Every horseman and horsewoman had a first horse. Whether it was a bombproof old-timer or a pestering pony, each taught important lessons to their pint-sized rider.
If you want to see a rugged ol’ cowboy smile, ask him about his first horse. After he tells you the horse’s name, he’ll start rambling off stories with barely a breath in between tales. It’s remarkable that after a lifetime of riding hundreds – if not thousands – of horses, a horseman never forgets his first horse.
World-renowned horseman and clinician Buck Brannaman remembers spending entire days riding with his older brother, Smokie, in the hills of northern Idaho in Coeur d’Alene.
“For kids, that relationship with an animal is so pure and good,” Brannaman says. “I wish all kids could have a relationship with an animal when they were young. I think they would see the world differently if they had that connection with nature, with the earth, with God’s creatures. It is really an important part of a kid’s development.”
The first few rides on a colt are critical in making a seasoned horse. The same can be said for the first few rides a child has on a horse. Five notable horsemen, and one incredible horsewoman, share stories of their first horses — memories filled with laughs and fondness, despite a few tumbles. Whether it was a sweet, old bridle horse or a zippy barrel horse, each taught lifelong lessons and instilled lifelong passions for riding in their young owners.
Jake Barnes and the Rebel Shetland
A 27-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier and seven-time world champion in heading, Jake Barnes’ first horse was a little palomino Shetland pony named Sunny.
“He was like most Shetlands: he was a complete renegade,” Barnes says. “But as a kid, you don’t know any better, as long as you can get on him and go.
“They’ll ride around and they get spoiled,” Barnes continues. “Ponies know that they get away with murder, and they’ll rub you off on the fence and run off with you. Sunny did all that with me, but I didn’t care. I was just as wild as he was.”
Sunny lived on Barnes’ grandparents’ ranch in the small New Mexico town of Crossroads, 100 miles west of Lubbock, Texas on the border of Texas and New Mexico.
“In the summers, my sister and I would go spend a couple weeks with them,” Barnes says. “Grandpa had other horses for the adults, but Sunny was my ride.”
Barnes and Sunny didn’t joy-ride around the ranch. Visiting meant saddling up and pitching in with chores.
“When we went to the ranch, we went to work,” Barnes says. “It wasn’t a play day. We’d get up before the sun and Grandma would have breakfast made. We’d leave before daylight. We either went and checked fences or fixed windmills. And I always enjoyed the branding
part of it.”
Barnes recalls one summer when Sunny was bitten by a snake. Proving how tough ponies can be, he survived, but not without a lasting mark. To breathe, he had a garden hose-sized hole cut in his nose above his nostril. He had it the rest of his life.
“That’s one of the main things I remember about him, was that he had a hole about six inches up from one nostril,” Barnes says.
Sunny and Barnes experienced what it was to be “a real cowboy,” but Barnes advises people to hunt for a safer fi rst horse.
“As a young kid, you don’t know any horsemanship,” Barnes says. “So, maybe it’s better that you can get one that will do whatever they want and can take some pulling and jerking.
“The thing about your first horse is, no matter if you have a good horse or a bad horse, you have to have respect for him,” he continues. “Your first horse teaches you responsibility and respect.”
Buck Brannaman and the Reliable Mare
Not many folks can say they rode their first horse in rodeo acts and television commercials, but legendary horseman Buck Brannaman can. Her name was Ladybird.
“She was the sweetest mare and the best babysitter ever,” Brannaman recalls of the black-and-white pinto mare. “If she would’ve had hands, she would’ve kept me up on her back. She’d have held me up there if she could.”
Brannaman began riding the mare when he was 5 years old and she was about the age of 10. Ladybird reminded him of his childhood idol, Michael Landon, star of TV series “Bonanza,” whose character “Little Joe” also rode a pinto. Brannaman admits he even had a green lace-up shirt like Little Joe.
Brannaman, his brother and Ladybird appeared in several television commercials in the 1970s as a spokesperson for Kellogg’s Sugar Pops. As a contract rodeo act, Brannaman would gallop the mare full speed around arenas and perform rope tricks while standing on her back.
But one gig at the Diamond Spur Rodeo in Spokane, Washington, topped all others.
“It was a big rodeo — the biggest rodeo we’d done rope tricks in at the time,” Brannaman says. “At every rodeo, they would announce us and we would enter the arena and gallop our horses around the entire arena, then come to the middle of the arena, stop and begin our rope tricks.
“Ladybird apparently thought this whole thing through and thought it was pretty unnecessary that we gallop around the entire arena when we were just going to ride to the middle anyway,” he continues. “She took a hard left, got to the center and slammed on the brakes. I do a complete flip over her head and land on my feet in front of 5,000 people. I still had my trick rope in my hand, so I went to spinning ropes. I looked like an Olympic gymnast. The crowd went crazy.”
Brannaman doesn’t remember where Ladybird came from, just that his dad bought her local in Coeur d’Alene. Brannaman rodeoed on her for about six years before she eventually passed of old age.
“I was a very determined young man to figure out how to stay on a horse and ride,” Brannaman says, crediting Ladybird with fostering that in him. “She was my friend and my playmate.”
Tom Moorhouse and the Bay Ranch Gelding
Growing up on his family’s Moorhouse Ranch west of Benjamin, Texas, rancher and horseman Tom Moorhouse remembers jumping cattle guards on his first horse, Ringo.
“I had a neighbor who lived 3 miles from the house on another ranch,” Moorhouse says. “He was an old Four Sixes Ranch cowboy, and I looked up to him. After school a couple of times a week, I’d ride across to visit with him.
“But there were two gates between our house and his, so I’d have to jump the cattle guards to visit,” Moorhouse continues. “I liked Ringo so much because I could get him to jump those cattle guards.”
Moorhouse says he’s not sure how Ringo came to be on the ranch, just that he was a docile, 4-year-old bay gelding who was the apple of his eye.
“At 13 years old, I thought he was the perfect-built horse, but I’m sure he was actually a pretty nice-looking horse, confirmation wise,” Moorhouse says. “I thought he was the only horse in the world. My three brothers had their own horses, and I had mine. Of course, they thought their horses were better than mine, and I knew mine was better than theirs.”
Moorhouse now runs the ranch, which has since earned an American Quarter Horse Association Best Remuda award. He remembers working alongside his father, Togo, and other cowboys while riding his bay gelding.
“I could do anything on him, and if I couldn’t have, if he hadn’t been real gentle, my daddy wouldn’t have let me get on him,” Moorhouse says. “Ringo was the real deal. I was pretty young to rope, but I could rope on him, and then go with my dad and the other cowboys and work pastures on him all day long, because I was so light and he could carry me. He had a lot of good qualities for a young man.”
Ringo carried Moorhouse until the gelding was in his teens.
“I think every kid, though he might not remember when he first rode, he would remember his first horse because it meant a lot to him,” Moorhouse says. “Horses teach kids pride of ownership. It means a lot when a kid can call a horse his own.
“And a young kid remembers any expenses he has with his first horse, like me when I hooked Ringo up to a cart one time and he shattered it to pieces,” he continues. “Still; everybody likes their first horse.”
Doug Williamson and the Fast Bridle Horse
When Doug Williamson was a kid, he wanted to be a jockey. The National Reined Cow Horse Association $1 million dollar rider says it helped that he was always scrawny. Feeding those backstretch dreams was a coal black half Thoroughbred, half Hambletonian mare named Vale’s Blaze.
“I won my first [unoffcial] race on her,” Williamson says. “One of my dad’s friends said to me, ‘I bet I can outrun you to the telephone pole.’ I was on the back of Blaze, and I won. I was 5 years old and she was probably 10 years old at the time.”
Williamson grew up in Vale, Oregon, where his parents, Sylvan and Barbara, had a large cattle operation.
“She was already on the ranch before I was born, so I’m not sure where she came from,” Williamson says. “But my dad loved race horses, and she could really run. I’m not sure if it was his idea to make her my horse, but it was certainly my idea, especially after I won that race against his friend.”
Williamson says Blaze taught him the skills that would later allow him to get along with most horses.
“I started riding her all by myself when I was 5 years old,” Williamson says. “I’d have to put my knee in the stirrup and crawl up
her leg to get on her. She’d buck me off once in a while, otherwise we got along just fine.”
Like many mares, Blaze reminded a young Williamson not to get too complacent in the saddle. He says even now, he can get along with horses that are considered ornery or have a bad disposition.
“I remember one time, I was riding her with my dad out in the desert,” Williamson says. “He was sorting the cows out, and I was holding the herd on her. I went to stop a cow who was getting away, and she went to bucking with me.
“When she quit bucking, I had my right arm around the saddle horn and my left arm around the cantle, and I was facing away from the saddle.”
Williamson says when he finally jumped off, he didn’t hang on to the reins. Blaze took off and ran 10 miles before Williamson’s dad could catch her along a fence.
“He was so mad at her for bucking me off,” Williamson says. “And he was mad at me for even letting her act that way and escape.” Blaze went on to raise 12 colts registered with AQHA.
“Back in those days, if you wanted your horse registered in the AQHA, you had to have your horse inspected to see if it was good enough [to be accepted into the new registry],” Williamson says. “All her colts were. She ended up getting the Appendix papers from the AQHA because she was such a good dam to raise such good horses.”
From the sounds of it, she raised a good cowboy, too.
Kelly Yates and the Honest Gelding
Technically, four-time NFR barrel racer Kelly Yate’s first horse was a pony named Tinkerbell. The little pony would routinely take off and run away with young Yates, one time nearly clotheslining her on a wire.
Enter: “Skip,” a Skipper W-bred Quarter Horse gelding with a knack for speed.
“He was tall, about 15.2 hands,” Yates says of what became her first barrel horse. “He loved me and would follow me around without a halter on. He was a head horse, and then we jerked the saddle off of him and put my little saddle on him.
“He didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I wanted to go fast,” Yates continues. “I just jumped on him and ran.”
Yates remembers spending entire summers rodeoing with her dad, Dick, and later on with her younger brother, J.D. Skip helped Yates fill her permit quickly. She was 8 years old, and Skip was 4 years old.
“When my dad got his permit, I got mine,” Yates says. “I was grandfathered in because there was no age limit at the time.” Yates recalls Skip was an honest horse that made you ride correctly.
“Skip taught me to be a winner,” Yates says. “If I didn’t do something right, my dad would tell me. If I still didn’t follow through and do it right on Skip during a race, then I didn’t win any money.”
Yates remembers one amateur rodeo in Craig, Colorado, where Skip made a surprise appearance.
“There was a parade, and we went to go watch it,” Yates says. “All of the sudden, I see my horse in the parade. I think it was the rodeo queen riding him. She had randomly grabbed a horse — my horse — and rode him in the parade. He was not having it. But he got over it pretty quickly, because we went on to win the barrel race that night.”
Yates ran Skip throughout high school, winning the state title in barrels when she was just a freshman.
Skip’s final lesson was teaching Yates to say goodbye, when he was sold to a young barrel racer from California.
“It was just time,” Yates says. “I was starting another horse, and he needed to go help others.”
This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Western Horseman.