Classic Cowboys

Jack Brainard: A Horseman at Heart

close up of Jack Brainard

He’s been a champion roper, horse trainer, breeder, rodeo producer, industry visionary, association organizer, best-selling author, clinician, scholar, historian and judge. If the horse industry ever created a Renaissance man, Jack Brainard would be it.

While most men his age are content to be doing, well, much of anything, Jack Brainard is busy training horses, giving clinics, finishing a new memoir and helping to launch The Western Dressage Association of America, an association he believes has the potential to be as successful as the National Reining Horse Association. He should know. Brainard was instrumental in forming that association, as well.

Today, with his wife, Kathy, Jack lives on a small ranch just north of Whitesboro, Texas, in a modest Western-style house constructed of cedar and white Austin stone. The warm and spacious interior speaks to a life with horses and is befitting a man who has been a student of Western and Native American culture his entire life. Walls are covered with an eclectic collection of original oil paintings, pen-and-ink sketches, and watercolors by some of the most revered, and according to Jack, some of the most overlooked Western artists of the 20th century. A large bronze, symbolizing his induction into the NRHA Hall of Fame last year, sits modestly near the kitchen counter, awaiting a permanent display case.

In a soon-to-be-published book titled, Jack Brainard, A Horseman Remembers …The First 90 Years, Jack, with the benefit of keen hindsight, has documented his extraordinary life in 24 neatly ordered chapters. Yet, his life has been anything but a straight-line journey, but rather one filled with many twists and turns, typical of a man who has followed his heart as much as his head.

It’s No Wonder

Born in 1921 to homesteading parents near the small town of Wasta, South Dakota, Jack was brought up in a family of ranchers and talented horsemen. The family ranch had been established in 1910, shortly after Jack’s parents were married. In 1911, land adjacent to the Brainard homestead became available, along with a few head of cattle carrying the Diamond B brand, a brand that has been in the Brainard family ever since and one that Jack still uses today.

Jack Brainard leaning against post

A few years after Jack was born, his father was elected county commissioner and moved the family to nearby Rapid City, although they kept the ranch, which was becoming one of the most successful in the area.

Precocious by nature, Jack loved to tag along while his father made the rounds around town, often stopping at the local horse trader’s shack to visit and catch up on the local news. Inside the shack sat a potbelly stove and a large coffee pot, with dozens of tin cups hanging on a wire. It was a favorite gathering spot for local ranchers and cowboys—and little Jack, as well.

“As a 6- or 7-year-old, I couldn’t wait to go with him,” says Jack. “These old ranchers always had time to visit with me. Two of the ranchers were Gus Hauser and Bill Blair. Gus was my idol. He stood about 6-foot-2 and wore 16-inch-tall boots with his pant legs tucked in the tops. He was a cowman’s cowman. Hauser had been an Indian scout and was a friend of Red Cloud, the greatest of all Indian chiefs. He’d witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre and helped haul the wounded back to Pine Ridge.

“Another regular was Russ Madison, who was a good friend of my father’s. Russ was an early-day bronc rider and probably the best in South Dakota. When Buffalo Bill saw him ride, he hired him to be in his Wild West Show.

“When I think back, I grew up surrounded by men who were the last of their kind,” Jack continues. “They’d fought Indians, drove cattle up the trail, homesteaded, fought bad weather, endured droughts and every hardship you could throw at them, and each of them were pure cowboy. They had done it all.

“Now I am reading books about these very men, written by Dakota historians, and little do they know that I am the only man in America that can honestly say, ‘Hell, I knew ’em.’ ”

jack brainard riding a horse
Monte Forman took this photo of Jack and Old Blue in the late1950s. “I paid $350 for the mare and won $600 at my first big roping,” says Jack. She made me think I was a cowboy.”

When Herbert Hoover was elected President in 1929, the political scene changed in Rapid City and Jack’s family returned to their ranch. While Jack’s mother wasn’t wild about losing the comforts of town life, Jack was elated. Although he and his older sister had plenty of chores to do, Jack was horseback every opportunity, including riding to school.

Based upon his earliest experiences with cowboys and horses on the Western frontier, its no wonder Jack Brainard has strived his entire life to be a straight shooter and world-class horseman.

Early Lessons

When the Depression and some of the worst weather in a century hit South Dakota in the 1930s, ranching turned from being a profitable enterprise into a losing proposition. Jack’s family reluctantly packed their belongings and moved to Iowa, where Jack’s mother had relatives. Leaving South Dakota was traumatic for the entire family, but was especially hard on Jack. The West was in his blood, and moving to a farm raising corn and hogs was difficult.

“One of the things I learned to do while in South Dakota was rope,” says Jack. “I carried a rope all the time when I was a kid. I roped the goats, turkeys, and skim-milk calves, basically anything that moved. The hired hands were always telling me that if I kept at it, I’d be a roper someday. I meant to prove them right.”

During those early years in Iowa, Jack spent as much time as he could with the family’s horses. He could harness a team of draft horses when he was 12 years old but it was the saddle horses that intrigued him most. Recognizing that he lacked the skills necessary to train an unbroke horse, he talked his mother into buying Professor Beery’s Horse Training Course, which consisted of several booklets with drawings and also pieces of equipment to use on the lessons.

“Beery was the originator of this idea 60 years ago,” says Jack. “He did exactly what the clinicians on TV are doing today and it’s still working. One thing I’ve learned though, it is pretty hard to train a horse off of the printed page.”

In 1935, Jack saw his first Quarter Horses at the Sydney, Iowa, rodeo and was impressed by their powerful rear-ends, little heads and quick speed. In that part of Iowa, there were mostly draft horses or light horses that were primarily Standardbreds, Saddlebreds or gaited horses.

“People don’t realize it today that there were no professional Western horse trainers at that time,” says Jack. “There were a few racehorse trainers or gaited horse trainers, but that was it. The only way to learn was trial and error.”

After high school, Jack went to college, first studying civil engineering but soon switched to animal science at Iowa State University. Jack took a horse with him, of course. Between classes and a part-time job, he spent as much time as possible working with his colt. That all changed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon, Jack and all of his friends were drafted into the Army. After basic training, Jack was shipped to Seward, Alaska, where he spent most of World War II. Toward the end of his tour, however, he was reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where his life took a fortuitous turn.

A Lucky Break

While at Fort Hood, Jack heard about the Goodrich Ranch, a 40,000-acre spread that had a reputation for having some pretty good Quarter Horses.

“I’d bought a motorcycle, so one day I took a ride out to the ranch and met Glen Chisum, who later became a dear friend,” Jack recalls. “Before long, I was spending all my free time at the ranch, riding horses and learning about the newly formed American Quarter Horse Association. When I was discharged from the Army, I stayed at the ranch during the winter, riding horses and helping with ranch work. I fell in love with Texas and vowed I’d live there someday, but my folks needed me on the farm in Iowa, so I reluctantly moved back home.”

Larry Mahan, Tom Dorrance and Jack Brainard
Six-time World All-Around Rodeo Champion Larry Mahan attended Tom Dorrance’s last clinic, held at Jack Brainard’s Diamond B Ranch In Aubrey, Texas.

Fortunately, Jack had a friend in the area who was a pretty good cowboy and who loaned Jack his calf roping horse to compete on at local rodeos. After winning a few and getting his confidence up, Jack got his Rodeo Cowboys Association card in 1947 and entered his first professional rodeo in Neleigh, Nebraska.

“The Southwest ropers were there, and I soon learned that I was outclassed,” says Jack. “But I learned a lot by watching them, and they gave me lots of helpful pointers. I went home more determined than ever to improve my skills.”

While Jack worked full time on the farm, he spent as much time as possible acquiring new horses training them, then trading them off. He’d acquired a few good broodmares along the way and began raising colts. In the early 1950s, Jack was emerging as an important Quarter Horse breeder, eventually holding the first registered Quarter Horse sale in the state.

With his success with Quarter Horses, life on the farm was becoming increasingly difficult. When a Wisconsin businessman offered Jack the opportunity to relocate and start a first-class Quarter Horse breeding and training facility up north, Jack accepted. With his folks ready to retire, Jack helped them sell the farm’s equipment, then put the farm in the government’s newly developed soil bank program. At last, Jack was able to pursue his dream of being a fulltime

“After moving to Wisconsin, I started showing some pretty good horses in the Midwest, and the word got out that I’d spent a little time in Texas and knew something about Quarter Horses,” Jack says. “One day I got a telephone call from Raymond Hollingsworth, who, at that time was running the AQHA. He said, ‘Jack, I want you to go to Montana and judge a Quarter Horse Show.’

“You have to remember, in 1953 we didn’t even have a rulebook. We just judged by what we thought was right. Anyway, I got on a train and went to Glendive, Montana. It was the state’s first Quarter show. Horses arrived in bobtail trucks covered with dust and were shown in Johnson halters. After they showed their horses in the morning, everyone went to the hotel bar to have a drink before lunch, then went back and had the performance classes in the afternoon. That was my first Quarter Horse show to judge, and I’ll tell you, we had fun.”

A Change in Attitude

Apparently AQHA was pleased with Jack’s judging abilities, and soon he was getting calls to judge more shows. California trainers Tony Amaral and Charley Araujo, both good friends of Jack’s, were influential in getting him out west.

“When I got to California and began to see how much better those horses were bridled than ours, I decided that was the way to go and I began doing things the way the Californians did to get a bridled attitude on a horse. I was probably the first one in the Midwest to put emphasis on a bridled horse; at least the old timers up there give me the credit for it.”

Jack riding a horse for western dressage
Jack’s enthusiasm for Western dressage has revitalized his interest in training, not only horses but people.

Early in Jack’s career, he’d read a series of articles by Monte Foreman in The Cattleman magazine called “Horse Handling Science” and was impressed by Foreman’s approach to training. When a friend of Jack’s went down in Texas to go to one of Foreman’s clinics, Jack was eager to get a full report upon his return.

“My friend told me what a terrific horseman Foreman was, and I guess he was also a pretty good salesman because he brought one of Foreman’s ‘Balanced Ride’ saddles with him,” says Jack. “I would guess that it was one of the first forward seat saddles in our part of the country. Anyway, my friend asked me to try it out and explain why a horse would work better if you rode forward on him.

“I was at the Minnesota State Fair and was entered in a $500 reining horse stake with a pretty nice horse, so I rode around a little bit in the saddle and it felt pretty good, so decided to ride it in the reining. Well, I won the event and my friend immediately called Monte to share the news. Monte was pretty excited and decided he wanted to drive up and pay me a visit. He ended up spending a month. He was that kind of easy-going guy, it didn’t take long and he became part of our family.”

From then on, Monte and Jack were best friends. When Monte was between projects or just needed a place to stay for a while, he’d stay with Jack or rent a little place down the road.

During one of his visits, he noticed Jack was having difficulty getting one of his most promising colts to change leads.

“Monte said, ‘Jack, you need to put a dressage change on him,’ ” Jack recalls. “Well, I never heard the word ‘dressage,’ but Monte said, ‘What you got to do is teach him to canter depart, lope down to the other end of the arena, turn him around and bring him back in the other lead and keep repeating that. Once you get him to canter depart on the lead you want, lope him down the middle of the arena, slow him down to a trot, then put the outer leg on him and move him into a canter in the other lead.

“Well, Monte left for a trip and I kept practicing what he’d told me, and it wasn’t but a few days I could canter that little horse down the middle of that arena and he’d change leads in a straight line just as pretty as you please. I will tell today, the first time that horse changed leads on a straight line at the canter was one of the best feelings I’d ever had horseback. That was my start in the lead-change business. I use the same method to teach lead changes today. The next year that horse was the world champion reining horse.”

For the next 20 years, Jack’s reputation as a Quarter Horse trainer and breeder continued to grow as he developed numerous champion performance horses. He developed the Diamond B training center in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the finest facilities in the Midwest that served as the epicenter for the modern show horse industry.

During this time, Brainard was instrumental in developing the Equine Science Program at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, one of Jack’s proudest achievements. The program remains one of the most successful in the country today.

That’s Entertainment

About the same time, Mel Potter, one of Jack’s roping buddies, dropped by one day with a plan to start up a rodeo production company. Although Jack was knee-deep in horse show business, he never lost the thrill of rodeo competition and eagerly agreed to join the new enterprise. Once capital was raised, they formed Rodeos Incorporated and set about buying the best bucking stock money could buy. In a few years, their small company became a major force in professional rodeo, sending numerous bucking horses and bulls to the National Finals Rodeo, then held in Oklahoma City. Several of their horses including Sheep Mountain and Major Reno were voted “best bronc” at the finals earning Rodeo Incorporated coveted silver halters.

Larry Mahan, who remains one of Jack’s closest friends, was expected to be the first cowboy to win $50,000 in one year; all he had to do was ride Major Reno in the last round at the finals. Mahan bucked off on the horse’s third jump, dashing his hopes for a record, but it’s provided a story both enjoy telling.

With the pressures of the training business, Jack eventually sold out his interest in the company. Nevertheless, dozens of black and white photos displayed in Jack’s house depicting some of the most famous bareback and saddle bronc matchups in history attest to his fondest for the sport.

A Chance Encounter

In the early 1960s, Jack was visiting a friend in Nebraska who raised Thoroughbreds. Ray Hunt was working there for the summer starting colts and dealing with problem horses. One day Jack rode out to a pasture with Ray to check some cattle that needed doctoring. Ray Hunt was mounted on a rank stallion that had just come off the racetrack.

While still in the corral, the stallion did everything in his power to buck Ray off. Unfazed, Ray settled the horse down enough to get him in the pasture where he loped him in quarter mile circles, then brought him to a trot. When the horse would try to run away, Ray would lope a few more circles.

“By the time we reached the cattle,” Jack recalls, “that horse had loped or trotted 10 miles. Ray took a rope down and heeled a yearling with ease. On the way back to the corrals, that stud acted like a perfect ranch horse, I’d never seen anything like it. I immediately had respect for the man.”

A few months later, Jack had the opportunity to attend a Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance clinic in Elko, Nevada.

“When I got to town, I ran into Ray and Tom at the hotel when I discovered I didn’t have a room,” Jack recalls. “Tom, who I’d I never met before, offered to share his with me since he had an extra bed and I readily accept the offer. Well, I watched their colt starting clinic all day then I’d discuss what’d I’d seen that evening with Tom. It was a great experience and the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Tom died 20 years later. His last clinic was at my place in Aubrey, Texas.”

New Opportunities

With all that Jack Brainard has accomplished during his 70-year career training horses, you’d think he’d be content to rest on his considerable laurels. You’d be wrong. Instead, he is helping organize and promote the Western Dressage Association of America.

Several years ago, while attending a Light Hands Horsemanship clinic in Santa Ynez, California, Jack met Eitan Beth-Halachmy, the best-known proponent of “Cowboy Dressage” a style of training and riding that combines the best of both classical dressage and Western riding.

The two became instant friends.

“Western dressage is a more in-depth, advanced way of training a horse,” says Jack. “I firmly believe that this is going to be the next revolution in horsemanship because it is the correct way to train a horse. There is a huge market for this type of training and riding. Most of the people that are coming to our clinics are women between the age of 35 and 65. Their goal is to ride a better horse. They don’t want to chase cattle, they don’t want to run barrels and they don’t want to rein. And, they aren’t happy just riding down the trail; they want to ride a better-trained, more compliant horse. This is what Western dressage has going for it. It isn’t that difficult and it is a lot of fun. After a few days in our Western dressage clinics, people have more confidence in themselves and their horses. That is what will keep the horse industry strong.”

This article was originally published in the January 2011 issue of Western Horseman.

4 thoughts on “Jack Brainard: A Horseman at Heart”

  1. I got to know JACK when he was with the rodeo co. When my brother worked for Rodeos Incorporated. One time I was looking for a roping horse so I gave Jack a call when he was in Minnesota. I asked Jack if had any horses that might work for me, he said had one that might work for me. Well I lived 200 miles away do I take my trailer with me or not as I didn’t want to make two trips so I hooked up my trailer the way I went. Well I was impressed with the horse and bought it. He turned out to be a very good heeling horse.
    Jack is the best..

  2. Jack, I used to work for you at the Blue Heather Farm. Onalaska, Wisconsin I have lost track with Bonnie and wondering if Jodi or Zane possibly would have a number for her.


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