Hollywood movies often portray the American West as a landscape of infinite horizons, wide plateaus and great arid valleys through which horse-mounted cowboys and cattle roam. That image is not far from the truth. Cattle still roam the Western prairie, although today, you're more likely to see cowboys "riding herd" in off-road vehicles, airplanes or even helicopters.
But not everywhere.
In the heart of Nebraska's Sandhills -- a majestic ecosystem of rolling grass-covered hills -- is the Haythorn Ranch. It sprawls across three counties and 36,000 hectares of land uniquely suited for raising cattle. But cattle aren't the main attraction. The horses are.
The Haythorns have raised American Quarter Horses for four generations. They have one of the world's largest herds. They raise cattle, too, but mainly because working with the livestock gives the horses something to do, says Lisa Norman, the ranch's publicist. "This ranch is especially known for preserving the tradition of the cowboy way," she explains, "meaning that we don't do anything with cattle really here that isn't done horseback. The working ranch cowboy is what we stand for here, and these horses are made for those kinds of men."
Craig Haythorn, who runs the ranch today, is that kind of man. He is dressed in an elegant western style: hand-made boots, a broad-brimmed hat, a red silk scarf tied neatly around his neck, and a handsome handlebar mustache. "People know that we still do everything horseback, and the horses are being ridden," he says, as he leads one of the horses into the barn. "The breeding has been [improved] for years, but there's a decline in horses being ridden."
The American Quarter Horse is a working breed, a strong, quick-starting saddle horse capable of running a quarter mile (about half a kilometer) at full gallop. Lisa Norman says they were built for stamina. "They were bred to be stout, low to the ground, deep-chested, big lungs, something that could withstand the rigors of everyday ranch life on big country."
Haythorn horses are introduced to the rigors of everyday ranch life as youngsters. "Year-round, starting with calving in the spring," Norman says, "everything is watched, doctored, taken care of from horseback. They get used to a lot of distractions, surprises, and things that are pretty hard to manifest in an artificial situation. These horses just grow up learning it as a way of life."
As soon as they can be ridden, at two to three years old, they learn the ropes of working cattle and taking commands from the cowboys who ride them. Craig Haythorn says the training takes years. "We'll ride 'em some, then maybe turn 'em loose for 3 or 4 months … When we start in the fall again, when they're [nearly four], then we'll continue their education, then, pretty strenuous until he's a made horse." For Craig Haythorn, a horse is 'made' at seven to nine years old. That's when he's considered ready to work cattle, or rope calves or bulldog steers in the rodeo arena.
Ranch publicist Lisa Norman observes, "The older they get, the wiser they get. And the good ones are worth their weight in gold, because they've been [to] a lot of places, seen a lot of things, just like people. They can probably teach you more than we can teach them after a certain point. That's neat to me!"
Every year or so, the Haythorns hold a horse sale that attracts buyers from around the world. They are drawn to these smart, gentle, high-octane horses. Some show up in person for the sale. Others, from Canada, Europe and beyond, place bids by phone and on the Internet. Through the sales that follow, the durable Quarter Horse finds its way to the far corners of the globe, sharing the unique qualities of this American breed well beyond its origins.