From Saddle to Statehouse

From Saddle to Statehouse

How the ranching life and American Quarter Horses have shaped South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem rides a palomino horse into the arena at the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, carrying the American flag.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem carried the American flag at the opening of Round 2 of the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Arlington, Texas. Here’s a story we published about the ranch-girl-turned-governor earlier in 2020.

By Mark Bedor

It’s one of the most thrilling horseback adventures in the American West: the South Dakota Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park. 

On the last Friday of September in the Black Hills, about 60 riders drive a herd of 1,500 buffalo some 5 miles into a big catch corral, as a crowd of 15,000 people watch the action at a safe distance from the hillsides above. 

It’s something like a controlled stampede, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem was in the thick of it, as she galloped alongside the herd on Four P Buzzwood, a Driftwood-bred stallion owned by Bobby and Colleen Harris.

“I did get chased by a bull,” she says, “and he was kind of serious about it. I thought he was bluffing, but he wasn’t!”

Fortunately, the bull quit with no harm to himself, the horse or its celebrated rider. This was not Gov. Noem’s first rodeo. Her father kept a small herd of buffalo, and she grew up in a ranching and farm family that also raised registered American Quarter Horses. She has been riding as long as she can remember. 

“It was kind of mandatory,” she says. Her influential dad, the late Ron Arnold, was a cowboy. “If you were working cows, you were horseback, and he loved it.”    

She did, too. And still does. 

“That’s how I detox. Sometimes, when you’re in this job, you do a lot of talking. And when I’m riding, I don’t have to talk,” Gov. Noem says. “It’s always relaxing for me. I wish I could be out more than I am, but I don’t know anybody who loves horses who doesn’t say that.”

Her ride into politics began after her beloved father was killed in a tragic accident at the family’s Racota Valley Ranch, outside the tiny town of Hazel, in northeast South Dakota. Ron Arnold was just 49. 

“A month or two later, we got a bill from the IRS that said we owed death (estate) taxes,” she says. “As typical ranchers, we had land, cattle, machinery, assets, but we did not have any money in the bank. And I could not believe we had a tragedy in our family, and then all of a sudden, now we owed the federal government thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. It made me angry. So that’s when I really started getting involved in government and politics.”

The tax was a whopping 55 percent. It took the family years to pay off the loan they took out to pay that tax bill. 

Kristi, then 22, dropped out of college to return home and run the ranch. She grew it, as well, adding a hunting lodge to the operation.

The young woman began attending meetings and speaking out on behalf of family farms, ranches and small businesses, and against the death tax that threatened her family. 

“It’s the only place in our federal law where we double tax somebody,” she points out. “Throughout your lifetime, you’re paying income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, but then we come back at a time of death and tax it all again? The federal government gets 55 percent? That’s not American.”

Encouraged to run for office, Kristi was first elected to the South Dakota legislature in 2006 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. 

“My goal was to get rid of the death tax,” says Kristi, a Republican who helped write the tax bill President Trump signed into law. “We didn’t get it completely repealed but we did get a bigger exemption and a lower rate. But my goal is to get it completely eliminated.”    

That can-do attitude was ingrained growing up as a ranch kid, where Kristi’s father regularly gave her and her three siblings what she calls impossible tasks. 

“It was, ‘Go break that colt, ride it and get it ready to go to the mountains’ when I was 10 years old,” she says. “‘Go make that mean mother cow get in the chute and make the calf suck’ when you’re 8 years old. And you didn’t come back and tell him you couldn’t get her in. You didn’t come back until it was done.

“My dad taught me to be a problem solver,” she says. “He taught me to tackle things and not quit. And then when you actually do accomplish them, it builds your confidence and makes you think that you probably can take on the hard stuff.

“Who I am today is 100 percent because of the parents that I had and where I grew up,” she says, “and the fact that we worked hard together every day as a family.”

They played hard, too, and horses were always involved in the fun. Kristi competed in rodeos, and when the fall ranch and farm work were done, the family headed west on hunting trips. 

“From the time I was little, as soon as we’d get the last crops out of the field, my dad would say, ‘Kristi, go load the horses in the trailer.’ And we’d head to the mountains for elk hunting,” she says. “Anything we did for work or fun, we used our horses.”

After her father died, Kristi and her husband, Bryon, continued raising Quarter Horses for years. 

“I probably had 10 to 15 mares at a time,” she says. “They were mainly bred Smart Little Lena, Doc O’Lena. We had some Driftwood horses, some Poco Bueno horses. I went to Texas and bought a stud who was a grandson of Smart Little Lena.

“If I could do anything every day, it’d be to get up and work with horses and cattle,” she says. “That’s my passion, and that’s my love.”

But after serving in Washington, and now as governor since January 2019, there’s simply no time for raising and training horses. The Noems have sold off many of their mares and no longer raise colts. 

But Kristi and Bryon, who live at the ranch with their teenage son, Booker, still have eight riding horses. The Noems also have two daughters in their 20s, Kennedy and Kassidy.

Gov. Noem returns home on weekends after spending the week at the governor’s residence in the state capital of Pierre. At home, she keeps company with TK Lil Champ (Tarzan Kid-A Little Bit Foxy by Cut O Fox Easter) and WS Cutter Loose (Docs General-Cutter Bar Sue by Bill’s Rock). Trouble With Less (Smart And Trouble-Les O Winnie by Son Of Les), who died a couple of years ago, was a family favorite whom the Noem kids grew up riding.

As a parent, Gov. Noem is quick to speak out against permissive parenting styles that she believes do harm to children. She strongly prefers the responsibility-laden childhood she had. 

“I tell parents all the time, ‘We are crippling our children in this country. You thinking that you need to do everything for your child is not doing your job,’” she declares. “Our job is to prepare them for life. Give them challenges and make them figure it out.”    

Her upbringing has made her a passionate advocate for farming, ranching and agriculture, which she calls a national security issue. 

“We have to grow our own food in this country to keep another country from controlling us,” she says. “I’ve always believed that it’s important that we have a safe and reliable food supply in the U.S., that it’s diversified and that we have family farmers out there. We can feed the world and do it better than anyone else.”

She’s convinced American agriculture can be a powerful tool for peace. 

“When you’re doing business with another country, you create a friendlier neighborhood,” she says. “That’s what your farmers and ranchers provide. They’re giving you an opportunity to have a relationship with a country by feeding them. It gives us more influence over them and creates more peace and stability.”

In these times of turmoil inside our own borders, the governor wants South Dakota to be a positive influence. 

“We have an opportunity as a small state to be an example to the nation,” the 48-year-old says. “So we’re going to fight for what makes America America. And we’re going to be the state that is much more aggressive in defending our freedoms and liberties, and giving people options and opportunities.

“And I’m hoping that’s a testimony to the rest of the country. While they’re out there doubling down on taxes and regulations and social experiments and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, I want South Dakota to be the opposite type of experiment. I want us to be the state that everybody looks at and says, ‘Boy, their families are sure happier. Their businesses are doing better. They have a lot less crime. Why is that?’ Hopefully, we can show that it’s because we fought for what makes America great, and we can be that example.”

Gov. Noem shares her own values on social media – with many of her posts featuring photos of her with horses and a cowboy hat. 

“My dad had a sign hanging over the gate to our horse pasture saying, ‘There’s nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a good horse.’ And I believe that, too."

And there’s nothing quite like getting a day in the saddle – especially, if it’s rounding up an impressive herd of buffalo on the plains of her home state. 

“It was really special,” she says of the roundup. “It was sure fun to be up there and be in the action. I just love being with those guys; those guys are real cowboys. And to spend the day with them can fix everything that’s wrong with you.”