Working with horses is time best spent
WAGNER, SD – Every summer morning, when Sara Uherka makes her way to the barn and swings up into the saddle around 6 a.m. to begin working Quarter Horses, she takes three generations of passion for horses and hands-on training skill with her. Her parents, Dan and Jeanne, say all four of their children have ridden horses from the time they could walk.
“Sara still comes back during summers to help on the farm,” Jeanne says. “The other kids come home as often as they can.”
Like her brother Nick and sisters Jennifer and Wendy, there’s nothing Sara would rather do than work with and raise Quarter Horses.
“Mom grew up with some horses on her ranch south of Wagner,” Sara says. “When she married dad and they moved to this farm, she sold their polled Herefords and started raising Quarter Horses.”
Jeanne sat on her first horse when she was two weeks old. Her mother taught her how to work with and train horses and Jeanne knew she wanted to pass those skills on to her own children.
“I did some barrel racing and pole bending after I was married,” Jeanne says. “I went to rodeos, watched other racers, and learned it all from scratch. Since I didn’t have anyone to mentor me, I just made up my mind I was going to put in hours of practice, and make the best of what I had to ride.”
Jeanne wanted her children to have a good grasp of the skills necessary to develop a working horse that could compete in rodeo events. Every summer she did all she could to increase their experience.
“Our first 4-H show was in Platte,” Jeanne says. “I wasn’t even sure how to get there, but the kids assured me they knew the way from field trips they had taken in school. We found our way, and after that we traveled all around the country to 4-H, high school, college, and amateur rodeos. One summer all four of us kids were home working horses and we worked with more than 30 two-year-olds. It was really fun.”
Throughout the summer days, Sara works with several different horses. Through it all, she uses the depth of the personal knowledge she has gained over the past 27 years and draws on experiences and skills her mother and grandmother developed as they bred, raised and trained their own Quarter horses.
“You have to have a lot of patience,” Sara says. “When you ride several horses every day, you have to forget about the one you just finished and work with the one you’re riding now. They’re all different.”
Sara’s summer routine begins in the early morning when temperatures are cooler. Each day she rotates the work of riding seasoned horses first and then working with colts. As the day heats up, she takes a break and then returns to ride or work the ones that didn’t go out in the morning.
“Sometimes in the afternoon I’ll work with the yearlings,” Sara says. “I do most of our farrier work, except shoeing. Most of my performance horses are shoed year round. When they’re competing it gives them more traction. It also protects those with tender soles and keeps their hooves in better condition. We had one horse who worked better when he was barefoot; again, every horse is different.”
Both Jeanne and Sara say a horse’s disposition is the most important characteristic in their breeding program. Horses that compete in rodeo events have to be willing to learn and have a mind good enough to handle the pressure.
“A horse with a good mind can be trained for almost any kind of event you want,” Sara says. “Some horses are slow learners; you have to have patience to work with them. Both learning ability and conformation are important in performance horses. Barrel racers often look for horses with proven bloodlines, a good mind, and a flawless conformation. However, no particular body type guarantees success in barrel racing. I have found my tall, leggy horses with a long stride often run larger patterns better. My shorter, more compact horses are able to gather themselves quickly, get off a barrel quickly, and do very well on small patterns or indoors. Again, every horse is different and what works for one, may not work for the other.”
The cost of horses bred for barrel racing prevented Sara and her sisters Jennifer and Wendy from seriously competing in that rodeo event when they were younger. However, the skills they needed to do well in the goat-tying competition were something they were responsible for developing within themselves.
“My sister Jennifer won the college regional goat-tying championship in 2002 and I won it in 2003,” Sara says. “We raised and trained our own horses and we practiced every day in order to make it to the finals in 4-H, high-school, college, and amateur rodeos. It didn’t take a lot of money and we didn’t need a high-dollar horse to compete in the goat tying. With a lot of dedication and practice we were able to take home lots of money, buckles, trophies, and some saddles.”
Sara’s advice to would-be goat-tying champions is “practice, practice, practice. It takes dedication to be a champion. A good horse will be honest every run you make, putting you in great dismount position every time. The rest is up to you. Wherever your eyes look, that’s where you’re body is going to go.”
Looking at the ground while you’re chasing the got almost guarantees you’ll end up with your face in the dirt.
“I have landed on my head a few times,” Sara says. “It just makes me practice harder. I really enjoy getting off the horse on a dead run, that’s exciting. The best horse I’ve ever ridden in competition was my old mare, Muffin. She is one-quarter Appaloosa and three-quarters Quarter Horse. Muffin is retired now as a baby sitter for our yearlings. She was very honest and never cut me off or cheated me on a run. I won two saddles on her and a lot of money and buckles.”
It has taken Jeanne several years of buying the “right” horses to get the bloodlines she wanted.
“Now, we hardly ever buy a horse, unless it’s a new mare or stallion.” Jeanne says. Some of her favorite mare’s bloodlines are Wimpy, Driftwood, Dandy Seeker, and Sonny D Bar. Her buckskin stud “Chex Two Bucks” has Tuf N Busy, Colonel Freckles, Two Eyed Red Buck, and Watch Joe Jack on his papers.
“This stallion is one of the best producers we’ve had,” Jeanne says. “His colts are colorful, athletic, well built, and have excellent disposition and brains. While color is important, good dispositions, intelligence, athletic ability, and willingness to work are critical. If they don’t have those qualities, they don’t stay here. We sell a lot of horses privately and when customers keep coming back, you know you’ve done something right.”
Uherka’s have sold horses to people in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Iowa.
“I’m sure we have horses all over, but it’s hard to keep track,” Sara says.
“One of the best things about raising and training horses is when someone tells you they saw one of your horses compete in and win an event,” Jeanne says. “Most of the time you don’t know which horse it was, but you have the satisfaction of knowing we raised and often trained the horse they’re winning on. Sara and I love working with the horses we’ve raised and spending our days in the barn. We wouldn’t spend our time doing anything else.”
more information about the uherkas and their quarter horses can be found at http://www.uherkaquarterhorses.org.