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Haythorn Land & Cattle Company

Story courtesy of The Quarter Horse Journal
Story by Bruce Beckman
Photo by Jim Jennings

The Figure Four

Craig Haythorn untied his lariat, twirled out a loop, urged his horse into a brisk lope, and zeroed in on a Longhorn crossbred cow grazing some 200 yards away. Several other mounted cowboys did likewise, whooping and hollering as they galloped down the hillside into a grassy basin of the Nebraska Sandhills.

As Craig's horse reached full gallop, the cow raised her head, turned and broke into a trot, then a dead run. She was too late. Craig pulled alongside her within a matter of seconds. The cow drifted right, trying to outmaneuver the charging horse, but the horse framed her every move. With a quick sling of his arm, Craig headed the cow's massive horns and dallied almost simultaneously, the horse stopped squarely, leaning on his haunches as the cow slid to a halt. He then pushed the cow and turned his horse left as another cowboy handily roped the cow's hocks. Grinning, Craig walked his horse toward the cow, removed his rope, and left her a bit bewildered, but otherwise perfectly fit to lick and nurse her three-month-old calf, watching the episode cautiously from a distance.

"A lot of ranchers would question us roping our mama cows," Craig explained later over a chicken fried steak at the chuck wagon, during the height of spring roundup. "But the way I see it, we're making horses just as much as we're working our cattle." And without understanding this concept, it would be hard to understand the Haythorn Land & Cattle Company at all.

Few ranches in America today are as reliant on horses as the Haythorn Land & Cattle Company. Others are bigger, landwise, but the Haythorn is the largest breeder of American Quarter Horses in the United States. Splashed across the mostly treeless, rolling hills of western Nebraska, about 15 miles north of Ogallala, the Haythorn operation covers approximately 100 square miles of a geographic region commonly called "the Sandhills." Even four-wheel-drive pickups occasionally bog in the area's heavy sand, so a 150-head remuda is required to gather and work the ranch's 4,000-plus mother cow herd and their calves. During the long, often brutal winters, heavy snowfall periodically creates drifts as tall as the ranch's 20-foot windmills. Cattle must be well fed in these harsh environs, so the Haythorn hands hitch Belgian and Percheron draft horses six-wide to enormous sleds, and hay all the mother cows daily during calving season. "I've never had a draft horse that wouldn't start or got stuck," Craig grins. Granted, others in Wyoming, Montana and places where snow drifts deep use draft horses, but none do so on the scope of the Haythorn, where 90 head of draft horses are kept for bloodstock and using in the winter. Tractors are used only sparingly, during summer haymaking.

It has been this way for more than a century. The Haythorn Land & Cattle Company was established in 1884, although indirectly, its origins trace earlier. In 1876, 16-year-old Harry Haythornwaithe was living in England, and in love with a neighbor's daughter. Both teenagers wanted to marry, but their parents intervened on the basis of age. Upset, Harry stowed away on a ship bound for America. He was discovered by the captain at sea and forced to earn his passage by caring for a load of Hereford bulls being shipped from England to Texas. After arrival in Galveston, Harry made a favorable impression with the rancher who owned the bulls and went to his Texas ranch.

For the next eight years, Harry worked as a cowboy and trail boss, making four drives north from Texas two of Kansas railheads, and two to Ogallala. On his second trip to Ogallala, he bought a livery stable, shortened his name to Haythorn, and married (not the English girl). Using proceeds from the livery, Haythorn and his wife, Emma, purchased as much land as possible. They eventually raised two sons, Harry Jr. and Walter, and began a famed patriarchy of men and horses.

"Harry (Senior) was a tough sonuvagun," relates Craig of his great-grandfather. "We have a picture made of him after a couple of drives. He's got on woolly chaps, a six-shooter and cowboy hat. When he sent the photo back to England, I suspect his parents very nearly fainted. "Harry brought a lot of horses into this country," Craig continues. "Back around the turn of the century, he rode to Oregon one year in the fall to buy horses, and left there with 500 head and one cowboy to help him. Well, winter set in as they came across the Rockies. The old-timers say that at some point in the trip, they lost a bunch of horses that went over a cliff in the mountains. But, when they arrived in Ogallala, they still had 500 head."

At first, mares from this herd of 500 were crossed with Thoroughbred stallions gained from the United States Army's Remount program to produce saddle horses for the ranch and other cowmen in the region. "Used to, GreatGranddad said that horses paid the way around here," Craig remembers, "and the profits from cattle bought more land. Now, it's the other way around." As the ranch expanded and cattle multiplied, the Haythorns realized the limitations of the pure Thoroughbreds. Walt, Harry's elder son, traveled to Texas and Oklahoma and purchased foundation-bred American Quarter Horse stock. He is credited as being the first rancher in Nebraska to do so. It was at the Waggoner Ranch in Texas where the Haythorns discovered Joe Hancock-bred horses. Known for their speed and cow sense, the Joe Hancocks were a perfect match for the Haythorn's ranges. However, the true centerpiece in their horse breeding program came in the early 1940s, in the form of a chestnut stallion named Eddie. Foaled in 1940 by the Thoroughbred Raffles out of the grade mare Greta, Eddie traced to blue-chip Thoroughbred stock, primarily the famed Ultimus. Yet, he possessed first-rate cow sense.

"When we first saw him, he was a cutting horse," says Howard Haythorn, grandson of the founder and Craig's second cousin. "He won a cutting down in Fort Worth before we bought him in partnership with Roy Barnes of Denver. When we tried to register him with AQHA, because of his breeding, they asked for a picture which showed him working. So, we hooked him up in a team and took a photograph of him pulling a wagon. He was registered anyway."

While the Haythorns branded each of their homebreds with their trademark Figure Four brand, Eddie stamped them with a healthy dose of size, bone, stamina and even more cow sense. Today, every American Quarter Horse bred by the Haythorns traces to Eddie, and most to such stallions as Joe Hancock, Midnight, Beaver Creek, Blue Rock, and even the Haythorn's own Sport, out of the famed mare Lowry's Mabel. Currently, the ranch's prized stallion is Eddie Eighty, a grandson of Eddie, but Craig has made a commitment to infuse this with some contemporary blood. As Craig points out horses in the remuda, sire's names like The Continental, King Fritz, Preferred Pay and Straight Silver are mentioned.

"Our goal is to breed big, stout, sensible horses, with lots of endurance, athletic ability and cow sense." Craig explains. "We make sure that we're breeding flat-boned, well-balanced horses as far as conformation. "Everything is pasture bred," he adds. "I sit down a few evenings in the fall, study pedigrees, and consider what studs have worked well on which bands of mares. We have eight stallions we currently use. I may switch some mares around among the different broodmare bands, and experiment with them until I get them all just right. I have a pretty good idea what works: If a certain cross doesn't, I just try something else next year."

This strategy has been extremely productive. The ranch registers approximately 150 foals every year, and offers 100 well-broke geldings every other fall in a production sale, the next being in 1994. While only 32 Haythorn-breds have made it into AQHA performance arenas, they have accounted for 1,572 points. More dramatic, though, horses sporting the Figure Four brand have appeared in thousands of professional, collegiate, high school and amateur rodeos across the country, many ridden by Haythorns. Craig, and his father Waldo before him, has competed and won in such prestigious rodeos as Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Pendleton Roundup and even the National Finals Steer Roping on Haythorn horses. More recently, the Haythorn Land & Cattle Company team has won the Abilene (Texas) Western Heritage Roundup Ranch Rodeo four out of the last five years, and one of their horses has either won or been second in the all-round horse competition each year entered.

The success of American Quarter Horses produced by the Haythorn Land & Cattle Company is such that the ranch was the winner of the inaugural AQHA "Best Remuda Award," which Waldo Haythorn accepted at the 1993 National Cattlemen's Association Convention in Phoenix. "We almost didn't send in the application," Craig says modestly. "We didn't think we'd win, and when I got the phone call, I was almost beside myself. Winning that award has been one of the single greatest things we've ever accomplished. Dad and everyone in our family has spent a lifetime breeding good horses, and we were really honored to receive the Best Remuda Award."

It's slightly after four in the morning, camp cook Jimbo Humphreys lights the lanterns and cook fires, and begins breakfast for the 20-odd hands during spring roundup at Buckhorn Camp. About a dozen cowboys work full-time at the Haythorn, while a few others "neighbor," helping out when there is branding or gathering to be done. Several cowboys stretch and yawn as they emerge from their tepees in the pre-dawn chill and walk stiffly toward the chuckwagon. Two cowboys catch the "wrangle horses," hobbled geldings which they then saddle and ride off quietly into the dark.

Over a steaming tin cup of fresh black coffee, Howard Haythorn reminisces about the ranch's history. Haythorn Land & Cattle Company has always been run by male members of the family, he says. First, it was Harry, then his sons, Walter and Harry Jr. When the state of Nebraska decided to put in a recreation area and Lake McConaughy just north of Ogallala, the Haythorns sold them the land. Howard, Harry Junior's son, used the proceeds to buy a ranch near Maxwell, Nebraska, which he manages today. Walter's son, Waldo, followed by Craig, took over the old headquarters ranch, with its Ackley Valley and Broken Axle divisions.

Howard, who can recite pedigrees and remember infinite details of horses long gone "a trait apparently shared by all Haythorn men" recalls the old days fondly. "The old horses which descended from those first 500 horses that Granddad bought in Oregon were a little cold-blooded," he says.

"Granddad bred them to Thoroughbreds from the Army Remount, but about all that did was give our geldings more action when they bucked."

One of the cowboys, Mark Goodman, chuckles knowingly. A full-time employee of the ranch, Goodman speaks fondly of Waldo, and the era before the old rancher was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. "Waldo used to be a fun-lovin', life-lovin' sonuvagun," Goodman remembers. "I think he set the precedent for us having fun during roundup, like roping cows, and living out of the wagon. Craig is trying to keep all this alive. Most of the other work we do throughout the year is really boring, like haying in the summer, feeding in the winter. Branding, on the other hand, is fun."

"I had a good-paying job processing cattle for ConAgra for a while in Torrington, Wyoming," Goodman adds, as if to subtly state his point. "The owners never even saw the cattle. And believe me, processing is boring same thing, day in, day out. That's why I came back here. It's a lot more fun being a cowboy, doing things the old ways."

Never is this more evident as daylight creeps over a distant ridge, accompanied by a low rumbling of running horses. In the soft sand and dewy grass, 150 head of loping American Quarter Horses make a deeply satisfying sound. The remuda pens easily in a large rope corral.

After breakfast of pancakes and sausage, the cowboys walk toward the corral. They tease one another about the horses each will ride, particularly the three-year-olds on their maiden expeditions. They speak respectfully of horses like the sensible, well-muscled Radish, flaxen maned Brumby, and above all, Shovel, former all-around horse at the Abilene Ranch Roundup.

Craig enters the remuda, carefully picking and choosing the cowboys' mounts, allowing only veterans the option of selecting their own. After quick study, Craig captures each gelding with a quick, graceful, left-handed hoolihan. He rarely misses.

Each cowboy walks to his morning mount, bridles it, leads the horse to saddles and blankets over by the wagon, and prepares for a long day's ride. A few younger, spirited horses hump up and buck a little in the morning chill. One youthful cowboy is thrown. Slightly embarrassed, and enduring lots of good-natured ribbing, he mounts up again, this time with little resistance.

The day might seem long by some standards, but it's an easy one as days go at the Haythorn. At three separate locations during the day, groups of large-framed, big-horned cows "varying mixtures of Hereford, Angus and Longhorn" are gathered from the sandhills and penned in large, open-ended corrals. With the cows bunched at the closed end, four riders rope and drag calves to the branding fires, aided by five pairs of cowboys on the ground who sweat and puff as they flank calves. The efficiency of the operation is inspiring. At day's end, more than 500 calves are worked. Some days, it's 900. With the fires buried and their work complete, the cowboys tighten their horses' cinches, mount up, shake out their ropes, and holler as they ride out on the grassy plain to rope the big-horned cows. Even Craig's adolescent sons, Sage and Cord, ride along with their dad and get in on the roping.

And as this drama unfolds, you observe that the spirits of the tired and weary cowboys are somehow lifted as they gallop across the ancient plain. You also notice that horses branded with the Figure Four rarely break a sweat.