Horses for everything: Frank Svalina recalls using equine partners for ranching, farming, rodeo, more
Frank Svalina, a lifetime Crook County, Wyoming cowboy and rancher, will be inducted to the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame for the year 2021.
“I never liked a lot of the work on a ranch that can’t be done on horseback, but if you were horseback, it made it all worthwhile,” Svalina says.
Pete Svalina, Frank’s father, homesteaded the 15 Ranch on Prairie Creek, roughly 10 miles northwest of Oshoto, in 1920. His future wife, Margaret Noonan, homesteaded the land next to it. “I think it was kind of planned that way,” Svalina smiles. Her original one-room home is restored and is given a place of pride on the current ranch.
At one time, Moorcroft was the largest cattle shipping and receiving hub in the United States. Moorcroft is where the Texas Trail crossed the Belle Fourche River, where Texas cattle were driven on to Miles City. As the crow flies, the family ranch was 25 miles from Moorcroft, Wyoming: a fact Svalina knew well as he trailed yearlings to the train depot there every fall, starting when he was seven. Now, all that remains of the depot is the railroad and the memories. “You’d get everything almost in the corral and one of those trains would come by and scatter everything,” he recalls.
After taking over his parents’ ranch around 1950, Frank worked to develop buildings and the land. He finished the existing skeleton of a barn by hauling rocks from the nearby hills and mixing the concrete by hand. Similarly, he built the house in which he raised his family. “When I heard Jackie was coming, I decided I’d better build one,” he said.
Nowadays, the 15 Ranch is owned by his daughter, Jackie, and her husband, Larry Dobrenz. The 15 cow and horse brand is still displayed at the entrance; a nod to a 100 year legacy. Dobrenzes current cow brand is Flying M, and they raise registered Angus bulls.
When Frank was a child, his father was raising Shorthorns. Pete added Hereford bulls, then slowly transferred to a Hereford herd. When Frank took the reins, he tried Gelbvieh bulls for a time. “I like those cattle but they got too big,” he said. Their need for feed in arid country with already-sparse grass led to his decision to go to an Angus herd.
Throughout his life, Frank honored the time-honored tradition of “neighboring” those around him. The term includes much more than simply bordering a fence with the next rancher: Svalina traded help with the Pickrels, the Burches, and others for decades, for nothing more than the promise of return help when the time came.
Svalina was a founding member of the Rocky Point Grazing Association, which still operates today. He, along with the Ryan, Nuckolls, Riesland, and Ballou families purchased prime land in northern Crook County for the purpose of shared grazing. He was a member for 36 years.
In a year much like 2021, the reservoirs and grass at the Association ran out. “There was one year when it got real dry and we had to move out of there. We took off looking for pasture. A lot of people said, ‘Oh, we’ve got pasture,’ but it wasn’t any better than what we moved out of. We ended up in Dubois before we found any. We stayed there for two years,” he says.
Driving back and forth to check cattle, Frank left a horse there for the owners to use. “The one fella wouldn’t even get on. The next time I was over there and saddled her up, and I couldn’t figure out why everyone was just sitting there watching me, waiting for me to get on that old mare. I just got on and said, ‘What are we waiting for?’” The yellow mare that had spooked other men was no problem for Frank. Such was his demeanor with all horses.
Horses were a necessary tool on the 15 Ranch, but they were also his friends to whom he devoted his life. “I used horses every day in rough country,” he said. From checking steep draws to gathering the ragged hills of his Spring Creek pasture, they were invaluable. “I kind of like those bigger horses. In my opinion, nowadays, they don’t have enough bone under them,” he said. Frank partnered with Max Burch on a Quarter Horse stallion and raised many horses of his own. Starting colts was a passion of his, and he often took on outside horses, even breaking a bucking horse to ride. His approach was slow, doing foundational groundwork before stepping on for the first time. “Some of them turn out and some don’t,” he said simply.
Svalina and his brother once gathered wild horses off of Flag Butte, wintered them at the ranch, then trailed them to town to sell in the spring. “We trailed them to Rozet and they hauled them down to Arkansas. That spring, there was a little black colt. I kept him and raised him and I had him all his life,” Svalina said. His daughter learned to ride on one of those wild horses.
Not only did Svalina work cattle horseback, he always had at least one team for farm work. When he was 14 years old, a reservoir on the ranch washed out. Frank rebuilt the dam using his four horse team and a Fresno scraper. “I wasn’t very heavy then,” he said, which would make the job of pushing the cutting edge into the ground, then lifting the load up, a challenge. The handling of a four-across as a teenager makes his horsemanship skills all the more impressive. Teams were used to build corrals, pull rocks from the basement of his house, and to plant alfalfa, grass, and oats for the family’s livestock. “We didn’t have a tractor until about 1948. We just used horses,” he said.
Frank also enjoyed competing in rodeos, preferring the team tying (the precursor to team roping) to any other event. “Before they started dallying, they’d get off and tie the two back feet. I enjoyed that more than the dallying,” he said. He and the neighbors pooled their steers and held competitions in Sundance. “When the professionals started coming in, it kind of died out. Now they do it for profit more than fun,” he says of the sport of rodeo.
Frank retired in 2012 and now resides in Hulett. He recently rebuilt a wagon that he purchased from the same landowner in Dubois, a reminder of the recreational wagon trains and everyday horse work that contributed to his life. Frank Svalina will be inducted to the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame at Little America in Cheyenne on September 11-12t. The WCHF’s goal is “to preserve, promote, perpetuate, publish and document Wyoming’s working cowboy and ranching history through researching, profiling and honoring individuals who broke the first trails and introduced that culture to this state.”
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