A Great Ranch Horse: Boots O'Neal's 'Smokey'

A Great Ranch Horse: Boots O'Neal's 'Smokey'

Boots O'Neal remembers one of the great horses that turned in a great ride day in and day out.

Texas cowboy Boots O'Neal and his best ranch horse

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A cowboy for nearly all his life, Boots O’Neal has worked on ranches that include two of the Lone Star State’s most historic remudas: the Waggoner Ranch near Vernon, Texas, and the Four Sixes in Guthrie, Texas.

He has punched more cows and ridden more horses than anyone could ever hope to remember, but he’ll never forget the great rides on one bluish-gray gelding named "Smokey," a hard-working horse that Boots depended on for more than 15 years.

“I’ve ridden hundreds of saddle horses, probably some that were better than him at one thing or another,” Boots said.

“But Smokey was the rare horse that was real good at everything. I roped a jillion wild broncs on Smokey and at least that many calves. I had confidence in him because I knew he’d never quit on me.”

This story begins more than 48 years ago on the Waggoner Ranch, where Boots was boss at the White Face Camp, in charge of starting colts for the ranch. The ranch had approximately 225 mares that lived in scattered line camps in herds of 25-30. Every summer, a stallion would be put in with each herd to sire the next year’s foal crop.

In 1965, Poco Rack, an own son of Poco Bueno, the Waggoner Ranch superstar senior stallion, was introduced into the Santa Rosa Line Camp. The next year, a dark blue-gray colt was born, out of Lady Mike 23, a Nifty Pep mare. The colt’s registered name was Mr Rack 23, but everyone called him “Smokey.”

Cowboys who lived at the camp also noted the colt’s unusual face markings: a red spot that ran the length of the left side of his face. Boots noticed it, too, as well as the youngster’s overall quality, when he arrived at the Santa Rosa camp in the fall to help wean and brand the colts.

“He was an exceptional colt,” he recalled, “and really stood out.”

Every fall, there were 160-170 colts weaned at the ranch; and every winter, Boots would start 40-50 3-year-olds. But he was eager to get the big, gray gelding under saddle.

“So I went ahead and broke Smokey as a 2-year-old,” Boots said. “And I rode him a lot of long, hard miles for the next 15 years.”

Smokey was a stout colt, 15.2 hands high and 1,275 pounds, who learned fast and pulled good.

He covered ground well, with a comfortable jog. His back and withers were put together so the cowboy could snug a saddle up, and it’d stay put all day. Smokey was cowy: he could hold the herd, and cut and work cattle. Boots used Smokey as his round-up horse and for tasks usually assigned to the best horse a cowboy had.

“When he was young, he’d get a notion to buck once in a while,” Boots added with a twinkle in his eyes. “It didn’t happen often, but when he did, he’d really blow up and unload. Then when he turned 12, he just stopped doing it – which was fine with me!”

Each cowboy at the ranch had between six and 10 horses to ride and care for. Most horses were turned out at some point. Not Smokey.

“It was unique that I rode him all year round, year after year,” Boots said. “Truth was, I couldn’t do without him.”

Smokey was built to work all day. (Credit: courtesy of Boots O'Neal)


Smokey was also unique in that he was the only working horse on the ranch with an AQHA point.

“I was at a local roping, and one cowboy came over and urged me to enter, so there’d be enough competitors to earn AQHA points,” Boots recalled with a smile. “So I did, we did some heeling, and Smokey earned a point. I’m not sure if that’s what the other cowboy had in mind!”

Smokey was also the only horse on the ranch to help retrieve an airplane door.

“I heard that the Air Force was looking for a cargo door that had blown off a plane, and I remembered seeing what might be it in a real remote place on the ranch,” Boots said. “So Smokey and I dragged the door to where the military could get to it with a Jeep. I definitely think Smokey preferred dragging calves, though, and I dragged a jillion calves on him.”

In those many years of working the ranch, Boots was the only rider that Smokey knew.

“It’s the law of the range that you ride your own horses; it’s unethical to ride another cowboy’s horse,” Boots said. “If a cowboy breaks his leg, his horses are just turned out until he can use them again.”

After 24 years at Waggoner Ranch, Boots decided to head down the road. Some outfits will give a ranch foreman one of his old horses when he leaves. But it wasn’t to be. On his last day, Boots left his long-time partner, then 18 years old, behind.

“I’ve often wondered what Smokey’s last days were like,” Boots said quietly. “But I do know this: If there’s a horse heaven, he’s there.”

Boots O'Neal pictured leading in the Four Sixes ranch remuda. Boots has worked on ranches that include two of the Lone Star State’s most historic remudas: the Waggoner Ranch near Vernon, Texas, and the Four Sixes in Guthrie, Texas. PHOTO: Bee Silva