Arizona’s K4 Ranch has built a horse program around producing horses that go from the ranch to the rodeo arena.
Spring winds howl across a vast northern Arizona plain of short, brown bunch grasses. While unusually parched pastures this time of year create uncertainty for ranchers, it is business as usual on the K4 Ranch, as swirling dust clouds—rather than storm clouds— build in the atmosphere. With land holdings totaling more than 185,000 acres in northern and southern Arizona and California, the K4 spreads out its cattle herd, which includes 3,000 mother cows, to weather the drought conditions.
As early morning sun breaks over the rugged mountains north of Prescott, Arizona, pickups and stock trailers rumble down a washboard gravel road past the K4 shipping pens to the wooden corrals. Rick Kieckhefer, who runs the ranch with his wife, Sarah, parents Lynda and John, and brother Johnny, has assembled a crew to gather cattle and brand the calves in this particular pasture.
“What I do has nothing to do with cattle and horses really; I’m in the people business,” laughs Rick. “The families and people who work here are the driving force for what we do; we take pride that they tend to stick around a long time. They’re the ones that make all of this happen.”
The crew of nine—including Sarah; Matt Cometh; Bret Davis; Beano Kimball and his son, Ben; Lee Pehl; Riley Simmons and Kelsi Twomey—has already worked several pastures around the ranch the past month and has a few more to go.
As they trot out into the distance, a few of the young horses are fresh in the cool morning air. Before long, small bunches of cattle coming from different directions, each flanked by a rider or two, merge together, line out and walk down the fence line and into the corrals. This seasonal rite has been part of K4 protocol since its establishment 80 years ago.
Since then, the ranch as become known for raising natural beef, but also tough Quarter Horses with strength, stamina and cow sense to do a long day’s work on the ranch, and the speed and athleticism to rope or run barrels in some of the most competitive rodeo arenas, including the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Established in 1941 by J.W. Kieckhefer, the family operation has grown through the years due to the vision and hard work of four generations of family members. Now Rick and Sarah’s daughter, Kodi Gwen, and Johnny and his wife, Kelli’s, daughters, Victoria and Katie, comprise the fifth generation.
A successful Wisconsin businessman, J.W. founded the Wisconsin-based Kieckhefer Container Company in the 1930s, which invented and manufactured the trifold tops on milk cartons. In 1938, he moved his family to Tucson, Arizona, in hope that the dry climate would alleviate the severe eczema affecting his son, Robert “Bob.” Along the way, for unknown reasons, he became interested in ranching, even though he’d never been involved in the industry. Within three years of arriving in Arizona, he had purchased his first ranch, which was owned by syndicated cartoonist and cowboy J.R. Williams, about 35 miles north of Prescott, Arizona. Nestled in a creek-bottom meadow at the base of a juniper mesa, the ranch still serves as the K4 headquarters. Over the next few years, eh added two connecting ranches to his holdings to raise his Hereford cattle. In 1956, well-known ranch and rodeo cowboy Chuck Sheppard was hired to manage the ranch and became a significant influence on its operations and developing the K4 horse program and its cowboys.
“I remember Mr. Kieckhefer [J.W.] calling John into our house and telling Daddy to make a cowboy out of him when he was 12,” recalls Sheppard’s daughter, Lynda Kieckhefer.
Born in 1916, Sheppard grew up on a ranch in Globe, Arizona. From the time he was 16, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee’s life revolved around rodeo. A four-event cowboy (saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping and team roping), Sheppard excelled at both ends of the arena and won several prestigious rodeos, including the California Rodeo in Salinas, California; Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon; and the World’s Oldest Rodeo Prescott Frontier Days in Prescott, Arizona. When he came to the K4, he had retired from rodeoing full time and was training all-around performance horses.
“Daddy loved cattle and horses,” says Lynda. “He lived a tough life around them. When he was 5 years old his dad put him on a horse and told him to go hold up the wild horses in the canyon. When he retired from rodeo, he was given an opportunity to train show horses and then to manage this ranch. He and my mother were very grateful he had a job here, and he took this ranch very personal, like it was his own.”
Sheppard lived and worked on the ranch well into his 80s, until his death in 2005, and left a lasting mark on the horse program.
The Kieckhefers began raising horses in the 1940s, using stock from Greene Cattle Company, which later became the neighboring O RO Ranch. In Rick’s home office the framed registration papers for the K4’s first registered stallion, Johnny Boy, a 1946 son of Biscuit II (a great-grandson of Peter McCue), hangs on the wall. K4 began registering its own horses in the American Quarter Horse Association in 1943 and have since added hundreds under its name.
“The horses in the old days were pretty cold-blooded and they were tough,” remembers John. “Even when Chuck first came here, the cowboys would herd the horses into a trap on the ranch every morning to catch their horses. Then they’d saddle up and trot to the far end of the pasture before daylight and turn around and work cattle all day and ride back. In those days, they didn’t trailer their horses [like they do now].”
In the 1960s, Bob, John and Sheppard started bolstering the K4 bloodlines with stallions such as Poquito Mas, a son of Joe Moore and out of Yokohama by Spokane 1, and, their most noted stallion, Driftwood Ike, by Driftwood and out of Hancock Belle by Buck 8. The stallion became a producer of top rodeo horses, and his influence continues in the blood flowing through the K4 broodmare band.
Besides raising Quarter Horses to use on the ranch, Bob, who served as president of AQHA in 1976 and was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1994, also was vested in producing winning race- horses. One of his early racehorse stallions was Hank Will, by Tonto Bars Hank and out of Thoroughbred mare Mine Will by I Will. The 1966 Quarter Horse stallion became an AQHA Open Supreme Champion—for high achievement in racing, halter and performance events — one of only 52 horses to earn the award in the breed’s history. His daughters, Kathy Kieckhefer Tobin and Susie Kieckhefer Johns, who aren’t involved in the ranch, also showed Quarter Horses extensively as youth and adults, and won several world championships.
Johnny, who steer wrestled in the PRCA for 14 years, attributes the strength of the K4 breeding program to his family’s “unbridled passion for the American Quarter Horse.”
“The everyday use of our horses is another strength,” he adds. “Some of the horses I grew up riding on the ranch were horses that ran on the track and then we’d work cattle on them the next day. My last steer wrestling horse, ‘Buckwheat,’ was a home-raised horse from the Driftwood line. I would get home from a rodeo and then go back to work dragging calves to the fire.”
In 1967, John, who was 25 at the time, was handed the reins of the ranch by his father and did some unconventional things, such as adding Charolais bulls to the cattle herd to increase size. He began wintering his cattle in higher elevations and summering in the lower pastures to maximize pasture. And he started retaining ownership of the calves for a year, rather than selling them off the cow like his father and grandfather did.
In 1970, he married Lynda, with whom he grew up on the K4. The couple raised two sons, Johnny and Rick, and a daughter, Kelli, on the ranch. Johnny and Rick continue to live there and be involved in ranching operations.
With a large percentage of his broodmares boasting Driftwood bloodlines, John saw the need to find a new stallion to cross on them.
“Driftwood Ike was a huge influence on our horses and our main focus until 1995, when my dad started looking for another stallion to cross on Driftwood daughters,” Rick says. “That’s when he found Cee Booger Red.”
The 1976 Quarter Horse stallion, by Cee Bar Badger 71 and out of Cross 1 59 Bell 71 by Cara Rojo, was raised on the Mullendore Ranch in Oklahoma and owned by Dick Foreman.
Crossing the Cee Booger Red bloodlines on Driftwood daughters proved to be successful for the Kieckhefers and for other rodeo competitors, including Tuf Cooper, Hunter Herrin, Cooper Martin and Jerome Schneeberger, who have competed on K4 horses at the NFR. Sarah, a 20-time Turquoise Circuit qualifier in barrel racing, has competed on a few of the horses, including Booger Apache and Stingray Booger. Rick qualified for the 2002 NFR in tie-down roping on Booger Mindy, a daughter of Cee Booger Red, but she was injured prior to the NFR so he competed on another horse he had purchased. They also have two young Cee Booger Red stallion prospects.
“My grandpa Chuck always said if you’re going to keep a stud you better make sure it’s as good a horse as you’ve ever rode, and that’s Boogers Cee Bar,” Rick says. “We’re riding a lot of his sons and daughters and he’s left a footprint on our program. You don’t [raise horses] because it’s a lucrative business—you do it because you take pride in seeing the breeding program progress. It’s been a pretty fun journey so far for Sarah and I.
“It takes a lot of horse out here in this tough country, riding 10 to 20 miles a day. They have to have endurance. Driftwood, Cee Booger Red and Harlander [Harlan x Little Sue III x San Siemon] horses all have reputations for being tough. It’s a real good fit for us because we have justas much horse at the end of the day or when we get to a rodeo after a long haul as when we started.
“If there’s anything we do well as a family, it’s giving 100 percent to everything we do. I can’t ride a horse that doesn’t try as hard as I do.”
The ranch currently has six stallions and 20 broodmares, combining racing and cow horse blood, and they start 15 to 20 colts per year.
Ranch cowboys are given some of the young horses for their strings, many of which eventually go into the Legacy Ranch Horse Sale held annually in Prescott, Arizona. The sale features horses raised by three historic ranches: K4, Campwood Cattle Company and the Diamond A. In 2018, Rick and Sarah bought half of Cholla Livestock that operates the Diamond A. Also known as the Boquillas Ranch, it is owned by the Navajo Nation and is operated by Cholla Livestock. The Kieckhefer/Cholla Livestock merger has created the largest ranching operation in the Southwest.
The Legacy sale has given the ranch not only an outlet to market its horses, but it’s also focused the horse program.
“The best thing the horse sale has done for us is add structure to our program, a road map, so we know where we’re going,” Rick explains. “It’s put a lot of focus on what we want our horses to do and put markers on where they need to be by a certain time.”
These benchmarks have made the cowboys step up their horsemanship and consider which horses they want to use for a given job. As an incentive, the Kieckhefers give a percentage of a horse’s sale price to the cowboy who rode it, as well as other benefits.
This year’s sale will be held the evening of September 18 in conjunction with Olsen’s Equifest and will feature 35 horses. Prior to the sale, the horses’ skills are showcased in individual demonstrations and a branding event.
Always striving to better the ranch for the next generation, the Kieckhefers work together every day to keep the ranch steadily improving, whether it’s repairing fences and corrals, finding new ways to manage pastures or strengthening the cattle and horse herd.
“I always believed in leaving the ranch in better shape than when I got it, whether it was pushing junipers [to improve pastures] or building corrals,” explains John. “We’ve always kept up with any knowledge we could get that would make this ranch profitable at the end of the day.”
In an era where family ranches are being sold and divided, the K4 has expanded, adding a farm and grow yard in Douglas, Arizona, in 2014, which gives the Kieckhefers more control and flexibility in raising natural beef. Johnny expresses his gratitude for the strength, wisdom and values of his family.
“The great thing about the ranch is that I’m blessed to have a phenomenal relationship with my brother ; we support each other,” Johnny says. “His passion is the ranch, and he knows I support him and the family in any way they need and am looking out for everyone’s best interest. It’s a testament to how our parents and grandparents raised us to be a close family.”
And that sense of family is extended to the families whose skills and service contribute to the success of the K4, and the horses that have shaped a ranching and rodeo legacy.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Western Horseman.