Charged with supplying horses for one of the largest cattle operations in Idaho, cow boss Monte Funkhouser taps into top performance horse bloodlines.
Dust and cattle swirl around a young sorrel colt working hard in the branding corrals. It’s late afternoon in July, and it’s hot.
Monte Funkhouser eases the 2-year-old into the herd, tosses his loop around a hefty solid-black calf, dallies and turns toward the middle of the pen. As the young horse lugs forward in a straight line, one of Funkhouser’s cowboys slips behind and heels the calf. In an instant, the calf is stretched out on its side, and the ground crew swarms around it, vaccinating, castrating, tagging and placing the CCR brand on its left side.
Dragging calves to the fire during cool spring mornings is enjoyable work. But branding on a sweltering summer afternoon is hard labor, especially after spending most of the day gathering and then sorting out the 30 cows and their calves that somehow escaped spring branding and have grown much heavier during the past couple of months.
As the sun sinks toward the horizon, the crew finishes working the last calf. The men loosen their cinches and prop up their saddles, letting the heat escape from their horses’ sweaty backs. It’s been yet another long, hard day for both man and horse.
“That 2-year-old did a lot of nice stuff there,” Funkhouser says, steering his truck and trailer back toward his house. “You saw him drag and lay into that rope. He’d had just about enough there at the end. He was tired. But that’s good for [young horses]. They learn how to work.
“It’s fun to ride younger horses like that. I’ve just been cowboying on this Very Smart Remedy colt. I think he’s as good as anything I’ve ever rode.”
The young stallion represents where Funkhouser wants his fledgling horse program to be in about five years. Sired by Very Smart Remedy, the Quarter Horse colt has the athleticism and bloodlines of a modern performance horse, but is gaining the work ethic of an old-school ranch horse.
Funkhouser needs such stock to handle the duties of the newly formed Camas Creek Ranch, headquartered near Fairfield, Idaho. As cow boss, Funkhouser has increased the ranch’s cow herd from 300 to more than 3,000 head. The plan at one point was for the herd to grow considerably larger than 3,000, but uncertainty in the beef market has tempered that goal for now.
Nevertheless, Camas Creek Ranch has quickly become one of the largest cow-calf operations in the region. Including both farming and cattle interests, the ranch stretches across more than 300,000 acres, although not entirely contiguously. Cattle run on deeded property and government allotments, including winter desert pastures near Bruneau, and land throughout the southern edge of the Sawtooth Mountains.
The ranch is owned by telecommunications entrepreneur Bruce McCaw and his family. The McCaws began purchasing numerous ranches along Camas Creek several years ago. It’s managed by Rodney and Melanie Gonsales. Funkhouser oversees cattle operations.
Funkhouser has built the herd by purchasing Sitz Black Angus bulls and acquiring primarily Black Angus cows. With so many grazing allotments on government land, Funkhouser is constantly rotating his cattle, either by trailing them cross-country or often by trucking them. His crew includes a mere four cowboys and his hard-working wife, Sherry, a more-than-capable ranch hand.
“These guys that work for me are great,” Funkhouser says. “You got to take your hat off to them, as hard as they work. I work with them six days a week. And then on Sundays, I drive all over the country, checking to see what needs to be done.”
Long, bumpy Sunday drives and constant dealings with range conservationists may not be Funkhouser’s favorite responsibility, but building his own horse program makes it worthwhile. His agreement with the ranch is to provide the horses himself. So he’s establishing a breeding program that will continually improve the quality of his 40- or 50-head cavvy.
His developing broodmare band, which includes older mares, several 2-year-old fillies and a yearling, features the bloodlines of Diamond J Star, Docs Hickory, High Brow Cat, Smart Little Lena, Shining Spark, Very Smart Remedy and Zan Parr Bar.
Funkhouser believes he’s already got the ideal stud to cross on his mares. The horse, MH Its Only Boon, is a gray 4-year-old being shown by reined cow horse trainer Ted Robinson. The horse is by Bodee Boonsmal, a gray son of Peptoboonsmal who has sired a number of money-earners in the cutting arena. MH Its Only Boon is out of a Freckles Playboy mare and was bred by Western States Ranches of Dublin, Texas.
Robinson had purchased the horse at a sale as a yearling, and when Funkhouser contacted him about a ranch stud prospect, Robinson recommended the gray stallion. Soon, Funkhouser formed a partnership on the horse with Robinson, who is a seven-time Snaffle Bit Futurity champion, and the late Elvin Young, an Idaho breeder and friend of Funkhouser’s.
“I asked Ted to buy a stud prospect for the ranch,” Funkhouser says. “I didn’t think we’d show him. Then Elvin Young looked at the horse’s pedigree and he wanted to be a partner. The horse was shipped to Idaho, and as I’m unloading him out of the trailer, Ted Robinson calls and asks if I need another partner. Well, you can’t have a better partner than that.”
Funkhouser started MH Its Only Boon as a 2-year-old, using the horse extensively to gather, sort and brand cattle. He also bred the horse to four of his mares. Funkhouser could tell that the horse was too talented not to be shown, so sent him to Robinson in July of that year. The next year, Robinson began showing the stallion at National Reined Cow Horse Association events. In June, the horse qualified for the finals of the NRCHA Derby, earning $3,345.
“He’s a really good horse,” Robinson says. “He’s strong in the herd work. He can move and is real physical. We’ve had some bad luck on him, but I know I’m going to win something on him.”
Last year, Elvin Young died in a car accident, so Robinson and Funkhouser plan to purchase the third share from their friend’s wife.
Clearly, Funkhouser favors bloodlines of the latest show-pen stars, even if they’re not the rangey, tough-minded, big-circle horses that are popular on many Great Basin ranches.
“A lot of people like the big,” he says. “I like an average-sized horse.
“There are a lot of horses in this country that are just boneheads. I don’t want that. If I can get my guys riding better horses in years to come, hopefully it’ll make them better horsemen.”
Funkhouser grew up cowboying in Idaho. He began to appreciate well-bred cow horses during his first trip to Texas in 1986, when horseman and rodeo great Larry Mahan hired him to start colts. Funkhouser worked at Mahan’s ranch in Kerrville, Texas, for six months, riding 2-year-olds sired by Docs Solano, Mr San Peppy and Peponita.
“If you ride good horses, they get broke faster,” Funkhouser says. “They’re more athletic and easier to ride. I learned that years ago at Mahan’s. The culls in Texas were better than anything we had in Idaho.”
In fact, shortly after working for Mahan, Funkhouser showed a “cull” and won the amateur division of a small reined cow horse futurity in Boise. His appreciation for quality cow horses continued to grow during the 1990s, when he spent four winters gathering wild cattle on a ranch in southern Nevada while riding less-than-stellar mounts.
“Me and this kid I grew up with would spend four months in the winter, catching wild cattle,” he says. “Most of them had horns, and they were deadly mean. Their instinct was to either run or charge.
“We’d go up on those mountains, catch two or three or four, tie them together and trail them down to a trailer. We had to drag about every one of them into a trailer.
“We wouldn’t take any good horses. We’d go to these backyard horse places and buy horses for six to eight hundred bucks.”
Afterward, Funkhouser moved to Northern California and worked for cow horse trainer Chet Vogt for three years. There, he met Sherry. They eventually moved back to Idaho and began working for Camas Creek Ranch in 2004.
“I’ve managed smaller cattle operations, but this is my first deal at running a big ranch,” he says.
Horses are vital on this large ranch, which contains miles of rocky, mountainous terrain and uses no four-wheelers.
“We got pack horses,” Funkhouser says. “Sherry packs all the salt for this deal on two horses. She probably packs 15 tons of salt on this mountain during the summertime.”
Funkhouser’s breeding program may be heavily influenced by bloodlines currently dominating in the cutting and reined cow horse arenas, but for him the bottom line is developing the best cavvy for Camas Creek.
“Good horses will collect themselves and drag better [in the branding pen],” he says. “They’re not looking around or distracted. They’re with you. You ask them to step over, and they get over. You’re not pulling and jerking. They can turn around and stop, and they’re smarter.
“I’m just trying to put together a little breeding program. We’ve still got a ways to go down the road.”
Ross Hecox is Western Horseman editor in chief. Send comments on this story to [email protected].