Through his dedication, shrewdness, and innate ability, Hank Wiescamp has become a master breeder of horses. His story, and his theories about breeding, raising, and selling horses, make lively reading.
In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, there is a Dutchman who has become legendary for the fine Quarter Horses he has been breeding for the past 45 years. His name is Henry J. Wiescamp, and his breeding program has been so successful, for so many years, and his horses are so much in demand, that often his horses are referred to by his name. Wiescamp horses.
Pick up any issue of The Quarter Horse Journal and you can see ads from farms and ranches all across the nation proclaiming their Wiescamp-bred horses. Or ask a horseman about his breeding program and he might say, “I’m using a Wiescamp stud.” Or in describing a mare’s pedigree, “She’s Wiescamp on the bottom side.”
Few other horse breeders, associated with any breed, have received this accolade. Generally, horses are referred to by their sire; “He’s a Jet Deck,” or “She’s a *Bask daughter,” for example.
Wiescamp has also established such a definite type in his horses that often they can be identified as Wiescamp-bred simply by looking at them. Few other breeders can claim this distinction.
And we know of only a handful of other breeders who derive their income from their horses. Breeding horses is not a hobby with Hank Wiescamp; it has been, and still is, his life’s work and source of income. And despite all of his success, this crusty old gentleman says of his breeding program, “I’m just getting started… I’ve just scratched the surface.”
There was nothing in the background of Wiescamp to indicate he would become a horse breeder, much less so successful, unless the tenacity from his Dutch heritage gave him the dedication to work toward his goal for so man vears. As Hank says, with a twinkle in his eye, “If I had put as much time and effort into another project as I’ve put into breeding horses, it’s hard to tell what I could have built. Why, I might even have built the city of Rome!” and then he laughs.
Hank, whose last name is pronounced Wheeze-camp, not Wise-camp, was born in 1906 in Holland, Neb., a few miles outside Lincoln. As the name implies, Holland was a community of Dutch settlers, and Hank describes himself as “a purebred Dutchman. I’m no crossbred.”
There were 9 boys in the family, but only 200 acres of land and no more to be purchased in that area. So when Hank was 16 years old, the family moved to Alamosa, Colo., in the south central portion of the state. “My mother’s family lived out here, recalled Hank, “and so we came out where we could have some elbow room.” Alamosa has been his home ever since.
It was tough going at first, though. “I didn’t have enough money to go to school, so I hired out. I worked for $1 a day for Clyde Helms, one of the best farmers in this country,” remembers Hank. His four years with Helms gave Hank the chance to continue working with horses, “since we didn’t have tractors in those days.” Ever since his early boyhood in Nebraska, Hank had liked horses.
“We worked horses on the farm, and drove buggies. None of my brothers liked horses, so I guess I just had it in my blood. I kind of had the yearning that when I grew up, I wanted to have some horses. And I finally got a few together,” he says, in a classic understatement.
Another yearning Hank had ever since he was a little kid was to become an auctioneer. In 1926, he went off to auction school, then returned to Alamosa and started out the hard way. “Almost starved to death for ten years. That’s why I’m so small now,” he grinned as he patted his ample waistline after a three-course lunch of a hamburger deluxe, enchiladas, and french fries.
In 1931, Hank bought an auction barn in Alamosa. “A fellow from Kansas built it and couldn’t make it work. I decided I would, and I did. Had to make a living. I didn’t have any place to live, so I lived in one corner of it for 15 years, even after I got married.”
During those early ’30s, Hank began buying a few horses. “Everytime I’d get enough money—$20 or $30–I’d buy me a good one. Then when found a better one, I’d sell the other one”
Even then, Hank had his goal in mind: “I set out to breed a family of horses of my own, and I think have. I don’t say they’re any better than any other horses; they’re just my kind of horse.”
He describes his kind of horse those early years as “not exactly Quarter Horse, but more like half-Thoroughbred. I played a little amateur polo and that’s the kind we rode. We wanted a typey horse with a certain amount of looks, and with a lot of speed, ability, and flexibility. Today, I don’t see much difference between good-type polo horse, and a good type Quarter Horse.”
To describe Hank’s ideal horse in more detail, he is of medium height, has a shallow mouth (“you sure don’t want that bit lying on the jaw teeth”), a nice head and alert eye, good throat latch and long neck (“because that’s the steering wheel”), strong top line, powerful hindquarters, and four good legs. “When you get that kind of horse,” Hank says, “you’ve got the kind of horse everybody is trying to raise.” But Hank has don’t it better, and for more years, than anybody else.
That was also the kind the cavalry was looking for and Hank made a living selling horses to the cavalry for several years. “They wanted a horse that stood 14-3, 15 hands. Today it seems like people want a horse 15 hands that they lead out on a halter shank for 10 feet and then put back in the barn,” Hank snorts. “When a horse was over 15-1 hands, the cavalry buyer shook his head no. Yet their 15 hand horses could carry a soldier boy and his 60 pound pack from 7 in the morning until 6 at night. Those are the kind of horses they wanted. I was raising them from my Old Fred mares crossed on a Thoroughbred stud.”
As the years rolled by, Wiesamp horses became further distinguished by their powerful jaws, big eyes, short ears, good shoulders, tremendous depth throughout the heart girth, long underline and “a rear end build like a washerwoman’s,” as Hank describes it.
Hank also bred speed into his horses. “What’s a horse good for if he doesn’t have speed?” He asked rhetorically. “He can’t catch a calf, can’t catch a steer, can’t run a barrel. What’s he good for other than walking and leading?”
Nor has Hank overlooked disposition, intelligence, and a way of going. “We never breed a mare unless she’s broke to ride. I want to find out what her disposition is and how smooth she is to ride. You don’t find out these things until you ride her. Like begets like, and if I have a mare we can’t break to ride, why raise another one you can’t breathe to ride?”
Over three years, the Quarter Horse type picked in show-ring halter classes has changed more than once. But Hank never changed the type he was breeding for. “I like a horse from 14-3 to 15-1 hands, and when I get them taller than that, I lose my conformation. I’m not saying that my type of horse is the right one, but you certainly can’t raise horses and try to satisfy some folks this year and some others the next year.
“When I worked for Clyde Helms, he told me ‘Make up your mind where you want to go, set your stake, and start driving right at it. You can’t do much zigging and zagging; you have to stay in the middle of the road.’ You have to make up your mind what kind of horse you want to raise, and then try to do it. And you’ll be a long time getting it done.
“Of course,” Hank continues, “I guess it’s easy for rich men. They do what they want to, but they’re always the first ones to have a dispersal. I think the harder a man has to work to make ends meet, no matter what his job is, the more serious he gets, and the harder he works at it to make it a success.
“I know a lot of people think I use my horses for a tax write-off. But I never have. I’ve used them to pay my bills, and buy another farm. Horses are not a hobby with me. I like them—don’t get me wrong. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t have spent my life with them. You have to like them to be successful. I don’t care what your job is, if your heart isn’t in it, you’re not going to get along very good. You have to have your heart and soul involved in it. That’s my opinion, and I won’t say it’s right.”
When Hank first started buying mares, he could only afford to buy one or two at a time. But within a few years he had a chance to buy several bands of mares, including a group of 117 mares from the Philmont Ranch in New Mexico. For ten years, this ranch had been the home of Plaudit, a palomino by King Plaudit (TB) and out of Colorado Queen by Old Nick by Old Fred. Therefore many of the mares were of Plaudit breeding.
Hank, however, had not suddenly become so wealthy he could fork over hard cash for an entire band of mares. Instead, he told the owners he’d buy the entire bunch if he could do it in groups of six, because that was all his old truck could haul. They agreed. Then he studied the mares and set aside 25 he wanted to Keep. Next, he began hauling the others home in the truck, six at a time. “I’d give the owner a check for the six mares, then hightail it home, sell the mares, and beat the check to the bank so I could go back and buy six more. That’s a true story, too,” Hank laughed. “I told the banker that if my truck broke down, not to turn my check down because I’d be there quick as I could to cover it. I hoped that when I got through, I’d have enough money to pay for those 25 mares, and I did.
“I learned to buy and sell horses strictly on my own. I didn’t read it out of books, and I had nobody to guide me. If I bought a horse for $200 and had to sell him for $100, I studied my lesson a little harder, that’s all.”
Of those 25 mares Hank bought from the Philmont Ranch, he says, “I imagine about 15 of them were Plaudit’s daughters…Santa Maria, Colorado Queen II, Mexicali Rose, Miss Helen… those were his top-producing daughters.”
Hank also bought two bands of mares from the Chase and Maxwell ranches near Cimarron, N.M., and a bunch of mares from two other New Mexico ranches—the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu and the Baca Grant in Mosquero. He explains, “I tried to concentrate on the Old Fred family. Everybody has an ideal, I guess, in mind; and the kind of horse I try to raise, I find that I have to stay in pretty close to one family. That’s the Old Fred family, even today. I started with Old Fred, came down through Nick Shoemaker, and then Skipper W, and then right on down the line. When I was first getting started, I tried to pick the top-producing mares out of each band, and that’s the way I put my mares together. I don’t think I could ever have done it by putting them together one by one. I just kept working and working with my mares until I got a foundation started.”
To this day, Hank’s mares are his pride and joy, and he gives them the majority of credit for his success as a breeder. “You can’t do it with just a stallion,” he states. “You’ve got to have those mares first. A mare is 60 to 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent of the foal. And if she’s a poor mare, she’s 100 percent of the foal. I don’t think you can bottle it without those mares, no matter how good a stallion you might be using. And they’re not just mares, they have to be broodmares. Mares that are proven producers. About any mare can have a colt, but that don’t make her a broodmare.
“About any mare can have a colt, but that don’t make her a broodmare.”
“A lot of people say they’re going to show a mare and then make her a broodmare. That always makes me mad,” Hank grumped. “You don’t make a broodmare. Only Mother Nature can do that. And looks don’t have a lot to do with it. It takes a broodmare to raise a show mare, but very few show mares make broodmares.
“The best mares I ever had in my life are broodmares that have never been out of this county. Hauling them down the road don’t make them broodmares. And if you haul ’em long enough, you ruin ‘em. I don’t know why it is, but hailing takes something out of them.
“My mares that look the least are my best producers or they wouldn’t be in my broodmare bands. My best-looking mares are for the public to look at, and for me to look at and say that’s the kind I like. But my better horses are not coming out of those better-looking mares. Like I said, it takes a broodmare to raise a show mare, but very few show mares ever become broodmares.
“It takes a broodmare to raise a show mare, but very few show mares ever become broodmares.”
“I’ve had about five show mares in my lifetime that proved themselves to be good broodmares. Skipperette was one, and Flamette was another. Flamette was the first Quarter mare I raised, the first one I registered with AQHA, and the first one I showed. That happened to be the first show they had at Denver, and she was the grand champion mare. But I didn’t take her there because I thought she was a show mare; I took her there because I thought she was a good mare. Just because you haul a mare and show her and she wins a trophy doesn’t mean she’s going to have a better colt. A lot of people think that, but that’s not right, and that’s where I’ve got ’em fooled!” Hank grinned craftily.
Every year, Hanks foal crop numbers about 85 to 100 fillies, of which he will keep about 25. How does he choose which ones to keep?
“Well, I certainly don’t pick them all on looks. I pick them mostly on the mothers they’re out of, and also on ability after they’re two and we can ride them. But I go more on parentage than anything else. Some mares are better producers than others and I think it’s heritage. You can take a mare that’s really been a top producer, and if you cross her daughters on the right sires, they’ll follow in her footsteps.
“Broodmares certainly run in families. There are also sires that are broodmare sires. One of the greatest broodmare sires I ever had was Spanish Nick, and another one is Skipper’s King. He’s old now (25), and I have 70 of his daughters in my broodmare band. They all have size, substance, nice dispositions, a lot of brains and ability, they all give a lot of milk, and their conception rate is very high.” Then with a mischievous smile, Hank added “All you have to do is take the halter off the stud, put it on the mare, and she’ll have a colt!”
I’m looking at a mare as a broodmare prospect, Hank admits he sometimes relies on instinct. Without being immodest, he says, “It takes a special kind of eye…you don’t have anything to go by other than your own instincts. And that’s why a rich man doesn’t have a monopoly on owning a good horse. A poor man can pick a good horse just the same as a rich man. That’s been proved in the last three All-American Futurities.” (The last three winners of this, the world’s richest horse race, have all been owned by average, everyday working people.)
Suppose Hank decided to keep a young mare, but someone comes along, likes her, and wants to buy her. Will Hank sell her?
“Money never gets into my eye,” he states very emphatically. “You can’t raise horses with money. You’ve got to have broodstock. When I have my mares set up the way I want ‘em, I never offer them for sale—and I don’t care what the offer is. I walk the other way. I know what I want to do.”
Then, using an analogy to better illustrate his point, Hank said: “Where would you be if you were building a house and kept selling the bricks out if the walls, or the shingles off the roof?”
Hank will, however, occasionally sell older mares that have been in his broodmare bands. And not necessarily because they are poor producers. “Linebreeding horses is very technical, and if a mare isn’t crossing well on my studs, she might do better when bred to a stud of a different family. So I’ll let someone else try her.”
Ask Hank about his stallions and he isn’t nearly as enthusiastic… not even about Skipper W—and the names Hank Wiescamp and Skipper W are synonymous. “I don’t think Snipper W deserves as much credit as the mares did that we used him on. As I’ve said, you just can’t do it with a stallion; if it was, it’d be easy, but it’s not that way.
“I don’t think Snipper W deserves as much credit as the mares did that we used him on.”
“I don’t think I’ve used any stallion’s that I’d call outstanding, or any better than the others. When I do see that a horse is really doing a good job, I put my nether mares with him. And whenever I’ve leased a horse, I always put him with my best mares. If I’m going to breed a great individual, who is going to have speed and class, I want him to have the right kind of mother. If he doesn’t , I don’t want him as a sore. If his folks don’t have it, he cannot transmit that which he does not possess,” Hank says flatly.
“So I can’t say I’ve had a lot of preferences, or favorites, for stallions. I don’t think Skipper W contributed a lot, and without him, I’m sure that I would still have gone in the horse business. If I hadn’t bred him, I’d have bred another one. That information will startle some of the many Quarter Horse breeders today who boast of the Skipper W bloodlines in their horses. They might think Hank is being a bit cantankerous, trying to downplay the importance of Wiescamp bloodlines owned by other breeders. But long-time friends of Hank say that isn’t so; he has always felt that way about Skipper W. However, it does rankle Hank that so many breeders blatantly advertise their Wiescamp bloodlines when in reality they have only a drop or two of Wiescamp blood. “A lot of ’em are a long ways from the trunk of the tree,” Hank points out.
Unlike most breeders, Hank does not stand stallions at public service—a factor to which he attributes some of his success. If he did, he would have little control over the mares brought to his stallions. To a breeder who believes that a mare can be up to 80 percent of the foal, this is a critical factor. By the law of averages, outside mares would often produce inferior foals that Hank would have no way of culling; and further-more, they would not enhance the reputation of the Wiescamp horses. “Besides,” as Hank adds, “I’ve got all I can do to take care of my 200 mares.”
Hank evaluates his foal crop each year, but he doesn’t do much culling until they are yearlings. He feels that you can’t tell what a horse will look like until he’s at least a yearling, and that you can tell even more when he’s a two-year-old. Some fillies are sold as two-year-olds, and a bunch of colts are gelded and sold. “The colts that are worse than that ” Hanks says, “you never hear of. They’re gelded and go with no papers and no brand.”
When Hank raises a stallion that fulfills his requirements as a sire, he turns a deaf oar to any kind of financial offer, just as he does with a mare. A good example occurred several years ago when he sent Skip N Go on the show circuit. This handsome sorrel was just about the classiest horse to come down the road in a long time, and pretty quick Hank’s phone began ringing. Offers kept increasing, until one finally reached $100,000. Still Hank turned it down. Why?
“It takes a long time to bresd a horse that has the conformation, the ability you want, and the looks to go with it. When you get that horse, why sell him for money and start all over again? You’ll defeat the goal you set out to accomplish When you have a proven sire and he’s doing his job, that’s it. I won’t sell him.”
But, a visitor asked Hank, “Skip N Go wasn’t a proven sire yet—he was too young, right?”
“Yes, replied Hank, “but he had a lot of class, a lot of looks, a lot of reputation, and he had four crosses of Skipper W in him. I’d been trying to breed one like him for too long to sell him without trying him as a sire.” Hank still hasn’t formed an opinion of him as a sire. You can’t judge a sire by one or two crops. As Hank says, “You usually find out how good a sire is after it’s too late… he’s either too old, or has died. As the old saying goes, ‘We’re too soon old and too late smart.”
This article was originally published in the March 1979 issue of Western Horseman.