‘Our greatest blessing:’ Kids and horses | TSLN.com

‘Our greatest blessing:’ Kids and horses

By Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News
Vern rides VLW Imadakotan “Kola”, his ranch rodeo and bulldogging mare that has won several top hand and top horse awards. Kola is now a broodmare. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo

Versatile horses are part of VLW Ranch’s program  

It was an anniversary gift to each other that began Vern and Laurie Ward’s dream. 

In 1994, on their first anniversary, the couple bought a filly, and later a stallion, that would be the start of the VLW Ranch near Fruitdale, S.D., raising quarter horses. 

This year, they are inductees into the South Dakota Quarter Horse Association in the category of Ranching Legacy. 

The Ward family in 2014, with daughters KeAnna and VLW Goldseal; Sierra and VLW Gallostarlite, Mataya (on the swing), Fehrin and VLW Charity, Vern, and Laurie. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo

That first filly was LJSR Pebbles, “Pebbles,” and she was the start of their broodmare herd. She was purchased from longtime family friends Russ and Fran Silha, with the Lazy JS Ranch, and she was “hard to beat as far as cow” traits, Vern said. “A cow had to literally crawl in a hole to get away from her.”  

A few years later, they purchased their first stallion.  

Ima Double Tough Too “Deuce,” a Texas buy, was one of the last studs to have King P234 on his AQHA papers. He was a dream horse, Vern said. “A cow couldn’t get away from him. I could pick up broncs or haze steers, it didn’t matter what we were after, he could do it.”  

Deuce had other traits that the Wards sought in their stud, including good behavior around mares. “You want a stallion that will act like a gelding,” Vern said. “Deuce was a good first stallion because he came with every trait we were after in a stud: disposition, conformation and versatility.”  

Sierra on Ima Double Tough Too “Deuce,” in 2006. The stallion was a huge part of the Ward’s breeding program. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo

Prior to their purchase of Deuce, Vern’s great-uncle and aunt helped out the couple.  

Art and Rita McDonald, of Bar M Quarter Horses in Lame Deer, Montana, found out their nephew was putting together a broodmare band. They gave the Wards a stud and mares to run on pasture for them, because they were short on grass. The deal was, they got to keep every filly and the stud colts went back to Montana. The McDonalds had a Sugar Bars grandson and mares that went back to Sugar Bars, which was a good fit for Deuce, Vern said.  

The foals by Deuce and out of the Bar M fillies “were wonderful,” Vern said. Those fillies became the backbone of the broodmare band.  

The second stud the Wards got had an interesting back story. 

Smart Little Steps “Johnson”, a son of Smart Chic Olena, was purchased from New York, and was third in line for reining for the U.S. team at the Olympics; only two horses qualify.  

He was eleven when the Wards purchased him in 2006, was supposedly hurt and couldn’t compete, and had never bred a mare. “Once we kicked him out (to pasture) and let him exercise, he was sound,” Laurie said. The girls reined on him at AQHA shows. Like Deuce, he was a gentleman.  

The third stud the Wards had was Brudders Last Dance “BJ,” purchased at the Sugar Bars Legacy Horse Sale in Sheridan, Wyo., which they help with and take horses to sell. “We were selling,” Vern said, “with no intention of buying.” Laurie came to him and said, “Vernon, you have to see this colt,” “and the rest is history,” he laughed. 

Russ Silha was adamant about riding his mares before they became broodmares. He believed that the time spent learning that mare and her attitude was worth making sure she was a quality choice for the broodmare pen. 

Vern and Laurie took that same stance with their mares, and they, plus their daughters, made sure the mares had plenty of real-life experience.  

Because they bred for versatility, the Wards’ four daughters could use VLW horses for everything they did. 

The girls: Fehrin (Tanner) Brindley, KeAnna (Keith) Hodson, Sierra and Mataya, competed in high school rodeo, horse shows, jumping, and rode the horses for ranch work, brandings, and for fun.

Sierra qualified for the National High School Finals on Si Haidas Lil Star “Heidi” in the reined cow horse. The mare is a future broodmare. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo
Mataya breakaway ropes on VLW DixieChic “Dixie,” her primary breakaway and ribbon roping horse. She qualified for the 2022 National High School Finals on Dixie who is a future broodmare.  
KeAnna rides VLW Goldseal “Grace” in the goat tying at the 2018 College National Finals. Grace is a broodmare now. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo
Fehrin on VLW Im Double Classy “Spirit”, KeAnna on VLW Goldseal “Grace,” and Sierra on Montanas Whispy Lynx “Whispy” competing at the 2010 S.D. State 4-H championships. Larry Larson | Courtesy photo
Fehrin on VLW Im Double Classy “Spirit” in the jumping on the cross country course in Gillette. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo

“That’s why we bred them that way,” Laurie said, “because that’s what our kids wanted. They’d enter a horse show then the next weekend, go to a jumping, then a rodeo, and a branding, and the next weekend, want to ride them bareback with their friends.  

Tragedy struck three times when each of the studs passed away; Johnson in 2009, Deuce in 2011 and BJ in 2013.  

The Wards considered discontinuing their breeding program.  

“We thought about being done,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking.” Uncle Art gave them a sense of perspective. “Art looked at us and said, “if it doesn’t hurt, you shouldn’t have owned them.”  

They purchased another stud, Keepin The Fire Hot “Ombre,” in 2015 as a yearling from Chuck and Mary Crago and Crago Performance Horses. Ombre, like his predecessors, is a well-behaved stud.  

The Wards have a second stallion, VLW Guysgoldenrule, “Prince,” who is a four-year-old. His dam is out of the Johnson stud and his sire is Smooth Guy.  

For years, the Wards, like the Silhas, rode their mares before determining if they went into the broodmare band. But when Vern suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017, the colt riding and training program went to their daughter and son-in-law KeAnna and Keith Hodson, who ranch near Martin, S.D.  

“We breed, wean, and halter break the colts,” Laurie said, “and either sell them as weanlings or KeAnna and Keith take them to use on the ranch.” Youngest daughter Mataya, a high school rodeo contestant, still trains a couple at home each year, as does her dad. “Vern still trains a young horse each year, but doesn’t put the first thirty days on them,” she said. “We used to keep four or five horses a year to train, and now it’s one or two.”  

The Wards are as renowned for their mares as the studs. “People will name a mare and say, ‘what do you have out of her?’” Laurie said. “They know our mares because they’ve seen us or the kids on them. The mares are well-known.”  

They take great pride in the horses with the VLW brand.  

“It’s nice that what you are trying to raise is actually doing what you wanted it to do,” Laurie said. They love seeing a horse and its new owner work together. “You can make a horse do anything, but when they love it, and the person loves them, it’s fun to watch them as a team.  

“It’s rewarding. We’ve had a blessed life raising kids and horses. They’ve been our greatest blessings.”  

Sierra on VLW Gallostarlite “Starlite,” the horse she high school rodeoed on for the roping, barrels, goat tying and reined cow horse. Now Starlite is Mataya’s high school rodeo horse. Jodie Baxendale | Courtesy photo
Sierra breakaway ropes on VLW Im Double Classy “Spirit” at the 2016 S.D. state high school finals. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo
Vern rides VLW Imadakotan “Kola”, his ranch rodeo and bulldogging mare that has won several top hand and top horse awards. Kola is now a broodmare. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo
Vern does ranch work on Keepin The Fire Hot “Ombre,” one of the Ward’s latest studs. Courtesy photo
The Ward family in an old-time picture taken in 2021, with sons-in-law and two of the three grandbabies. courtesy photo
The Ward family in 2014, with daughters KeAnna and VLW Goldseal; Sierra and VLW Gallostarlite, Mataya (on the swing), Fehrin and VLW Charity, Vern, and Laurie. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo
Mataya rides VLW Ranch’s stallion, Ombre, as they gather cattle in the hills. Laurie Ward | Courtesy photo