For the love of good horses
Although Art Cowan was born the same year that the first Model T was available for sale to the masses in the United States, he grew up using horses for everyday transportation, farm work, ranching. It was horses that helped pay for the ranch he and his wife, Mary, put together near Highmore, South Dakota, it was horses that their children grew up on and still today, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to work in the horse industry.
The couple’s life-long love for good horse flesh is not unrecognized, and on Jan. 12 in Pierre, South Dakota Art and Mary will be honored posthumously for their contributions to the horse industry by the South Dakota Quarter Horse Association.
When Art, who came into the world in 1908, first began to make his living with horses in Grand Island, Nebraska. He worked for the Omaha Horse and Mule Co. under a foreman who was known for his meticulousness. It was there that his children imagine Art learned to pay close attention to details. Art’s job was to show mules that were being purchased by the English government and sent to India and to care for the mules as they were being shipped overseas. Art was in charge of five to six men and 400 mules during the thirty-two-day ocean voyage.
“He had a chance to go to China with a boat load of mules, and I think mother, why she said if he went to China, she probably wouldn’t be there when he got back,” says Willie Cowan, their oldest surviving son. “Well he stayed and that was a smart man, wasn’t he?”
Mary grew up a rancher’s daughter and she knew horses and cattle well. In fact as a teenager she was the one who detected the outbreak of anthrax, an infectious disease, while she was riding through her family’s herd.
Art and Mary wanted to run cattle and own horses of their own, so shortly after their marriage in 1935, the couple moved to Highmore and bought a ranch that they paid for by trading horses. It was there that they raised their six children while they bought horses from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, North and South Dakota. They brought horses to the ranch to break them to drive or work on the ranch, then resold them. In the 1940s, Art had what he called the “Unruh” contract to furnish horses to the U.S. Government. The horses would be shipped overseas for the rehabilitation of Czechoslovakia and ewYugoslavia.
“We were little guys,” Willie says of him and his older brother, Pat. The brothers were Art’s main work force during that time because of the war. “I remember my mom saying, ‘Art, they’re too young,’ and I remember him saying, ‘I know that, but I’ve got to have them.’”
For three years, they trailed horses he bought or traded for to the ranch and from the ranch to the government inspection sites at Blunt, Faulkton and Miller. One particular time, they trailed a herd of 998 horses to the Miller inspection site and Art always said he wished they had turned some saddle horses loose with the herd, just to make it an even 1,000.
As could be expected, not all the horses Art bought and traded for were up to par, some were flat out bucking horses, so Art and Mary started putting on rodeos. When he heard of horses that had been bucking cowboys off, Art would buy them and bring them home for his own crew to try. If the horses kept bucking his cowboys off, the horses were put in the bucking horse string.
“He trailed them horses to all them rodeos, we never put them on a truck,” Willie says. “We’d leave the ranch and trot into Miller and eat dinner in Miller. Twenty-four miles wasn’t no deal, it was just a way to make a living.”
Art and Mary eventually built a rodeo arena at the ranch. There, the rodeos were quite the family affair with Pat and Willie picking up, their sister, Annie, timing and Mary providing lunch. The family recalls Art saying that Mary would always make more money off the lunch stand than he did with the rodeo.
One of Art’s horses they called the Old Gray Mare couldn’t be halter broke, which was a requirement for being sold to the government, so he decided to buck her. In 1949, Art put the mare in a bucking horse sale in Fort Pierre and she was bought by Vern Elliot. Weeks later, Casey Tibbs won Cheyenne on her and today, a statue made by Tony Chytka commemorates that ride outside of the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center. Another of Art’s more well-known bucking horses is one he raised himself was named Weeping Willie. The stud horse was bought by Korkow-Sutton Rodeos and bucked in the 1966 National Finals Rodeo. Another horse, General Ike, bucked so hard that a lot of cowboys wouldn’t get on him. Art priced General Ike to Joe Schomer for 500 dollars before he bucked in Fort Pierre once. Schomer started writing the check before the whistle blew because he thought Art might change his mind.
“I think before the Quarter Horse we had to ride quite a lot of them that weren’t good horses,” Willie says. “That’s why we just love a good horse.”
When Art and Mary started to breed their own horses, Art was particular about what he liked and didn’t like. If he stood behind a horse and couldn’t see it’s withers, he didn’t like it, he wanted a place to set his saddle. Horses were the Cowans’ means of transportation, so they had to have good legs and when it came to his Quarter Horses, they had to have a sound mind.
Most of Art and Mary’s foundation herd went back to a train load of horses that he and Cobbie Magness bought in 1946 from the Bivins brothers out of Texas. The Bivins mares, mostly out of the stud Blue Bivins, were the horses that brought the most success to the Cowan Ranch. Later, Pat and Tex Fulton, Art and Mary’s son-in-law, bought a young stallion named Laughing Boy, who crossed well over the Bivins mares. James and Francis Louiseau brought many mares to Laughing Boy, and eventually, Laughing Boy became the grandsire to Frenchman’s Guy and many other successful Quarter Horses. Art and Mary’s niece, Lori Gregg Whiting won the circuit finals and qualified for the NFR on Marys Cute, a mare out of one of Art’s mare’s, Codys Cute Kid.
“The Quarter Horse has done our family a lot of good, but also just horses have done our family a lot of good as long as they’re good at what they did,” Willie says.
One winter in the early 1950s, Willie recalls Art coming to him and Pat one evening when Mary was very sick. It was already dark out and Mary needed to get to town. Art told his sons to harness two teams of work horses that they then hooked to the pickup, one team 15 feet ahead of the pickup, the other 30 feet ahead of the pickup.
“The roads were plugged with snow so we drug that pickup, Pat drove one team, I drove the other, and we got her to Highmore,” Willie says. “Dad told us to go home because the rest of the kids were pretty little, so we just grabbed hold of the breeching and they were broke enough we stood on the double trees and rode them home.”
It took four days for the children to hear if Mary made it through her pneumonia or not. She did, and went on to help grow the family up in many aspects of the horse business.
“That’s why Art Cowan just loved a good horse, no matter what he was good at, whether it was a work horse, a bucking horse or one of his Quarter Horses,” Willie says. “No question about it, all them horses they sent overseas, they bought our ranch. They had good cattle too, but if you cut Art Cowan’s head apart, him and Mom both, I think horses would be above the cattle any day.”