Ranching on the Rocks
Ranching on the Rocks
By Richard Chamberlain
Photography by Chris Dickinson
|O RO cowboys receive instructions from ranch manager Jed Roark, second from the left. (Chris Dickinson photo)|
It’s early morning at the office, a new day, still cool and quiet amid the junipers as the sun rises over the mountains some 50 miles northwest of Prescott, Arizona.
The silence is broken by the buzz of a cell phone. Jed Roark is at his ranch manager’s desk–the saddle on a 7-year-old Playgun-bred American Quarter Horse gelding-high up on Sunrise Peak near Mount Hope, the literal and figurative heart of the iconic O RO Ranch.
“Hey, I’ve got to take this,” Jed says. “This is one of the few places on this ranch that we have cell service.”
Even here, service is spotty, at best. Varying from high desert saguaros, prickly pear, brush and rocks at 4,000 feet to junipers, ponderosas, brush and more rocks at 7,500 feet, the O RO–known throughout cowboy country as “the ROs”–comprises approximately 257,000 acres sprawled across some of the most rugged, rocky terrain in North America.
It’s a horseback operation in horseback country, running yearlings and about 3,000 pairs of all-natural cows and calves, depending on weather and market conditions. It takes top hands on top horses to handle the range-wise cattle well beyond the limits of 4x4s and four-wheelers. Where the vehicle path ends on the ROs, the choice is either ride a horse or walk.
Not that there really is a choice. It’s a long way from one set of pens to another, there is a lot of ground to cover in between, and most of it seems to be up or down through red volcanic rocks. Working the ranch requires seven full-time cowhands, including Jed, who are in the saddle every day. Several more cowboys are brought in during the nearly half of the year that the wagon rolls during the roundups in the spring and fall.
It takes not only very good horses, but the right kind of horse, the kind the ROs has bred since long before inception of the American Quarter Horse Association. Paying homage to them and their successors today, AQHA presents the O RO Ranch with the 2022 Best Remuda Award.
“It is an honor to recognize this great ranch, which has produced world-class ranch horses for more than 150 years,” says Karen McCuistion, AQHA senior director of member programs. “Their horses are tough, reliable and handy, everything we want in a ranch horse.”
Land of Legend
The O RO traces its history to 1821, when the Spanish crown granted Don Luis Maria Baca an allotment of a half-million acres near what is now Las Vegas, New Mexico. The nation of Mexico won independence from Spain later that same year, but as a result of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, Mexico ceded territory that would become U.S. states, including New Mexico and Arizona. During the war, however, pioneers from the U.S. settled on the land grant of the Baca family, who petitioned the U.S. government for redress on the grounds that the Bacas were Spanish, not Mexican. Congress agreed in 1856, but rather than removing the American settlers, it ordered that the family receive five 100,000-acre parcels “floating” in unsurveyed regions of the West.
The Baca family’s lawyer saddled up and rode through what is now New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado to find five suitable grants. The O RO today headquarters on the Baca Float No. 5.
San Francisco land speculator Edwin Perrin acquired the Baca Float in 1880. Perrin’s son Lilo ranched there until 1936, when it was purchased by the Greene Cattle Co.
Already well established, the Greene Cattle Co. and sister ranch Cananea Cattle Co., were incorporated in 1901 by William Cornell Greene, who ran cattle in Arizona and California under the Greene name and in the Mexican state of Sonora under Cananea, where Greene’s ranching, timber and mining empire had sprung four years earlier off his first big strike, copper, from the earth at Cananea.
Greene died in 1911 from injuries sustained in a carriage accident, but prior to his death, he put his ranch holdings in the name of his wife, Mary. Left in charge of the ranches was her husband’s general manager, Charles Wiswall, who in a savvy career move married the widow.
Greene branded his cattle with an RO in the United States and an O in Mexico. In 1936, when the Greene Cattle Co. bought the Baca Float, Wiswall asked Greene’s son-in-law Robert L. “Bob” Sharp to check out the neighboring 157,000-acre Mahon Ranch, which adjoined the western boundary of the Baca Float. Greene Cattle bought the Mahon, and Sharp then managed the quarter-million-plus acres that has ever since carried the O RO brand, where cattle now carry an O on the left shoulder and an RO on the left hip. Horses are freeze-branded with an RO on the left hip.
Greene’s Cananea holdings were expropriated by the Mexican government in 1958. The Greene Cattle Co. dissolved with the sale of the Baca Float 15 years later, in 1973, when the O RO was purchased by John N. Irwin II. A military intelligence analyst under Gen. Douglas McArthur in World War II, Irwin became an attorney and served in both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, D.C., and in France as U.S. ambassador.
|Ranch owner Jane Droppa lives in Maryland, but spends as much time as she can at the ranch in Arizona. (Chris Dickinson photo)|
The O RO operates under the ownership of the JJJ Corporation, which Irwin established in the names of himself, his son, John III, and daughter, Jane, after his wife died in 1970. Irwin died in 2000, and majority ownership of the ranch passed to Jane, an avid horsewoman like her father. The widely travelled Jane Droppa is an urbane sophisticate with an eye for nature, self-deprecating humor and the on-earth attitude of someone long at ease in a well-worn stock saddle. She and her husband, Larry, live in Baltimore, Maryland, but they spend as much time as possible on the ROs, where they know the cowboys, their wives and families by their first names.
“We love this ranch,” says Jane, who with her husband has adult children Jack, Daniel and Katherine. “We’re coming up on 50 years since we bought the ranch, and we plan on keeping it in our family ad infinitum. Our kids love the ranch, they enjoy coming out, they respect the traditions, they want to keep it as a working cattle ranch for decades to come. And we love the cowboys. We’re honored they put up with us and let us ride with them.”
From longtime cowboy leaders such as Pat Hughes to the part-time cowpunchers working just the spring or fall wagon, the cowboys address the owners with commensurate respect and appreciation as Jane and Larry.
“I love it here,” says Connor Garwood, 24, who starts the RO’s colts and had already cowboyed in South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and his home state of Nebraska before coming to Arizona four years ago. “I didn’t know if I was a good enough hand when I got here, and I still don’t think I’m super handy, but I’m super grateful because this is an amazing place with amazing horses. But the honest-to-goodness reason I’m still here is because of the people. Jane and Larry are awesome. Jed and his family have treated me so well. Wagon boss Wendell Mosimann is a really good stockman and thinks about things in a different way than I do, so I really like asking his opinion. I try to keep improving where I can, so I’m asking questions all the time. Pat and Leddy (Hughes), everybody else–there is so much wisdom and experience here, it would be foolish not to seek it. That’s why I’m here: the people.”
Home on the Range
|O RO Ranch cowboys push cattle into holding pens. (Chris Dickinson photo)|
Jed and wife Holly live at the ranch headquarters. They homeschool daughter Fallon, 17, and son Pake, 13, both of whom are well on their way to making hands. The Roarks’ oldest, Colton, 19, is working on a Wyoming ranch.
In addition to the houses, barns, corrals, paddocks, shipping pens and other facilities at headquarters, there are five permanent camps throughout the ranch, with a house with generator or solar power, water from a well or spring, and a barn, paddocks and pens for a cowboy’s personal string of eight to 10 horses. Each cowboy takes care of his part of the country, making the decisions on when to move cattle, when to open up or close off water, where to pack salt, when and where to do whatever it takes to bring in a side of beef still on the hoof.
Not suited for small pasture management, ROs has only a few cross fences anywhere on the east side’s original 100,000 acres and little more than a perimeter fence around the entire 157,000 acres on the west side. Gathering, counting, branding and processing the cattle is done the old way, in part because of tradition but also because there is no other real choice.
“Going on the wagon” (an old 1-ton truck converted into a working chuckwagon, with a traditional chuckbox and fly on the back), the cowboys live out of canvas teepees for two and a half months in the spring roundup and three months in the fall, all the while depending on the remuda of 100 or so geldings that take their turns being wrangled in and out to small pastures near each campsite.
Revamping the Remuda
Quarter Horses made ranching possible on the Baca Float in the past and keep it possible on the ROs today. Col. Greene was an avid horseman, with something like 3,000 horses in his remudas. He kept his original herd of breeding stock on the Cananea in Mexico, where Pancho Villa and his army of Villistas swept through in November 1915 and confiscated all of Cananea’s stallions and 175 of the saddle horses. Turning setback into opportunity, Greene the following year replaced the bloodstock with five stallions tracing to Quarter Horse foundation sires such as Peter McCue and Steel Dust.
One of those was Sykes, a sorrel son of Peter McCue foaled in 1911 out of a Texas Quarter mare. (The horse is also referred to as RO’s Sykes and Sykes 01 to distinguish between a number of so-called Sykes horses in the early 20th century.) RO’s Sykes died in 1937, four years after siring El Rey RO, a chestnut colt out of an RO Quarter mare that became a primary foundation sire for the modern ROs.
AQHA was founded in 1940, the year J. Ernest Browning inspected more than 900 head of Greene Cattle Co. horses. The inspector, who in 1958 would become AQHA president, selected 250 of the best mares and stallions to register with the new Association. El Rey RO went in the first stud book as No. 896.
Horsemen came calling. When the California owners of American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame stallion Driftwood (who was foaled in Texas in 1932) were just beginning to prove the stallion, they looked to cross him on RO mares. Hall of Fame mare Fillinic was sired by Arizona Junie, whose dam was RO stock on top and bottom.
The ranch still produces roping, rodeo and reined cow horse competitors, but most RO horses are born, raised and work their entire lives on the ranch, never having gone to town. The cowboys go to the occasional rodeo or jackpot roping, and the O RO, as members of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association and Ranch Horse Association of America, sends teams to a couple of ranch rodeos and ranch horse shows each year. An active member of the AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders, the ROs annually donates a weanling filly to the Ranching Heritage Young Horse Development Program. Seeking to promote youth and preserve the western lifestyle and traditions, the ranch is active in donations to entities such as the Arizona Cowpunchers Association, Arizona Junior Rodeo Association, National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, 4-H, Arizona Cowboy Poetry Gathering and others.
But the first line of business always has been and still is to produce ranch horses for the ROs.
“We’re trying to raise good horses,” says Jed, 42, who came to the ROs four years ago to manage the horses and now oversees the entire ranch. “The ideal ranch horse, in my opinion, would be about 15 hands, with good bone and feet, cinch really deep and be full of ‘cow.’ Our goal on this ranch is to raise really good horses that work on this ranch and that cowboys like to ride, and to always improve where we can.”
Improvement starts with breeding. The remuda carries the blood of stallions such as Playgun, through the RO’s longtime herd sire TRR Janies Playgun; Dual Peppy, via Dual Winner; Medicine Man, by a grandson of Doc O’Lena out of a granddaughter of Doc’s Hickory; Hijo Del Rey RO, by Sykes out of an RO mare; and Mr San Peppy and Peppy San Badger (aka “Little Peppy”), via Peppy Mania.
“The RO’s horses are outstanding, and they have a long history of excellence,” Jed says. “We’ve never really changed from that, but the bloodlines are always evolving.”
The ranch’s current stallions are RO One Time Kat, by One Time Pepto out of a High Brow Cat mare; TRR Royal Blue Oak, by the Mecom Blue stallion Medicinal Mecom Blue and out of a Playgun-bred mare, whom the ROs bought from the Tongue River Ranch in Texas; and Marsala De Kineno, a King Ranch-bred 2-year-old by Kinenos Moon.
The ROs also leased the Babbitt Ranch-raised stallion Chargin Frost, a grandson of Sun Frost out of a mare that traces to racing champion and All American Futurity winner Tonto Bars Hank. The broodmare band includes a number of his daughters and granddaughters.
Power, Problems and Pride
The stallions are but a part of the equation and, for that matter, a smaller part. The O RO puts even greater emphasis on its mares, in particular those such as the line represented by RD Peppy Chex, a 1997 brown daughter of Peppy Mania known as “Sissy” by the ranch hands. Despite the typo in her name (“RD” instead of “RO”), RD Peppy Chex comes from a long line of RO mares and is the dam of 14 foals, with several daughters and granddaughters in the broodmare band.
“Mare power is everything,” Jed says. “We have a long history of really good mares. If you look at the best horses in the remuda and follow those lines back, it’s all about mare power. The mare contributes more than 50 percent to a foal. She raises that baby and teaches it everything it knows in the first part of its life.”
|The ranch cowboys ride single file across a large pasture. The foreman drops off each cowboy periodically as they cross the pasture, building what could be considered a “moving, living fence.” Once all the cowboys are in position, they ride forward to gather the cattle in that pasture. They communicate by yelling and passing the instructions down the line to one another. (Chris Dickinson photo)|
In order to keep the remuda supplied with enough geldings, about 30-35 mares are pasture-bred each year on the ranch, with eight to 15 of them turned out with a single stallion. Foaling in April, May and June, the babies grow up outside in the rough, developing and sharpening their inborn sense of how to negotiate the rugged terrain.
“All horses have their defense mechanisms ingrained in them for the last thousands of years,” Connor says. “But the horses actually use it here, running out there with mountain lions, so when you bring the colts in, that’s what you are to them, a predator. They are really unsure of you at first, but once you start getting your hands on them and messing with them, and especially when you start giving them jobs, they are down to business. You give the colts a job, and they like it. You do it well the first time, and it’s not a problem after that. They just do it.”
Started in the summer of their 2-year-old year, the colts get 20-30 rides before they are turned out for the rest of the year. They are brought back at 3 and given a few more rides before they go to the camp guys, who work them up slowly and use them only as they are ready for light duty. The cowboys pick their days with a 4-year-old, because it does not take much to overdo it on the ROs. The 5-year-olds are ready to go.
Still, we’re talking horses and people here. Problems collide with pride.
“The cool thing about horses is that they are a direct reflection of where you are,” Connor says. “They’re a mirror. If things aren’t going necessarily great with some of them, well, it’s probably me, the common denominator. You have to do a lot of self-evaluation and keep yourself in check.
“This ranch does that to you, too. Anytime you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, I know how to run these cattle,’ they’ll show you a new trick you never saw coming. ‘Oh, OK, need some improvement there, we’ll work on that.’ That’s what’s really cool about this place: There’s something new all the time, something challenging you all the time.”
“It’s very humbling.”
A Day’s Work
During the works on the wagon in the spring and fall, the horses are brought in every morning before sunrise, called out by name by the cowboys, roped by the wagon boss and saddled for work. The cowboys switch horses when possible at noon, depending on where they are and what they are doing. When they are not being used in the spring or fall works, some horses are turned out for the summer or winter, while others are brought back to the camps and used between the works.
The reputation of the RO’s horses precedes the remuda.
“When I first came to the wagon, I was wondering about the horses, what they’d put me on, what they’d do with the new guy,” says Wendell, 40, who lives with wife Christina at Mahon camp, the farthest west on the ranch. “For what we do here, they are the best horses and best remuda in the world. I was amazed–I’d always heard guys say that the ROs were the best horses they ever rode, and I’d read about them in articles, but you have to do it to really understand it. You put these horses in some of the spots on this ranch, and you find out, yeah, they are. A lot of times in places I’d never been, the only thing that gave me confidence was the horse I was riding and his ability to get the job done. I was the new guy–the horses had already done all the things I’d never done before.”
The sentiment is repeated over and over by the RO cowboys.
“It’s a different feeling, riding these horses,” says Bryce Quinn, 29, who grew up riding colts and shoeing horses with his dad near Detroit and now lives with wife Caitlin and their baby daughter, Adalynn, on the RO’s Triangle N, the central camp of the ranch. “You hear about rock horses–horses that can just fly across things that you wouldn’t think in your wildest ideas of going across with any other horses. Yet they keep their feet, they know where to put them every darn time, and they get you through. Other horses might cut a cow good, or stop and spin real hard, and do all that stuff, but I guarantee they can’t do what these horses do on a daily basis, where you ask them to give you everything they’ve got, but then can go in a pen and actually go to whittlin’ on some cows. It’s a feeling where that horse wants it as bad as you, so you can stop riding because you’re on the same page.”
Bryce and Wendell are on the same page.
“If you can punch cows in Yavapai County, you can punch cows anywhere,” Wendell says. “It’s a challenge, and every day you’re trying to do it better, smoother, more efficiently. It’s not always wild and woolly–it can be, but every day you try to find a better way to do it, a more efficient way of handling cattle horseback in rugged country.
“We do it all horseback, and we love it,” he continues. “One of the coolest things about these horses–the horse I’m sitting on today–some cowboy a hundred years ago was sitting on his great-great-great-granddad or great-great-uncle or whatever, the same lines they were riding after Pancho Villa’s raid. It’s a pretty neat feeling. This (Best Remuda) award comes to every cowboy who ever saddled a horse and did a day’s work for the O RO brand, whether it was the Greene Cattle Co. or the Cananea or today. Every time they mounted up, they did something to that horse, and that horse did something to them. Cowboys make horses, horses make cowboys.”
|The O RO Ranch brand as a gate sign. (Chris Dickinson photo)|
On the ROs, the ranch makes the work.
“The geography, the topography, the landscape, is so unique and brings its own set of issues,” says Louis King, 66, who has worked cattle operations from New Mexico to Montana to Texas, New York state and even Australia. Louis lives at headquarters, where his wife, Cindy, cooks and maintains the Droppas’ residence. “The ranch is so big and rough, it can’t be fenced off in little quarter-section pastures. Our cattle aren’t wild, but they don’t see a lot of people, and when they do–especially big stuff, like 1-, 2-, 3-year-old mavericks that we’ve missed gathering–things get real interesting, real quick.”
Case in point: The crew has gathered several canyons and draws, sending cows, calves and steers down to working pens and a trap around an earthen stock tank in a larger canyon. Jed draws up in the shade of a large juniper, letting his horse catch air. CRA-A-ACK! A massive 3- or 4-year-old black steer crashes through the brush, snapping branches, breaking limbs and carving a path for an older black baldy cow close behind, looking to get back to where he had escaped gathering for the past two or three years.
Spurring his horse, Jed drives the steer into a clearing large enough to swing a loop. Roping him clear around the horns, Jed and his horse evade the wrath of an angry wild beast on the fight for the seconds it takes for Levi Sanders to swoop in and double-hock the steer. The men lay him down and tie his right front leg to his left rear, so he can stand up but will still be there when they come back for him later that day.
Those are the kind of hands that work the O RO. Those are the kind of horses that make it possible for them to do their work, the kind of gritty, tough, seasoned and solid ranch horses that, when you throw a leg across one, you know you are mounted, ready–come what may–for another day at the office.