Proving It – Terry Stuart Forst

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to succeed.

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to pass the test.

The “ranch romance” portrayed in books and movies hardly emulates Terry Stuart Forst’s life managing the Stuart Ranch in Oklahoma. Sure, she appreciates a breathtaking sunset, while watching foals frolic in a pasture. But those days are far less common than those like one she endured during an Oklahoma winter.

“Shortly after Thanksgiving one year, a load of steers came to the ranch,” she recalls. “The weather was fixing to change — we could see the front coming in from the north — but it wasn’t too bad. We took the steers south to the tank, because we always take new cattle to their water supply and hold them in the new pasture.

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to succeed.
Terry Stuart Forst is general manager of the oldest continuously owned family ranch in Oklahoma. Photo by John Brasseaux

“Then the front started moving in,” she shares. “It was sleeting, a cold north wind was blowing to beat the band, and the cattle didn’t want to settle. Finally we got to head home — straight into the wind, sleet, ice and rain. We all were covered in sheets of ice.

“When we got home we all laughed about the ranch romance,” she continues. “That was a day the people who write about ranch romance would never see! That’s why, if you don’t love the ranch lifestyle — bad weather, hard work and all — why would you want to live it?”

Her passion for ranching, and everything involved with it, made Forst determined to be involved with the business from an early age. Now she’s the general manager of the oldest continuously family-owned ranch in Oklahoma — an unlikely role for a woman.

Terry has the respect of the men involved with Oklahoma’s ranching industry,” reveals Bobby Jones, feed supplier for Stuart Ranch and Forst’s longtime friend. “A lot of women wouldn’t earn that, but she has.”

What path led her to this position? The answer lies in Forst’s determined work ethic, open mind, willingness to learn and refusal to give up on her dream.

Paving Her Way

“As far as I was concerned, ranching was all I ever wanted to do,” says the ambitious, petite Forst. “I was always involved with the ranch and got to go to events, but my dad, R.T. Stuart, was of the opinion that cowboying and things like that were for boys. We (Forst and her three sisters) didn’t learn a lot of the horsemanship and ranching skills Daddy probably would’ve taught to boys.”

“My dad was of the opinion that cowboying and things like that were for boys.”

Terry Stuart Forst

At age 18 Forst left the ranch to attend Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science, an unpopular major for young women at the time. Her hunger for knowledge led her to complete the ranch management program at Texas Christian University. She gained a strong education and drive to prove that she could handle any ranch role.

Even though there were times Forst thought she might never return to the family ranch, she still wanted to play a role in continuing its legacy and guiding it into the future. In 1991 Forst’s father hired her to turn around the cattle operation and make it profitable.

“It was another situation where I had to prove myself, which is good for everyone,” Forst relates. “When you have a job, you either do it well or you get fired.”

Forst spearheaded what, at the time, seemed like radical changes. For example, she separated the cow herd into two distinct calving seasons to promote uniformity, improve conception rates, increase the percentage of weaned calves and return the operation to profitability.

“It worked,” Forst says. “Our calves were more consistent and uniform, so we could better market them.”

Shining successes and accolades earned by horses from the Stuart Ranch’s equine program would lead one to believe the horse program stood on firm ground. After all, the ranch bred 1995 American Quarter Horse Association Superhorse Genuine Redbud and earned the 1995 AQHA/National Cat­tlemen’s Beef Association Best Remuda award, only the fourth ranch to receive the honor. But following Forst’s suc­cess at overhauling the cattle operation, her father hired her to improve the horse program.

“The place in Waurika was available, and Daddy asked me to put it together and see if it’d be a feasible horse operation to go with the other ranch,” Forst says. “He hired me as the manager and asked me to develop long-range plans. Prior to this, before the ’90s, the horse program had been on the back burner. It was always there, but as far as promotion and things like that we just held our own ground.”

Not one to settle for merely getting by, Forst formulated a plan.

Reestablishing the Horse Program

Most small ranching communities like Waurika are leery of outsiders moving in, especially when the strangers buy a large amount of land and plan to build a full-scale horse facility, including a covered arena, breeding barn, show barn, etc. But Forst made a favorable impression on her new community.

“Terry’s always been very accepted by the people of Wau­rika,” Jones says. “They welcomed her with open arms because she went in with the right attitude. She’s a very quiet, private person, but she’s always been very focused and dedi­cated to proving herself. Stuart Ranch has greatly contributed to the community of Waurika.”

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to succeed.
When her father hired her to turn around the Stuart Ranch cattle operation, Forst spearheaded radical changes. Photo by John Brasseaux

Texan Chris Littlefield joined the Stuart Ranch team in 1999, and Forst had high hopes that the cowboy could help escalate the horse program to the competitive level.

“Even though they’d been in the horse business for 50 years, the business side of that industry changes faster than what they were willing to change in terms of genetics,” Lit­tlefield reflects. “People get emotionally attached to horses. A lot of ranches get behind the times because they decide to keep a horse, even if it doesn’t fit their goals.

“Terry is very open-minded, which makes her very good at her job,” he continues. “She knew we had to make changes in order to progress.”

Forst and Littlefield worked together to develop a 5-year plan, the average amount of time it takes to evolve a horse program with homebred and -raised animals. Pre­viously the ranch’s horse goals focused on producing roping horses to compete in AQHA events. Roping remained a prominent consideration, but Forst and Littlefield wanted more than that. They based their ideal horse on what they’d need to complete ranch work as well as what’d be successful in the show pen and breeding barn. That led them to the reined cow horse.

All Stuart Ranch horses earn their keep. Photo by John Brasseaux

Stuart Ranch mares were bred to outside stallions, including Playgun, to produce versatile mounts. The ranch’s standout stallion from the Playgun cross is Real Gun, a 1997 grey Quarter Horse that Littlefield has piloted to numerous acco­lades in AQHA, National Reined Cow Horse Association and Ranch Horse Association of America competition. Real Gun is a cornerstone of the Stuart Ranch breeding program, and the stallion’s first foal crop turned 2 years old this year and will begin preparation for NRCHA aged events.

“We’re trying to raise a ranch, reining and cutting horse in one,” Littlefield says. “It’s very hard to do that in the scope of specialization. We have to raise a good, sound animal that’s trainable and has the size and bone to take training.”

But Stuart Ranch horses don’t lead an ultra-pampered show-string lifestyle. Most of them earn their keep — or they can if called upon.

“We do ranch work on our show horses and then take them to the show the next day,” Forst adds. “Since our program has progressed over the last few years, we don’t take out the studs or some of the mares for work as often, because that’s why we raise geldings. But I’ve always thought it was neat that, if we need to ship cattle, it doesn’t matter which horse we pull out of the barn, because they all can do it.”

Breeding and Producing the Best

Forst has a lifelong interest in cattle and equine breeding processes. After attending classes to master her artificial­ insemination skills, she took on an equine breeding-manager role on top of her other ranch-management duties.

Forst’s expertise has garnered tremendous results, and she now collects and ships semen to other breeders. She ships only via FedEx, due to Waurika’s remote location, and she hires an outside business to handle Real Gun’s frozen semen.

For both the horse and cattle operations, the breeding process is only the beginning of a cycle Stuart Ranch is proud to see through to final results.

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to succeed.
Chris Littlefield (right) joined the ranch in 1999. Photo by John Brasseaux

“We’re very proud that nearly everything we’ve done in both programs has been done by us,” Forst says. “We do the breeding, raising, training, promoting, showing and selling. We try to raise and produce — in both horses and cattle — a product we know we can sell to the public that they can use to make a profit. We’re very proud that we do it from the beginning to the end.

“We make service a priority,” she continues. “We try to follow up with what we sell and make sure everything is all right. That’s definitely paid off, because we have a lot of repeat customers. I think that’s a huge validation of what we’re doing here and that we’re doing a good job.”

Returning to the Show Pen

Ranch chores, breeding obligations and managerial duties kept Forst out of the competitive arena for quite some time.

“Terry wants to know how every part of the business works from top to bottom,” Littlefield shares. “She believes she can’t manage someone to do a job if she doesn’t completely understand it herself.”

But the ranch’s progress and successful development have allowed her to delegate tasks to other ranch employees, which frees her time for riding and competing. Last year she quali­fied for the AQHA World Championship Show in amateur heeling. She felt very confident the night before she was to leave for Oklahoma City, and went to practice one last time.

Most people consider proving themselves a burden. Terry Stuart Forst approaches it like a challenge and does whatever it takes to succeed.
Photo by John Brasseaux

“My head horse stumbled, and I picked him up and never knew I was in trouble,” Forst shares. “According to Chris, the horse went down, and I landed on one shoulder, which ended up separated. ‘Freckles’ rolled sideways, and the saddle horn popped my other shoulder, which broke. When the horse stood up, he almost got my left ear.”

Even after the doctor told Forst about her injuries and that she wouldn’t be able to rope the next day, she was determined she’d compete at the event. She finally accepted that roping was out of the question, but went to watch the horses show.

“I wasn’t going to stay home! I don’t think I realized how bad it was,” she says. “I wound up on one of the horses to help Chris, and I was absolutely stuck. I couldn’t move either of my arms. If something had happened, there was nothing I could do,” she laughs.

Forst’s determination and grit got her through the pain, infection and subsequent surgery involved in overcoming her injuries. The accident didn’t deter her competitive goals one bit. She ropes comfortably and is adding working cow­horse classes to her repertoire.

Planning for the Future

“People would find us very boring,” Forst laughs. “We spend all of our time talking about where we’re headed and what we’re doing. We’re very intense and focused. We know where we want to go and are willing to work very hard to get there. Tradition is very important to us, but we’re always looking for ways to improve.”

Littlefield reiterates that Forst’s open mind and willing­ness to learn will allow the ranch to progress in the future.

“We’re very intense and focused,” Forst says. “We know where we want to go and are willing to work very hard to get there.” Photo by John Brasseaux

“She doesn’t let her ego get in the way of the ranch’s suc­cess,” Littlefield says of his boss. “She admits what she doesn’t know, and she wants to learn as much as she can. There are also many things involved with the ranch that she’s very good at, but she doesn’t brag about them. She’s willing to try new things to make the ranch successful.”

That progressive attitude doesn’t lessen Forst’s dedication to the ranch’s history or respect for what family members before her did for the ranch.

“I have a great respect for tradition, and we always want to remember where we came from,” Forst says. “We’ll always want a horse we can take out to the pasture to doctor cows, because that part of our life is still important.

“A lot of people have maintained this ranch through hard times,” Forst continues. “I certainly don’t want to be the one who drops the ball. My dad had a lot of confidence in me to let me do all of this, and I don’t want to let him down.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” she says. “There’s always next year; there’s always something to look forward to. A friend once told me that there’s nothing better than seeing the sun come up between a horse’s ears. You learn to appreciate things like that, and you don’t take much for granted.”

This article was originally published in the September 2004 issue of Western Horseman.

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