By Don Hedgpeth
The next day I caught up with him to ride, and he showed me a thing or two. He started to buck, and first my six-shooter went, then my Winchester went, then I went, and he finished up by bucking the saddle over his head. After that I would not have taken a million dollars for him.
Billy was the name of that little bay horse and Teddy Blue had him for twenty-six years. Cowboys say that is a fortunate man who gets to have one or two top horses during his lifetime. They also say that a man is known by the kind of horses he rides and how he rides them. Everything that has to do with cowboys also has to do with horses. Cows are just something that gives him a good reason to ride. The cowboy doesn't commune with the cows; it is the horse that has a hold on his heart.
A little bit of horse history...the archeological evidence (which I have not examined for myself) suggests that some sort of small horse was indigenous to North America.
According to the paleontologists, after having been hunted and eaten by Stone Age Indians for eons, the little horses began to disappear over a period of 7,000 years and were all gone by about 15,000 years ago. I am not prepared at this time to contradict these academic estimations.
I do take if for true that normal-sized horses were brought to the New World, along with cattle, by the Spanish, beginning with Columbus on his second trans-Atlantic trip in 1493 and by Cortez in 1519. I also believe that the techniques associated with handling cattle by men on horseback were developed in the Mexican interior and disseminated along with horses and cattle throughout what is now the American Southwest.
The Spanish horse was called the Barb. This was the kind of horse the Moors were riding when they invaded the Spanish mainland in 710. Lost, strayed and stolen Spanish horses were acquired by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico early in the Seventeenth Century. The buffalo hunting tribes of the southern plains traded with the Pueblo tribes for horses and then passed them along in trade with other tribes farther north. Within two hundred years, all the Plains Indians had horses.
Spanish horses were also the foundation stock of the herds of feral horses that ran free throughout the West by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The wild horses were called mustangs, and although they were descended from Barb bloodlines, their physical appearance had been altered to some extent by the evolutionary influence of the prairie environment.
The Spanish also left some horses behind after their early explorations in and around Florida (1539-1543). Those horses and their progeny were acquired by southeastern Indian tribes, principally the Chickasaw. Colonists in Virginia and the Carolinas cross-bred their heavier type English horses with the lighter and quicker Chickasaw ponies to produce a better kind of hybrid horse. In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, English Thoroughbreds were introduced in the American colonies and also became part of the equine genetic mixture.
Sam Houston brought the studhorse Copper Bottom to Texas in 1839. Copper Bottom's sire was the Thoroughbred stallion Sir Archy, whose bloodline would also produce the legendary Texas horses Steel Dust and Shiloh. Steel Dust, Shiloh and Old Billy, who was by Steel Dust and out of an own daughter of Shiloh, became the primogenitors of the western stockhorse by the beginning of the trail driving era. They were simply called Steeldusts and Billy horses back then, but would come to be called Quarter Horses for their quick start and speed over a quarter of a mile racecourse.
William Anson, who bred and raised ranch horses around San Angelo in the early days, said of them:
Owing to the absence of a studbook, these horses have undoubtably been bred more for type and performance than for strict blood lines and pedigrees. Comparatively few can lay claim to pure lineage, but in spite of this, type is very firmly established and with whatever breed he is mated, the Quarter Horse transmits certain unmistakable characteristics to his offspring.
This horse, the cowboy's kind, was the hybrid mixture of Spanish Barb, mutated mustang, the common English heavy horse, and the Thoroughbred. It was a horse ideally equipped for the West, with a reputation for speed, agility, stamina, intelligence, a willing temperament and the ability to fend for itself and survive in any sort of surroundings. The true measure of both men and horses in the West was not about who you were, or where you came from, but what you could do. The cowboy and his kind of horse could do it all.
The horses tended to be of a larger size on the northern plains than they were in Texas and the rest of the Southwest. This was due to outcrosses with the bigger breeds that were used as wagon teams on the Oregon Trail and to pull the pioneer's plow. In Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest, the Thoroughbred influence was more evident, and when crossed with the Barb blood of the mustang, a better combination for cow work was produced.
The commingling of bloodlines results in a biological phenomenon known as heterosis, in which the offspring display a trait called hybrid vigor. This trait produces qualities in the offspring greater than those in either of the parents. The vigor aspect of hybrid vigor in cowhorses is best exemplified on cold mornings in a cow camp when a cowboy confronts the challenge of climbing aboard a horse that has its ears laid back and is bound to buck. The rest of the world calls a bucking horse a bronco; the cowboys call them broncs. Some buck out of fear, but a bunch of them buck just because they can and because it feels good.
Some cowboys seem to have been born to ride bucking horses. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them. I have been bucked off more times that I care to remember. But those memories fade with time...and they pale in comparison to the pure exuberance I felt when I was able to stay in the saddle until some horse had worked the kinks out and decided to settle down.
Bronc riders have a bravado about them that sets them apart from most other ordinary cowboys, like that bronc stomper in the old song about the Strawberry Roan:
He says this old pony has never been rode
And that man that gets on him is sure to get throwed.
I gets all excited and I ask what he pays
To ride this old pony for a couple of days.
He says 'ten dollars.' I says I'm your man,
The bronc never lived that I cannot fan.
The bronc never tried nor never drew breath
That I cannot ride 'til he starves plumb to death.
Jim McCauley was one of the others, like me, who never knew the secrets of successful bronc riding. In his vinegary little book, A Stove-up Cowboy's Story, McCauley recalls:
I wish I had never saw a horse.
Probialy (sp) I would not have to been
Cut on and suffered so much. Too many
Bad horses has been the cause of most
Of my troubles.
The cowboy's kind of horses could qualify as domesticated, but that has never meant they were docile. It was said of some of the old cow outfits that the men were a lot like the horses they rode...they wouldn't do to monkey with. Those outfits were proud of their best rough string riders. Back in the wild times, when two outfits came close to each other by the banks of a flood-swollen river, or at a shipping point, bets were made on which bunch had the best bronc rider. Every trail outfit had an outlaw or two in its remuda and they would be roped out for a cowboy of the rival outfit to ride. It was how rodeo began, back when pride was the prize.
Samuel Thomas Privett, better known as Booger Red, was a legendary Texas bronc rider. He traveled through the countryside with a string of bucking horses, accompanied by a helper who drove a wagon carrying bedrolls, cooking equipment, and an assortment of ropes, halters and spare saddles. Booger Red would hit the small towns on a Saturday when all the country folks came in to trade what they had for what they needed. He would drive his string of broncs right down the middle of Main Street and then pen them in a rope corral on the town square or in a wagon yard. Folks were starved for entertainment in those days and the crowds gathered quickly. Booger Red would saddle and ride his broncs, while his helper passed his hat in the crowd for nickels and dimes.
The old-timers said that Booger Red sure put on a show: grown women swooned, and small boys went to bed that night and dreamed of growing up to ride bucking horses like Booger Red. Once, on a little patch of prairie on the outskirts of Fort Worth, it is said that he rode a horse that had killed another rider earlier the same day. They said that the bronc bucked itself blind, but Booger Red rode him to a standstill and then had to be helped down from the saddle and was unable to stand on his own.
Bronc riding took a heavy toll on even the best ones. I knew a true champion who died alone in a cheap motel in Billings, Montana...bleeding internally from past punishment and maybe remembering the bright times when the crowd would stand and cheer as he rode one to the whistle. The old adage that says "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man" doesn't necessarily apply for bronc riders.
If I had to pick one word to describe those horses the cowboys rode in the early days, that word would be versatile. This one kind of horse was capable of doing anything and everything a cowboy asked of it. But given enough time, man in his overweening arrogance can't help fiddling with nature's perfect patterns.
Today's Quarter Horse is something other than it once was. Instead of being one physical type of horse that could do everything, it has been bred in all sorts of different directions and become a bunch of different physical types designed to do a lot of different things. There is no such thing anymore as a typical Quarter Horse. The ones bred to race look different than those bred to show at halter, and they in turn look different than the ones bred to be hunter-jumpers, or to pull sulkies. I am convinced that the modern Quarter Horse is not a legitimate breed, and that its Association is only a registry for a lot of different kinds of horses. I believe the Quarter Horse studbook should have been closed a long time ago in order to preserve the original physical type and the bloodlines of what was once proudly known as the western stockhorse; the kind created for cowboys.
Fortunately, there have been and are still folks who took their stewardship of the cowboy kind of horses seriously. It is not surprising that is has been cow people who have done the most to preserve the genetic integrity of what their kind of horse once was and still ought to be.
Hats off to all the original old time Quarter Horse breeders who honored their covenant with the Steeldusts and the Billy horses...men like Coke Blake, Billy Anson, Don Casement, Ott Adams, George Clegg, Coke Roberds, Samuel Watkins and all the others. And hats off too, to the ranches that still raise the kind of horses that a cowboy wants to ride...the Haythorns, the Waggoners, the Babbitts, the Four Sixes, the Pitchforks and all the others.
For the cowboys of every era, from the days of the open range until way past tomorrow, all the best times begin on the back of a good horse without a thought of the ride ever ending. But it will...and a cowboy cast afoot by age or infirmity becomes a source of sadness for all who knew him back when he was wild and willing to climb on anything and spur it just to see what would happen. And even if he remains a horseman at heart, it doesn't help...not when others who are like he once was ride off early on a fresh feeling morning.
An old, crippled-up cowboy told me one time that "Some pleasures were worth the price." He smiled when he said it. I hope that it's true. I do know that it was the horses who made us more than we would have been without them.
Penned by Don Hedgpeth, our resident renaissance cowboy: historian, author, art expert, poet. He also sings and plays traditional cowboy songs and recites a few poems he has written. Don lives with his wife of nearly 50 years, Sug, and they, together, can be found at poetry and art gatherings, or at home in Medina, Texas.
He does not have, nor shall ever have a computer. He has no cell phone nor typewriter and still writes longhand. He is wary of mechanical things getting between him and his muse.
Books by Don Hedgpeth:
Howard Terpning: Spirit of the Plains People
Desert Dreams, the Western Art of Don Crowley
The Texas Breed: A Cowboy Anthology
From Broncs to Bronzes: The Life and Work of Grant Speed
Under Western Skies: The Art of Bob Pummill
Bettina: Portraying Life in Art
Remember Me To Them That Ride By