). This is done good-naturedly and refers to the fact Pablo is well versed in the making of liniments, salves, and such which people have used for centuries to cure what ails livestock.

Life has slowed down a bit for Pablo now that he is over 95. With a faraway gleam in his eyes, he tells stories of chasing wild cows on half-broke horses in even wilder country. As he describes the men with whom he worked, the horse he was riding, the country, the situation, it’s almost as if you were there, dodging mesquite, jumping boulders, crashing brush – until you line out on a wild maverick.

He has lived a way of life that many only read about. Over the years, he became known as a “Top Hand.” However, he lives today just as he has lived his entire life; humble and down-to-earth.

“Do the very best that you can.”

“Work honorably.”

“You are no better than anyone else, and no one else is any better than you.” Advice Pablo believes in and lives by.

It is a fitting tribute to a great Vaquero that Pablo Osuna be honored by the 2013 Cowboy and Indian days celebration.