Legacy of a lifetime
June 29, 2013
By 1958, The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was a fledgling organization, not yet in its 20th year. Horses that today we consider legends in the breed were household names: Three Bars, Leo, King, Wimpy, Buck Hancock. Their get and grandget were racing, cutting, ranching, setting records, and forming the foundation of the breed.
In 1958, one of those legendary sires died. That horse was the great King P-234. Considered by many the archetypical Quarter Horse, King had and still has significant influence on the industry. Owned for most of his life by Jess Hankins, King made a name for Hankins and his brothers by the colts he produced. King's offspring were stamped with his mark: type, conformation, athletic ability, cow sense, and golden dispositions. King P-234's last colt crop was born the same year he died.
Bernie Janssen grew up in Minnesota during the same years that King's colts were making a profound impression on the horsemen in the new American Quarter Horse Association.
"I was always the 'little guy,'" he said.
Sometimes being a smaller kid had its perks! When Bernie was in his teens, neighbor Kenneth Uden put him on a mare that he hauled around the area to match races. Shady Lady was black, and she was fast. Bernie loved it. Ken Uden introduced Bernie to registered Quarter Horses, and to King P-234 bred Quarter Horses, and it was a love that would last for a lifetime. He then decided to start raising horses. He had spent two years in college, intending to become a pastor, but after two years of studying, his love for horses won out. This love blossomed brought forth another love relationship between Bernie and Ken Uden's niece Sherry. Bernie and Sherry married in 1961, shortly before Bernie left to serve in the U.S. Military.
Bernie purchased his first two registered mares at R. L. Underwood's dispersal sale in 1958. Underwood, president of the AQHA from 1944-46, was well known by the breeders of his for his bands of quality Quarter Horse mares, considered by some to be the most uniform in his day. While other breeders raised horses to supply their ranch remudas, Underwood bred horses because they were his passion which is why Bernie chose his first two mares from Underwood's band. Little Chick and Calf Roper were both daughters of Underwood's famed Golden Chief.
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Bernie bred these two mares to a King P-234 grandson, King Jacket. Standing in Mountain Lake, Minn., the palomino horse sired by L H Chock was also a grandson of Blackburn on his dam's side. He had been shown in AQHA halter and performance classes, and won some money in National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) competitions. He also won the Grand Champion title cutting at the Minnesota State Fair. Those first breedings to King Jacket both resulted in fillies. Bernie kept just one – a cute palomino out of Calf Roper that he named Ropette. While Bernie was stationed in France with the army, Ropette foaled a filly out of a King son named Dooley Slo Poke. He named her Kings Slo Jewel and trained her to cut on the neighbor's cows as well as his own Holsteins.
He went on to take second place at a cutting in Walnut Grove, Minn., with Kings Slo Jewel, in 1965. Later Bernie showed her at a cutting in Harlan, Iowa, and the duo beat War Bond Leo, owned and ridden by Dave Martin. At that time, War Bond Leo was ranked as the number one cutting horse in the nation. Martin was so impressed that he offered Bernie a breeding to War Bond Leo for the catty mare.
The years went by and Bernie added to his herd. He started breeding Leo horses as well, but the King horses were always his favorites. When the Hankins brothers had their dispersal sale, Bernie hooked up a two horse trailer and drove to San Antonio, Texas.
He also added to his herd from the program of Keith Overstreet, a man from Leon, Iowa, who concentrated the blood of King P-234 son Easter King in his herd.
Some of the best King mares Bernie ever bought came from the Creek Plantation in Georgia, owned by W. S. Morris, III. Claudia Miss and Top Joker Miss produced some fine offspring, including Kings Black Widow, the mare Bernie considers the best horse he ever owned.
Encouragement that he was on the right track with his breeding program came from acquaintance and mentor Bob Denhardt. Who provided Bernie with a wealth of knowledge about the many lines within this breed, and through several conversations, along with Denhardt's published books, Bernie gleaned much.
His greatest encouragement though the years, however, came from his wife Sherry. Though not as "horse crazy" as Bernie, she was always there for him.
"I know you can do it," Sherry told him, time and again, when things looked tough.
Bernie's friend Dave Bishop, who lived near Rochester, owned a pretty black mare named Miss Poco Marybee that he hauled to Georgia, along with another mare, to breed to Continental King. Bernie happened to see Dave at a cutting, and Dave mentioned that he had two stud colts in the pasture sired by Continental King.
"What are you going to do with 'em?" Bernie asked.
"Well, I'm going to sell them," was Dave's reply. Bernie wanted to go take a look, but Dave was going to be out of town for a while.
Bernie laughed, remembering, "I about went cuckoo, having to wait two weeks to go look at them!"
When things finally worked out, Bernie went over to take his pick. Both had so much potential. He couldn't afford to buy them both. After agonizing over the decision, he picked the colt he named Kings Poco Discount. The little fellow was a son of Continental King, out of a daughter of Poco Discount.
Kings Poco Discount, trained and shown by Bernie Janssen, won the reining at the Utah State Fair. His offspring also proved themselves in the show pen: Kings Black Widow and another daughter both won the Upper Midwest Cutting Futurity.
In order to add some new blood to cross on his Kings Poco Discount daughters he decided to breed to a double-bred King P-234 stud named March King Breeze, located in Canada. He hauled two mares north, and after making several trips back and forth across the border, ended up with two fillies. Though pleased with both, he still needed a stud prospect.
Hauling the mares across the border had been so inconvenient that Bernie asked March King Breeze's owner to ship him some semen. This was in the early days of artificially inseminating mares, and the technique was not yet perfected. But it was worth a try. The vet synchronized his mare, Kings Miss Purity. She cycled, the semen arrived, and it was no good. There was little chance of getting the mare bred with it, but the vet said they'd try it since they had the mare ready.
Somehow she conceived, and King Brown Legacy was born. Bernie had the perfect outcross for his Kings Poco Discount mares.
After Bernie rode Kings Black Widow to win the Upper Midwest Cutting Futurity in 1993, he had high hopes for other horses to show, but sometimes the best laid plans fall apart.
A young daughter of Kings Poco Discount and Town Joker Miss he was preparing to show died suddenly, for no apparent reason. Then Kings Poco Discount died prematurely. Bernie had intended to show Kings Poco Discount's fancy grullo son, Kings Poco Breeze, but when his sire died, he was turned out with mares instead of hauled to shows.
A few years later, Bernie was devastated again, when the handsome grullo horse somehow broke a leg and had to be put down. By that time, Bernie was starting to feel his age. "We all get old," he said.
When the horse market crashed in 2006, the economy headed south, and Bernie's mares stood in the pasture without breeding for three years.
In 2009, Bernie split the mares up, and turned two studs out: King Brown Legacy, and his young grullo maternal brother, Kings Pure Breeze. There would be another crop of King colts, but Bernie was looking for someone else to carry on the program. Several people expressed an interest, but each, for one reason or another, failed to make a deal.
The one bright spot on the horizon was Kings Breeze, a 2004 bay colt by King Brown Legacy and out of Bernie's cutting mare, Kings Black Widow. Bernie had had James Pease, a young man from the neighboring town, start some horses for him over the years, and Bernie gave Breeze to James to start riding. James and Breeze hit it off.
"I don't know if the man made the horse, or if the horse made the man," Bernie says proudly. "It's probably some of both."
James showed Breeze in reining classes in 2009, and the colt was stellar. He didn't always win, but always did well. By the end of the year, he had earned his AQHA Performance Register of Merit, and he finished the year as the AQHA Region 2 Junior Reining Champion. And in 2011, James and Breeze again took top honors in the AQHA Region Two/SDQHA show when Kings Breeze won the Senior Reining Championship title.
Something still needed to be done with the mares at home in Minnesota, however. Over the years, Bernie had gotten many lucrative offers from people wanting to buy his horses that he turned down. He could have sold them now, but when the time came for someone else to carry on the breeding program, money wasn't the issue. The horses were the priority.
There are lots of other horses in the world, and even other King horses in the world, but in Bernie's experience there were none that compared to this group of horses. Over the years Bernie had owned and ridden many horses, other King P-234 bred horses, and other horses of the popular AQHA bloodlines of the day. Most were good, some were better, but none could quite compare with the King lines he had used in the nucleus of his program. Over time, he had weeded the others all out. There was just something special about this little group of King mares. He wanted them to stay together.
So it came to be that the King mares came to South Dakota. In January of 2010, Bernie got a phone call from a lady looking for a King bred filly to start riding.
"You wouldn't happen to want some broodmares, would you?" he asked.
After a few phone conversations, Bernie was convinced that this was the right place for the horses. In April, when the snow finally subsided enough to get trailers into the place, the King mares were hauled to Perkins County, S.D., and turned out in the pasture to foal.
Today Bernie's legacy is carried on at Badger Hole Ranch. Mares and stallions that still have King P-234 on their papers graze on the prairie, and another batch of athletic, good-minded, King bred colts are growing up. Bernie is confident that they have found the right home.
"The good Lord knew what He was doing," Bernie told Sherry.