Family Ranch

Ranching in the Rough

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys. As the ranch revitalizes its horse and cattle program, some traditions stay the same out of necessity.

A wild mysticism surrounds the iconic O RO Ranch, often referred to as the “ROs,” drawing generations of cowboys to the remote high desert of northern Arizona for their chance to experience it and later share their adventurous stories. Located 55 miles of winding road northwest of Prescott, Arizona, the ranch is a place where history and mystery have shaped steadfast stock horses, top hands and cowboy folklore. Jagged canyons, majestic mesas, pronounced peaks and grassy plains encompass the 257,000-acre ranch, creating natural boundaries that separate it from modern society.

The ranch is the largest contiguous piece of private land in Arizona. The horses, cattle and cowpunchers that roam its range develop fierce independence, grit and self-preservation, as they become savvy to surviving on one of the roughest and most remote ranches in the United States.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.
The O RO remuda used to consist mostly of sorrels. Since adding red roan and buckskin stallions to its breeding stock, the horses have more color. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“What makes this ranch unique is the it’s so remote and isolated,” says O RO ranch manager Chad Smith. “We can keep out diseases and keep it pristine.”

At the heart of the O RO is a 100,000-acre parcel that traces to a Spanish land grant that was located in present-day northern New Mexico given to Don Luis Maria Baca in 1821. Native American raids drove the Baca family to abandon the grant. Then, in 1856, the heirs to the deceased Don Luis’ estate filed a lawsuit to reclaim the land grant, which had become part of the territory the United States acquired through the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. In exchange, the U.S. government offered the family a total of five different 100,000-acre tracts in the Southwest. The fifth grant the family claimed became known as the Baca Float #5, which later became known as the O RO Ranch.

In 1936, Colonel William C. Greene, owner of Greene Cattle Company and Cananea Cattle Company, bought the Baca Float #5, expanding his mining and cattle empire that spanned on both sides of the border between Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona. In the late 1930s, the ranch became known as the O RO because Carter were branded RO on the left him and an O on the left shoulder.

In 1973, the original grant plus an additional 157,000 acres of mountainous country to the west that Greene Cattle Company also owned, sold to the JJJ Corporation, made up of the late John N. Irwin II, his son, John III, and daughter, Jane Irwin Droppa. When the patriarch passed in 2000, his children took over operations on the ranch. An avid horsewoman, Droppa, and her husband, Larry, of Baltimore, Maryland, enjoy riding and helping with cattle work.

The family continues to run the old-time “rawhide,” or operating on a tight budget, cattle outfit, preserving the ranch’s rich heritage and sustaining it into the future. Although they strive to change as little as possible, partly for tradition but mostly out of necessity, they also recognize that the O RO must evolve with the times to meet the needs of today’s horse and cattle buyers, and a new generation of cowpunchers.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.
In April, RO Smokin Smooth Guy was turned out in a pasture with some of the ranch’s broodmares. “He’s my favorite to ride on the ranch all day in the saddle,” says ranch manager Chad Smith. “He travels so smooth, he just glides. We’ve started a half-dozen of his colts, and they’re smooth and athletic, too.” Photo by Jennifer Denison.

Cow Camp Living

Passing through the steel gate at the main entrance to the ranch and rumbling over the cattle guard, thoughts come to mind of the many young cowpunchers who rode the same path the past 84 years on their way to becoming cow bosses and top hands.

Today, remnants of an old stage stop and other early structures still exist on the ranch, including an old bunkhouse/cookhouse in use at headquarters. Nearby is a cluster of modern houses for ranch employees and their families. Longtime O RO employee J. C. Schwartz lives in one with his wife, Megan, and their teenaged son, Tanner. Next door is foreman Jed Roark and his wife, Holly, and their three children, Fallon, Colton and Pake. Smith, his wife, Shawn, and their two children, Colton and Sutton, live up the road.

As foreman, as well as head of the ranch’s horse program, Roark spends quite a bit of time down the road at the horse facility. It includes a spacious brick barn, named the “Twister Barn” for former O RO colt starter Twister Heller, and a colt-starting facility Smith built with an outdoor arena, a bronc pen, and plenty of pens and alleys to sort and keep horses.

Free of power lines and telephone poles, the headquarters relies on four large generators for electricity, and satellite Internet keeps everyone connected. A maze of primitive roads runs through the ranch, joining pastures, shipping pens and five different camps on the ranch: Bear Creek, Francis Creek, Triangle N, Sandstone and Mahon.

A slow, steep, 21⁄2-hour, 63-mile drive west of headquarters, the Mahon camp is tucked in the Mahon Mountains and is one of the most remote cow camps anywhere.

“The elevation ranges from forty-five hundred on the west side up to better than eight thousand feet on the east side,” wrote Robert L. Sharp, O RO ranch manager from 1937 to 1952, in his book Big Outfit: Ranching on the Baca Float. “The Mahon Mountain splits the center of the ranch; it is extremely rough, but its canyons and brush-covered hillsides will offer good protection and feed when the winter storms hit that high northern country. The mountain is also a potential gold mine because of the water the canyon can deliver into catch tanks from melting snow during the early spring, and from the summer flash floods.”

Although cattle do well at Mahon, it takes a special kind of cowboy to live there.

“Up until [about seven years ago] groceries and supplies were packed into the Mahon camp by mules,” explains Smith. “We’ve made improvements to the road and camp housing, but it still takes a single man or family that doesn’t mind the remoteness and doesn’t have to see town or people, and can be happy just working in their country.”

Jed Roark starts the colts under saddle as 2-year-olds and works with them until they’re 4. Then they go into the remuda and a cowboy’s string. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

One cowboy is responsible for tending the cattle, fences, water tanks and pastures at each camp. Some are single, newlyweds or have families. When a new cowboy arrives at camp, his first job is to become familiar with his range.

“The best way to do that is packing salt [to the cattle],” says Smith. “When we have a new camp guy we give him a couple of pack mules, and every day he packs salt until he learns about his country and the trails.”

Presently, Smith says he has the best crew he’s ever worked with on the ranch, and he enjoys seeing several families choosing to raise their children on the O RO. Camp men and their families live in small, off-the-grid clapboard houses, many of which were built in the 1940s and have been expanded. They rely on solar panels for electricity, and windmills and gas-operated pumps for water. Most have satellite Internet, but cell-phone service is sketchy. Each camp has a barn and corral for horses, which are used frequently during the spring and fall works, when cowboys ride from camp to camp helping gather and work all of the cattle they can find.

On The Wagon

Unaccustomed to human interaction, hardy O RO cattle hide in arduous draws and canyons on the ranch inaccessible by motorized vehicles. Horses are the primary and preferred mode of transportation in the rocky, vertical terrain. That makes taking out the wagon and remuda mandatory during the spring and fall works.

Cowboys travel horseback from camp to camp and areas in between, driving the remuda to each location and sleeping in teepees without showers, bathrooms or other modern conveniences. They’re away from their families for four to six months a year.

Through the years, the ranch’s “wagons” have modernized from a mule-drawn chuckwagon that is now parked in front of the guest lodge at headquarters, to an old six-by-six “Deuce-and-a-Half ” U.S. Army cargo truck. More recently, the ranch has used a four-wheel-drive pickup with a built-in chuckbox to haul and store food. Just as the wagons have changed, so have the items a cowboy brings with him.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.
Chad Smith grew up on his family’s ranch near Prescott, Arizona. Before becoming manager of the O RO Ranch, he spent many years guiding private hunts on the ranch and knows the country well. He and his wife, Shawn, are avid team ropers and compete on O RO horses, and they’re raising their two children to love the ranching lifestyle. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“When I first came to the ranch [in 2014], you got to bring a war bag, a bedroll and a camp chair,” says Schwartz. “Now we’re hauling saddle racks, propane, heaters and Rubbermaid tubs of stuff. It’s gotten more relaxed in what we can bring. We’re out there months at a time, so we want to keep everyone comfortable, happy and wanting to stay out there.”

The spring wagon usually runs from the first week of May until early July, and the fall wagon rolls out in early September and returns by Thanksgiving. Ten cowboys go out with the wagon, a combination of camp men, day-workers and seasonal help. Each cowboy has eight to 10 ranch-raised horses, ranging in age from 4 to 15, in his string. He usually rides two horses per day, changing at noon if possible, and chooses the ones best suited for the terrain and the difficulty of the day’s work.

The cowboys start their day between 3 and 4 a.m. with breakfast prepared by a camp cook. Then they saddle their horses, which were roped out of the remuda the afternoon before—a tradition that still works best with a remuda. Once everyone is mounted and has ridden some of the fresh out of their horses, they ride out single file in the “jig line” behind the wagon boss. The order is determined by the wagon boss and corresponds with where he wants each cowboy to ride. As the line ascends up into the hills, the wagon boss directs one cowboy at a time, starting at the end of the line, to ride off in his designated area. He bases his decision on the cowboy’s experience and knowledge of the country, and the horse he’s riding.

Each cowboy carries a two-way radio to communicate the location of cattle and the hold-up area, and in case of an emergency. Another form of communication is lighting a “smudge” from an old rat’s nest or bush to send up smoke.

“This [mountainous] country can be overwhelming to guys who haven’t been here before,” says Smith. “You can make gathering cattle more efficient and save a huge amount of horse tracks with good communication.”

The mark of a skilled wagon boss is when all of the cowboys and cattle converge safely at about the same time at the designated hold-up location. Nearly 3,000 head of cattle are scattered in small herds on the O RO range. In its early years, the ranch raised primarily Herefords. Smith has gradually culled unruly and poor-performing cattle, making the herd gentler and easier to handle. He’s added Black Angus and a hint of Brahman blood into the herd to improve the disposition, condition and marketability of the cattle.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.
Brothers Braden and Connor Garwood grew up ranching and starting colts with their father in Nebraska. They’ve traveled together and solo to ranches throughout the West, arriving last fall at the O RO and staying through the spring wagon. The brothers are also both emerging craftsmen: Braden does leather work, and Connor builds bits and spurs. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

Still, there is always a small remnant that can be elusive and hide in the brush and canyon folds. Compared to roundups on big ranches in other parts of the West, the O RO drives are shorter and smaller, with fewer than 100 head gathered each day, due to the vast expanse of the ranch and the rough country. That was a big difference brothers Braden and Connor Garwood of Nebraska noticed when they came to work on the wagon in the fall of 2019.

“On other ranches we’ve worked on you bring in 600 to 800 head in a day, and there’s a lot more sorting involved,” says Braden. “And you either walk or run here [because of the wild cattle and country]; there’s not a lot of trotting.”

There aren’t a lot of corrals on the ranch, so cattle are sometimes worked in a rodear, trap or “water-lot,” a trap containing a fenced dirt tank. Branding irons hang in the trees of some pastures for when they’re needed. Cattle are still stamped with an O on their left shoulder and the RO on their left hip, while horses are marked simply with the RO on the left hip.

At the end of the works cowboys come in tired and dirty, ready for a shower and a comfortable bed.

“I’m glad to get back, pull shoes off the horses and turn them out to pasture, and get back to the day-to-day work,” says Schwartz. “But when the wagon rolls around, I’m ready to go again. It’s something you look forward to and, if you don’t, there’s no point in being here. It’s part of this and you have to want to do it.”

Revival Of The O RO Remade

In the fall of 2019, the O RO was recognized as a 75-year breeder of American Quarter Horses. Since its inception, the O RO has raised tough, surefooted horses with strength, size and stamina. Many of the early horses on the ranch came from Col. Greene’s mixed remuda at his Cananea Cattle Company in Mexico, which included Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

According to the article “The RO Horses” in the March 2005 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal, even Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa recognized the horsepower in Greene’s remuda and helped himself to stallions and saddle horses as he invaded northern Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution. To replace the stallions that were stolen, the ranch bought six stallions, five of which traced to Steel Dust.

“These were to become the foundation sires of the RO Quarter Horse,” according to Charles Tedford and Doris Seibold in the 1951 issue of The Quarter Horse Journal. “In those days, there was no registration association, and no pedigree records were kept by the Cananea Cattle Company, whose studbook was not started until 1940. But a new and vigorous breed of horseflesh had come to northern Sonora, and with it a new and remarkable type of cow horse.”

As the American Quarter Horse Association formed in the 1940s, representatives from the fledgling registry traveled to Mexico and selected several O RO mares and stallions to register. Some of the ranch’s early registered stallions included El Rey RO, a son of Sykes by Peter McCue, and out of an RO Quarter Mare, Congress Star (Oklahoma Star x Quarter Lady), Roper (Roan Hancock x Burnett Mare), Echols Dandy (Texas Dandy x RO Mare) and Largarto RO (El Rey De Oro x Miss Cananea).

The “jig line” is led by J. C. Schwartz. A native of Arizona, he has worked on ranches in northern Arizona for more than 20 years, including Babbitt Ranches. He went out on his first O RO wagon in 2011, returned in 2014 and stayed. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

In the 1940s and ’50s, O RO horses were not only used on the ranch, but some were also shown in stock horse competitions in California. Champion cow horse and AQHA Hall of Fame inductee Fillinic is by the stallion Arizona Junie, who is out of MCS Lone Wolf, an RO-bred mare. In recent years, O RO horses have roped in top team roping events, including the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Outside the arena, O RO horses are known for their stoutness, stamina, good feet and bone, and “rock-pound- ing” abilities. Considered “cowboy horses,” the O RO remuda has attracted ranch hands from all over the West. Many cowpunchers since the 1930s speak fondly of the horses, even the ones that were tough to break, and consider them some of the best.

“The ability of [the O RO] horses to get around in the rocks from such a young age is impressive,” says Garwood. “Even a 3-year-old takes care of its rider. The horses really fill in for you and adjust to different riders on the wagon. They keep doing their job no matter who’s riding them.”

Since Smith assumed his role of ranch manager in 2013, he has been on a mission to rekindle the ranch’s remuda, sorting out old horses and those with undesirable dispositions and traits, and keeping the best broodmares and genetics. He’s also infusing modern bloodlines into the remuda through stallions he leased and two new sires on the ranch, including: RO One Time Kat (One Time Pepto x Katz x High Brow Cat) and RO Smokin Smooth Guy (A Smooth Guy x Smokin Cymbal 901 x Lucky Boy 901). The ranch also partners with a neighboring ranch on CR Miss N Misster, a grandson of High Brow Cat out of a Woody Be Tuff mare.

“We’re trying to produce foundation-type horses with mild dispositions and athleticism,” explains Smith. “We want our horses to be around 15 hands with good feet and bone, and easy-keepers. They have to be able to sustain themselves on the grasses and browse here; it’s impossible to scatter hay in some of the pastures. We’re really excited to see the new blood coming up in the remuda, and seeing the changes in temperament and athleticism.”

The ranch maintains 30 to 40 broodmares, many carrying the foundation bloodlines of Driftwood, Joe Hancock and Mr San Peppy, as well as more modern bloodlines from Texas’ Tongue River Ranch stallion TRR Janies Playgun.

Northern Arizona’s iconic O RO Ranch has a reputation for producing generations of tough horses, cattle and cowboys.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Colton Roark went on his first wagon this spring at age 16. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

The mares are bred and foal in the pasture. They raise their foals to travel through rocks, cactus, deep washes and steep inclines.

“I’m convinced the colts we raise on the ranch are a lot tougher and aren’t as prone to developing foot, tendon and ligament problems as horses not from here,” says Roark, who came to the O RO after working on ranches in Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

O RO horses have been used in the remuda into their late teens and 20s without soundness issues. Still, Smith and Roark have started studying different shoeing techniques to reduce leverage on a horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments. They also place rubber bell boots on the horses’ feet to protect them from jagged rocks.

“We used to roll the legs of old jeans around our horses’ feet,” Smith says. “But now we use bell boots to protect the hairline of the feet and the bulbs of the heels.”

The ranch prefers to ride geldings and has 100 head in its remuda, but Roark does start and ride the fillies. The past few years, Smith has focused on replenishing the remuda, but he does consign a few to select horse sales.

“We choose to sell horses private treaty,” he says. “Then we can have more control of who buys them and where they go. We’re starting to sell some young fillies that Jed has started and we’re excited to see what they can do.”

While the emphasis is on producing ranch horses, Smith and his wife, Shawn, are avid team ropers and compete at jackpots and World Series of Team Roping events on O RO horses. O RO cowboys also use the horses in ranch rodeos.

“That’s what they do best,” says Roark. “You can take one of our horses off the ranch and rope anything.”

The O RO crew works together during spring and fall works. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

More Than A Cowboy Job

The O RO operates as a traditional cattle ranch in a modern era, and prospective cowpunchers call every day wanting to work for the ranch to get a taste of the legacy behind the locked gates.

“I don’t think there’s another operation more cowboy than this outfit, out of necessity,” says Roark. “There aren’t many ranches that are straight horseback operations and still run a wagon. This place has so much history that makes guys want to come, but then they get hired and find out how tough it is [to work in this country].”

Being a contemporary O RO cowboy comes with high expectations and integrity, though, and someone who is humble, willing to learn and works hard to get better will make a hand. In a technology-bound society, it’s hard to find young cowboys who want to work on a remote ranch where they can’t go to town very often.

O RO cowboys carry shoeing supplies in their saddlebags and secure an extra set of shoes to their saddles. They also place rubber bell boots on their horses’ feet to protect them from the sharp rocks. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“When my dad was a young man he said it was hard for green, young guys to get jobs on the O RO because the older guys rarely left,” says Smith. “It’s different now; everyone wants Internet and cell service, company trucks and trailers, and to go to town. The remoteness of this ranch and the harsh weather are big deterrents to today’s cowboys.”

One of the enticing aspects of riding for the O RO brand is that it offers incentives to help cowboys build futures.

“For a lot of cowboys there’s no way to work up the ladder [on a ranch], and we try to help them with incentives like retirement and profit-sharing programs,” says Smith. “We’ve also given guys a cut of the money when a horse sells from their string. We want our cowboys to become better hands and men, take pride in their work and think of the O RO as more than a cowboy job.”

Leave a Comment