Mike Pierson: Raising What Ranchers Ride
for Tri-State Livestock News
“I guess I just always wanted to be a cowboy. I never remember wanting to do anything else.”
– Mike Pierson
In eastern Montana winding along a lonely, desolate stretch of Highway 200 lays Garfield County. Spanning over 4,600 square miles, the average population density is the 3rd lowest of any county in the US outside of Alaska. The county seat is Jordan, a rural community where cattle out number people and Main Street and Highway 200 are the only paved roads in the town. With sagebrush dotting the landscape, mixed in with a few rolling hills, the area may appear flat and barren compared to the western side of the state, yet some of the roughest ranching country in the entire state lies north of Jordan in the CM Russell Wilderness where Mike Pierson has made his home ranching and raising Quarter Horses since 1963.
Born in 1943 to Charly and Clara Pierson as the youngest of four children, Mike was raised on the Crow Indian reservation where his father leased a ranch. Mike grew up destined to be a cowboy as his father rode broncs in his younger days and was named the 1938 Wolf Point Stampede Champion Saddle Bronc Rider. While Mike rodeoed off and on, his main passion was ranching and raising horses. “My dad always had horses around,” he explained. Charly Pierson had a Jockey Club registered Thoroughbred stud that he crossed on some smaller framed Percheron mares which produced a cross with agility and heart. “They were dang good horses that wore a size three shoe,” Mike recalls. These were the first type of horses that Mike grew up riding and ranching on, which in turn gave him a sense of what it takes to produce a top notch ranch horse.
Hungry to pursue the cowboy way of life, Mike completed the 9th grade and left home to work in cow camps and break colts. He landed his first job working in Cohagen, MT for Bud and Bobbie Kramer. Mike got his feet wet in starting colts at Kramer’s, who ran over 3,000 head of horses in the 1950’s. After healing up from a horse running off a cut bank with him and severely breaking his leg, Mike would go on to work in various cow camps around Montana all the way from Red Lodge to the Tongue River until the age of 17 when he got married and moved to California to work at the Los Angeles Horse and Mule Auction. After riding over 10,000 horses a year through the sale ring, and shoeing horses on the side, Mike moved his family back to Montana and settled in the deep river breaks of north west Garfield County at Brusett. Eager to build his own herd of cattle, Mike purchased 32 head of bred heifers but could not find any grass to lease. Bud Kramer agreed to let Mike run his cows south of Cohagen, in exchange for Mike starting four horses a month. “It took me two and a half years to pay the grass bill, but that’s how I got started in the cattle business and I was able to build my herd up from there.” After several years of working for the Kearns Ranch, Mike leased the place and eventually bought it in 1973 and still resides at the home place. It was here that he would raise his five children: Jo, Kelly, Bo, Sami and Tacy.
While there is some farmable acreage in Garfield County, the majority of the agriculture resides in cow/calf pairs as the land North West of Jordan is only suitable for grazing. With the size of the pastures and overall rough terrain in the CMR, the only efficient way to handle cattle is with good cow horses. Mike found that the horses which they were using for everyday tasks on the ranch needed to fit a certain criteria in order to be dependable ranch horses, which is why in 1990 he went in search of a stud and a band of broodmares to produce this exact type of horse. Mike would not settle for a mediocre stallion in his search. “There are just not a lot of horses that will make studs,” he explained. “If they don’t make a saddle horse, they won’t make a stud. My grandkids ride all the studs that we have now, and if they can’t ride them, they [the studs] get cut.” Herd stallions on the Pierson Ranch are used as dual purpose animals, where they are used to breed mares in the spring and used in all aspects of the cattle operation as well. While Pierson Quarter Horses main bloodline focus is the Driftwood lines, the first stud that Mike bought was a son of Tiger Leo. He kept fillies by this stud for his broodmare band. While he liked the Tiger Leo line of horses, he was still searching for something that could hold up in the rough terrain. Mike found his perfect stud when he contacted Bob Jordan in Harrison, Nebraska to purchase Snippy Wood. Sired by Snippys Driftwood and out of a Stage Bar Ted, Two Eyed Jack mare, Snippy Wood proved to be the ultimate sire that Mike had spent years searching for. As his Tiger Leo mares got older, Mike replenished his broodmare remuda with Ciderwood and Drop Of Frost mares. In the 90’s, the Pierson Ranch was breeding over 60 head of mares, which is why the broodmares on the ranch are all hot iron branded with numbers that correspond to their papers. Mike liked his Snippy Wood mares so much that he started keeping replacement fillies and purchased two additional studs. Tallywood Do It, a 1995 line bred Orphan Drift stud fit Mike’s preference to cross on his Snippy Wood daughters; however the stud developed testicular cancer and was gelded. Mike found a replacement stud in Banjoes Duallin, a buckskin stallion by a son of Dual Pep out of a Docs Lynx, Gay Bar King granddaughter. Mike has found this cross on his Snippy Wood mares to be successful. “When I started out in the breeding business, I wasn’t really trying to raise performance horses, but to raise really good ranch geldings, and I think they are the same animal. The ultimate horse I strive to raise stands 15.2 hands tall, weighs 1250 lbs, is cowy, stays sound and will hold up all day in these river breaks.”
No argument comes with the fact that Pierson’s raise big, soggy, tough, ranch geldings. Fellow Jordan, Montana rancher, DeWayne Murnion concurs: “We’ve bought Pierson horses since 1998. The first one we bought was a started three year old and we still have him.” Murnion has continued to buy weanlings from Pierson over the years. “They’re just damn good ranch horses. I don’t know much about bloodlines, but I know Mike picked out the right ones when he started raising these horses. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one of them that has turned out bad.” DeWayne’s main ranch horse, “Woody”, a 10 year old son of Snippy Wood purchased from Mike as a weanling, is well known in the local ranching community for his athletic ability despite his large stature at 16.2 hands and 1385 lbs. Snippy Wood has proven to stamp his colts with a gentle disposition, athleticism and grit, the three main components in which Mike believes makes the ultimate ranch horse. “They’ve just gotta be tough,” Mike stated. “This is rough old country. That summer pasture of ours is 30 sections of straight up and down. They have to know how to pick up their leads loping through these hills. I’m too old to have something stumble and fall over a cow in this country.” Mike laughed. “And if you’re gonna breed for a single trait, you better breed for disposition,” he continued. “We broke 5 and 6 year olds growing up on the reservation. We were tough and didn’t know any better, but I thank God those days have come and gone and we aren’t riding anything like that now.”
While Snippy Wood is nearing retirement from the breeding pasture at the age of 25, Mike has continued his search for a replacement herd stallion. “I’ve been looking for the right one for the last six years and I’ve cut seven of them already.” While Pierson’s horse numbers are at an all-time low of 16 head of broodmares, the quality of horses is still at its strongest. The Pierson horses are marketed primarily by word of mouth and sell with a 100% soundness guarantee. Mike rarely sells colts at auction, but prefers to sell them straight off the ranch. While they primarily sell weanlings, they also sell started and finished ranch horses. Horses on the ranch are not started before the age of three, to ensure proper growth prior to training. While the Pierson horses are best known as ranch horses, they can also be seen in rodeo arenas across the state in other events. “A lot of these colts have gone on to make good team roping and pick up horses too,” says Mike. Top hand female ranch rodeo competitor, Jana Kelley can be spotted on her roan gelding in the ranch rodeos across the state. Sired by Snippy Wood, Jana’s main mount is a 7 year old gelding registered as Snip Tomy Lou, better known around the ranch rodeo circuit as “Nacho”. Jana says her gelding has all the same characteristics that Snippy Wood passes on to his foals and has adopted the nickname “Nacho The Vulture” around the ranch rodeo circuit as he will “eat a cow”. Nacho was named Top Horse at the Miles City Women’s Ranch Rodeo in 2016.
The goals of raising the ultimate ranch horse that Mike set out to achieve when he started into the Quarter Horse breeding business have undoubtedly been reached as Pierson Quarter Horses has become “the source” to many ranchers and ropers alike. The future is in good hands as Mike explained that his son Bo and wife Jamie will take over the breeding aspect eventually, as it takes an entire family to run the operation. Mike still remains driven to find a satisfactory replacement stallion to carry on the Pierson Quarter Horses legacy. “I’ve had a good life; I’ve been blessed with good family and great horses. It doesn’t really get any better than that if you ask me.”