Pickup men have a well-earned reputation as the handiest men in any rodeo arena. Pickup horses, on the other hand, aren't usually as widely recognized for their exceptional ability. Watching Billy Ward's horse Muskrat in action proves that's a shame.
Recently, at the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Finals in Amarillo, Texas, Harry Vold's bronc Snake Stomper dispatched his rider and bucked off across the arena, kicking over his head and ducking and diving (as if he were indeed trying to stomp a snake). Billy Ward, aboard Muskrat, positioned himself directly in front of the wild-acting bronc, Muskrat waited patiently and in fact squatted down as Snake Stomper approached him like a balloon with the air let out. On Ward's cue, the horse burst from a standstill to keep pace with the bucker, Ward casually grabbed the hack rein, dallied, released the flank and the back cinch and with full control guided the horse to the stripping chute.
Muskrat, Ward's current top mount, is exceptional in his owner's eyes because of his versatility.
"This horse, when we first got him, was kind of gangly," Ward remembered of the seven-year-old.
"He was terrible goosey. After 30 days he was over that.
He is a horse that has matured so fast and he's so good at everything. After (the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship) Dallas, we went to (18-time World Champion Steer Roper) Guy Allen's place and roped for a couple days. That horse had never been in a box and my oldest boy, he's 16, backed him in there and roped 25 or 30 steers on him every day. That's just the kind of horse he is. He could pull a barn down. You can do anything you want on him, from roping bulls to handling fresh steers."
Muskrat, officially registered as Driftin Red Hancock, came through Ward's well-developed horse training program. Each year, Ward brings a crop of three-year-olds that didn't sell as yearlings in Randy Dunn's Come to the Source horse sale in Laramie, Wyo., to his ranch in LaGrange, Wyo., for an education.
"They have a lot of Driftwood and Blue Valentine-bred horses," Ward explained. "They are so willing, and that's what it takes to make a good pickup horse. We get them as three-year-olds and they have 10-15 rides on them. In the fall, when they're three, we try to get 30 more rides on them and then we'll start working yearlings on them, doctoring and stuff like that."
But doctoring on Ward's ranch is unlike a lot of places. He takes in and straightens out yearlings over the winter months to be turned out on summer pasture. The ground in LaGrange is icy and slick. To doctor on his mature horses would be a mistake for a couple reasons. First, they read cattle well enough that they would exert themselves despite the questionable footing and possibly fall. Second, it's the best opportunity to start his colts working. But, because of the slick ground, Ward does things a little differently. While the cattle are up around feed, he ties his rope to the horn hard and fast, steps off and ropes four- and five-weight cattle from the ground and let's his colts figure out the rest.
"They learn to take a jerk and they learn how I rope," he said. "That's one of the things that makes our horses different."
After their three-year-old year working on the ranch, the ones that make the cut must pass another test to progress.
"Every one of our horses has to go through the parade at Cheyenne (Frontier Days)," he said. "We have 35 saddle horses, our four-year-olds, everything, has to go. If they're not capable of doing that, they don't stay."
The ones that do stay are loaded in Ward's trailer. While he doesn't pickup on anything until it's five, he brings his younger horses to the rodeos, sorts cattle, cleans the arena and generally gets them used to the sights and sounds of town. If they show any hesitation to assimilating to the lifestyle, they're culled.
"Lot of times queens ride them," he said. "A judge might crawl on one of mine to flag. I have to respect that."
The next step is picking up. Ward explained that going to an amateur rodeo or practice session isn't the best place to expose a horse picking up for the first time. Instead, a big rodeo with seasoned broncs who know the routine is the best method. He doesn't have a timetable for when they must step up to the pickup routine, but instead bases it on feel.
"You might be sorting cattle or something and he does something and you know he's ready," Ward said. "When I go to start a pickup horse, I just have to wake up in the morning and feel brave that day. We start all our colts in the bronc riding because there is a rhyme and a reason to it. You get up beside them, get the hack rein, dally, slow stuff down and so it doesn't booger their mind near as much. I can control the situation in the bronc riding, in the bareback riding I can't. The bareback horses have to be a little guttier than the bronc riding horses because they have to run and stop and there's no rhyme or reason to the bareback riding."
Muskrat got his call-up in the bronc riding at the Old Fort Days in Fort Smith, Ark.
"I picked up at Fort Smith in the bronc riding and he was kind of goosey," remembered Ward. "It never fails, whenever I start one, I try to sit on the hinge side of the chute because most of the horses will circle to the side the latch is on, so I can just haze. Well, of course it didn't work that way and that horse came to me. It was Billy Etbauer, I think, and Muskrat just went in there and I thought, if he gets goosey it's going to be right now. I got my dally and he just hunkered down and from that time on, he's been as good as he is today."
Muskrat's blend of willingness, strength and athleticism make him one of the best pickup horses Ward has trained. At the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship in Dallas, one bull ran past the out gate three times, so Ward roped him and he hit the end of it like a calf.
What's more, after roping for two days at Allen's, the legendary steer roper told Ward that Muskrat would be an ideal horse for the Bob Feist Invitational because he scores so solidly then runs so fast.
"With his ability, you can put him in the bareback riding or the saddle bronc riding," Ward said. "In Cheyenne, in those big arenas, that son of a gun can run and in the bull riding he is so strong."
After four of five years picking up, by about the time they're 10, most horses go on to new owners. With new colts coming in every year, the older horses can't stay. Plus, they're a very marketable product considering what they've been through. As a matter of fact, Ward has been voted to pickup the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven times and is allowed to take six horses. Of the 42 possible trips, he's taken 36 different horses.
On the road, he takes care of his horses. His sons, Dalton and Denton, are required to warm them up and cool them off. All the horses are washed after the performance-both for showmanship and health. But at home, as Billy's wife Marlo explained, they have to take care of themselves. The older horses are turned out together in a 1,500-acre pasture. What's more, Ward does not believe in acing or buting a horse in order for him to perform. If they're bad to be around, untrustworthy or cripple, they go to sale with full disclosure. The ones that do make it have been through such a gauntlet of tests, they're ready for about any situation.
"The horses have already been hauled, maybe they're not finished head horses, but it takes a shorter time to make them into fantastic heading horses, because they've seen all the lights and they're not goosey or stupid," he said. "They know how to travel and how to haul. There are great heading horses that have never left the place, but we're the other way.
"We sell a lot of horses to guys who are three or four headers. They're not spectacular, but they score like a rock, they're not going to duck no matter how goofy it gets. We sell horses to guys who come out of the stands. On the other hand, we've sold some nice horses to guys Turtle Powell."
Tee Woolman and J.D. Yates are also among the Wards' customers. Trick roping act tandem Roper and Ryder Kiesner ride horses from the same bloodlines.
Muskrat, however, probably won't go down the same path as most of Ward's horses.
"I'm getting enough age on me that it's going to take something pretty special to get rid of that horse," he said. "Not only that, my boy will be in college in a couple years and he'll have an eight-year-old heading horse. We all like to rope and have fun. He hadn't had 50 steers run on him, but he'll stand in that corner and then blow out of there."
What's more, Muskrat's full brother is a colt at the ranch, beginning the same program.
"The greatest feeling to me is when Tyler Magnus, Tee Woolman, J.D. Yates and Guy Allen come up to me and say, 'That's a nice horse,'" Ward said. "They come and look at what we've got. Not all the horses that we pick up are capable of being a roping horse, but there is an array of different ways they can go: ranching, team roping, trail riding, team penning, you name it.
"Our horses have been nothing but spectacular for us."