Drawing from their deep Utah ranching heritage and monitoring trends in the stock horse industry, Tom A. Davis and his sons are building a breeding program that produces competitive working cow horses with correct conformation and eye-catching color.
A band of Quarter Horse mares and their foals flows like a rapid river through a high-desert meadow framed by the Wasatch mountain range. An array of color—from bay to blue roan—the horses are art in motion.
Clint Davis, 38, gathers the herd, and at the other end of the meadow, his brother Zane, 40, opens the corral gate. The Davis brothers and their father, Tom A. Davis, own and operate the Davis ranch, a sixth-generation horse breeding operation located seven miles north of Brigham City, Utah.
Like painters mixing colors on a palette, the Davises cross their 10 stallions boasting proven cow horse bloodlines on equally dynamic mares. They work to produce versatile stock horses that also are standouts in working cow horse competition.
“Our horses have the mind and athleticism to go in a lot of different avenues,” Clint explains. “We’re shooting to breed high-end performance horses, but they excel in many different areas, whether it’s 4-H, high school rodeo, team roping, barrel racing, or team penning and team sorting.
“If you look at a lot of big ranching operations, they’re incorporating performance horse bloodlines into their breeding programs to create more versatile horses.”
What makes Davis Ranch unique is that Tom and his sons focus on breeding horses, rather than running cattle. They gradually built the horse business themselves from the foundation laid by their forefathers. Working closely together, they handle every aspect of the operation, from building barns, arenas and corrals to breeding mares and starting colts.
“We’re not a big or rich ranch that’s a corporate write-off,” Clint says. “We’re in business to make money on our horses and are trying to make a living in the equine industry.”
From Remounts To Roans
Since the mid-1800s, Davis Ranch has been a fixture for top-quality horses in Utah. Tom’s great-great grandfather, Titus Davis, immigrated from the East Coast with the Mormon church and settled in the northern Utah Territory, where he ranched and raised some of the best saddle and work horses in the region. Titus’ son and grandson, Thomas Ap and Tom L., respectively, followed in his footsteps and ranched in the Promontory mountains west of Brigham City. Both men continued to buy better breeding stock and improve the ranch’s remuda until the ranch was sold.
In 1941, Tom L.’s son, Lloyd, who was also the father of Tom A., the current owner, bought the land where the present-day ranch is located. He farmed the land and raised horses for the ranch and remount horses for the U.S. Army.
“My dad became good friends with a military man who oversaw the Remount horses in the intermountain region,” Tom explains. “He had three Thoroughbred stallions he bred to ranch mares and sold the offspring as Remount horses.”
During the 1940s, fledgling breed registries such as the American Quarter Horse Association created a demand for well-bred riding and working horses. Like so many dyed-in-the-wool horsemen of his generation, Tom’s interest in horses surfaced at an early age out of necessity.
“I grew up behind a team of horses,” Tom recalls. “When I was 10 years old, I was captain of my Little League team, and when I turned 11 my dad said he needed my help on the ranch. I could drive a team of horses raking hay and save him the expense of a hired hand.”
When Tom turned 14 his dad bought a tractor to help with the work, which let Tom pursue his competitive interests.
“When I was old enough to drive, I would load my horse in a wooden one-horse trailer and haul him to the little town of Corinne, Utah, to rope,” he recalls. “One of our neighbors that I calf roped with, Marcus McIntyre, became one of the best chariot racers in the intermountain states. Utah was a hotspot for chariot racing, and I started breaking horses on the chariot for the ranch. Then I started racing.”
After a successful chariot-racing career, Tom switched gears and began looking at stallions with reined cow horse bloodlines to cross on some of his best Thoroughbred mares.
“A lot of chariot racers took to cow horses,” Tom says. “It combined cutting, reining and going down the fence, and that seemed like fun. The Utah Reined Cow Horse Association is a really neat organization for families—everyone helps each other. I was the first paid member.”
Tom and his wife, Pearl Ann, were both teachers and department heads in the Box Elder School District. Living on teachers’ salaries, Tom gradually improved the ranch, acquiring horses with better bloodlines and building facilities. He was one of the first ranchers to have Longhorn cattle in Utah and, at one point, was running 200 head of cattle on the ranch. When they weren’t horseback, his eight children helped him irrigate, milk the family cows and do other ranch chores.
Zane and Clint, both excellent athletes, competed in youth rodeo and team roping on occasion, but both were interested in showing cow horses. None of the other children had an interest in the horse business.
Tom gradually phased out the cattle side of the business, except for a small herd used to work the horses, and he started his budding cow horse breeding program with a 14.3-hand bay roan cutting stallion that was a descendent of Bartender. He bred the stallion to his Thoroughbred mares, producing moderate-sized, cow-savvy Appendix Quarter Horses. He also bought a 1995 Quarter Horse stallion named Docs Blazing Chex, by Docs Bar Chex and out of Spear J Bar Belle.
Then, in 2000, Tom bought a well-bred blue roan colt that would become the ranch’s most influential sire and earn the Davis Ranch recognition in cow horse circles.
Zane learned about the colt offered for sale by Joe Hayes of Gainesville, Texas. The weanling was by Shining Spark, the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s all-time leading sire and first million-dollar sire.
“Zane called me one night and said he had found another Shining Spark stallion I needed to buy,” Tom recalls. “We had just bought a colt by Shining Spark named Shining Sparkler from Bobby Lewis. but Zane said, ‘This one is out of a Smart Little Lena daughter and they’re registering him as gray, but he’s actually a blue roan.
“I called Joe about the colt, which was only three weeks old and two weeks premature. I bought the colt and the recipient mare over the phone, without seeing them.
“We know our color genetics and knew that the colt couldn’t be a gray without having a gray parent. His dam was a bay roan and Shining Spark was a palomino. Zane figured there was less than a 3 percent chance that cross would produce a blue roan and even less of a chance of producing a blue roan colt.”
The colt, named Blue Spark Olena and nicknamed “Sparky,” was trained and shown in the URCHA by Shane Haviland of Paradise, Utah. despite his talent and athletic ability, the horse was never shown beyond the state level because of a broken neck he suffered early in his career.
“It was a freak deal,” Tom says. “We turned him out in a pen with another colt. It was wet and slick, and he slipped and fell while playing.”
Still, Sparky was the URCHA Year-End Open Snaffle Bit Champion and a Montana Reined Cow Horse Association Open Snaffle Bit Futurity Finalist in 2004. He finished 2005 as the URCHA Year-End Reserve Open Hackamore Champion.
“As a 4-year-old he was beating 5-year-olds at the URCHA Derby,” Tom says. “Shane went into the pen derby finals, the last of the five-show series, eight points ahead of the second-place horse and didn’t think there was any way we could lose. While circling the cow for the last time, Sparky’s feet went out from under him and Shane came out of the saddle. We ended up taking a zero, but lost the championship by only one point. It was a heartbreaker.”
The Davises bred many of their mares to Sparky, and he stamped his foals with his color, balanced conformation and cow sense. The stallion was euthanized when he was only 12 years old due to kidney failure, but the Davises had frozen his semen and kept many of his daughters in the broodmare band. Before his death, the ranch shipped more of Sparky’s semen than any other stallion they stood. A large painting of Sparky, by Utah artist Kelly Donovan, graces the wall of the entry into the main barn at the ranch headquarters.
“He was the smartest horse I’ve ever owned and had a great disposition,” Tom says. “I often say that if [leading cow horse breeder] Carol Rose had owned Blue Spark Olena, he would’ve been the next Shining Spark.”
Select The Best
The past 10 years have been a time of growth and development for Davis Ranch. Both Clint and Zane are well versed in cow horse bloodlines and extensively monitor horse-market trends so they can incorporate them into the ranch’s breeding program.
Clint, his wife, Jessica, and their two young daughters live on the ranch. He graduated magna cum laude with a fine arts degree from Utah State University, but returned to the ranch to buy and start show prospects.
This past October, he had the second-highest selling 2-year-old prospect at the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity sale in Reno, Nevada. The colt, a son of One Time Pepto named One Time Secret, sold for $41,000. He also started Smart N Smokin Rey as a 2-year-old, and the horse tied for fifth place in the 2012 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open with Zane P. Davis (not related) of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Last fall, A Spoonful O Sugar, also started by Clint, was the NRCHA Open Hackamore Classic Champion with Chris Dawson of Jacksboro, Texas.
Clint purchases most of the prospects, other than the ones the ranch raises, at the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity sales in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Fort Worth sets the precedent of what bloodlines are going to be popular,” he says. “I study what they’re doing, and then bring it back to Utah and incorporate it into our breeding program.”
The Davises select their stallions and broodmares based on four things: conformation, mind, pedigree and color.
“People think color is what we emphasize the most, but it’s not,” Tom says. “Color is important for economics, but I don’t care if a horse is a blue roan; if he doesn’t have balanced conformation, a good mind and a good pedigree, we won’t touch him. We need to raise horses that everyone can get along with.”
To improve the genetics of its broodmare band, the ranch has purchased a variety of sires through the years, including NQH Mossy Boon, a 2002 red roan stallion by Peptoboonsmal and out of Smart Janie Jr by Smart Little Lena. They also leased Dun It With A Twist, a 1994 palomino-dun stallion by Hollywood Dunit and out of Peppymint Twist by Peppy San Badger. Dun It With A Twist was the 1997 National Reining Horse Association Futurity Open Reserve Champion and has NRHA earnings in excess of $100,000.
They currently stand 10 stallions that are sons of top performance horse sires such as Smart Little Lena, High Brow Cat, Dual Rey, Grays Starlight, Metallic Cat, Docs Hickory and Boonlight Dancer. They strive to produce a 14.2- to 15-hand horse that has good bone, athletic ability and a good mind.
“We don’t want small horses with fine bone,” Clint explains. “We want a middle-of-the-road horse that has a good disposition and enough size and bone to suit a rancher that wants to go do a job, yet still has athletic ability and mind to go to the performance arena. We can take some of the smaller cutting stallions and breed them to our bigger mares that throw some size on the colts. If the colts end up being smaller, we can market them as cutters, and if they have some size, we can make them cow horses.”
Most breeders emphasize the quality and characteristics of their mares because they tend to pass along more traits to the foals than the stallions. Though the Davises are particular about the types of mares they breed, when looking at show prospects they have noticed that certain stallions produce stronger versions of themselves than others.
“We put a lot of emphasis on our stallions when we were getting started, and still do,” Clint says. “When you have 20 mares, the quickest way to make a profit is to breed them to a good stallion that is a dominant sire.
“Our program has to pay for itself as it goes, so we don’t have the luxury of buying high-end mares with a lot of earnings and stallions at the same time. We have picked the best stallions we could buy and are now starting to buy daughters of Dual Rey, Smart Little Lena, Smart Chic Olena and High brow Cat who have show records and have won money.”
Tom adds that they also flush embryos out of their best mares and 2-year-old fillies, and put them in recipient mares.
“In the past, we couldn’t afford to buy a mare that has won a lot of money, but we try to find mares bred similarly with the right conformation that maybe got hurt or didn’t have the opportunity to be campaigned,” he says.
Zane agrees with that strategy.
“If you cross stallions on mares that have won $100,000, you increase your odds for having a competitive colt, but most people can’t afford that,” he says. “But if you find the right horses and breed them right, you can raise horses that can compete.”
Last year, the ranch bred 100 of its own mares and 140 outside mares. Zane, who has a doctorate degree in biochemistry and is a research scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture in Logan, Utah, helps in the breeding barn after work by artificially inseminating the mares. The Davises prefer AI to live cover because it helps protect the mares and the stallions from injuries and diseases.
Zane, his wife, Jennifer, and their five children live in Logan, but during breeding season, from April to June, he and his boys spend their nights and Saturdays at the ranch breeding and ultrasounding mares, and recording breeding records in a database.
“It’s really hard work, especially during breeding season, but we enjoy raising and riding quality horses,” Zane explains. “We spend three or four nights a week breeding mares until midnight. We ultrasound the mares at 16 days to confirm they are pregnant, and then we kick them out to pasture. At 35 to 45 days we bring them back in and check for foal heartbeats.”
The mares are kept outside in a large pasture and foal anywhere from late March to June. Tom says keeping the mares outside, rather than foaling in a stall, produces healthier, hardier foals and is better for the mares.
“We have over 95 percent conception rates,” Zane says, “so we must be doing something right.”
Champions In The Making
Davis Ranch relies on repeat customers, but is always looking for ways to market horses to potential buyers. Ideally, the ranch likes to sell most of the fillies and colts by the time they are 2 years old to keep their investment costs down. They sometimes hold on to the youngsters until they are 3. Even if they lose a little money, they can ensure the horses get into the right hands.
Clint, who apprenticed under Haviland, starts the show prospects as 2-year-olds in a 22-foot square pen. After a week of ground work and riding in the pen, he rides the youngsters in the arena. Eventually, he rides them outside and works cattle.
“Shane has had the most influence on me as a horseman,” he says. “When I was going to college I worked for him part time, and I traded labor for Sparky’s training. As Sparky got our foot into the performance horse industry, I also got my foot in the door with some great horsemen, such as Jack Forsberg.”
Another horseman who has helped Clint with his training and been influential in campaigning the ranch’s horses is cow horse trainer Brandon Buttars. The Snowville, Utah, horseman showed the ranch’s stallion High Roller Rey to a top-10 finish at the 2013 NRCHA Hackamore Classic and qualified for the open finals at the 2012 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity and 2013 NRCHA Derby.
“The reason we chose Brandon is that he was an up-and-coming horseman who was good enough to compete in the open division and yet has room in his barn for our horse,” Tom says. “We knew he would do all of the training and get our horse well broke, and his strengths matched our horses. He’s really strong in the cutting and going down the fence, and that is where our horses excel.”
At the Snaffle Bit Futurity, Buttars and High Roller Rey were in a good position going into the finals and were one of the crowd favorites. Once again, however, an unpreventable circumstance kept the Davises from winning their first major championship.
“I boxed the cow and took her down the fence, but instead of going on the wall she ran toward the center of the arena,” Buttars recalls. “We got her back on the fence, but then she jumped into my horse and started pushing me forward. When the horse pushed back to hold her, he hung his head on the fence for a split second. Just as we completed our second circle, the cow had run so hard that she dropped to the ground when the whistle blew. It was a tough run for a 3-year-old, but he has a lot of cow and always gives every ounce of try he has.”
Buttars received a 221 score with a review, and was penalized for hanging up on the fence. The score was docked to a 212, and Buttars ended up tying for 13th place overall.
For this year’s Snaffle Bit Futurity, Buttars is training another Davis Ranch stallion, Magneticat, by Metallic Cat and out of a daughter of Dual Rey. Clint bought the horse in Fort Worth in 2012 in hope of having another futurity prospect and a prolific, performance-bred stallion. The Davises bred more than 80 mares to him as a 2-year-old. Just like High Roller Rey, the stallion could be used in the breeding shed, and then Clint could ride him. Buttars said last fall that the colt “has a lot of the same qualities as High Roller Rey. He’s one of my best 2-year-olds.”
For more than 150 years, the Davis ranch has adapted its horse breeding program to fit the times and bloodline trends. For the past 20 years, Tom and his sons have built a reputable breeding program and, by doing nearly all of the work themselves, are able to offer quality horses at reasonable prices.
“It’s like any business; we try to do as much as we can ourselves to save money,” Tom says. “I think the reason a lot of people breed to our stallions and buy our colts is because we can keep the costs down and they don’t have to invest a lot into a good horse and can make money on the other end.”
Looking ahead, the ranch would like to continue pushing the boundaries of bloodlines, bringing the blood of stallions standing in Texas to Utah. In 2010 they added Autumnator to their stallion roster. The 8-year-old stallion, by Smart Little Lena and out of Autumn Boon by Dual Pep, is filling Sparky’s shoes.
“He’s one of the best bred horses to come into this state,” Tom says. “We bought him from Karen Freeman, and he had a stifle injury and had fallen through the cracks. We didn’t know what he was going to be like, but he’s the sweetest thing and his colts are electric.”
On the training side, Clint would like to one day hire other assistants to help start more ranch prospects under saddle and get them in the hands of amateur and open competitors who can campaign them and promote the Bar D brand at local and national events.
“Every horse has a different style,” Clint says. “Our goal is to make each individual the best we can. I try to be a good elementary teacher for the colts and put a good foundation on them, so they can be taken in any direction and be successful.”
This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Western Horseman.