Wareham: The Ranch Horse is Not Obsolete

New technology can't replace the legacy and necessity of the ranch horse. On the King Ranch, maintaining that prized remuda of mares is as important as spring rain. ( Jared Wareham )

The cowboy is an iconic image of the American West. Epic scenes of dust-choked cattle drives with Gus and Captain Call or Jim Craig and his mountain horse racing after the wild horse mob, ignite the dreamer in all of us. As ole Gus put it, “Ain’t nothing better than ridin’ a fine horse through new country.” Cowboys and horses will forever be etched in Western lore and stir emotions deep within.

The ranch horse was the bedrock that modern beef outfits and production systems were built upon. Maintaining that prized remuda of prime ranch mares was as important as spring rain. Though our industry continues to evolve technologically in some of the most fantastic ways, the ranch horse maintains its usefulness on many operations.

By pioneering the modern ranching system in our country through a blend of European and Mexican Hacienda philosophies, the King Ranch created the need for a regimented breeding system. Through years of driving cattle from the Santa Gertrudis up into Kansas and helping to tame the wild Nueces Strip, a strategy of disciplined selection and culling was developed. Captain King drove 100,000 head along that trail, so he understood the necessity of durable, good-minded mounts for the Kineño cowboys who worked with him. 

I first learned of the King Ranch from the greatest horseman I ever knew, Ole Harve. Watching him and Duke, his prized bay, sort cattle would make any youth dream of being a cow puncher. He was filled with stories of the King Ranch and quarter horse legends, like stallions Old Sorrel and Peppy San Badger. 

Today, a new-generation, high-energy horseman continues that rich legacy. Yet they focus on the same basic principles laid down six generations earlier. James Clement III, the first descendant of Captain King to manage the ranch horse program since the late ’90s, explains, “Our philosophy is simple, we find something we like and try to perfect it.”

Each foundation mare on the ranch traces her lineage back to Old Sorrel. These bloodlines are crucial for continuing to build on the essence of what makes a King Ranch horse functional, unique and timeless. The South Texas environment can be unforgiving. It requires a combination of agility, athleticism, endurance and power. These traits are strategically matched, just like modern cattle genetics, to promote functional improvement.

The cowboy, his gadgets and his horse all have a place in modern beef production systems. We often focus new strategies, yet we fail to acknowledge those vital to our industry, like James.