Winners of the Best Remuda Award

Matador Ranch

Matador Ranch

Matador Ranch brands its horses with a 50 on the left hip, a tradition that goes back for more than 100 years.

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By Jim Jennings

The Matador Ranch encompasses 130,000 acres. But all I was concerned about at that particular moment was a small area I was watching from above. From the high bluff where I was standing, the canyon floor below me appeared to be quiet. It was still 30 minutes before sunup, but light enough to see that there was nothing down there. I was waiting on two groups of cowboys who were going to merge in the area below with the cattle each of them had gathered. It was going to be a great picture, the cowboys and cattle all coming together just as the sun came over the horizon.

But it didn’t happen. The sun didn’t come over the horizon – oh, I guess maybe it did, but the sky was so cloudy that I had no proof – and the cowboys and cattle came together a quarter of a mile up the canyon, out of view in the mesquite brush and certainly out of camera range. That’s not the first time something like this has happened, and it won’t be the last. As poet Robert Burns put it, “Best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” And this plan had gone awry. But there’s always another, and jumping back into the ATV that we were using to maneuver around the ranch, we got ahead of the drive. This time, I was waiting in the right spot when the cattle, followed by a line of cowboys, came into view.

Cattle and cowboys have been on this ranch for 136 years, ever since 1877, when Henry H. Campbell established a ranch about 80 miles northeast of what would become Lubbock, Texas. The ranch’s headquarters was at a pretty place called Ballard Springs, so named by a buffalo hunter named Ballard. Campbell enlisted the help – and money – of a Fort Worth banker named A.M. Britton, along with a couple of other investors, and the group began to build a cattle herd with the capital stock of $50,000.

Calling their ranch the Matador Cattle Co., the partners first branded their cattle with a “50M,” referencing the $50,000 investment. Then they bought 1,500 head of cattle from a man named Dawson – all branded with a Flying V – and in 1881, they bought 8,000 more head that had originally been owned by the famous cattleman John Chisum. Changing their brand to Dawson’s Flying V, the partners added even more cattle during the next couple of years, making the Matador Cattle Co. one of the largest ranches in that part of Texas. But in 1883, the four partners saw an opportunity they couldn’t pass up and sold out to some Scottish financiers from Dundee, Scotland, for $1.25 million.

The Scots called their new acquisition, which involved approximately 100,000 acres and 40,000 head of cattle, the Matador Land & Cattle Co. Campbell stayed on as manager for a few years and almost immediately convinced the new owners to purchase another 203,000 acres and 22,000 head of cattle.

During the next several years, more and more land was bought, and by 1910, the Matador Land & Cattle Co. owned 861,000 acres in Texas and had 650,000 acres leased in South Dakota and Canada. A little later, the company leased 500,000 acres in northern Montana and 300,000 acres on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. If the Matador Land & Cattle Co. was not the largest ranch in the country, it was certainly right up there with the best of them.

In 1951, Matador Land & Cattle Co. was sold to Lazard Frères and Co. for $18.9 million. Frères – whose purchase from Matador included approximately 800,000 acres, 1,400 horses and 46,000 head of cattle – divided the ranch into parcels for resale. In 1952, Fred C. Koch of Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas, bought three of the parcels and incorporated the Matador Cattle Co. Koch’s purchase included the Matador Ranch and its original headquarters at Ballard Springs. Two other ranches are also a part of Koch’s Matador Cattle Co., one in Montana and another near Wichita, but it was Texas’ Matador Ranch that won the Best Remuda Award, sponsored jointly by AQHA and Zoetis, an AQHA corporate partner. The Best Remuda Award honors each year one ranch that is judged to have the best set of saddle horses anywhere, the best remuda.

Matador Ranch spans parts of Motley, Dickens, Floyd, Cottle and Crosby counties in Texas. Its headquarters – at Ballard Springs, site of the original headquarters – is located a mile outside of Matador, Texas, a town named for and created by the ranch. Henry Campbell, the founder of Matador Ranch, laid out the town site, and so it could be named the county seat, encouraged ranch cowboys to set up one-day businesses to meet the General Land Office requirement that a county seat have 20 commercial enterprises. Campbell was also the county’s first elected judge.

Today, Matador Ranch runs about 3,200 cows and another 2,500 stockers that are bound for the feedlot, all branded with the Flying V that Campbell adopted when he purchased his first herd of cattle in about 1878. Historically, the ranch has had a commercial cow herd, but now Akaushi bulls are being used, with the goal of producing a top F-1 calf. An F-1 calf is a first generation cross of two different breeds. Akaushi is a Japanese breed known for the marbling and taste of its meat.

But that many head of cattle requires horses, especially in the rough country that makes up part of Matador Ranch, and Matador has always had horses. When Frères bought Matador Land & Cattle Co. in 1951, his purchase included 1,400 horses. Of course, that was on 800,000 acres, and numbers are down from that now. Matador Ranch has set a goal of maintaining about 25-30 broodmares, a couple of stallions and about 45 geldings.

“Matador Ranch first started upgrading its horses in the early ’70s,” says ranch manager Bob Kilmer. “John Lincoln was the president and general manager then, and he purchased a group of Sugar Bars-bred mares to raise ranch horses.

“And we’ve always maintained some good mares. We would breed them to local stallions that belonged to some friends who had an association with the ranch, and we would raise some good colts.”

But they weren’t raising enough horses to fill their needs, so the ranch would sometimes buy horses for the cowboys to ride. All the horses were branded with a “50” on their left hip, the brand going back to Campbell’s original brand in 1878. The “M” that was part of the original brand was dropped.

Then, in the 1990s, things started changing. Being a subsidiary of a major corporation like Koch Industries put Matador Ranch in a position not shared by most other ranches. Ranching, by its nature, can be a dangerous business. Livestock are unpredictable, and accidents do occur. However, management at Koch looked at the Matador the same way they looked at their other subsidiaries – which span 60 countries and a wide range of industries – and decided that the accident rate at Matador Ranch was too high.

“We held the record in Koch Industries,” says Bob, “with the highest accident rate per man hour. And that’s not a record you want to hold. We were pretty much told that we had better get this thing under control, and now.”

J.D. Russell, who at the time was assistant ranch manager and charged with the development of the safety program, says, “So we started looking, and we discovered that 90 percent of our accidents were horse related. That’s when we decided to get some help, and we brought in Mike Bridges to do some clinics for us.”

Mike is a clinician from California who specializes in the California vaquero method of training horses. He worked with the Matador cowboys by helping them put their horses into a pressure situation similar to what they might encounter while working cattle, and showed them how to get their horses to respond to that pressure without panicking and getting a person or horse injured.

“We figured out pretty quick that as we became better horsemen, our horses became better,” J.D. says. “Then, we got to thinking, ‘OK, we’ve inherited problems with the horses we’ve bought, is there some way to keep from having to continually reprogram our horses? What if we started this relationship between horse and rider from Day 1 with our colts?’ And Mike agreed that was where the foundation starts. He said those babies were just open books, that they absorb everything and remember it the rest of their lives.”

At that point, Bob, J.D. and the other cowboys started thinking of not only increasing the size of their broodmare band so they could raise enough colts to fit their needs, but they also started thinking about evaluating the quality and genetics of their mares to be sure they were raising the kind of horses they wanted. As a team, they started looking at bloodlines, evaluating what they thought might work for them and what wouldn’t, and making decisions on how to breed their mares. They started keeping fillies out of what they considered to be their best mares, but they rode those fillies first to ensure they had the disposition and ability to be a producer of quality horses.

“We would buy a mare once in a while,” Bob says, “something that we had some history on, but we bought some mares that didn’t stay around very long either. We figured out they didn’t fit our criteria.”

The foals are weaned in the early fall and halter broken at that time. The cowboys spend about three days with them, turn them out, then get them up again and fool with them for a couple of more days before they are turned out again to grow.

Tim Washington, a cowboy on the ranch who rides and shows a lot of the horses, says, “We send most of our 2-year-olds to Jeff Williams and Rod Smith at Post, Texas, to get them started. That has turned out very well because Jeff and Rod also give us a good idea of what to expect from the colts when they are returned to the ranch. They have been very honest with us. One time, Jeff called about a colt that just wouldn’t come around. He said you couldn’t trust him and recommended we not waste any more money on him. We picked him up and sold him and his mother. That’s how serious we are about a horse’s disposition.

“Now, when we realize that a mare and a stallion might not nick, we may not sell that mare until we give her another chance,” Tim says. “But if we’ve got a couple of colts out of her, and they are both acting the same way, she doesn’t get strike three. We’re serious about safety, and we’re serious about our program. We have an obligation to Matador Cattle Co. and to our owners that we preserve our reputation, so we will get rid of an entire mare line if we think it’s necessary.”

As the ranch has rebuilt its broodmare band, it has stuck closely to the foundation that was started in the 1970s, but it has also branched out to pick up some of the more popular bloodlines that have proven to be cow horses. The ranch cowboys all agree that probably the basis for what they have today goes back to a 1985 mare called Lost Echo Gal. She was by a son of Gay Bar King and out of a Sugar Bars- and Hollywood Gold-bred mare, and has been a good producer for the ranch. Although she’s gone now, several of her daughters are in the broodmare band today.

Another mare, Claires Double, a double-bred Black Chick Gold mare, is the producer of MCC Double Heaven, the reserve champion in the 2011 AQHA Battle in the Saddle Remuda Challenge. And there have been a number of other horses produced on the ranch that have been very successful in AQHA, Ranch Horse Association of America and Ranch Cutting Horse Association competition.

Matador is breeding two stallions. One, High Marked, is by High Brow Hickory and out of a daughter of Smart Little Lena; the other, Wrigly, is by Boonlight Dancer and out of a Grays Starlight mare. All the mares are pasture bred, and the stallions are normally turned out about April 10. They are then picked up about July 1. Most of the mares are bred to one of the ranch’s stallions, but occasionally a mare is bred to an outside stallion.

Ranch cowboy Gilbert Guerrero, who was also involved with the development of today’s horse program, says, “We put the same scrutiny into breeding our mares to an outside stallion as we do when purchasing a stallion. We look at the horse, we look at his pedigree, and we talk to people who have bred to the horse.”

Matador Ranch is a corporate entity, and as such, its owners say it has to be economically viable.

J.D. says, “We get challenged on a regular basis on the economic viability of a program, and I would not be surprised if we get challenged in the future on the economics of our horse program. But we have proven that our horse program is profitable, and we’re going to do all we can to keep it that way. We’re looking at keeping 25 to 30 mares right now, but Koch is more than willing to expand any program that proves profitable, so I wouldn’t say it will never get any bigger.

“One of the things we did when we decided to increase the size of our mare band was to produce some quality horses to market to the public. We began to realize that there was some value in that 50 brand and that we were missing some marketing opportunities. We were showing some horses and getting along well, and we were being invited to some select sales. And our horses were selling well. But we wanted to make sure that we moved slow and stayed on track. We wanted to create a line of horses where people would say, ‘I want one of those 50s.’ ”

Matador also has a policy that if a horse sells at auction, and the buyer is not happy with his purchase, he can bring the horse back. Matador management wants everyone who buys a Matador horse to be satisfied.

Bob says, “Our horse program is not going to be the main source of revenue for Matador Ranch, but it’s a program we have to have. We have to have horses to operate this ranch, and we feel we’ve developed a very good program that will achieve all the things that we’re expected to as a Koch company.

“The cowboys on this ranch have a lot of pride in our horse program, and when they go to a horse show, they are ambassadors for the ranch and for Koch. And they are all dang good ambassadors, every one of them. We were really humbled when Matador Ranch was voted as the winner of the 2013 Best Remuda Award. We know the caliber of ranches that have won it in the past, and to be included among that group makes us very proud. And proud of our horses.”