Working Cowboy Award Recipient

Working Cowboy Award Recipient

Wes O'Neal to receive award from Ranching Heritage Association on October 15.

Wes O'Neal on horseback

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Wes O’Neal, a Texas cowboy who has worked on three of the largest and best-known ranches in the nation, will be the fourth recipient of the Ranching Heritage Association Working Cowboy Award during the 44th Annual National Golden Spur Award dinner at 6 p.m. Saturday, October 15, at the Overton Hotel in Lubbock. 

“The Working Cowboy Award is designed to recognize an outstanding individual who makes his living primarily horseback caring for livestock on a daily basis,” said Jim Bret Campbell, director of the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “Wes has spent nearly eight decades working for the W.T. Waggoner Estate, the JA Ranch and the Four Sixes Ranch.”

The Ranching Heritage Association (RHA), a nationwide non-profit membership organization supporting the programs of the center, sponsors the award on an annual basis to honor a working cowboy skilled in all aspects of ranch work and respected by the ranch crew and ranching community.

“Our Board of Directors believes it’s important to recognize those folks who brave all kinds of weather and conditions to ensure that work on a ranch gets done,” Campbell said, noting that award nominations for 88-year-old O’Neal described him as “the real deal” working cowboy who has served for decades as a role model for younger cowboys.

“Wes has left a lasting impression on all of us and left his mark at the Waggoner Estate and everywhere else he has been,” said A.B. (Buck) Wharton III, former owner of the W.T. Waggoner Estate. The Waggoner ranch grew to more than 520,000 acres spread over six Texas counties and was the nation’s largest ranch under one fence before being sold in 2016.

O’Neal worked at the W.T. Waggoner Estate for 58 uninterrupted years and served 12 years as Wagon Boss during his 17 years with the cattle operation. He spent 41 years with the Waggoner horse operation and 25 of those years as horse foreman directing the breeding of broodmares and stallions. 

“His insight into breeding horses laid the groundwork for the W.T. Waggoner Estate being selected as having the best ranch horses in the country when it received the coveted American Quarter Horse Association Best Remuda Award in 1994,” Wharton said. “He traveled to Nashville to receive the award on behalf of the Waggoner Ranch.”

Before O’Neal began working on the W.T. Waggoner Estate in 1957, he worked at the historic J.A. Ranch in the Texas Panhandle for seven years. Although his cowboy years have included three large ranches with thousands of cattle, cowboying began for him on small spreads breaking broncs when he was only 13 years old.

“I was born in Clarendon (Texas) on November 30, 1933, right smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression,” O’Neal said. “There was no jobs and no money.” His father worked on the Mel B. Davis Ranch in the Panhandle but quit ranching for a higher paying job. Later when his father was sick and their house burned to the ground without the family saving anything, Wes and his brother Boots put up hay one summer pulling the machines with horse teams and then began breaking broncs for area ranchers. 

“I tell everybody that I left school in the tenth grade because it was gettin’ in the way of my education,” Wes said, “but truly there wasn’t no money, Dad wasn’t workin’ and we had younger siblings at home. The RO Ranch was the first big bunch of horses we broke.”

Wes and Boots broke 20 broncs for the RO for $20 per head, pocketing $200 each (about $2,400 today). Then Wes went to work for two smaller ranches before joining Boots at the JA Ranch, which was established in 1875 as the first ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Wes eventually became Wagon Boss for the JA before working for the W.T. Waggoner Estate until it sold. Today he lives in Holliday, Texas, and day works for the Four Sixes Ranch near Guthrie, Texas.

“If you’re gonna cowboy,” Wes said, “you accept the fact that you ain’t gonna ever be rich and you’re gonna get injured from time to time, but the trade-off is worth it to me. You’re not punchin’ no eight- to-five-time clock, and you get to see some beautiful sunrises sittin’ on your horse. As Buster Welch says, ‘That’s the best seat in the house.’”

To register for the National Golden Spur Award dinner, call Vicki Quinn-Williams at 806-834-0469 or register online at raqnchingheritage.org/spur. Reservations are required by Thursday, October 6. Tickets are $95 for RHA members, $125 for non-members, $2,500 choice table for eight, and $5,000 prime table for eight.

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