Ranching Heritage Breeder: Silver Spur Operating Co.

Ranching Heritage Breeder: Silver Spur Operating Co.

Silver Spur Operating Co., the 2017 AQHA Best Remuda winner, celebrates both tradition and innovation.

Cowboy on a gray horse drags a calf to the branding fire

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Andrea Caudill

Overseeing the care of one of the largest commercial cattle operations in the United States takes manpower. Doing so while also honoring history and tradition? That also requires serious horsepower, embodied by AQHA Best Remuda winner Silver Spur Operating Co.
The ranches that make up the Silver Spur each have their own complex history.

The titular ranch, based in Encampment, Wyoming, was founded by Albert H. Hutson in 1879. Subsequent owners increased the land holdings for that ranch, and even in its early years, found great success breeding award-winning cattle, with a focus on Hereford, Angus and Charolais blood. 
In the early 1980s, the ranch was purchased by a corporation headed by telecommunications giant John Malone and his wife, Leslie. Over the next few decades, the Silver Spur added to its ranch land holdings, with the most recent purchase being New Mexico’s Bell Ranch in 2010. All told, Silver Spur encompasses four Wyoming ranches, four Colorado ranches, the historic TO and Bell ranches in New Mexico, and feedlot and farming operations in Nebraska. 

The Bell Ranch, especially, has an extensive history with AQHA. An AQHA Legacy Breeder of more than 50 years, it was managed in the 1930s by Albert K. Mitchell, one of AQHA’s founders and the Association’s only four-term president. 
Each division of the Silver Spur has its own employees and managers, all overseen by general manager Thad York, who is the third generation of his family to work for the Silver Spur, and is watching his son grow up on the same ranch. He oversees employees who, too, celebrate long generational histories on their respective ranches. The Malones have indicated an intention that the land they own – they are the largest individual land owners in the United States – will enter a trust with the intention of being preserved forever as open space, so future generations can continue to honor the ranching tradition.
The Malones are also horsemen with interests in many areas. The National Western Stock Show honored John as the Citizen of the West, which is an award given to someone who embodies the spirit and determination of the Western pioneer and perpetuates the West’s agricultural heritage and ideals. 

The Malones are generous philanthropists, having donated significantly in the equine world, including to Colorado State University’s equine sports medicine program, which helps not only individual horses through treatment, but also horses worldwide through ground-breaking research. In addition to their ranching interests, the Malones are also involved in Thoroughbred racing and the Olympic sport of dressage. 

“Tradition is very important to us,” says Thad. “You’re not going to see people out gathering cattle on a four-wheeler on a Silver Spur ranch. The cowboy tradition is important. Really, the whole mentality of family being critical, and the way it was in the days of old, is something we still focus on.”  

Silver Spur is dedicated to producing the highest-quality, all-natural beef product to the consuming public. The majority of their ranches are high-desert, mountainous terrain, and both bovine and equine must thrive in the environment. Their cattle herd is a mix of Red Angus, Black Angus and Charolais, and the ranch has developed its own cross that they call a Range Fire – a mix of Red Angus and Charolais – which thrives in their ranch conditions. 

The Ranching Heritage Breeder’s horses are foaled and raised at the Bell Ranch division. The temperate New Mexico climate makes foaling and growth easier than it would be in the colder weather in Wyoming and Colorado.

Once the horses are old enough, they are started under saddle, then distributed to the other ranch divisions. The ranch has more than 200 horses, with a mix of riding horses and breeding stock. Unlike some ranches, Silver Spur policy includes riding its mares, evaluating them for quality and ability before selection for the broodmare band. 

 “The ideal ranch horse, for us, is something large enough that you can do a job on,” Thad says. “That means if you have to rope a bull, you have enough horse that you can do that on. If you have to doctor a cow, or doctor a lot of yearlings, you have to have enough size to do that. That’s where we run into the problem in the cow-horse industry, a lot of those horses are smaller and lighter boned. So what we’re really trying to produce first and foremost has enough size and ability to do what we need to do on the ranch, but also has enough ability to turn around and go show.” 

Among the horses the ranch has raised is Versatility Ranch Horse world champion SS Hey One Eye, a prime example of the versatile animals the ranch is producing. 

The AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder program highlights working cattle ranches that breed high-quality American Quarter Horses primarily for ranch work. Horses bred by these ranches are given unique opportunities through Ranching Heritage competitions open only to these horses. For more information, visit www.aqha.com/ranching.