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Raising horses for ranches
By JESSICA ROBINSON
Of the Baker City Herald
From under the brim of his hat, Bob Harrell's eyes scan the hilltops.
The sagebrush-covered ground slopes up toward the wide, blue sky. And there, where the two meet, are his horses.
The herd is grazing on a ridge in his 1,500-acre pasture between Little Lookout Mountain and Big Lookout Mountain outside of Baker City.
Harrell's spurs click the rocks and dust rises around his Wranglers as he approaches the horses. The sun is growing hotter overhead, but Harrell doesn't look as if he ever gets fazed by the weather.
He looks like the quintessential horseman.
Except, statistically, he isn't. Harrell, a cattle rancher, uses his horses for work. That's becoming atypical of horse owners, who increasingly use their horses for trail riding, showing and competitions.
Statistically, the quintessential horseman is a recreationist.
Horse breeders and industry observers say the U.S. equine business is moving away from labor and toward recreation. The days of cowboys on the range who made horses an American icon are no longer an accurate portrayal of the role horses play in today's culture.
More and more, their role looks a lot like a pet.
"Since 1997, we've seen a tremendous amount of that kind of horse people who have moved out to the country to have a horse," said U.S. Department of Agriculture statistician Scott Hollis. "Ranches are not growing nearly as fast."
He says the sector he's seeing quickly grow into the majority is one- to five-horse hobby farms. The horses there don't contribute to the agricultural income, if there is any.
That makes the ranch-based horse industry, like the one found in Baker County, different.
Baker County has approximately 3,000 horses, according to a 2002 headcount by the USDA. The horse breeders earned a total of $775,000 per year in gross sales during 2000, the Oregon State University Extension office reported.
These figures aren't extraordinary, but they represent a horse industry that is still closely tied to cattle, the county's largest agricultural product, and horses that are often bred for work.
Harrell started breeding quarter horses 10 years ago to work on his Hereford bull ranch. He said he wanted horses initiated into ranch work from an early age.
Now, buyers come from across the Western states and from as far away as Nebraska, he said. At his spring auction, Harrell sold nearly two dozen 2-year-olds that he said were already accustomed to being around bulls and to walking on uneven terrain.
"They're not raised in the corral or paddocks. They're out in big country having to jump sagebrush," Harrell said. "We like to think they're started right."
He believes the horses stay healthier than their stabled counterparts, and ultimately, animals that have lived out in the sagebrush are of higher quality.
Harrell is not alone in this line of thinking.
Many Baker-area equine breeders have made it a personal philosophy and business strategy to optimize their setting.
Like Harrell's ranch, Fawn Kerns' Rainbow Bar Ranch is primarily a cattle ranch that she's added a quarter horse breeding operation to.
Kerns is a firm believer in getting the horse out of the arena. She said Baker County gives her opportunities that horse breeders in more populated areas might not have.
She said she has buyers come out from the Willamette Valley. Though they only want a horse for riding, they like the training the animal receives in Baker County.
"We're really lucky where we live. We have the land, the cattle," Kerns said. "That's what makes them so well-tempered."
Horse versus ATV
If the environment makes the horse, it's easy to imagine a well-tempered animal coming out of the Rainbow Bar Ranch.
Kerns' ranch nuzzles up in the green crook where the land rises to the Elkhorn Mountains. The ranch's ambient noise amounts to little more than the clip of some hooves and the buzz of crickets in the grass.
But it wasn't always that way.
Since Honda came out with the first four-wheel all terrain vehicle in 1970, ranchers have been converting to the saddleless alternative. ATVs don't need feeding or vet visits or brushing after a ride out to the cattle herd.
When Kerns and her husband took over his family's ranch 14 years ago, ATVs had become the standard. Kerns has since sworn off that noisy bit of modernization and reinstated "the old-fashioned" style.
"It's just the tranquility of going out there on a horse and not hearing the grrrrrr,'" she said.
Pointing to her farm hands who are off in the distance driving hot trucks under the already hot sun, Kerns said, "I guarantee every one of those guys would rather be on a horse right now."
Though Kerns may have reversed the trend at her ranch, ATVs continue to gain popularity, both she and Harrell say.
Horses are an agricultural oddity in the United States. They don't provide a byproduct, like the wool of sheep. They don't provide a food product like the milk and beef from cows.
The services horses once provided in transportation and plowing have largely been replaced by machines.
Ranches may be the last sector that uses them for work, and even there, horses are losing their monopoly to ATVs.
Horses have lost their place in agriculture to the point that the Oregon Department of Agriculture stopped keeping population statistics.
"It's not an industry we have as much to do with as cattle and other livestock," spokesman Bruce Pokarney said. "Our department doesn't track the industry as closely."
Yet just as horses' actual use on ranches is decreasing, nostalgia for ranch horses is increasing.
According to Lori Hanes, an equine appraiser based out of Washington, cutting, roping and other ranch skills have emerged as competitive sports.
"People are kind of moving away from the performance horses, where they just move around and around in a ring," she said. "They are looking for horses that can actually do something."
That has opened up a market for Baker County horse breeders like Dan Eddleman.
He is the inverse of Harrell and Kerns, who keep horses to assist with their cattle. Eddleman keeps cattle to assist with his horses.
Around 175 horses roam Eddleman's Bar Nothing Ranch. All that remains of the one-time cattle operation there are a few steers, which Eddleman uses to familiarize his horses with cattle or what's known as putting "a little bit of cow in the horse."
"Working with cattle, it lays a foundation under the horse," he said. "It's kind of like a kid going to school or a kid learning the fundamentals at home before they go out to the big city."
The big city, in this case, is the big game. Purses at so-called ranch horse competitions can be in the tens of thousands. For the Las Vegas National Finals Rodeo sometimes called the "Super Bowl of Rodeos" it's in the millions.
The price tag on the horses Eddleman trains for this purpose can run between $50,000 and $100,000.
However, he also raises horses in a lower price range that go to ranchers looking for a good cattle horse.
Baker County horse ranchers, though they may sell some of their horses to recreationists and rodeo competitors, are dedicated to upholding the horse's traditional role.
Eddleman said he hopes equine labor remains a living tradition, instead of a practice that exists only in the West's yesteryear.
"It's a way of life," he said.