In addition to commercial cattle and Quarter Horses, Riley and Jessica Routier are raising five kids who represent the seventh generation in the family planning to make their living off the land in western South Dakota.
Western South Dakota offers ample land for ranching, but not a lot of other activities for tourists. That suits the Routier family just right. Riley and Jessica Routier purchased the land they now ranch on nearly 15 years ago, and since putting down those roots, have started a family, a thriving performance horse program and a successful beef cattle operation. Pretty soon, the seventh generation of Routiers will continue the family legacy.
Riley grew up south of Buffalo, South Dakota, about 15 miles west of where he lives now. With a population of a little more than 300, it’s the type of community where everyone knows each other and lends a hand. Riley and Jessica, a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo barrel racer, believe it’s the perfect place to raise their five children.
“I’m sixth generation on the ranch and we still have the place [that was] homesteaded years back,” he says. “That is your hopes, that someone keeps going on with it. There’s lots of kids here, so that was our future planning!”
As if raising cattle and kids wasn’t challenging enough for the couple, in 2015 they bred Jessica’s top mare, Especials Smoothie, and kept the resulting colt a stud to begin their own horse breeding program. Today, they raise horses that their kids can use for rodeo, trick riding and to complete their chores on the ranch.
Riley’s family is proud to still own the same ranchland in western South Dakota that his ancestors homesteaded. When Jessica, a native of Wisconsin, and Riley were married, the young couple purchased their own land to house a Black Angus-Simmental herd.
“It’s a commercial cow-calf operation, and we sell mostly steers in the fall,” Riley explains. “We keep a lot of replacement heifers. They’re mostly Simmental-Angus cross; they grade really good and are easier to market. We run a little over 1,000 head of cattle on the ranch; 350 right here.”
The ranch supplies the hay needed to sustain both the cattle and the growing horse program, headed by homebred sorrel stallion Cold Corona Smoothie. Out of Especials Smoothie, “Swift” is sired by High On Corona, a stakes winner on the racetrack and sire of barrel, roping and steer wrestling horses.
“It wasn’t my idea to keep him; I didn’t want to own him as a stud,” Jessica laughs. “We broke him and I wanted to freeze semen to breed some mares, then sell him. But no one would let me cut him! We kept him a stud and that has its positive and negatives. With all the kids and all the mares I haul, I didn’t want to throw that stud factor into it. He’s never had a chance to prove himself [as a barrel horse], but we rope on him and ranch on him. His oldest babies are 4 and we will start hauling them next year .”
However, Swift has proven himself as an integral member of the family, as well as a strong base for their horse program.
“We mainly just breed for our own use,” says Jessica. “We’ve never had more than three babies in one year. This past year, I had several free stud fees I wanted to use. We bought a couple mares, embryo transferred and had six babies [in 2020]. We have five coming in 2021. We have our work cut out for us! Riley starts them. We have three 2-year-olds this year and he started them with [our son] Braden.”
With five horse-savvy kids to mount for youth rodeo and ranch work, the Routiers don’t sell too many horses, but instead find a way to pair each horse’s talents with one of the kids’ personalities. The oldest son Braden, 15, ropes, bulldogs and even competes in cutting in the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association, while Payton, the oldest daughter at age 13, is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association permit-holding trick rider. Then there are 6-year-old twins Rose and Rayna, and 5-year-old Charlie, three girls that are full of giggles and ride like old hands.
No Lack of a Job
When the Routiers head out to gather cattle, it’s quite a sight. Riley, Jessica, Braden and Payton all trot out on horses that have been used in the rodeo arena, or are headed in that direction. Regardless, all of their mounts regularly put in a day’s work on the ranch. The younger girls swap between kid-proof pony Wally, and two trusted older horses that have either logged their share of roping runs or made plenty of arena laps in Payton’s trick riding act.
“The horses do it all here, and it helps them on both ends,” says Riley. “When you can get one in the alley behind a cow, that helps them when you go ‘turn up’ their mind at a rodeo. A job is never a bad thing for a horse. Missy, the mare Jessica has run at the NFR, she spent a lot of time behind cows—and she’s not fond of them either—but she did it!”
It’s not uncommon for the Routiers to pregnancy check cattle in the morning, then load up to take the kids to a rodeo the same evening. During a rodeo Payton first saw a trick rider and made it her mission to become one herself. She was just 4 years old. By the time she was 5, the PRCA-sanctioned Turquoise Circuit Finals allowed her to be in the finals event, riding with the older girls.
“I like everything about it,” Payton says. “There’s an adrenaline rush. You meet a lot of people, and I get to go a lot of places. I want to barrel race or trick ride, and ranch, and maybe be a veterinarian. But I want to do something with horses.”
It’s a familiar theme with the Routier kids, incorporating horses into their daily lives. Braden, who is learning to start colts alongside his father and mother, plans to remain on the ranch and also to rodeo.
“I’d like to start a colt that I can calf rope and rodeo on,” Braden says. “I watched mom both times at the NFR, and I’d like to go there one day. I want to stay on the ranch. We love it here. It’s relaxing to ride out on a horse, not like a four-wheeler. It’s better to work on a horse.”
He has a good shot at hitting the rodeo trail straight off the ranch. The horses coming up in the Routier program are bred to work and compete. More importantly, they are raised to have a sound disposition. Jessica says that from Day 1, the horses are often handled by kids. She adds that a crucial part of their young prospects’ development is setting them up for success.
“Horses are like people, and not everyone is cut out for certain jobs,” Jessica says. “We’ll have some that fit one of our riders better than another, and so we will keep it. The 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are all finding jobs. I would like us to take [Swift’s] babies and prove them in all disciplines— roping, barrel racing, ranching and trick riding. We want to build an all-around program. I don’t see us letting go of a lot of them because we need them.”
Riley says the weather and the beef market are the two biggest challenges of ranching in South Dakota.
“Last year  we had tons of rain, so much we couldn’t get [hay] put up [to store],” he says. “The calves didn’t weigh as heavy as this year. We calve in March and April, and the weather can be brutal. But [as a result] we feel we can sell big calves in the fall. That works best for us. A lot of people avoid the harsh weather and calve in May and June, but we’re sticking it out.”
Calving before the summer rodeo run also works with the family’s schedule, allowing Jessica and Fiery Miss West, her main rodeo mount, to hit the road and aim for another NFR qualification. More often, she’s taking Payton, Rose, Rayna and Charlie with her.
“It’s way fun to go together,” Jessica Routier says. “It does make scheduling more difficult if Payton is trick riding, too. But it’s great to watch her work so hard to do it.”
Whether running the rodeo road, pushing through a bitterly cold calving season or hauling water in a droughty summer, the Routier family digs in to face what comes their way. And they do it as a family.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Western Horseman.