Hunt Horses: Going on six generations of good using horses
The Hunt family from Faith, South Dakota, is a fifth-generation cattle ranch. As fourth generation, Jim and Joni are at the helm with the help of all seven of their children, J. Tom, Jessica, Justin, Joshua, Jordan, Jeb, and Jimmie. The family is ever expanding; Tom and his wife Sage welcomed the first of the sixth generation: twin girls born November 9.
The Hunts’ spread, Open Box Rafter Ranch, is a Quarter Horse and working cattle operation. Their annual horse sale each September has grown into a prestigious, high-quality sale offering some of the finest Quarter Horse bloodlines doled out from their stallions, which include sons of Freckles Playboy, Special Effort, Dr Nick Bar, Fire Water Flit, Frenchmans Guy, Sun Frost, Big As I Am, Sonny Pep San, and direct grandsons of Flit Bar and Orphan Drift.
The Hunts come across horse-breeding honestly; Jim’s dad Gene Hunt and uncle Lee Lopez were acknowledged as 50-year AQHA breeders. His grandpa Albert Lopez had some of the first AQHA-registered mares in the state, numbering in the hundreds. It’s in their blood.
“That doesn’t give us much choice. They really left us a trademark,” Jim said. On Joni’s side, her great-grandfather Tom Berry was a governor a South Dakota in the 1930s and was dubbed the Cowboy Governor. He, along with his two sons, raised horses for the Army and was one of the first to breed palominos in the state, Jim said.
“There’s longevity in our heritage. Both sides of the family had cattle operations too,” Jim said. “With the Berrys and Hunts and Lopezes, the children have a lot of heritage behind their names.”
Tom’s wife Sage also adds South Dakota heritage for the future Hunt children. “She comes from the Moreland family from Red Owl. They are a fifth, going on sixth, generation family. Sage’s mom Jodi is a Smeenk from the Newell area, a longtime ranch and rodeo family,” Jim said. “We’re not giving the next generation much of a chance. We’ve been so fortunate with those families we’re marrying into; they’re wonderful people.”
When Jim and Joni set out to start their family, they had six in mind, but seven happened.
“We have been accused of descending Abraham in the the Bible,” Jim said laughing. “We were just so fortunate to have six beautiful kids, then Jimmie Jean came along five years after our last son.”
The seven little Hunts were all homeschooled through eighth grade, then attended either Sunshine Bible Academy, for the first three, or Rapid City Christian, for the next four. They participated in 4-H, but their focus remained on the family business, horses and cattle.
“They were brought up around the branding fires and card tables, and everyone talked horse and talked about the great horse breeders in our state,” Jim said. “All that history and good horses and good people; I got to carry this on. This is what I want to do. My wife, other than our kids and our faith, she is just horse crazy. It’s one of those things we both thoroughly enjoy.”
Very well-known bloodlines in their stallions and their mares has been their mainstay. Jim and Joni are particular about their mares. ln 1994, the breeding program began with a son of Sugar Bars, Sonny Sugar, a 22-year-old 15.3 dun stallion.
“He was one of the most beautiful giants, just massive. When we had the chance to buy that horse, we knew it was an opportunity,” Jim said.
“We also bought Sonny Pep San, a four-year-old son of Sonny Sugar and a daughter of Mr San Peppy,” Joni said. “We also bought several old mares that had excellent bloodlines, raising a few foals to keep before retiring them. We kept a number of daughters of Sonny Sugar and Sonny Pep San, improving our breeding program as we went.”
Their next stallion was Two Timin Freckles, who has been in the family for many years; he has helped three Hunt kids find their way to National Finals High School Rodeo in cutting and was the South Dakota Cutting Horse of the Year several times.
Jim’s parents, Gene and Effie, had a production horse sale with Bob and Karen Meyer and Lee Lopez.
“We were kind of the last ones in. It was getting too big, so we started the Open Box Rafter Ranch sale in 1994,” Jim said.
The first sale was in Rapid City at the Central States Fairgrounds 25 years ago. Fifteen years ago, Frances Loiseau reached out to the Hunts and joined the sale. They have offered 100 to 120 head of saddle horses each year.
“Dad had bought a stallion, PC Sun Socks, out of one of Frances’ mares,” Jim said. “She called and asked if we would consider taking on some of her horses. She still had the mother to Bozo and Frenchmans Guy. She asked if she could put four, five, six head in our sale. Since then, her daughter Lis and her husband John Hollman have continued that relationship. They’re wonderful friends. They put 12 to 15 head of their horses in our sale.”
The production sale is a large part of Open Box Rafter Ranch, but the focus has expanded in the last decade. As a national director of AQHA representing South Dakota, Jim has been appointed to the ranching chair, hall of fame, and animal welfare committees, and more.
“I spend quite a little time in the air representing South Dakota and the ranch horse people in that venue,” he said. “I’ve worked into those capacities over the last several years. I don’t get to slow down and now I get to be a grandfather, so there gets to be more activity yet.”
Seven years ago, the Hunts started a program with AQHA called the Young Horse Development Program, in which Open Rafter Box Ranch donates six foals annually, and AQHA youth members may apply for the opportunity to win a colt, take it home, and raise and train it.
“We’ve invited other ranch breeders who feel led to get involved. This year, we had 50 foals donated from ranch breeders to Young Horse Development Program,” Jim said. “They get to name, register, feed, and break the colt. They have to keep records and check in on a monthly basis. They have to meet with an advanced trainer and get the opportunity to learn up-to-date training techniques. When the colt is three and four, they go on and compete with the colt. It’s not a freebie, they have to take care of colt; they have to prove they have the capabilities to care for colt and show a very sincere interest in wanting a horse.”
Ranch horse breeders are encouraged to donate from the top end of their crop, showcasing their own genetics. Jim said several of the participants are going on to be veterinarians or in a similar field, even if they didn’t grow up around horses. He even received a photo of one woman aboard her Young Horse Development Program horse on her wedding day.
It’s one of the most rewarding experiences Jim and Joni have had, and they are grateful to offer to other youth what they are able to provide for their children.
“We’re very fortunate to raise our family how I was raised and my wife was raised. We’re grateful to our ancestors and to go on with that way of life,” Jim said. “There are challenges every day; there always has been and always will be, but the horse and cow are the best school teachers in the world. We’re so blessed that our children have experienced that.”
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When Herb and Inez Stoddard settled near Norris, South Dakota over a century ago, they had no idea the fifth generation of Stoddards would be still be there, raising cattle, horses, and rodeoing.