In the July 2012 issue, we gave you an update on Jacks Vaquero, aka "Cowboy." The senior gelding is now teaching 4-year-old TJ Hammond of Idaho to ride. We first introduced our readers to Cowboy in the April 2006 issue. Review that article below.
A tiny girl sits atop a nondescript brown gelding. They're waiting to compete in a barrel-racing class for riders 5 and under at the Washington State Junior Rodeo Finals in October of 2005. The girl's tawny hair is tucked neatly under a straw hat; her babyish face is doll-like. Her legs reach only halfway down the horse's sides.
The gelding begins to prance slightly, his neck bowed obediently to his rider's hand. The girl's mother leads the pair down the alleyway and turns them loose in the arena, then stands aside, holding her breath.
The girl leans forward and the gelding sprints toward the first barrel. As he nears it, the girl sinks into the saddle and the horse wraps himself around the metal can, digging in with his hindquarters and bending through his middle. He finishes the turn and springs toward the second barrel.
"This isn't the first time this horse has done this," drawls the announcer. Just short of the second barrel, the gelding switches leads, and again the girl sinks into the saddle. The pair spin around the second can, perfectly synchronized, and leap toward the third. One more tight, neat turn, and they're headed for home. The girl stands in her stirrups and shoots her rein hand forward, urging her gelding on with everything she's got. The horse responds with a surge, tripping the electric eye at a full gallop.
Their time makes them the only pair in their age group to break the "teens"; they win first place. The girl smiles happily and claps her horse's neck.
The mother smiles too, blinking back tears. Twenty years ago, she was the little brown-haired girl on this same gelding, racing around barrels, winning prizes. To see her daughter now, running and winning on this cherished, aged horse, brings the most exquisite flush of emotions.
But—we're getting ahead of the story. It begins two decades earlier, in Lewiston, Idaho. It's the tale of Jacks Vaquero, also known as Cowboy, the plain little Quarter Horse with the great big heart.
It was July 2, 1981. Jami Yochum (the mother in our opening vignette) was only 4 years old, but she remembers the day vividly. It's when her parents, Johnny and Debbie Rynearson, took her out to the pasture to see a little brown colt, just 1 hour old. A colt intended to be Jami's own someday.
The Rynearsons and their two daughters lived on five acres in a rural part of Lewiston. At the time they had 18 horses, some on their own property and others boarded in nearby pastures. This newest foal carried the blood of several American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame luminaries, including Poco Bueno and Two Eyed Jack (see "Cowboy At A Glance," page 2). "We were firm believers in Two Eyed Jack horses," Debbie recalls. "You could do everything with them."
Though bred for success, the colt perhaps didn't appear so at the time. "I remember thinking he looked a little like a mule," says Jami. "He had that typical light ‘muley mouth' that true brown horses do, and big ears. But he was cute and well muscled, and also friendly, curious, and unafraid. I got to pet him, and he didn't act bratty and try to bite like some of the other babies I'd been around."
The foal, registered as Jacks Vaquero, came to be known simply as Cowboy (English for vaquero). At the time of his birth, Jami was already becoming a skilled rider on her talented Shetland Pony. Over the next four years, the 10-hand-tall Candy would carry her as Jami learned to love a variety of events, including barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, and goat tying.
Cowboy, meanwhile, was growing and impressing everyone with his levelheadedness. "I remember clipping his ears when he was a weanling," Debbie recalls. "I used big clippers—they were awfully loud—but he didn't even move. If I hadn't already known it, that alone would have told me he was special."
In the winter of Cowboy's 2-year-old year, Jami's father started him under saddle. An experienced horseman who helped his neighbors with their young stock, Johnny found the newly gelded horse to be calm and willing from day one.
"He's the kind of horse you could ask to climb a tree, and he'd say, ‘Which one?'" says Debbie. "I remember riding him across neighbors' land to cutting clinics on cold, snowy days in the winter of his 3-year-old year, and he was great. He wasn't all that interested in cattle or the cutting machine, but he walked out smartly to get there and let us expose him to a bunch of different things."
By the time Cowboy was 4 and Jami was 8, the Rynearsons felt the two were ready for each other. Jami started riding the 14.1-hand gelding under her parents' supervision, while continuing to show her Shetland. Then, one day in 1985, things changed forever.
"A local barrel-racing club my mom had founded was having its finals competition," Jami recalls. "I ran Candy in the first run of my age group, then tried Cowboy in the second. He was so much faster, so much more powerful! It gave me an adrenaline rush. I had complete confidence in him, though, so it wasn't scary,just incredibly fun."After that,the pony was retired, and Cowboy became Jami's steady partner.
"He was and is a quick learner," Jami says. "In addition to barrel racing and other rodeo events, I did everything with him—trail riding, 4-H fitting and showing, Western pleasure, showmanship, trail. He excelled at it all." A clever horse, Cowboy also excelled at untying himself. "He's a regular Houdini," says Jami. And though a kind, quiet eye is one of the gelding's best traits, he's not a lapdog sort of horse. "I wouldn't say he's standoffish, but he's not at all cuddly," Jami explains. "He definitely doesn't like being petted around the head." Other quirks include a loathing of llamas ("something about the smell," Jami thinks) and a passion for Twizzlers red licorice ("he can eat a whole bag").
His most distinguishing eccentricity, however, is something his family calls "the Cowboy shuffle." It's the little strut he does just before and after he makes a run.
"He doesn't get hard to handle; he just takes these short little steps and is very perked up," notes Jami. "It's how we know he's going to win."