Stallion Showcase 2023: The Good Ones—Taz was Cliff Crago’s once-in-a-lifetime horse, in a lifetime of horses   |

Stallion Showcase 2023: The Good Ones—Taz was Cliff Crago’s once-in-a-lifetime horse, in a lifetime of horses  

Jodie Baxendale called Cliff Crago one day and said she needed to do a winter photo shoot, and it had to have snow. The day she picked was cold and snowy, but Cliff and Chris and Taz were game--Cliff even traded the Scotch cap he wore for practical purposes for his cowboy hat, for the sake of aesthetics. "I was about froze down by the time we were done," he said. But the photos Jodie took that day captured some pretty special memories of his special horse, that he lost a few years later. | Photo by Jodie Baxendale, Jodie B Photography.

Taz was a reject. She “flunked out” of a Texas cutting program. But she found her feet—and purpose— in South Dakota, with Cliff Crago. 

Cliff ranches with his wife, Chris, and son and daughter-in-law, Clay and Chas, near Belle Fourche. Cliff picked up Boon Taz Dually, a blaze-faced sorrel mare, as a 2-year-old, from Shannon Hall’s program.  

“I knew if Shannon had started her she’d be started right,” Cliff said. “She didn’t have very many rides on her, and she wasn’t one I figured on keeping. I just figured she’d be fun to ride and would have a lot of ability and we’d see where it went from there. It went a different way than I thought it would.”  

There were a lot of great horses in Cliff’s more than 70 years. The first one he remembers is a paint horse his family bred. Cragos bought the ranch near Belle Fourche in 1955, and their first registered Quarter Horse in 1957. “I was horseback all my life,” Cliff says.  

Cliff and his brother grew up riding horses for the neighbors and family. Cliff married Chris Hoffman, from the Wall area, who also grew up horseback. They raised horses on the family ranch near Belle Fourche, running about 50 head of broodmares and stallions that went back to The Ole Man, Bar Money and Azure Te.  

They had four kids, and in 1984 they sold most of the horses and moved to Texas, where Cliff and Chris put on natural horsemanship schools, modeled after Ray Hunt and Kevin Stallings. They traveled all over Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, with Cliff presenting the colt-starting portion of the clinics, and Chris focusing on the horsemanship.  

“We made a lot of good contacts and rode a lot of good horses over the years down there,” Cliff said.  

In 1994 Cliff, Chris and their youngest son, Clay, moved back to South Dakota, where they worked on the ranch until they were able to buy out part of it and lease some of it in 2000. Since then they’ve been running cattle together, and have been building their broodmare band back up–though they aren’t aspiring to the numbers they had in the 1980s.  

“Now we’re back up to eight to 10 mares,” Cliff said. “I don’t know what a guy does that for. They eat a lot. It’s just something we enjoy.” They don’t have any stallions right now, though Cliff is open to the idea of raising one, if the right one comes along. This spring they’ll have a colt by Stevie Rey Von, out of a daughter of Docs Hickory. They’ll also have colts by Fiestas Gotta Gun, Epic Leader and a lot of Metallic Cat influence.  

They sometimes sell a few horses through the Black Hills Stock Show horse sale, but now primarily sell via private treaty.  

The mares they have now are part run and part cow-bred. “We like good using horses that are versatile,” Chris said. 

“I like the speed and the common sense,” the combination produces, Cliff said.  

Taz had it all, according to Cliff, but Chris said what made the mare really outstanding–the once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse, in a lifetime full of horses–was the connection she had with Cliff.  

“She was born to read a cow, but she read Cliff,” Chris said. “That’s what made her feel easy. She just knew what he wanted and what he asked and it just flowed so beautifully. She made a hard, tough job look effortless. She knew where to put her feet, she was handy and didn’t take a lot of effort from the rider’s part. She never got excited, ever. That might be part of what made her good–you couldn’t excite her.”  

Chris didn’t like riding her as much–she said she felt lazy. But that may have been efficiency of movement and understanding her job and not wasting any effort, rather than not wanting to expend it.  

“She was just where she needed to be, no matter what you were doing,” Cliff said. “She was just one of those that, wherever you headed, whatever you wanted to do, she was right there with you.”  

Cliff and Taz were a well-known pair in the neighborhood branding circle. “In the alley or the sorting pen she was pretty wicked,” Chris said. “She was probably the horse with the most cow-smarts we’ve ever had around. She could make anybody look good.”  

Cliff and Chris’s grandkids liked to ride her. “The grandkids always wanted to sort on her. They roped calves on her. They used her whenever I wasn’t, I guess,” Cliff said. But she was always Cliff’s first choice. “I don’t know what made her special, but whatever I asked of her, she’d do it and she’d do it pretty good, and if we didn’t do good it wasn’t her fault.”  

Cliff bought two geldings at the same time as Taz. One went on to be a college calf roping horse, one became a pickup horse.  

“For some reason I got in the habit of riding mares,” Cliff said. “Mares were cheaper to buy at that point, and you could buy some cheap ones because people didn’t want them as much as geldings. I just had good mares around I was riding. She was my pick.”  

As much as he loved riding Taz, Cliff was looking forward to adding her to the broodmare band and seeing how her genes showed up in future generations. But one evening in 2020 they noticed she was a little “off.” The next morning they realized it was more serious than they thought, and they took her to the vet. A colic diagnosis will put a pit in the stomach of the most seasoned horseman, especially when it’s your once-in-a-lifetime horse on the trailer. The vet couldn’t get the colic straightened out, and they lost her. “She was just right in the prime of her life,” Cliff said. “Talking about her again makes me realize how much I miss her.”  

In the two years since, there hasn’t been another horse to step into the role of Cliff’s go-to. Cliff is getting a little more selective about the horses he rides. Right now he’s riding an outside mare for someone in Texas who wants a team-penning horse. He’s got a cutting-bred gelding that flunked out of a cutting program after about a year, but it’s not the same.  

“It’s fun to work with the horses, to try and make them as good as you can make them. The better you make them, the better they make you,” Cliff said. “Horses have always been part of our life. It’s just a way of life for us.”  

Chris and Cliff’s kids are grown, and even most of their grandkids are in high school or college. But the lifetime of knowledge they’ve built up is still getting passed on. When Clay’s kids were growing up they built an indoor arena, set up some bucking chutes and had a pen of broncs. The broncs are gone now, but Cliff and Chris work still work with the neighbor kids on cutting and barrel racing. Last year one of the neighbor kids traded some summer labor for the use of Cragos’ cutting horse, that had carried Cooper, their grandson, to a 12th place finish at the National High School Finals Rodeo. The same horse also took their older grandson, Chet, to the finals three times, and their granddaughter, Kylee, rode him for two years.  

“It’s fun to help those kids,” Cliff said. “I’m not an expert by no means at all, but I enjoy helping them and I think I do a good job for them–I hope I do, anyway. We always look forward to schooling them a little.”