Courtesy of The Quarter Horse Journal
Story by Jim Jennings
Working for the Waggoners
Tom Waggoner knew what he was doing when he gave an 18-year-old that kind of responsibility. After all, it was nothing less than what happened to him. Tom's dad, Dan Waggoner, migrated from Tennessee to Texas in 1840, settling first in the area north of Fort Worth. In 1852, Dan started a ranch in the North Texas region around Vernon. His stock at that time included 230 head of Longhorns and a few horses. He also had one slave, a young wife and an infant son, Tom. The ranch was located just south of the Red River, which separated Texas from Indian Territory, and both the Comanche and Kiowa made frequent raids into the area.
By 1868, the Waggoner outfit had grown considerably, but help was still short. Dan sent Tom, who was only 16 years old at the time, to Kansas City with a herd of 5,000 steers. To make the trip, Dan gave Tom $12, a group of drovers and 50 saddle horses, all of which had sores on their backs from heavy use. In later years, W. T. Waggoner was heard to say, "There I was with more than 5,000 big, wild steers, 50 sore-backed horses, $12 and 16 years of my life."
Writer Franklin Reynolds, in a 1956 article in The Quarter Horse Journal, noted that it was possibly Tom Waggoner's experiences with those sorry horses that caused him to resolve to always have good ones. Even when he was a young lad of 14, W. T. had said, "I want to run the most cattle, breed the best horses and work harder than anyone." When he was 17, his dad made him a full partner. By the time he was 27, Tom had full reins of the Waggoner cattle empire.
Reynolds further said: "Turning back through the pages of Texas horse history, it may be said that in his time, (W. T. Waggoner) owned or used most of the great Texas horses of his day." That claim can also be made by his descendants. Earlier this year, the W. T. Waggoner Estate received the AQHA Best Remuda Award, presented by the American Quarter Horse Association together with the National Cattleman's Association. The Best Remuda Award honors one ranch each year judged to have the best remuda of working ranch horses.
NATION'S LARGEST RANCH
The W. T. Waggoner Estate is the nation's largest ranch under one fence. It comprises 520,000 acres in six counties, and is the home for 12,000 mother cows.
The ranch originally operated under the name of Dan Waggoner & Son. Dan died in 1903, leaving everything to Tom. In 1923, Tom formed what today is known as the W. T. Waggoner Estate, naming himself as trustee. Three of his children "Guy, Electra and E. Paul" were appointed to the board of directors. Tom died in 1934. Today the estate is owned by E. Paul's daughter, Mrs. Electra Waggoner Biggs, and A. B. Wharton, grandson of Electra Waggoner Wharton. Its interests include the cow/calf operation, farming and oil operations and horses.
Especially horses. The Waggoner contribution to the Quarter Horse industry has long been recognized. Horses like Waggoner's Rainy Day, Midnight, (One Eyed) Waggoner, Yellow Wolf, Yellow Jacket, Pretty Boy, Pretty Buck, Snipper W, Pep Up, Jesse James and "of course" Poco Bueno still appear in the pedigrees of many great horses of today. Some of these were bred strictly for ranch work, and others for the show arena, but they all had one thing in common, they were cow horses.
But cow horses were not the only equine interests of the Waggoner family. W. T. Waggoner loved horse racing. He reportedly tried to buy the Thoroughbred Man O'War, but was unsuccessful in his efforts. However, he is credited with being the primary force in legalizing parimutuel wagering in Texas in 1934. The year before, so sure was he that the law would pass, Waggoner started construction on a $2-million racetrack on property he owned in Arlington, Texas. Arlington Downs, located between Dallas and Fort Worth (approximately where Six Flags Over Texas and The Ballpark at Arlington are today) opened only a few months after the passage of the bill. W. T. Waggoner died shortly after his racetrack opened. His sons, Guy and Paul, continued to operate the facility until the law was repealed in 1937. It was at that site that E. Paul Wagoner built his Three D Stock farm, which headquartered the estate's horse showing operation. It was there, too, that he brought famed halter and cutting horse Poco Bueno, which he purchased from Hankins Brothers in 1945 for $5,700; it was also in Arlington that cutting horses Jesse James and Snipper W, and rope horse Pretty Buck, got their starts.
E. Paul Waggoner died in 1967, truly a legend in the Quarter Horse industry. In 1991, he was posthumously inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.
Ranching at the Waggoner Estate is big business. A half-million acres and 12,000 cows add up to approximately 12,000 calves that have to be gathered from some rough and brushy pastures, worked, and shipped to market each year. As in their other business interests, in the cattle operation the Waggoners use all the modern conveniences at their disposal including even a helicopter. However, some things never change. No one has ever come up with a replacement for the cowboy and his horse when it comes to pushing a cow and her calf out of a mesquite thicket so thick that you can hardly see into it.
Dan and W. T. Waggoner knew this a hundred years ago, and ranch manager Jimmy Smith knows it today. That's why he keeps his cowboys well mounted. There are 200 saddle horses in the ranch's remuda. Of these, each cowboy can have up to eight head that he calls his own. The ranch runs 75 broodmares, and is currently breeding four stallions.
Wes O'Neal went to work for the Waggoner Estate in 1958. Today he is the horse foreman for the ranch, and lives at what has always been the horse headquarters, the Whiteface Camp, located near the town of Electra. It's his responsibility to care for the mares, see that the stallions are put out each spring and then picked up at the end of breeding season, and wean the foals. He is also in charge of halter breaking and branding the foals, and seeing that they have all their inoculations.
"We pasture breed everything," O'Neal said. "We split the mares up into four bands and turn a stud out with each bunch. We get at least a 70 to 80 percent colt crop every year, and sometimes we do a little better than that." "We turn the studs out the first of April, and then pick them up the first of July. That gives us a three-month breeding period, which is long enough. You have a better uniformed bunch of colts, just three months difference in their ages.
"We wean around Thanksgiving," O'Neal continued. "I don't like to wean too early, because when you pen them up here you have to feed them. Then you start going through that sickness. We have found that the longer we can leave them out, they seem to get a little more immunity. We feed the mares every day anyway, so the colts already know how to eat, and they won't be nursing much."
The foals are halter broken and branded in July, while they are still on their mothers. Waggoners have a series of brands that go on each foal, the history of which goes back to the days of W. T. Waggoner.
A number that denotes the foal's dam is placed on the left shoulder, and the ranch's famous D brand is placed under that. Another number brand is placed on the left hip to denote the year. Finally, a sire brand is placed on each foal's left thigh, behind the stifle. From a quick glance, nearly any cowboy on the ranch can determine a horse's breeding and age. The colts are gelded at about 12 months. In June of their yearling years the geldings are sent to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, where they are used in the horse program classes. Each student in the program is assigned one or two of the yearlings, and will further their halter breaking, trim their feet, saddle them, and just generally work with them every day for six weeks. Then the geldings come back to the ranch, where they are turned out until they are two years old.
When the colts turn two, two or three of the cowboys from the ranch's headquarters are sent to the Whiteface Camp to start riding them. All are ridden 30 to 40 days before they are assigned to different cowboys. "The cowboys get to pick their colts by seniority," O'Neal said. "But anyone who picks a young horse has to turn in one he has in his string." Older horses turned in when a cowboy selects a young one are sent to O'Neal, who sells them to the public. The demand is high. In recent times, Waggoner horses have gone as far as Montana and Maryland, and to both Germany and Mexico.
O'Neal noted that although the colts are broken as two-year-olds, they are not ridden very much at that time. "You know, you can't do too much on a two-year-old," he said, "they just can't go all day. The boys will ride them some in the evenings, maybe gather some bulls on them. If they get 30 or 40 rides during the year, they won't forget that.
When the horses turn three, they are used a little more, but they are normally four or five years old before they are really used much in the ranch work.
Waggoner cowboys ride only geldings. However, all the fillies are ridden a short time as two's to see if they might turn out to be the types of mares the ranch would want in the broodmare band.
"We will keep 10 or 15 fillies each year," O'Neal said. "After the boys ride them, we have an idea which ones we want to breed. When they turn three, we turn them in with the stud, and we will breed them two years before we start thinking about eliminating them.
"Of course," he continued, "it takes so long before you know anything for sure. You breed one at three, and she's four before she has a colt. Then he's two years old before you can ride him. She's six years old before you've ever ridden a horse out of her. Then you need to ride him a year, so the mare is seven or eight years old before you know for sure whether she's doing you any good or not. And she's had a colt every year since she was four. "A new stud is the same way. You have a bunch of horses on the ground before you really know what you are getting. Of course, you can tell a lot by halter breaking them and trimming their feet when they are babies, how smart they are and what kind of mind they have, and their conformation. But the proof is when you start riding them. If they can't do anything, or don't show a lot of cow, they don't stay here."
Many of the Waggoner broodmares go back to those stallions that have made the ranch famous. O'Neal estimates that at least 60 percent of them trace to Poco Bueno. The four stallions bred on the Waggoner ranch this year included Tee J Jack Steel, a son of Jackie Bee out of a daughter of Steel Bars Jr; Mr Solano Smoke, by Doc's Solano out of a Mr Gun Smoke-bred mare; and Watch Frosty Jack, a Two Eyed Jack- and Colonel Frost-bred horse. The fourth stallion used this year was Peeping Bo Badger, a son of Peppy San Badger out of a daughter of Doc Bar. This stallion was leased, but he has been returned to his owner. O'Neal noted that they were looking for another stallion for next spring.
In some ways, the job of cowboy on the Waggoner Ranch hasn't changed much since 1903, when W. T. Waggoner gave Lige Reed that advice about how to manage the hands. It's still a horseback job that starts with each cowboy feeding his horses before breakfast, which is served at 5:30 in the morning. Following breakfast, the horses are hauled to wherever that day's work is going to take place.
In Lige Reed's time, and until the mid 70s, the ranch sent a chuckwagon out with the cowboys each spring and fall when the major cattle work was in progress. The men slept and ate at the wagon, and it became their home for up to weeks at a time. The wagon no longer goes out. Each cowboy sleeps in his own bed at night, and either eats breakfast with his family or at the cookhouse at headquarters. Lunch, however, is normally brought to where the cowboys are working. The day usually ends when the remuda is penned in a rope corral, where the wagon boss or straw boss ropes each cowboy's mount for the following day.
Because of the size of the ranch, more than 800 square miles, some cowboys live with their families in various "camps" around the ranch. Camps today are houses with a small barn and a couple of corrals, located in areas distant from the headquarters. Cowboys assigned to camps are usually responsible for the cattle on their areas of the ranch. They will, however, join the other cowboys at times of the year when large pastures are being worked, and others will assist them in their areas when needed.
All single cowboys live in the bunkhouse at the headquarters, and take their meals in the cookhouse. Married cowboys not assigned to camps live in houses at the headquarters. They usually eat breakfast and lunch with the other men, but return to their homes for dinner with their families.
Camp men keep their strings of horses at their houses. All those living at headquarters have their horses turned out together in a horse pasture. When the next day's mount is selected each evening, those horses are brought to the corrals at the headquarters so they will be easy to catch before daylight the next morning.
"Easy to catch" means it won't take much time. The Waggoners have never been ones to waste time.