Starting slow: The Knipplings raise fast horses in due time
Johnny and Cheryl Knippling were honored in January for winning the South Dakota American Quarter Horse Fifty-Year Breeders Award.
They received the award in 2013, for a program that has been going on at the Knippling Ranch at Gann Valley, S.D. since they married in 1961.
When he and Cherri (as she is known) married nearly 57 years ago, they began purchasing quarter horses, starting out slowly. They started with four daughters of Vanzi Bar by Clabber Bar. They loved the Vanzi Bar horses because they “were some of the best mamas to be had,” Johnny said. “They had excellent dispositions, good conformation and were good milking mares.”
In the early days, they showed them at halter and raced them as two year olds, training the horses themselves. They never went far, showing and racing across the state, but their horses turned heads with what they had. “We wanted horses that were good looking and that could perform, and we wanted something that had good dispositions that younger people could get along with, like for 4-H,” Johnny said.
It was in the early 1970s that they were in need of a stallion. They had been hauling mares to breed with outside studs and were looking for something that would cross on the Vanzi Bar mares and retain all of their good qualities, plus add some of his own. Johnny was racing in Ft. Pierre when he sent Cherri to a sale to buy a stud whose pedigree looked good. When she got to the sale and saw the colt, she didn’t like him or any of his full siblings. However, she was interested in his mother, Nelly Bruce. Nelly Bruce was a daughter of Mr Bruce and out of Coogans Van by Billy Van. She bought the mare and brought her home.
When she got home, Johnny was milking. He asked, “Did you get that stud bought?” No, Cheryl said, because she didn’t like him. Johnny asked what the stud brought: $285. “I bought his mother,” Cherri said. Johnny asked what she cost: $1,025. “Oh,” Johnny said. “Explain that,” Cherri chuckled. “I’m kind of figuring out how I’m going to tell him I bought the mother when I didn’t like the stud.”
That mare, Nelly Bruce, was “beautiful, a gorgeous mare,” Cherri said, and had a colt at side. They sold the colt, Nell Bar, who was raced as a two and three-year old and was the high point running horse in South Dakota as a two-year-old. Nelly Bruce also had a yearling stallion at the sale that was later raced in South Dakota, winning many races.
The Knipplings were still in search of a stud. At about this time, Stanley Johnson of Ree Heights had purchased Docs Jack Frost by Doc Bar and out of Chantella, a mare by War Chant. Johnny had always admired the Three Bars bloodline, and Docs Jack Frost was a grandson of Three Bars.
Johnny and Cherri made a deal with Stanley, that they would be the only people to breed mares to Docs Jack Frost the next year, when he was two. The Knipplings took Nelly Bruce to Docs Jack Frost in hopes of getting a stud. The first foal was Nelly Frost, who was everything they wanted in the offspring, except she was a mare. Nelly Frost was a race winner as a two and three year old. The next year, Nelly Bruce went back to Docs Jack Frost, and in 1973 she had a stud, Doc Bruce. They had found their stallion. “He had a great disposition, sired colts with good conformation and correct, sound legs, who had the speed to get the job done,” Johnny said. His offspring have excelled in the tie-down and team roping, barrel racing and cutting, and on the ranch. The last crop of Doc Bruce babies was sold in 1999, and the horse, who died a few years later, is buried in a grave overlooking the creek on the place.
In 1983, the Knipplings bought another stud, Hollys Gold Peppy, a 100 percent foundation bred quarter horse. Hollys Gold Peppy was a son of Peponita by Peppy San out of Holly Dot 70, by Salty Holly, by Hollywood Gold. They sold nearly all of his offspring but kept two of his daughters in their brood mare band. Those mares were some of their best producers, and when they realized the quality of colts they raised, they tried to purchase some of his daughters back but their owners wouldn’t part with them. Hollys Gold Peppy was a small horse, about thirteen hands, but his offspring excelled as mounts for steer wrestlers and tie-down ropers.
About fifteen years ago, Johnny and Cherri bought another stud to add color and bloodlines to complement their Doc Bruce bred mares. In 2003, they purchased Dunits Lean Dream, a gruella stallion by Lean With Me, by Smart Little Lena, out of Redun It, by Hollywood Dun It. His offspring did well in the working cow horse and reined cow horse events, and had speed.
A unique thing the Knipplings did was how they handled and prepared their colts prior to their sales, which they held every year from 1985 till 2011. At one of their early sales, Cherri watched as a colt was loaded in a stock trailer and “somebody drove away as the baby bounced off the walls,” she said. “I’m thinking, what a terrifying thing that has to be for a baby, to be jerked off his mother and ride home in that noisy trailer.”
So the Knipplings trailer-broke the colts to load, so when they went home with their new owner, it wasn’t the first time they’d been in a trailer.
Johnny was also a firm believer in working with the colts to get them used to people. Before the sale, they would power wash them and pick up and rope their feet. “We’ve had people comment that they might find (a Knipplings horse) with a foot over a fence that just stood there and didn’t move until someone lifted their foot out,” Cherri said. “To me, that was one of the greatest things we did with the horses. Even though we sold them as babies, they still had a good foundation to start with.”
They also gelded their babies before they were sold. At the time they did this, the numbers of horses were growing and value was decreasing. They also did it to protect the integrity of their breeding program. “We felt a gelding that could have been a great stallion was preferable to a stallion that should have been gelded,” Cherri said.
The Knipplings were one of the first breeders to use their initials (JK) at the beginning of a horse’s registered name. Cherri did it on purpose. “It was to ensure I got the name I wanted,” she said. “I named colts family names so that when I saw the name, I knew who the mama and grandma were.”
They have good memories of their years of horse breeding. Cherri remembers a year that Johnny had emergency gall bladder surgery the Sunday before the sale. Good friends and former customers, the Tigh Cowan family, came to help. Half of the colts had been weaned, and were solid chestnut with no markings. “I was not going to attempt to number them for the sale, so Johnny had to go out and identify them so we could put sale numbers on them,” Cherri said. He “had the uncanny ability to look at them and tell who their mother was.”
One of their customers, Amy Schimke, has been buying horses from the Knipplings since she was a little girl. The Schimkes neighbored with the Knipplings, and while visiting them a week before the sale, eight-year-old Amy was enamored with the only palomino filly at auction. “This filly came up to me, out of all these colts, and started being my friend,” she remembered. “So I had to have that horse. My heart was set on it.” With her being the only palomino, her dad knew they probably couldn’t afford the horse. He bid against another man, till the man saw Amy in the bleachers, seated next to her dad, and he quit bidding. The filly cost $400, “which, at the time, was a lot of money for a baby.” The horse, Flicka Bruce “Goldie” went on to be Amy’s 4-H, high school, and college rodeo horse, and Amy filled her Women’s Pro Rodeo Association membership aboard her. She was shown in reined cow horse and Amy trained her for barrels and poles.
Five years later, in 1990, Amy went back to the Knippling sale with her own money. She had sold a pony the night before the sale, and even though her parents weren’t crazy about the idea, she bought a mare, JK Flicker Flash. That mare was the dam of Schimke’s stallion Frostman San Peppy “Pablo.”
Flicka Bruce, the palomino Schimke bought when she was eight years old, was even involved in mounted shooting. Her husband Brett Borkowski did some mounted shooting, but when his mount abcessed and wasn’t able to compete at the Will Lantis Memorial Shoot in 2009, “we pulled Goldie out of the pasture and got her in shape,” Schimke said. Brett ended up reserve champion overall on her. “Several people wanted to buy her,” Schimke said. “I don’t think anyone believed him when he said she was 24 at the time.”
Johnny and Cherri have advice for breeders starting out. “Pick a line of horses that are successful and are good looking, with good temperaments,” Johnny said. “We wanted horses that were versatile, that you could go either way with, either raise or show.” Cherri, who did the paperwork for the program, says to keep good records of everything. “I kept copies of registration applications from every year,” she said. Someone called many years later, asking her to identify a solid chestnut gelding in Arizona that had their brand, which she was able to do.
At their height, there were 100 horses, including colts, on the ranch, and Johnny and Cherri did all the work. Their kids would help out with taking pictures for the sale catalog. To have the colts silhouetted (so their underlines could be seen), the kids would lead each mare and colt to the top of a hill for the picture. “It was many trips that day, up and down the hill,” Cherri said.
The year 2011 was the year the Knipplings sold nearly all of their horses. Johnny had health issues and it was tougher getting everything done themselves. But there are still seven horses on the place: a stud, three geldings and three mares. They never got financially wealthy from the horses, but the memories and friends are priceless. “Even though the work was extremely hard, it was quite an exciting and enjoyable ride,” Cherri said.
Johnny loved it and the ranch. “I look back and I don’t regret anything we did. To me, being out here (on the ranch), away from the rush of everything” was enjoyable. “It’s quite a way to a neighbor’s place. We’re on the end of a road, right on a creek, with lots of timber, deer, and wildlife. It’s quiet. It’s really enjoyable.”
The Knipplings have four children: sons Monte (in Wessington Springs) and Mark (in Hazel), and daughters Kelly Gran (Wessington Springs) and Kori Blake (Miller.)
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