Still going strong: Lee Lopez raises horses for more than a half century
February 14, 2018
Lee Lopez, of Keldron, South Dakota, grew up in a time where the horse and rancher were still mutually exclusive—there were no four-wheeler, ATVs, or tractors—and he still has a deep appreciation for a fine ranch horse. Lee, an AQHA 50-year-legacy breeder, continued the foundation of quality Quarter Horses established by his dad Alberto Francisco Lopez.
Albert, as he was known by his family, moved from the Colorado/New Mexico border in 1923 to South Dakota to work as a wagon boss for the Diamond A. From there, Albert met his wife Lavisa, and had three children, including their only son Lee.
"Grandpa Albert began gathering wild horses and breaking them and training them, putting together a broodmare band," said Jim Hunt, Lee's nephew. "He hired the young man who lived across the river from the Diamond A, Casey Tibbs. He was 11- or 12-years-old, and he took him in as a partner. They kept the good ones and started a special horse sale in 1943."
The Meyer, Lopez, and Lauing sale is still in existence each fall, and Lee has had one to two horses in the sales the last few years.
“Grandpa Albert began gathering wild horses and breaking them and training them, putting together a broodmare band. He hired the young man who lived across the river from the Diamond A, Casey Tibbs. He was 11 or 12 years old, and he took him in as a partner. They kept the good ones and started a special horse sale in 1943.” Jim Hunt, Lee Lopez’s nephew
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"Every fall, we still have a horse sale, Lopez, Meyer, and Lauing. We sell in Faith," Lee said. "I told Karen Meyer, I ain't got many horses if you guys want to drop me. She said, 'We need you.' I'll hopefully have two colts in there this fall."
Lee has two mares and a stallion on his acreage in Isabel, South Dakota. His stallion, Frenchmans Joker, has Sunfrost on both the top and bottom and is out of a son of Frenchmans Guy.
While he appreciates Frances Loiseau's Caseys Ladylove prodigy, his favorite lineage within his own herd was Top Not by Bar Nothing Springer.
"They're the best line of horses we ever had. Them horses are nice-minded; anyone can get along with them," Lee said. "A few speed horses come out of them, bulldogging horses and roping horses; they won stuff for many years. They're not too hot or too nervous, easy to get along with."
A fine ranch horse, according to Lee, must first and foremost have a good mind, as he indicated with Top Not. From there, good feet are a necessity. "It's kind of nice to have a little withers, and I like horses that aren't looking for a place to booger. I like when they kind of watch a cow and have a good, easy-going disposition," he said. "We kind of hit the jackpot and never really realized it until it was a little too late. One stallion named Lopez Red 1, Milton Trask down in Wall owned him. When Milton was 80, he told me his county was mounted better than it's ever been because of that stud."
Albert established Lopez Quarter Horses when AQHA was just getting its start.
"When AQHA came into existence, the way you got horses registered was an inspector from the AQHA headquarters in Ft. Worth, Texas, came to look at your horses, and if they fit the bill, they let them be registered," Jim said.
When Lee was a teen, he partnered with his dad Albert until his father became too elderly to raise horses. Lee then partnered with his brother-in-law Gene Hunt.
"Me and my brother-in-law 'Geno' Hunt traded horses back and forth so much, AQHA thought they had a couple crooks," Lee said. "They came to mouth 60 horses. On one gelding, AQHA wrote me letting me know his mom had 19 colts in a row, and they thought his age didn't match. I wrote them back and let them know his age is right. I was there when he was born, but I didn't realize his mom had that many colts in a row, but she did."
The need for ranch horses was born of necessity; Lee didn't encounter a four-wheel-drive tractor until his son acquired one after Lee's retirement.
"Dad grew up basically moving around from one cow camp to the next cow camp, which is basically a bachelor pad out in the middle of nowhere where the cows are. You've got a couple horses and a little cabin out there just taking care of cows," Lee's son John said. "He didn't grow up around a lot of machinery. He'd been riding horseback; the art of basically working your cattle and all that was done horseback for years. I think it was always important to my dad to raise the kind of horse he'd like to ride, with good legs and good feet. At the height of his career, he had about 30 mares and 25 colts a year or something. They needed to make it out on open prairie with breaks, creeks and bogs; if they could make it through all that, they could come to town and be in the sale."
Lee married a woman with six young children and went on to have three children of his own with her: John, Ann, and Joe.
Lee shaped all of his adopted kids and his own kids into handy young horsemen and women. A favorite story of Lee's exhibits the quick thinking of kids and good manner of horses.
"The ranch I worked for when the kids were small was the Cottonwood Ranch, and we had land on the Grand River and also down at Geno Hunt's. My boss had sold Geno some land down there, and Geno ran some of his cattle. So anyway, we got done branding at the Grand River, and then we moved on to the Cheyenne," Lee said. "We took some saddle horses with us, a trailer load or two. We told the kids, you take the horses and go on home with them—which was about 15 miles to the north—and we'll gather up these portable corrals and camping gear, and we'll be along with the pickup to trail them home north horseback."
What Lee hadn't realized was the river that his two sons Ted and Luke Lopez and the neighbor Jerry Peterson, ranging in ages 8 to 10, needed to cross had swelled over the banks due to recent rainfall. He discovered that the kids had swapped their mounts for other horses that had been in the hay trap by the river.
"They penned them horses in this hay yard on the river and changed horses to get on their better swimming horses since some they were on wouldn't cross. So they penned them in this big hay yard, and then they went on toward home," Lee said. "I was just frantic because in the dark, them kids just disappeared. I had to run clear to Little Eagle to get home; I had to get across on the bridge. When I got home I opened the entry-way door, and there was three little pairs of boots by the door."
Another of the six whom Lee adopted, Matt Lopez went on in the equine industry, further adding to the Lopez name. He is currently a cutting horse trainer and lives on the homeplace where he grew up, raising cattle, horses, and kids of his own.
"When I adopted those kids, the oldest was 8 and the youngest, Matt, was 3," Lee said. "When Matt was older, I worried about him getting into beer, and I wanted to get Matt a good job. He got in trouble the first couple weekends he lived in town, so I sent him to Sunshine Bible Academy in Miller. He throwed in with a Christian man; it was the best thing that ever happened."
From there, a friend of a friend, Lee Simpson, in eastern South Dakota took Matt in riding 30 horses that were slated to go to Howard Pitzer's sale in Nebraska.
"Well, he and Lee went riding one day, and Lee never came back. Matt got the neighbors and Lee's wife out looking for him, but he didn't turn up," Lee said. "There was a dam in the middle of the pasture and the fire department combed the bottom and found old Lee Simpson. There was a trail that led underneath a bank. He and the horse got into a fight; they hadn't been getting along. The wife said she wanted that horse to go to kill. Matt told me, 'I just shod that horse last week, do you think she'd mind if I took my shoes back?' I said I didn't think she'd mind if he took the whole foot!"
Lee had promised Matt a good job, and when his job with Simpson expired when his life did, Lee pressed on finding another opportunity for Matt. He wrote a letter to King Ranch, since his call wouldn't be sent through. One thing led to another and Buster Welch called Lee saying that if Matt was as good of a hand as Lee said he was, he'd take him. Matt worked for Welch directly for several years, before interviewing in Las Vegas with Wes Adams. He has since created a shining career for himself built on the faith of his adopted dad Lee.
Matt was at his dad's AQHA 50-year Legacy Breeder celebration, along with John, Joe, Ann, and Ann's husband Bryce Roghair, Jan. 5 and 6, at the South Dakota Quarter Horse Association Celebrating Legacies Banquet. Lee plans to continue breeding as long as he's able to halter break his colts. Lee lives with his son John, a well-known South Dakotan artist and sculptor whose work often features home-raised horses.