Color and Cow Sense

For more than 100 years, gray hair has been a good thing on this Texas ranch.

Frank Jones Jr.’s family has been raising gray cow horses for more than 100 years now, continuing a long line of horses that knew how to get a job done and looked good doing it. It makes perfect sense that when you ask Frank’s son, Bedford, what makes a good horse, he replies, “Well, first it has to be gray. When someone trots up on a gray horse, the first response is to step back and say, ‘Wow.’ ” In addition to this American Quarter Horse program, the Jones family operates a diversified farming and ranching operation in on the Wicker Ranch in Yoakum, Gaines, Dawson, Borden, Crosby and Dickens counties in West Texas. Bedford, now 36, came back to the family operation in 1998 after completing two degree programs at Texas A&M University. He lives with his wife, Michele, and their 5-year-old son, Henry, on their ranch just outside of Spur, Texas. His parents, Frank and Jean, are also actively involved in the family’s operations. Bedford’s younger sister, a Dartmouth graduate, has recently come back to the family operation as well. She’s handling the books and may in the future take over the farming side of the operation. “You could change the cows around, but you weren’t going to change the horses around,” Bedford says. “They were our Wicker Ranch horses.”

The history of the Wicker Ranch horses begins in the late 1800s. Joe Wicker and his family lived on the snakey bend of the Canadian River in Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. Wicker worked as a wagon boss, and over the years, he accumulated some “Trammell mares” from a well-reputed herd in the Territory. Just after the turn of the century, Joe decided to move his cattle, mares and family south to Borden County, Texas. With Joe were Frank Jones’ great-grandmother, Penelope Ann Horn Wicker, born in Virginia in 1819; his grandmother, Elitha Sellars Wicker; and his mother, infant Forrest Mary Wicker. In March 1901, the family arrived in Durham, where they lived in a half-dugout on the banks of Bull Creek until they built a big two-story house up on the flat in1911. It was the perfect place to settle, as 11 springs ran through the area. The Wicker girls, Frank’s mother, Forrest, and his aunt, Helen Joe, started school at the little one-room schoolhouse at Durham. Later, they attended school at Gail, but to do so, they had to board in town. The story has it that every Friday afternoon, Mr. Wicker would ride into town on a gray horse with two gray horses in tow, and together the three would ride back to the ranch to spend the weekend.

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Frank Sr. was good friends with D. Burns, whom he had cowboyed with in their earlier days. Burns knew of his friend’s preference for gray horses, and after Burns took over as manager of the famed Pitchfork Ranch, he called his longtime friend and suggested a gray stallion the Pitchfork had acquired. The horse was Joe Bailey’s King, son of Gonzales Joe Bailey (P-4), one of AQHA’s most celebrated foundation sires. It is this foundation bloodline that the Wicker Ranch horses remain true to today. None of the Wicker Ranch horses were ever registered until the early 1960s, after young Frank married Jean Cleveland, a ranch girl from Canadian, Texas. As a wedding gift, the elder Mr. Jones gave his new daughter-in-law one of the Wicker mares of her choosing. Jean thought it might be a good idea to get her filly registered, so she approached Mr. Jones about the idea. She wanted to register the filly’s mother to make the filly eligible to be registered. It was from that mare and filly that the Jones family got into the registered Quarter Horse business. Jean began to focus more closely on the family’s horse operation about 15 years ago. The 26 Wicker mares carry the blood of Jackie Bee, Vandy, Depth Charge (TB), Three Bars (TB) and Native Dancer (TB). The goal has always been simple – to raise good ranch horses. “A good ranch horse is kind of like that Hereford cow,” Bedford explains. “It’s a good base from which to start. … You can take a horse that has been raised on a ranch, that has been ridden on a ranch, that has been used right, and you can put him almost anywhere.” As Jean develops the breeding program, she takes into account the horses’ looks, ability and most certainly their dispositions. And while disposition is partly bred into a horse, Jean believes that how a colt is raised, weaned and started has just as much or more to do with it. “Everyone goes on and on about the stallions, but it’s the mother doing the raising,” she points out. “That mother’s disposition has an awful lot to do with that baby’s disposition. If she bites, that baby will likely see her biting, and it will pick up that same habit.”

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Through the years, as Jean became more in tune with her horses, she began to cull for such characteristics. The more time she spent working on handling techniques, the more things have improved in the way of disposition. Although Jean isn’t willing to take much credit, she says there’s a difference in the colts they’re raising today. The first colts that Jean broke that are now mothers are not nearly as gentle as the colts they’re now breaking, and that progress, the difference, is mostly attributed to handling. Typically, when the geldings are 2, the Joneses will have someone come in to start them. When they come back to the ranch, Bedford rides them until they’re ready to sell. “I enjoy having horses at different stages, at different ages with different abilities,” Bedford says. “There’s a lot of pride in trotting across the country on a nice-looking gray horse. “I wish we could start some of the colts, but we’d have to have some more help,” he continues. “I’m not a good bronc rider; I usually fall off pretty quick …or maybe we’ll finally go to raising some cowboys that can ride a horse for a change,” he says, pointing to his son, Henry. “That might be the key.” Jean is slowly turning the whole horse program over to Bedford and Michele. Bedford says they’ll continue in much the same way that his forefathers began – breeding good gray ranch horses with a focus toward not only color and looks, but also disposition and ability.