Dr. R.M. Christensen: Stage Bird Tom sets stage for a half century of breeding horses in South Dakota
Dr. Robert M. (R.M.) Christensen has dedicated his life to the progression of the Quarter Horse in South Dakota, and was honored in January as a 50 Year Breeder in the state. His love for horses stems from his childhood.
“When I was a youngster, I lived at Wessington Springs, South Dakota. There was a lot of horses around there. I knew people that started bringing in Quarter Horses. Pretty much, we just had some saddle mares, and we bred them to remount stallions. We had a lot of Belgian work horses. So I grew into a family that liked their horses,” said Christensen.
The local shows at Wessington Springs soon included AQHA cutting, and he was even more excited to begin raising horses of his own. He said, “I was further enticed by the ability of the horses. I went to the horse sale in Aberdeen and had one of the national directors, Lawrence DeHaan help me pick out a horse. I bought one in 1955, and started raising some colts.”
As his young breeding program was taking off, Christensen was also in college and the military. He says, “I went to training in Fort Carson, then they shipped 100 of us down to Texas at San Antonio. Then I had medical training, and then I came home for leave, and then got the orders to go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. I had a year of veterinary school and dropped out and so I was there for two years, where they did pathology on pilots that would have a problem. They had experimental animals there, and I helped with that. I got out of college, I went back to veterinary school and finished in 1964.”
As his program grew, he purchased what would become his signature stallion. He said, “A friend of mine, Art Reeves, was quite a horseman. We went to Texas and I purchased a stallion named Stage Bird Tom.” Stage Bird Tom was a 1966 stallion, and a grandson of King. Art Reeves had a half brother to Stage Bird Tom, named Tom Baker. The two friends would go on to collaborate in their Quarter Horse productions, as Christensen bought mares from Reeves by Tom Baker and Roan Bar, another stallion he had, says Christensen. He also bred his mares to Reeves’s stallions, with great success. ““I had a son by Roan Bar, his name was Roan Bar 2, and I made him an AQHA champion.”
Raising horses was not his only occupation. “I had a full time veterinary practice and raised horses on the side. At one point I had 65 mares,” he said. “I had a mostly small animal practice and did horse work for a while, but it got to be a problem when there was a of couple ladies sitting in the waiting room and I had to go take care of a horse that got in trouble. So, I dropped the horse practice and just did my own. I put in 39 years there, but I got a little muscle problem, so I had to quit,” he said. That was in 2003.
On top of raising Quarter Horses and having a full-time veterinary practice, Christensen also managed horse shows in Sioux Falls for 39 years, starting in 1968. It began when he offered a helping hand the first year. He said, “The next year, I was the manager of the show, and it just boomeranged from there. We did it with the Farm Winter Show, and then the Summer Fair. I finally outgrew the facility. They had built a new building to show in.” The new building contained wings for stalls, but no stalls. He said, “The professional people and I got together and bought some stalls, so we had the 400 stalls there for the shows, so you could have more than one at a time. We went from one to having three. Then we’d go out of town for the fourth one and have three more, so I’d have seven shows in a row. I had the 7th and 8th largest show in the nation. The next year I had the 8th, 9th and 10th largest show.” He says the years when his shows were monstrous were the 1970s and 1980s. “It kept me out of mischief,” he grinned.
He enjoyed meeting participants at his shows, such as Carol and Matlock Rose, people from Washington, Texas and even Australia. Just as the people were the most enjoyable part of managing horse shows, it was also the most rewarding experience in raising Quarter Horses. He said, “I liked horses, I guess. It was fun to raise some nice babies, and I didn’t always get very much for them, but sometimes they ended up with people that would call me and would visit about them and how much they liked them. I had one guy call me about one of my first colts and had it for 28 years, and wrote me a three page letter to tell me how much he had enjoyment with him. That was the best thing, to find people that had bought the horse that were satisfied with them.”
Christensens’ horses had many achievements at the local, regional and national level. Stage Bird Roanie, by Stage Bird Tom and out of a Roan Bar mare, was the second highest team roping horse in the nation. In addition to Roan Bar 2 being an AQHA champion, Stage Bird Tom, and a blue roan mare, named Stage Birds Image, were AQHA champions, Christensen says. “You have to have so many halter points and so many performance points in different categories to do that,” he explains. Christensen would generally enter his horses in the halter classes, roping events and reining or western riding.
The perfect all-around using horse was Christensen’s goal as he raised Quarter Horses. “One the kids could ride, or the grownups could ride, and take the right person along with them to win,” he said. The trainers working with his horses were a huge part of their success. “I had a gentleman by the name of Pat Trebaush and he showed my horses for a long time. Bob Johnson, he’s down in Tennessee now, showed a lot of my horses. He’d send some horses that needed extra roping training down there to Nebraska,” he said.
The horseman also helped establish and later served on the South Dakota Quarter Horse Council.
Christensen is now based out of Harrisburg, and does not have as many mares as he once did. He works with his trainer to help with breeding decisions. “John Kabeiseman out of Yankton has my horses right now,” he said. “I’m not looking too much anymore. He helps me choose mares now. I like an all around horse, and I guess my horses went back to the King breeding, and a lot of the foundation horses. Lately we’ve gotten into halter horses that are out of Impressive, and I had an Impressive stallion, as well. Had some beautiful colts out of him, but the cowboys around here, they’re a little shy of that. I kind of come back down to earth and went back to breeding horses that could go out and do anything and be a good horse just to ride.”
Christensen gives advice to young breeders saying, “If they’re not a good judge of horses, find a good trainer or breeder and get some knowledge from him, or ask for their thoughts, anyway, if you’re unsure of things. I had a couple of sales myself at my place, and took some of them up to Minnesota and some to Des Moines, Iowa, and different places. They used to have a Quarter Horse sale in Sioux Falls that was put on by another gentleman, and I consigned some horses there, and sold some private treaty. That’s the way you disposed of them, if you couldn’t feed them. You had to sell some, whether the prices were good or bad.”