Winners of the Best Remuda Award
By Betsy Lynch
No question, three hundred horses is a lot of horses. But when they’re turned out on 80,000 acres in southeastern Wyoming, their number is dwarfed by the expansive landscape. At the Bartlett Ranch near Chugwater, one must go searching to find the well-bred stallions, mares and foals that have been carefully divided into small bands. They tuck themselves into arroyos and graze meadows nestled below monumental limestone bluffs. You can track a rainbow of yearlings and 2-year-olds over rutted roads only to have them disappear around a bend or over the top of a rise. Or you can hedge your bets by waiting for them to gather at watering holes. But ultimately, their friendliness and natural curiosity will win out, and you’ll find yourself nose-to-nose with the horses that wear the Flying B brand.
On this same western oasis, Dr. H.B. “Woody” Bartlett also runs 1,500 mama cows, all blacks, and fattens several thousand steers before sending them to a feedyard on the Nebraska border for finishing. It’s a complementary enterprise: The cattle are the ranch’s bread and butter. The horses are the cream. After 55 years of selective breeding, Bartlett Ranch has been chosen to receive the 2016 Zoetis AQHA Best Remuda Award. “The quality of the horses speaks for itself,” observes Dr. Jim Heird, a member of the AQHA Executive Committee and a longtime friend of Dr. Bartlett. The two men have been discussing the merits of individual horses and pedigrees for nearly five decades. They’ve experimented with various crosses and compared notes. It’s an endlessly fascinating endeavor.
Dr. Heird claims “you won’t find a better set of ranch broodmares anywhere.” Bartlett horses have been proven in the cutting, roping, barrel racing, rodeo and show arenas, as well as on the ranch. And according to this Texas A&M University equine professor, Woody does an outstanding job matching his mares to stallions with complementary qualities, not the least of which are conformation, disposition and the ability to work cattle.
It’s worth noting that the Flying B is actually three ranches. It includes 4,000 acres at the headquarters in Pike Road, Alabama; 1,100 acres near Brock, Texas, home base to the Bartlett cutting horse operation; and the 10-mile by 40-mile range northeast of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
It’s nearly impossible to get Dr. Bartlett to brag, but he is admittedly proud of his herd. He says the Best Remuda Award is the highest achievement – more prestigious than any of the titles his horses have won in arena competition. He’s dedicated his life to improving the quality of the horses he produces, and he insists it’s still a work in progress.
“I’m never happy with it,” he says of his broodmare band. “You’ve got to be improving and doing something good to it all the time.”
Dr. Bartlett is quick to credit his friend and business partner, “Cody” Bill Smith, with helping him get his ranch horse program on track. They share the same values, philosophies and breeding stock. Dr. Bartlett claims that Bill, a three-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association saddle bronc world champion, is “one of the best horsemen I’ve ever seen.” This is a strong endorsement, given the number of top trainers and breeders that Dr. Bartlett has known over the past 79 years.
They met in 1986 at Bill’s WYO Horse Sale when Woody and his late wife, Kelley, went to Wyoming to buy a horse. Kelley had seen a pretty gray gelding advertised in the Quarter Horse Journal. Woody had promised her he would buy any horse she wanted “if she would just quit hollering” after she dislocated her elbow falling from a horse during a cattle round-up. In fulfillment of that bribe, Woody purchased the Jackie Bee gelding for $8,700 at the sale. It was the beginning of a friendship that ultimately evolved into a successful partnership.
Bartlett Ranch is now a part of the spring and fall WYO horse sales. The next one is September 10 in Thermopolis and will feature the 2-year-old geldings started in June at the Flying B under Bill’s direction. Bill is a protégé of the late Ray Hunt, who mentored many riders in natural horsemanship. Bill continues to pass on Ray’s training methods to a cadre of young cowboys. Dr. Bartlett regrets that he didn’t meet Bill earlier in life so he could have been among them.
“If I had had the opportunity to learn that sort of thing when I was young, I would have been a pretty good horseman,” he reflects. “I didn’t understand what you were really supposed to do with a horse, except to force it. But like Bill says, the key is making your idea become his idea. It works better that way.”
It’s an apt metaphor for how Dr. Bartlett works with others. People naturally gravitate to him, and he has been inordinately successful in business. He recognizes unique opportunities and makes the most of them. More importantly, he shares his good fortune. Many have benefited from his philanthropy, including his vet school alma mater, Auburn University, and the equine programs at Colorado State University and Texas A&M University.
“Woody has lived his life on the love of horses,” says friend Pat Dye, the iconic former Auburn University football coach. “Everything in his life has been centered around horses and his passion for improving the breed. But the greatness in this man is not necessarily the horses, it’s the people whom he’s helped in this world who had no idea where the help was coming from.”
Dr. Bartlett was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937, the eldest of two children. The “H.B.” stands for Haywood Bellingrath, the latter being his grandparents’ surname, but his family called him “Woody.” They were city folk, but Woody discovered his passion for horses during high school.
Woody’s father was a doctor with an entrepreneurial bent. In addition to his medical practice, Dr. Bartlett bought 850 acres outside Montgomery, which gave Woody a place to keep livestock and horses, on which he competed at local rodeos. It was an interest his mother supported but his daddy merely tolerated. His father had a singular ambition for Woody: He wanted his son to become a doctor.
Woody admits that he was a mediocre student in high school and at the University of Alabama, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He was more interested in roping than academics. Finally, he summoned his courage and told his dad he wanted to be a veterinarian.
“My daddy was not easily convinced,” he recalls with a shrug. But six months in the U.S. Army gave Woody the resources to attend Auburn, where he was a stellar student.
“It was something I really wanted to do,” he says simply.
Woody’s interest in horse breeding also began in high school. Mentored by Pete Reynolds, who bred American Quarter Horses for more than 70 years, Woody began to appreciate the importance of pedigrees. “Mr. Pete,” shared his love of horses and introduced the young roper to a better class of animal. Encouraged by Mr. Pete, at age 17, Woody and his buddy took his mama’s old Chrysler and went on an epic road trip that included seeing Leo and Sugar Bars.
Woody was intent on buying a broodmare, but found that the ranches he visited wanted more for their registered stock than he had money to spend. He ultimately would strike a deal on a three-in-one package mare for $500. It was his first investment in bloodstock, and the first stone on his path to becoming an AQHA Legacy breeder.
Landing the Flying B
After graduating from Auburn, the young Dr. Bartlett returned home and launched his own mobile veterinary practice. He preferred working with horses, but cattle became a significant part of his business.
He acquired additional land surrounding his father’s farm, growing a ranch at the same time he was growing his practice.
“Alabama is not a brand state, neither is Texas, but way back in the late ’50s, I’d look at books and magazines and I liked the Flying B brand,” he recalls. As fortune would have it, he was able to land that brand as his own.
“Luckily, I was able to get it registered in Wyoming, too. In those other states I had it registered, but they did not have the stringent rules that they do with brands in Wyoming. We got the left thigh of a horse and the left hip of the cow. We don’t have to rebrand the horses when we haul them to Texas and then up here. It works in all three states.”
Building Ranch Horses
Flying B horses flow between the three properties. Dr. Bartlett foals out approximately 80 broodmares at his Alabama ranch. When the offspring are yearlings, many of the colts will summer in Texas, and in the fall, they are sent to Wyoming. They’re turned out to acclimate and then overwinter on the High Plains. That experience – and the high-quality grass – help these young horses bloom, says Woody. They’re not treated like hothouse tomatoes. They’re raised as ranch horses.
The distinction between performance horse and ranch horse is not always clear, and Dr. Bartlett utilizes proven lines from popular families, which includes some of his own high-powered cutting horses. “It’s been good to have mares to put back in the herd that are recognizable cutting bred mares,” he maintains.
“It’s good to get that ‘cow’ in your offspring. I didn’t have to go out and buy them. I raised them. And now that we can register three or four, we’ll breed those outstanding mares by AI and flush the embryos.
“I realize I could sell them in (cutting) sales and they’d bring a good bit of money,” he says. “But it’s worth more to me to have those genetics and to have those mares up here.” Dr. Bartlett explains his goal has been to build size, color, intelligence and a quiet, friendly disposition into his ranch horses. There’s been no shortage of cow sense, but he describes his high-earning cutting horses as “specialists.” They’re smaller, quicker and more reactive than the typical ranch horse. They’re well suited for arena sport, but not necessarily the best choice for working cowboys. Since Flying B ranch hands still routinely check and work livestock on horseback, a strong, quiet, intelligent horse is a definite asset.
The ranch has performance-bred stallions Very Special Playgun (Playgun-Very Special Peppy by Peppy San Badger), and speed stallions, such as the Fishers Dash stallion BR Best Asset and a son of famed barrel sire Dash Ta Fame. Dr. Bartlett has long appreciated the right combination of speed, cow sense and conformation. His ranch horse breeding program is based largely on daughters of Preferred Pay (Dash For Cash-Fancy Three by Three Bars (TB)), Handle Bar Doc (Doc Bar-Camelot Clabber by G-Fern Clabber Star) and Royals Diligents (Royal Tailwind-Continental Frosty by The Continental), and the blood of champion Quick Henry (Sugar Bars-Connie Leo by Leo).
Notably, the horses in the ranch horse program are not closely line-bred. What’s more, they’re raised in a fairly natural environment. Each stallion is given a harem, generally no more than around 20 mares. Dr. Bartlett uses this same sire-to-dam ratio in his cattle operation. The herds are given plenty of room to roam and are separated by fenced, vacant pastures to prevent turf wars and mare stealing. Unless there’s a problem, mares foal on the open range.
Weanlings are halter broken and yearlings are handled just enough to be gentle. But most of a youngster’s early life is spent learning to be a horse.
Start to Finish
Fillies are usually sold as weanlings and yearlings, and Dr. Bartlett bemoans the fact that these pretty, pedigreed girls go for a song at the WYO sale. The market out West is for well-bred, well-started ranch geldings. If those colts come smartly wrapped in roan, palomino, buckskin, dun, grulla or gray coats, they command even more. It’s a simple fact. And the demand for geldings dictates that this is where the Bartlett Ranch cowboys invest their energy.
When the colts turn 2, their working life begins. Bill and his brother Rick orchestrate the colt-starting sessions held each June at the Bartlett Ranch. This year, 18 cowboys saddled 32 youngsters for the first time and rode them every day for a week. On Day 1, the proceedings can be pretty western, but by Day 7, the colts are downright civilized. The cowboys get a lot done in a short period – and the event is a bit of a spectator sport. People come from near and far to watch. Some are prospective buyers who want a preview of the fall sale prospects.
“When we start them the first day, if we get a saddle on them and turn them out in the arena, they’ll buck and squall and run around,” Dr. Bartlett observes. “But when they find out that that saddle is not going to hurt them, and they’re not going to get rid of it, they get OK with it.”
The majority will be sold in September, but a handful will return to the remuda and spend another year on the Bartlett Ranch. They’ll be used to gather cattle, learn to work a rope, handle calves at brandings and pack riders wherever they need to go. With a well-rounded range of experience under their cinch, they’ll be offered for sale next fall as finished ranch horses. And that’s when the bids will really start to rise. Well-broke ranch geldings average $10,000-$14,000, says Dr. Bartlett.
“Up here, people still have a need for the horse. We have shaped our breeding program to be able to work cattle and do what you need to do with a horse – and for the temperament to be good.”
Even with an AQHA Best Remuda Award and 55 years of fine-tuning, Dr. Bartlett won’t rest on the Flying B’s laurels. He’ll continue to introduce new stock and work to improve his herd.
“You have to if you’re going to stay in it,” he concludes. Enough said.