Horseback Riding on a Stik Horse

Colorado rancher Mike Major is finding success with horses bearing this unique brand.

From America's Horse

If it hadn’t been for a set of rank mules, a head-slinging bull, a pretty woman who showed all-around or the National Western Stock Show’s first AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse competition, Mike Major might not be where he is today.

Breaking those mules helped him to his first good mares. Colliding with the bull helped him focus on ranching for a living. The woman – now wife Holly – helped him see the finer points of the western riding class. And versatility, well, that was his kind of horse show.

It was a roundabout way to get where he is: rancher and family man, an AQHA Professional Horseman and leading competitor, winner of the inaugural Project Cowboy competition and a breeder of good using horses carrying a “stik” horse brand.

“Dad always kept mules around to ride for wagons and to torment us boys with, I think,” Mike says with a laugh.

Mike’s parents, Malcolm “Buddy” and Helen Major, raised six children on two ranches near Magdalena, New Mexico – one place Buddy bought from his grandfather’s estate. Buddy has ranching- and running-bred horses. He began with mares his father raised, sired by cavalry remount studs, and bred them to a Leo-Hard Twist-bred horse.

“We had racehorses that really could cut a cow or whatever,” Mike says.

Mike remembers getting his first mare at age 8, a gift from a nearby rancher. As a boy, he began breaking all his dad’s colts for ranching or racing. And that’s where the mules came in.

As a member of the American Quarter Horse Association, you have the opportunity to enroll a horse in the Full Circle Program. There is no cost for this service, and it doesn’t imply a guarantee or financial commitment on your part at all. Should a horse you enroll in Full Circle ever become unwanted or ready for retirement, you could be contacted to help.

Buddy had a couple of young mares by a son of Azure Te, and Mike thought they’d be a great start for a broodmare band. He offered to buy them or trade for them, but his dad refused.

“But then he said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ ” Mike remembers. “ ‘I’ll give you those two mares, but I want you to ride those mules all fall and get them good and broke.’ So I made the deal with him.”

“Those mules were terrible,” Mike continues. “One of them, you had to hobble him to get on, and we had put a three-way hobble on him. And still with the hobbles, you’d cheek him around and step on him, and he would take off bucking.

“But that’s how I got into the mare business.”

A 43-year breeder, Mike’s stock has always been a combination of running, ranching and cutting blood. His stallions included Leovada Chick, a 1974 black son of AQHA Champion Leovada and out of a Three Chicks mare; Joys Double Feature, a 1988 Beduino (TB)-Truckle Feature-bred horse; and Bright Mito Bars, a 1984 Mito Paint-Sugar Bars-Bright Bar horse.

Some of Mike and Holly’s broodmares still carry that blood. These days, the Majors are adding more cutting lines with their stallions Smart Whiskey Doc by Paddys Irish Whiskey, Love A Little Devil by Smart Little Lena, now owned by Carl Wood of Delta, Colorado, and RPM Mr Stylish by Docs Stylish Oak, now owned by Dale Camp of Twin Bridges, Montana. They wanted to raise good-looking horses that can do anything with a cow on a ranch or in the arena.

The Bull

Mike comes from a family of ropers – Buddy was a noted professional tie-down roper – and Mike was riding bulls by age 13. He made a living ranching and rodeoing in open rodeos, on bulls and saddle broncs. But in the late ’70s, he started thinking differently.

“A bull got his horn stuck in my throat and it came out the roof of my mouth,” he says. “We just met at the wrong time. It almost ended my life.”

He continued to rodeo, team roping, until 1990 when he bought the old Flying A Ranch in Fowler, Colorado, where he and Holly ranch today. It was once owned by singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry.

The Majors also have a cow-calf operation near Belen, New Mexico, about 80,000 acres deeded and leased. They have bulls out year-round and brand twice a year.

Many owners are concerned about the long-term care of horses they’ve bred and/or owned, even long after they’ve been sold. The Full Circle Program was developed by AQHA to give you that option.

“You go to one end of it and work down, and the next day, you gather in another part of it,” Mike says. “That’s an opportunity to ride these young horses, it really is.

“If I’ve got a colt that thinks he’s pretty tough, I’ll take him down there. That country is sandy, and there are some mesas and break-offs, rough country. We still drag calves to the fire, and it really makes horses out of them.”

Though Mike competed in some ranch rodeos in the ’90s and even rodeoed again one year, “It just wasn’t the same,” he says.

The Lady and the Versatility

Mike met Holly through mutual friends in Fowler. The rancher and the all-around exhibitor married in 2000. In 2003, they went to the first AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse competition at the National Western Stock Show in Denver and happened on something that married their horseback backgrounds.

“It was a new event starting out, and we thought it was fun because there were so many different classes,” Mike says. “We came back home and geared for that.”

The class was perfect for the horses they were raising. They had a string of young horses that included the stallion Smart Whiskey Doc. Mike and “Whiskey” learned the event together, including the art of lead changes.

“I hadn’t a clue about a trail class or western riding; I had worked cattle and roped all my life,” Mike says. “Holly had done the other parts and never the cow part. It was fun because we got to teach each other.”

Since then, Mike and Whiskey have earned several open and amateur year-end awards in Versatility Ranch Horse and working cow horse, in addition to the 2006 Select working cow horse world championship. At the 2008 Versatility Ranch Horse world championship, Mike and Whiskey won reserve in the open, and Holly and Love A Little Devil were third in amateur. Mike and Whiskey won the event in 2009 and 2010.

AQHA judge Jim Heird has often judged Mike in versatility competitions.

“Of all the exhibitors that would come up and ask me questions, Mike maybe asked more than anybody else,” Jim says. “About what we looked for as

judges or what the purpose of the division was. (He) just really wanted to make it right and do it perfectly.

The theory behind the Full Circle Program is to provide caring owners with the option to provide for the long-term care of horses they’ve bred or owned over the years. The options are numerous and completely up to you and the current owner.

If your situation has changed and you can’t help, there’s no obligation on your part by enrolling the horse.

“He’s a horseman,” Jim adds. “And he wants to combine the ranching heritage with the cattle operation and the horses, and he wants them to be done well. And it shows when he goes in the ring.”

The Payoff

After winning the open Versatility Ranch Horse world championship in January 2010 Mike and his then-5-year-old homebred mare names Black Hope Stik won the ranch remuda contest in July 2010 at the inaugural Battle in the Saddle in Oklahoma City.

“We’re proud of this mare,” Mike told The American Quarter Horse Journal after that win. “Her mother goes back to one of the first horses I started raising when I got into the horse business. Her daddy is the Smart Whiskey Doc stud that we won the world on in the Versatility Ranch Horse twice, and so we’re really proud to have something that has been in our program all the way through, especially by our stud horse that’s done us so much good.”

Then in October 2010, “Black Hope” and Mike were one of the 165 horse and rider teams that competed in the first-ever Project Cowboy in Fort Worth. And they won that, too.

AQHA Trail Rides

Hit the trail at one of these upcoming AQHA Trail Rides. Be sure to enroll in the Horseback Riding Program to earn rewards for the time you spend in the saddle, whether that time is spent on a ranch, trail riding or riding in your arena.

    • Detroit, May 18, 2013
    • Valentine, Nebraska, May 18-19, 2013
    • Butterfield, Minnesota, June 7-9, 2013
    • New Foundland, New Jersey, June 8, 2013