Despite a lack of resources, rancher Mike Miller successfully transitioned from part-time bronc rider to reined cow horse trainer more than 20 years ago. Now, the Wyoming cowboy is riding the success of Playboys Buck Fever—and his foals— to new heights in the sport.
Twenty-five years ago, Tara Miller sat in a ranch meadow with Al Dunning’s book Reining: Fast Turn-Arounds, Smooth Circles & Long Slides as she tried to guide her husband, Mike, through the beginnings of his reined cow horse career.
“She’d say, ‘Well, that doesn’t quite look like the way Al’s doing it,’” Mike recalls from his home in Big Piney, Wyoming. “But back then, there weren’t many clinics or videos on this stuff. Once the clinics and videos came along, it was easier to pick up on reining and what they wanted down the fence.”
Mike and Tara’s trial-and-error method seems to have worked out just fine, however. Mike recently picked up his second consecutive non-pro championship at the 2010 National Reined Cow Horse Association Stakes in Nampa, Idaho, and earned more than $436,000 in NRCHA competition.
“Showing is the best way to figure it out,” Mike admits. “If you just enter up, that seems to be the best way to figure out what you need to work on. And people in the event are good about answering questions and helping you get things done.”
A fourth generation Wyoming rancher who spend time during his early adulthood riding saddle broncs on the professional rodeo circuit, Miller first saw the Snaffle Bit Futurity in the late 1970s. He entered a handful of reined cow horse events in the 1980s before getting serious about the event in the 1990s.
“I was in my early 40s and at the time felt all right riding broncs, but you have to be away from home so much to rodeo,” Mike says. “Some guys were going to 200 or more rodeos a year back then. I could never travel as much because I had to take care of my ranch. The reined cow horse deal works pretty good for me because I can go to six or seven events a year. I can usually make time to go to the many.”
Mike recalls winning his fair share in limited-division classes during his first season of reined cow horse competition. Like any competitive cowboy, his horsepower—or lack thereof—often held him back.
“In so many Western events, it’s a matter of waiting for the right horse to come along,” he says. “One year, you might think you’re pretty good. The next year, on a different horse, you’ll be left wondering why you even entered up. A good horse really is the secret to a lot of these events.”
Mike’s big break came in the form of Playboys Buck Fever. The 15-hand, 1,300 pound horse was built like a buckskin tank. The 1999 stallions is by Freckles Playboy and out of Tsarina Chexanic. The Millers bought Tsarina Chexanic from Greg Ward; the mare had won $11,876 at reined cow horse events before a foot injury ended her show career. Tara won the breeding to Freckles Playboy in a raffle and knew immediately which mare she would breed to the stallion.
“We bred what we thought was our best mare at the time,” Mike says, “and that’s how [Playboys Buck Fever] came along. He’s just a really trainable horse, and he fit us good because he’s so big. A lot of the cutting horses these days don’t fit our deal very good. If they can’t make it as show horses, they’re too small for us to go out and rope on around the ranch.”
Playboys Buck Fever advanced to the open finals at the 2002 Snaffle Bit Futurity, was a finalist at the 2005 World’s Greatest Horseman, and claimed a handful of hackamore and bridle championships before being named an NRCHA Supreme Reined Cow Horse in 2006—all with Mike in the saddle.
“The good ones make you feel like a pretty good hand,” Mike says. “He was that way. I probably got him as broke as I have any horses I’ve ridden. Seems like at the time I wasn’t quite as excited about my other 2-year-olds, so I spend a lot of time with him. It didn’t take long to see he had potential.”
Tara handles all the breeding chores around the ranch. Her duties have changed somewhat now that Playboys Buck Fever stands at stud at the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas.
“They love him there,” she says. “He was always easy to handle, never pushy. Most of the time I could lead him in and collect him by myself. About once a year, I might have to get Mike to come in and straighten him out. For the most part, ‘Buck Fever’ is a born gentleman.”
Much of Mike’s success in reined cow horse has continued thanks to Playboys Buck Fever and his foals. Bucks Genuine Fever, a 6-year-old mare, has carried Mike to $88,000 in NRCHA earnings. Three others have topped $30,000 each in earnings.
Having cowboyed all his life, going down the fence in reined cow horse competition was never a concern for Mike. He also enjoys the reining aspect of cow horse competition. It is cutting that has long been his nemesis.
“Cowboying kind of takes away from my cutting a little,” he says. “For the longest time, it seemed like I had to take all the cowboy out of me to get much done in the cutting pen. I just couldn’t let a cow get by me. When you’re riding in the cutting and have a bad cow, you’re better off to let the dumb thing go and find another one. I seem to have a hard time doing that.”
In the last year, Mike has found himself paying more attention to other riders in the cutting pen. He’s asked his share of questions, watched videos and generally put more time into an aspect of the event he’d long overlooked.
“Since this is reined cow horse and we can use our hands, I thought it would fall into place,” Mike admits. “But it doesn’t work that way. I’ve learned that I need to spend plenty of time on all three events to get the job done. It’s not going to just happen on its own.”
The extra attention to cutting paid off at the 2010 NRCHA Stakes. Riding Feathers And Cash—a 4-year-old mare by Cats Red Feather and out of the Miller’s mare Splash A Lil Cash—Mike marked a 215 in the herd work. The score made up for a “bobble” that led to a 197.5 in the reining. The pair finished the event with a 221 in the cow work to claim the non-pro championship.
Mike rode two horses at the Stakes, finished third on Psychedelic Fever. All totaled, he won more than $16,000 in Stakes earnings.
“He should have won the stakes on Psychedelic Fever,” Tara says. “But she’s going to be a great barrel horse. We got home from Idaho and I started her on barrels right away. I have to be careful though, because Mike wants to take her to the Derby, so I can’t get her too hot.”
Back at Miller Land and Livestock, there’s a battle going on, and it’s a battle Mike is slowly losing. If it were up to him, he’d pull all his efforts into producing top-quality reined cow horses. But the rest of the family has different goals in mind. Sons Wes and Will are ropers. Daughter-in-law Tisa, Wes’ wife, is an avid barrel racer.
“I’m getting outnumbered,” Mike admits.
Tara says the family still mostly breeds reined cow horses—but they are fast cow horses.
“We’d like to keep the speed going,” Tara says. “But Mike likes his cow horses fast, too. Buck Fever has a lot of speed, which you wouldn’t guess seeing how big he is. He looks like a tank, but he can flat-out run. It’s important for us to keep speed in the horses so they can do everything—reined cow horse, rope and run barrels.”
Miller Land and Livestock runs 1,400 mother cows and 1,200 yearlings on 18,000 deeded acres in Big Piney, so the ranch’s horses need to be capable of pulling their weight.
Mike and Tara live on the original ranch that was homesteaded in the late 1870s. Mike’s great-grandfather came from Denmark and worked his way up to foreman of the Spur Ranch before buying the entire outfit in 1895. Since that time, land has been added and subtracted as various family members took on the job of running the ranch. Mike has run the place since 1981, when there was enough land to support 3,500 cows and 3,300 yearlings.
“We’ve been married 35 years, and he’s never once taken a shortcut to make things easier on himself,” Tara says. “Mike doesn’t take shortcuts with his training, either. He’ll spend all day doing the ranch work, then turn on the lights in the barn so he can spend more time working with his horses.
“He mixes training in with the ranch work, but it’s often after that work is done that he’s out there putting more time into training them.”
One thing Mike has no desire to do is put more time into traveling.
“I don’t want to go to any more shows than I do now,” he says. I just want to get better at showing and show my horses better than I have in the past. One thing we are doing that’s a little different is we entered up in the Battle in the Saddle even in Oklahoma City.”
The American Quarter Horse Association’s Battle in the Saddle will feature competitions in five Western events: reining, working cow horse, roping, cutting and ranch horse. The event, clearly influenced by ranch work and reined cow horse competition, is a natural fit for Mike.
“This new event looks like it’ll be fun and give me a chance to meet some ranchers from other parts of the country,” he says.
This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Western Horseman.