By Becky Newell
Helen Hall bounded out of the house, screen door slamming shut behind her, as her grandmother yelled, “Helen, you get back in here and churn this cream so we have butter for dinner!” It was 1917, and the horse-crazy 12-year-old Helen would have preferred to be doing anything, anywhere on a horse as opposed to house chores. Returning to the kitchen, she grabbed the jar of cream and took it outside where she crammed it in a saddlebag, crawled on her horse and took off across the ranch at a long trot. There was more than one way to churn cream into butter, and Helen was going to do it horseback.
|Helen Michaelis in her office. (AQHF Archives)|
Decorating her bedroom with a bird egg collection and the skins of the snakes she’d crossed paths with, Helen was anything but a conventional young lady of the time. But she wasn’t all tomboy. One writer, in the early 1930s, said, “Hall was a well-poised college woman at home in any society, a fine conversationalist, a graceful dancer whose ambition was to become a writer of Western fiction.”
But above all else, Helen loved horses, which led her to become one of the recognized authorities on horses in a time when women customarily took a secondary role to men. She became a pedigree expert and recorder in the early days of the American Quarter Horse breed, one of the founders of AQHA and then the second executive secretary of the Association, the first and only woman to hold that position. Her early work and passion also made her the first woman inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.
She accomplished so much and virtually set up the registry based on the meticulous notes she made about the breeders and the horses that, at that time, were called Steeldusts and Billys, yet there has been little written about her in the 80-year history of the Association.
“Helen Michaelis holds a position almost unparalleled in the livestock industry,” wrote Bob Denhardt in the Quarter Horse Journal in 1965. “She was one of the key figures in the organization and development of the modern Quarter Horse. I cannot think of another woman in livestock history who has played an equal role. Many women love cattle and horses. Many spend all of their time working with livestock, but there has only been one Helen Michaelis.
“Anyone who tries to explain a woman is doomed to failure, but some of the reasons for Helen’s success can be analyzed,” Bob continued. “One reason so many women fail when attempting to talk horses with men is that they try to be like a man. Helen was always a lady, expected to be treated as such, and so always was. Had she tried to do, or to be, something she was not, her vast knowledge of Quarter Horses would have been lost to the organizers, as she would not have been accepted in their regular meetings.”
|Helen Hall Michaelis at age 18. (Courtesy of the Michaelis Family)|
From the Beginning
Helen Mary Hall was born on February 7, 1905, on Bear Creek Ranch near Junction in Kimble County, Texas, which is just about in the center of the state. Her mother was Florence Black, a daughter of Col. William L. Black, who had a storied background. He was convicted of piracy on the high seas as a teenager and imprisoned at Alcatraz, became wealthy trading cotton, started the St. Louis cotton exchange, and later settled in Kimble County, bought a big ranch, introduced Angora goats to the area and started the Range Canning Company.
Helen’s father, Fred S. Hall, came to Texas from England to ranch and raise horses. Before leaving England, he and a friend about his age had argued over whether to go to Australia or Texas. Unable to agree, they flipped a coin. Fred chose tails. Tails won, and they came to Texas.
“Helen loved her daddy, and her daddy loved her,” says Nancy Helen Hall Davis, Helen’s niece. “He loved horses, and Helen loved horses, and that made them even closer.”
Besides Helen, her parents had three boys, all younger than Helen. By the time she was 9, Helen was breaking colts for her dad.
“I started out by halter-breaking them and began climbing on their backs before I was 10,” Helen wrote in “A Brief Account of Myself,” which appeared in The Ranchman. “Dad thought I stood a better chance of growing up in one piece if I did not use a saddle, so most of them I broke bareback until I was almost 11, and then I had my first saddle. I had learned to ride bareback and did not know there was anything but mane to grab.”
In 1917, Helen’s family moved to a different ranch two counties to the north in Concho County, near Eden, Texas. After high school, Helen taught school for two years, which was long enough for her to discover that teaching was not the job for her. She spent two years in college at Brownwood, Texas, then went on to the University of Texas in Austin.
“When I got to Austin, I found many things I wanted, but the thing I missed most was not there,” Helen wrote. “The only horses available were a few broken-down typical rent horses that no true horse lover would ride.”
Helen was truly horse crazy.
“Enrolling at UT, she had much to learn, but when it came to horseflesh, she dang sure knew the difference between withers and fetlocks,” wrote Mike Cox in an article about Helen in the April 2018 Ranch & Rural Living. In one interview in the 1930s, Helen was asked what her favorite pastimes were. “Oh,” she replied, “riding, breaking colts, trading horses, buying horses, doctoring horses...”
During the 1927-28 school year, she pleaded with administrators to add horseback riding instruction to the curriculum. She got a lot of no’s. Helen spent the summer of 1928 teaching riding at a girl’s camp, Camp Ekalea, in Estes Park, Colorado. “There were 20 girls in the camp, all from the East, filled with vague ideas of life in the far West and thrilled to meet a real Texas ranch girl,” wrote Molly Connor Cook in the October 7, 1928, Austin American-Statesman Magazine. “Their naïve questions were a source of unmitigated delight to Miss Hall. One asked: Do cow ponies have horns? (Why else call them ‘cow ponies?’) Another wished to know how long a cow must be trained before she could be driven. One of the girls, sent to saddle her own pony as one of the early lessons in the art of riding, was told, ‘You have your saddle on backward.’ ‘But how do you know which way I’m going?’ came the ready answer.”
Helen’s summer job sparked an idea: Persuade the UT physical department to add horseback riding as a physical education credit. That was how she jumpstarted a riding school in the fall of 1928 to pay for her final two years in college. She gathered up eight of her own horses from the family ranch at Eden and, with the help of her brother Fred, drove them 200 miles to Austin. It took them five days.
“Helen Hall, the pretty, blonde–but thoroughly cowgirl–instructor now has between 25 and 30 horses at her university riding academy, formerly the Westenfield Riding Club, and her number of girl students has increased from a dozen or so at the beginning of the course last year to over 80 for the winter term,” according to an article in the February 21, 1930, Austin Statesman.
“‘Eds’ Take to Horses as Pretty Instructor Lassoes Prospects,” “Helen Michaelis Qualifies as Human Encyclopedia on Horses,” and “She Put Horses in Varsity Curriculum” were the headlines to the stories that made Helen a celebrity before she was even 30.
“Helen talks horses–in her soft western drawl with the easy lingo of an old trader,” wrote Leonard Falkner in the May 1928 American magazine. “A horse is never just a horse, but a filly, a mare, a yearling or a 3-year-old. He’s so many hands high, clean-legged or shaggy. She can tell at a glance just how much Spanish there is in his blood, whether he’s out of Kentucky or western stock. And by feeling of his tusks–the teeth at the sides of his lower jaw–she knows, in the dark, just how old he is.”
While it can’t be confirmed that Helen actually graduated from UT, we do know she ran the riding academy well into the early 1930s. Knowing what we do about Helen, we’re guessing the horses and the riding academy held more allure than a college degree. It wasn’t long, though, before she met the man she would marry, Max G. Michaelis Jr. He was a rancher from Mexico.
Max was the son of a prominent citizen and rancher at Kyle, Texas, according to Denhardt’s 1965 Journal article. “Max grew up on his father’s Hays County ranch, not too far from where W. W. Lock raised his fabulous Quarter Horses during the latter part of the 19th century. Max wanted to make it on his own. He found out that some cattlemen were going to establish a ranch in northern Mexico. He signed up and went to work.”
Max eventually leased a ranch in Mexico and got into the cattle business on his own.
“It was then that he met, and took as his bride, Helen Hall,” Bob wrote. They were married in 1932.
“The Michaelis ranch was located near Muzquiz, Coahuila,” Bob wrote. “Less than a year later, they moved further into the back country into an area few Americans had dared to venture. The following year, they bought the ranch they had been leasing, El Fortín. They continued expanding until their ranch comprised over a half million acres. Max was an astute cattleman and made another fortune moving cattle across the border.”
Helen wrote that even though they made their living with cattle, “we also ran over 300 head of horsestock. We concentrate on Quarter Horses but have a lot of good Spanish horses in our remuda, the kind that featured in the development of the Quarter Horse.”
Six years after they were married, Max G. Michaelis III, aka “Maxie,” was born.
“At the time I was born, (Lázaro) Cárdenas became president of Mexico, and there was a lot of unrest,” Max III told Bob in 1981. “Daddy and Mother didn’t know if they were going to lose their land, so Daddy and an old Scotsman named McKeller went to Texas to find a ranch to run Daddy’s cattle on. That’s how they found the O2 Ranch at Alpine. It was hard, dry country, but they needed a place to go. Daddy wound up leasing the ranch, and they drove the cattle across what is now Big Bend National Park. In later years, Daddy said it was the best move he’d ever made.”
While Helen and Max were managing a couple of ranches and a cattle operation, as well as raising their young son, Helen was also keeping detailed notes on an emerging line of horses in South Texas. The American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum has hundreds of typed and handwritten letters, postcards and telegrams that were exchanged between Helen and many of the early horse breeders of the time: Manuel Benavides Volpe, George Clegg, Coke Blake, Jack Casement, Dan Casement, Jess Hankins, Albert Mitchell, W. B. Warren and many others.
In fact, that’s how Helen and Bob Denhardt met. “My first contact with her was in the middle ’30s,” Bob wrote in that 1965 Journal article. “I had been writing occasional articles about Quarter Horses, then generally termed Steeldusts or Billys, for various magazines. In order to keep duplicate horse names straight, I added a 1, 2, 3 after the name, giving the earliest horse the number 1, and so forth. After reading one of my articles on the Billy Horse of South Texas, Helen wrote me asking what number I had assigned to Ott Adams’ Little Joe. He was Little Joe III. It was obvious from her letter that she knew as much as I did about South Texas horses. Since that time, we have been friends.”
When Bob hatched a plan for a breed registry, Helen and Max were among the first people to receive an invitation to the meeting during the Southwestern Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas. It was March 1940.
“She was elected a director,” Bob wrote in 1965, “and is one of the very, very few who have been a director continuously from that day to this. I do not believe over three or four of the original directors have served for the past 20 years that the AQHA has been in existence.”
In 1942, Helen, who was ranching at Eagle Pass, Texas, took over as the Association’s secretary, when Bob stepped down to accept another job.
|Helen, center, visiting with AQHA Executive Secretary Raymond Hollingsworth, left, and the first executive secretary of AQHA Robert Denhardt, right. (AQHF Archives)|
“The second reason for her acceptance (by the ranchers and breeders), and indeed without which she would never have been inside the circle to begin with, was her profound knowledge of all phases of the Quarter Horse industry,” Bob wrote. “As far as we were concerned, her whole life centered around Quarter Horses. I’ll never forget the day her husband, Max, said to me at the Stamford, Texas, show, ‘Well, Bob, you all have a good secretary, but I’ve lost the best ranch manager a cowman ever had.’”
In those early days, the Association was too small to bring a secretary to it. Instead, the Association moved to the secretary. The office–Helen’s office–remained in Eagle Pass in what used to be a garage until 1946.
As the AQHA executive secretary and a noted authority on bloodlines, Helen could spot fabricated pedigrees. More than one rancher’s horse or horses passed inspection but did not get past Helen on bloodlines.
“Let me give you one example,” Bob wrote. “A far western breeder had made an expensive trip to Texas in 1944 and bought a pretty good stud from a rather well known but nonetheless slippery horse trader. The young stallion was bought with an AQHA application filled out by the seller. His sire was a registered palomino horse sired by a Thoroughbred and out of a Quarter-type mare. The dam of the stud he bought was said to be sired by a well-known South Texas Quarter Horse stallion. When the application came in approved by an inspector on performance and conformation, it was discovered that almost no known Quarter Horse bloodlines were present. The dam’s sire, the only well-known bloodline, had been taken to Arizona three years before the dam was born, so the only chance the stallion had was eliminated. The owner had bred the stallion to quite a few mares, guaranteeing that his stallion would be registered. Would you liked to have been secretary?”
Helen’s steadfastness to the Association’s rule that horses had to pass muster based on bloodlines was not only a positive, but a negative.
“The good of the breed prohibited any exceptions, for each and every case was exceptional to the owner of the turned-down horse,” Bob wrote. “The war years and the requirement for pictures also contributed to the unrest (among breeders). She was not the only officer on the receiving end. The Executive Committee voted on each horse turned down and was equally responsible with Helen.”
The unrest in the industry led to the founding of the competing National Quarter Horse Association.
“We were receiving ultimatums on all sides,” Bob wrote. “Lee Underwood was president, R. A. Brown and I were vice presidents and, of course, Helen was secretary-treasurer. We decided that we would all retire in March of 1946 and let a clean slate of officers take over. Then a new start could be made, with a greater chance of bringing the discordant groups into the fold. Melville Haskell and Albert Mitchell deserve most of the credit for bringing all the groups together into one Quarter Horse Association.”
|Just a few of the many of Helen's notebooks that are housed at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. (Doug McElreath photo)|
In the only article published in the Journal about Helen, Bob points out that because it would make the article too long, he wasn’t going to mention anything about Helen and her breeding, racing and showing activities. Our guess is that because Helen spent so much time researching horses for the Association, her own horses took a back seat.
“Helen raised top horses,” he said. “She and Max raced Quarter Horses very successfully. She deserves much of the credit for the success of Eagle Pass as a Quarter Horse racing center in the early days of the Association, and her ribbons and cups received at conformation shows fill a room.”
He added that Helen had a most interesting life.
“It has been her good luck to do and have what she valued most,” he said. “Life without a family, horses or ranching would have been a prison to her.”
Helen, on the other hand, didn’t really think her life was all that much different from anyone else’s.
“There is nothing unusual about life on a ranch or the time spent in college,” she wrote. “Perhaps, it is the circumstances under which those years are spent that make one life unlike another. My philosophy that happiness and contentment are the most coveted things in this world took shape in my own life. To make one’s hobby one’s profession is happiness within itself. But to have contentment mingled with happiness in a full life is what Mexicans call ‘pilon,’ or a little something extra.”
August 15, 1946, was Helen’s last day as secretary-treasurer of AQHA. She had given uncounted days and hours working for the Association, and despite pressure and criticism, followed the rules and regulations to the letter. She died in 1965, and in 1985, became the first woman inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.
In all of the newspaper and magazine stories written about Helen, she was often referred to as “versatile.” Considering that the American Quarter Horse is known as the most versatile horse in the world, it was also a good label for Helen.