What are the biggest changes you've seen in the West over the years?
There's been change all the way, and I've seen it all. When I was a just a kid in South Dakota, a man named Gus Hauser, a friend of my dad's, used to give me a nickel to go buy some soda. Gus worked as a scout for General Crook, was a friend of [Sioux chief] Red Cloud, and saw the Battle of Wounded Knee. Later on, he had a contract to supply beef for the Indians at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He even rode broncs with Buffalo Bill.
You must not have been very old. Did men like Gus impact your career path?
I was about 5 or 6. Gus wore tall, high-heeled boots with a big ‘H' sewn on to the front of each boot. I'd never seen anything so neat. I decided then and there—no other endeavor interested me other than being a cowboy… I was riding by the time I was 3 and had a Shetland pony named Peggy that I rode to school until I was 7. But I absolutely could not wait to get on big horses. And once I did, there was no looking back.
Riding a pony to school? The Country must have been different then.
A lot of things were different. Kids were different. When I was 9 I snuck out of the house before daylight to go chase wild horses with another kid who'd told me that all the good cowboys were rounding up mustangs and that we should go watch. Mom told me there was no way I was riding 25 miles to go fool with wild horses, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was better than any rodeo.
Were those the last days of the wide-open Old West?
That's right. Things changed not too long after that. And I think they got a little better. Cowboys started riding better horses; taking some pride in their horsemanship. Rodeos started in the 1920s with guys like Bob Crosby. That was probably about the start of what you'd call the modern cowboy.
Those guys weren't riding quarter horses were they?
Quarter Horses didn't come around until the '40s and '50s. I remember being at a rodeo in Iowa in the 1930s when the announcer was talking about these horses that were faster than any other horse over a quarter mile, and they were called Quarter Horses. Pretty soon you started seeing them around. We knew that they could work a cow and were fast, but it wasn't until 1945 that they caught on. That's when a man named Raymond Wood from Wichita Falls, Texas, took a horse to the Fort Worth Stock Show called Buckskin Joe. Buckskin Joe was named Grand Champion Quarter Horse, and a guy from Sheridan, Wyo., gave $25,000 for him. That was a lot of money in those days. Hell, a dollar a pound was a tremendous price for a horse. So when Buckskin Joe went for 25 grand it made headlines. I think that was the catalyst for the Quarter Horse industry.
When did you start riding quarter horses?
Well, the war [WWII] ended just about the same time, and I got out of the Army. Soon as I could, I bought some Texas clothes, custom boots, and a Stetson hat, and I made it up to the Goodrich Ranch in Lampasas. Didn't even tell my parents I was out. The ranch had a good bunch of Quarter Horse mares, and I probably learned more about horses during my stay there than any other time of my life. Pretty soon, I had to go back to Iowa to take over the family farm. I hated to leave Texas, but I knew I'd be back before long.
It took 30 years, right? Did you come back for the Quarter horses?
I'd had jobs in Wisconsin and Minnesota training horses, and I'd done some judging. You know, I've judged every major show in America at least twice. But I knew that Texas had the best horses. So I moved to Gainesville in 1976.
Tell me about your work on the smooth lead change.
I'd ridden quite a lot with Monty Foreman in Minnesota, and he did me a world of good on lead changes. But when I got to Texas I was surrounded by the best trainers in the business. Horsemanship was changing during that time [the 1970s]. That's when Tom Dorrance started getting some attention and we started looking at quieter, less-forceful ways to train horses. Today's round-pen experts can get more done with a horse in three hours than the old cowboys could get done in three months. Used to be, all the horses bucked, and none of the cowboys knew any better.
Do horses have a better deal today than they did 100 years ago?
They do. In Europe in the late 1800s, there were guys who could canter a horse backward. In the West at that time, Civil War vets were taking cattle up the trail and had no clue about horsemanship. That wasn't all that long ago, either. In fact, the working cowboy was a flash in the pan, as far as history is concerned.
Sure, but cowboys will always gather cattle horseback in rough country.
True. But there are a lot more motorcycles and four-wheelers out there today than there are remudas of working ranch horses. Most of today's cowboys, like the rodeo cowboys, are arena athletes. They don't need to know what the old-range cowboy needed to know. They'd have a hard time picking out a springing heifer in a herd of 500, have a hard time mothering up 500 calves to their cows after driving them a hundred miles.
What's the future of cowboys and horsemanship in this country?
I'll leave that up to conjecture. Things have changed, and, generally, we're better for it. Hell, I'm doing things with my horses now that I never dreamed of as a young man. I got these colts doing the piaffe, some of them are changing leads every other stride. Got the best program going now that I've ever had. It's been lots of fun, too.