With a deep respect for Western traditions and cowboy values, Craig Haythorn runs a historic ranch, breeds top cow horses, wins in the arena—and has earned the 2008 Western Horseman Award.
Four blonde Belgians step forward in unison, pulling an antiquated hay-harvesting implement called a sweep. The contraption has two wheels attached to a platform and a driver seat behind the team, and two wheels attached to a 15-foot-wide raking device in front—which looks much like a stall fork. The workhorses push a windrow of loose cut hay toward a beaverslide stacker, another primitive, horse-powered implement that is used to build stacks of hay weighing about five tons.
The team works at the direction of a tall cowboy holding the lines and wearing a white button-down shirt, jeans tucked into his tall-top boots, and spurs. With his hat pulled down over a broad, white mustache, Craig Haythorn shows little expression as he sweeps back and forth across the large hayfield.
Believe it or not, this is taking place in 2008, not 1908.
Two other sweeps—tractor-powered—and a couple of hay rakes criss-cross the field and pile long stems of grass. The tractors move a little faster than Craig’s outfit, but it’s not a big deal to the 61-year-old Nebraska rancher and horseman.
“Using a team saves on fuel and it’s good for the horses,” Craig says. “Yeah, it’s not as fast. That’s the problem with America; people are going too fast.”
Craig has been building stacks all his life. In Nebraska, putting up hay is a task that consumes almost the entire summer, and it’s vital for providing cows enough feed to make it through the North Country’s vicious winters. Most of the year is spent either stacking hay or spreading it out. Such is life on the storied Haythorn Land & Cattle Company.
Numerous books and articles have been written about the century-old ranch and its rich cowboy traditions. Magazines such as the Quarter Horse Journal, Range, Western Horseman and National Geographic have published photographs of Craig roping the day’s mounts in a rope corral, Haythorn cowboys branding in open pastures, and wagons leading a large remuda across green, rolling sandhills. The images paint a romantic picture of ranching, scenes that appeal to both working cowboys and wannabes.
In reality, branding season lasts only a few weeks. It’s the unheralded, uneventful chores that dominate a ranch hand’s day-to-day life.
“It’s not all riding around horseback, messing with cattle, especially in this country,” Craig says. “We might have to go fix a windmill or put in a new fence. Everybody that works here, if they’ve been here five years, they’re pretty capable. They can weld, ride a horse, fence, feed with a team, hay.”
And right beside the men, you’ll find the bossman and ranch owner, working just as hard. Before this day began, the crew was busy fixing the hay rake. It didn’t take long for
Craig to work his way into the mix, helping hold a part while two other men cranked down bolts.
“Ever since I was little, I always said I wouldn’t tell a guy what to do unless I could do it myself,” Craig says. “People say, ‘Why don’t you just drive around and check on things?’ Hell, I wouldn’t get a kick out of that. I enjoy working too much. If I have to drive around and check on my guys, then I don’t need them anyway.”
That’s the mentality of this prominent ranch owner, who is also a leading Quarter Horse breeder, a top hand and one of the most respected horsemen in the country.
Ever since Craig was a boy, it has been obvious what he wanted to do for a living. He rode with the spring wagon during branding for the first time when he was 4 years old. At age 13, he was put in charge of the hay crew.
During his teenage years, he won four consecutive state titles in high school calf roping and cutting, and he claimed two high school national titles in cutting. He continued to rodeo through college and for many years after, competing on the PRCA circuit in calf roping, team roping, steer roping and bulldogging.
While attending classes at Texas Tech University, he regularly worked two or three days a week at the Pitchfork Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. In December 1969, Craig finished college and returned home, ready to go to work.
“At the time, my granddad still ran the south end,” Craig says. “I had been home about a month. He drove up to where we were working one morning, got out of his car and handed me a checkbook. He said, ‘You just as well ought to move to Ackley [division of the ranch] and get started.’ I’ve been here ever since.”
Craig represents the fourth generation of Haythorns to own and operate Haythorn Land and Cattle. His great-grandfather, Harry Haythornwaite (the name was later shortened to Haythorn), immigrated from England and eventually founded the cattle ranch north of Ogallala, Nebraska, in 1884. In building his ranch, Harry purchased cattle, imported Shire stallions from England and one year trailed 500 horses 1,000 miles from Oregon to his ranch.
Walt and Harry Jr., Craig’s grandfather and great-uncle, respectively, oversaw the ranch and guided it through trying times such as the Great Depression and the winter of 1931, when 800 cows died in a severe blizzard.
Under Craig’s father, Waldo, the ranch experienced a period of significant growth, at one point reaching 90,000 acres in size.
“My dad had a jillion contacts,” Craig says. “He was a [Quarter Horse] judge and traveled a lot. Met lots of people.
“For years, I was so bashful I couldn’t hardly visit with people. I didn’t really want to be around them. Somebody would come visit Dad, and he was liable to spend all day with them. That just wasn’t me. I’d rather be working than hauling somebody around, visiting with them.”
Waldo guided the ranch for 40 years and was later inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the AQHA Hall of Fame. In 1989, he suffered a severe stroke, paralyzing his left side. Although Waldo remained active in ranching operations until he died in 2002, Craig has assumed the bulk of management responsibilities for the past 20 years.
Under Craig’s watch, the Haythorn horse program has become one of the most respected Quarter Horse breeding operations in the nation. Already established with foundation sires such as Sport, Eddie and Eddie 40, the horse herd grew to include the bloodlines of Joe Hancock, Driftwood, King, Poco Bueno, Blue Rock and Beaver Creek. The ranch has become one of the largest producers of Quarter Horses, and in 1992 it received the inaugural AQHA Best Remuda Award.
Today, the Haythorns own approximately 150 broodmares, all pasture bred. Their 14 stallions carry the blood of Doc O’Lena, King Fritz, Nu Cash, Playgun and The Continental. Whatever pedigrees the family has included over the years, their requirements for a good ranch mount have remained the same.
“Everybody likes a good-looking horse,” Craig says. “But the first thing he basically needs to do is ride—have enough speed, size, bone, brains, cow—all of it. If he doesn’t ride, he isn’t any good to us. We’ve weeded through these horses for 50, 60 years. It’s just almost a cinch anymore that they’re gonna ride.
“I’m not denying the ability of many of those cutting horses. But cutters have bred all the bone, foot and size off those horses because they’ve linebred them for so long. For our situation, those little tinker-toy horses won’t work.”
It was Craig’s idea to host the first Haythorn ranch production sale in 1979, which certainly wasn’t as common a practice for ranches back then as it is today. The sale offered Longhorns, commercial heifers and about 100 horses. It was so successful that they began organizing production sales every five years, then every four years. From 2000 through 2006, the Haythorns put on a sale every September.
The last sale was the largest, lasting three days and selling 343 horses to buyers from 31 states, three Canadian provinces and Mexico. Finished geldings, nearly 100 of them sold, averaged $7,132.
“We’ve always been truthful with people,” Craig says. “They don’t care if you tell them he’s a little crampy or he’s not very gentle. But if you don’t tell them, it bothers them. If you do tell them, you have nothing to hide.”
Lately, the Haythorns have been selling horses via private treaty and the Internet. They plan to host another production sale in 2010.
In 1988, Craig and his cowboys competed for the first time in the Western Heritage Classic Ranch Rodeo in Abilene, Texas, and won the event. They have won it a record six times, including in 2008. Craig was named Top Hand in 2005.
Craig has also showed successfully in Ranch Horse Association of America events, winning the organization’s senior horse class last year on PG Shogun.
Despite his most recent success in the arena, Craig still views actual ranch work as the best training method.
“We basically just use a lot of ranch work,” he says. “You got to get so many miles on a horse. A true ranch horse is relaxed, has a good, low headset, and is very responsive to everything you ask him. He isn’t going to learn that in a little bitty round pen.”
Craig’s old-school viewpoints continue to influence how he trains, shows, breeds and operates his working cattle ranch. For years, the Haythorn crew had stopped staying with the wagon during branding season, but Craig re-instituted that tradition in 1983.
“The greatest benefit is that you’re not running back and forth to headquarters,” he says. “And it’s good for the horse program. It’s another process in getting your horses broke.”
For Craig, ranch life isn’t merely about horses, cattle and traditions. It all revolves around family. Jody, his wife of 25 years, has kept ranch business matters organized and efficient. Her daughter Shaley married Haythorn ranch hand Sha Griffin, and they now live in Texas with their two sons. Craig and Jody’s sons, Sage and Cord, both attend West Texas A&M University and remain closely involved with ranching operations.
“When you’re fortunate enough to have two boys, then you wonder whether they’re going to be interested in the ranch,” Craig says. “Well, since they were little, both have been very interested in every part of it.”
Back on the hayfield, Craig and his men take a break for lunch, then resume their work. As others fire up their tractors, Craig grabs the lines and cues his team toward another windrow.
“It is far more enjoyable to me,” he says. “It’s a lot quieter. You’re not going to teach that tractor much. Every time we harness [a horse] or saddle one, we have a chance of making it better.”
Spoken like a true horseman.
Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected]