The Best of Western Horseman Awards are finally here.
Western culture is the thing that brings us all together—no matter what our individual interests may be, to be immersed in the culture of the West is something special and unique that not everyone gets to claim. Western culture is an art, from painting desert landscapes filled with wild horses, to crafting the perfect bit or pair of spurs; to creating a unique event for cowboys to compete or a Western oasis for families to visit; from building a ranching empire to building the perfect outcross stallion. Western culture covers a broad scope for a niche lifestyle, and it makes us what we are today. These are the 2023 Western Horseman Best of Culture winners.
Best of Ranches Winner: 6666 Ranch
Founded by Samuel “Burk” Burnett in 1870, the Four Sixes was established after Burnett purchased 100 head of cattle wearing the “6666” brand from a cattleman in Denton, Texas. Today, the 260,000- acre ranch is known for being home to some of the most legendary bloodlines in Quarter Horses and raising superior Angus cattle. The ranch has state-of-the-art equine reproductive services, breeding their own Quarter Horses for racing and cow horse disciplines and also standing horses for the public. The ranch focuses on sustainable water and range management, ensuring their livestock have no issue surviving the drought conditions of West Texas and the native wildlife can still thrive in the haven of “The Sixes.”
Best of Ranches Runner-Up: King Ranch
The King Ranch alone is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island, spanning some 825,000 acres and 1,300 square miles. The ranch has four divisions: Santa Gertrudis, Laureles, Norias and Encino, which, together, cover six south Texas counties. The ranch got its start in 1852 when Richard King set up a cattle camp along the Santa Gertrudis Creek, and a formal purchase of the land was made in 1853 when King and Gideon Lewis bought a Spanish land grant for 15,500 acres.
Best of Ranches Honorable Mention: Pitchfork Land & Cattle Company
When the Pitchfork was incorporated in 1883, it covered just over 52,000 acres of land and was home to a foundation herd of just under 10,000 cattle. Despite drought conditions and cattle depression, the Pitchfork was one of the few ranches to survive and maintain its territory. Today, the ranch spans 165,000 acres and two counties in the Texas panhandle, with a satellite operation in Oklahoma. It’s larger today than it has ever been, but its core business remains the same: cattle.
Best of Craftsmen Winner: JW Brooks
Raised on the ranchlands of Colorado and Wyoming, J.W. Brooks is known for his craftsmanship of custom, high-quality cowboy hats. His ranching lifestyle is the inspiration behind his craft and desire to preserve his Western heritage. Brooks was known for his art at a young age, having illustrated a children’s book at 10 years old, and was commissioned for custom pieces through his teen years. Brooks apprenticed under Kevin O’Farrell of the O’Farrell Hat Company, when he realized his true pride was born from a wearable piece of art that encapsulated Western culture — the cowboy hat.
Best of Craftsmen Runner-Up: Kerry Kelley
Kerry Kelley is a self-taught maker of bits, spurs, tack and buckles with a passion for combining functionality, durability and beauty. The Weatherford resident has been in the business of making beautiful tack and gear for more than 20 years, and his pieces are used by some of the top performance horse riders and trainers in the country. Every piece is made in his shop in Texas, and Kelley stresses the utilitarian nature of his work.
Best of Craftsmen Honorable Mention: Wilson Capron
Wilson Capron’s bits and spurs look as much like a piece of display art as they do functional tack. The website is a shoppable page, but it scrolls like a digital gallery. His unique, ornate designs make Capron’s work collector-quality, but the functional and durable nature of his pieces make Capron a go-to brand for riders and trainers like Buster Frierson, Ryan Motes and more.
Best of Western Destinations Winner: Fort Worth Stockyards
The historic Fort Worth Stockyards are synonymous with the Western way of life. They historically served as the last stop for supplies and rest for drovers, who were taking cattle north into American Indian territory. With more than 4 million head of cattle being driven through the city of Fort Worth, Texas, between 1866 and 1890, it soon got the nickname “Cowtown.” With the evolution of the railroad, the city became a major shipping point for livestock. The Union Stockyards, later named the Fort Worth Stockyards Company, were built to help accommodate cattle, packing houses, show rings and more. In fact, the area had such a booming economy, it had its own name — Niles City — and was coined “the richest little city in the world.” Niles City would later be annexed as a part of Fort Worth.
Best of Western Destinations Runner-Up: Wickenburg, Arizona
Wickenburg, Arizona, is perhaps best known in the Western community today as being a hub for ropers. The city initially drew a crowd when Henry Wickenburg struck gold in Vulture Mine back in the 1800s. Soon after, ranchers and farmers heading West discovered the fertile land along the Hassayampa River, which became an oasis in the middle of the desert for livestock and hundreds of other species. Together, the ranchers and miners settled in the lush area along the river and coined the town, “Wickenburg,” the fifth oldest town in the state of Arizona.
Best of Western Destinations Honorable Mention: American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum
The American Quarter Horse Association is located in Amarillo, Texas, in the state’s panhandle. While most people passing through Amarillo recognize it for the 72-ounce steak challenge at the Big Texan Motel or the smell of cattle ranches all around, the AQHA is an impressive and historical place to stop for all horse lovers. The association itself is the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization, focusing on growing the use of Quarter Horses across all disciplines of competition and general use, as well as prioritizing the welfare of the horses. Near the AQHA headquarters is the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, where visitors can journey through the breed’s history.
Best of Events Winner: Miles City Bucking Horse Sale
Each year, the World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is held on the third weekend in May in Miles City, Montana. Some of the best cowboys around the continent come out to the event to ride premier bucking horses that will subsequently be auctioned off. The event ends with “World’s Biggest One-Day Match Bronc Ride,” a sanctioned Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event with a $50,000 payout. Many ProRodeo athletes consider Miles City-weekend to be a kickoff for the summer rodeo run.
Best of Events Runner-Up: Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo needs no introduction. If you are a rodeo fan of any sort, you’re doing whatever you can to make it to Las Vegas, Nevada, in December to see the world’s best cowboys and cowgirls compete on rodeo’s biggest stage. While the event hasn’t always been held under the Las Vegas lights — it began in Dallas, Texas, then moved on to Los Angeles, California, then Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — but Sin City is now synonymous with the event and has been its home since 1985. The rodeo itself draws more than 170,000 fans to the Thomas & Mack Center Arena over the 10-day event, and even more come into town to experience the sprawling trade shows and congruent barrel racing, bullfighting and youth events. There is truly nothing in the world like the NFR.
Best of Events Honorable Mention: Western Heritage Classic
In the 1980s, a handful of West Texas cowboys had a friendly gathering to show off and compare their talented horses and cowboy skills. The little competition drew a crowd, and they established a way to ensure they could support a local charity. The gathering would feature five events: bronc riding, wild cow milking, team penning, team roping and calf branding. They established a point system that would accumulate over a two-day period, and the format for modern day ranch rodeos was born. The event grew, and the goal became to preserve Western heritage traditions and — of course — to prove who the best cowboys are. Eventually, the event became the Western Heritage Classic — the original ranch rodeo.
Best of Artists Winner: Tim Cox
Tim Cox paints portraits that allow you to see the West through his eyes. Be it a cutting horse with bright eyes and intensity, ranch horses sharing a drink of water, bellering cattle during a branding or anything in between, his paintings have life and authenticity breathed into them. Cox has been painting the modern cowboy for more than 30 years, and he draws inspiration from his own ranching experiences. In 1975, Cox wrote an essay in his high school English class disclosing his dreams of being a member of the Cowboy Artists of America, and in 2007, that wish came true. Cox’s paintings are vibrant and eye-catching; it’s no wonder they have appeared on more than 300 magazine covers through the years, including the 75th Anniversary edition of Western Horseman.
Best of Artists Runner-Up: Shannon Lawlor
Shannon Lawlor’s paintings possess impressive accuracy and detail. While others paint broad scenery with beautiful pasture-scapes, Lawlor zooms in, focusing on the intricate braid of a rope, or the fi ne lines and details of a blaze marking that extends onto the bottom lip or the way a horse’s hair mattes up with sweat. Her attention to detail is truly exquisite, and most of her paintings are so accurate and lifelike, they look more like still photographs. She captures the essence of each individual horse she paints.
Best of Artists Honorable Mention: Mike Capron
There are three things Mike Capron has always loved: riding, roping and painting. His artwork depicting ranching and the cowboy lifestyle is connective. Capron feels passionate about accurately portraying ranch land and animals in his paintings to hold the viewer’s eye as it moves around the scene. His paintings bridge the gap between a moment in time that a rancher experiences with something that could never be caught on film.
Best of Top Bloodlines Winner: Sun Frost
Inducted into the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame in 2022, Sun Frost is the People’s Choice for Top Bloodline. Bred by South Dakota rancher Stanley Johnson, the goal was for Sun Frost to be fast enough to catch a calf and have enough cow sense to be a competitive cutter. Pat Cowan, another rancher in South Dakota, already had two geldings bred by Johnston, who he was quite fond of. Sun Frost was a full brother to those geldings, and Cowan jumped at the chance to own them. Sun Frost (Docs Jack Frost x Prissy Cline x Driftwood Ike) would go on to sire great competitors in roping, cutting and rodeo arenas everywhere, and he was highly celebrated as one of the best sires in the north country. He died in January 2007, but the stallion sired horses that have gone on to be great sires themselves and his legacy of great bloodlines and great competitors lives on.
Best of Top Bloodlines Runner-Up: Doc Bar
The 1993 American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame inductee Doc Bar is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, notable Quarter Horses of all time. Foaled in Arizona, the colt was bred to run, but destiny had other plans. His conformation and demeanor made him uniquely suited to cross with cow horses, and he would, of course, go on to produce competitors in every discipline that uses a Quarter Horse — especially in the cutting pen. However, his most notable offspring in the roping arena, Docs Jack Frost, would go on to produce Sun Frost. Doc Bar died at age 36 and was inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame the following year, but his offspring (and their offspring, and so on) continue to turn heads and earn money today.
Best of Top Bloodlines Honorable Mention: Fire Water Flit
Fire Water Flit is a name known well to the barrel racing community. His offspring have collectively earned more than $5 million with three decades worth of futurity and derby champions. He has sired three Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers, two AQHA horses of the year, two AQHA world champions, and is the grandsire of three Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champions. He is a legend in the barrel racing industry in his own right, and his offspring show no signs of slowing down.