“Eight head of horses are shod and ready to go. It takes a lot of horses as many cattle as we look after. Sure can’t be without a horse if one, or a couple, gets crippled up, and it can happen.”
Obviously, that’s a cowboy talking.
“I’ve had some really good horses, and have several good ones now. When you make your living handling cattle, you want to be mounted. There’s too much to think about, and you sure don’t want to have to worry about your horse,” contended Les McGee at Greeley.
“There are always cattle on pastures somewhere, we utilize stalks and feed residues, and, of course, cattle are in the lots. I’m in the saddle most of the day, and then like to go to a team roping in the evenings and on weekends. I use the same horses, but it takes several,” McGhee continued.
That’s the way it’s always been for the Anderson County rancher who grew up nearby. “We lived at Colony where I went to school, but the mail was out of Neosho Falls, along with the phone when we did finally get one.
“LeRoy was close, too You never knew where we’d be. We rode our horses everywhere; one town one day, another the next, maybe all three in the same day,” McGhee reflected.
Growing up on a diversified farm, the McGee family “milked cows, had stock cows, did a little of everything, like all famers in those days,” he insisted.
“I can farm, know how to run the machinery, have done it all, and still do. But, I never had a line of equipment of my own, and didn’t really like to do that work. I’ve always been a cowboy,” McGhee defined.
Fortunately, his dad and grandpa had horses for cattle use, so McGhee and his brother, Kendall, had horses to ride.
“That spotted mare called Cricket was the family horse. We all rode her, but she’s the one I guess I learned to ride on. That ole mare was always running off trying to do what she wanted to, but I’d get her straightened out,” McGhee assured.
A 4-H club member growing up, McGhee showed at the county fair, competed in local “shodeos,” and always wanted to have a rope in hand to snag whatever got in the way, maybe even the milk cows, “if Dad wasn’t looking.”
“I got to roping calves, always liked that. I never was real good, but I competed at local events, then got to going to rodeos around, and won some. Later on, I got into team roping, and like that a lot, too,” McGhee said.
Married to Carol right after graduating from high school in 1971, McGhee went to work for an outfit as a cowboy, initially, near Copan, Oklahoma.
“I was just a kid, but I learned a lot during the time I worked there. Did farm work besides look after cattle, but got to rope a lot; that’s roping country. Yet, that time down there was when I really learned how to do lots of the things that have come in handy ever since, still do,” he credited.
“Another thing about that stint there in Oklahoma was the ‘pigeon-toed’ gray gelding I had called, of course, Gray. He was sure a good horse, could ride him all day doctoring and rope all night.
“I had another sorrel horse, then too, that had the fastest running walk of any horse I ever rode. He was called Peaceful, nothing ever bothered him,” McGhee said.
Back to Kansas, McGhee had a short stint for a cattle-farm operation at Netawaka, and then returned to work in a partnership with Joe Donohue at Greeley. “It was a great partnership for 34 years. We handled thousands and thousands of cattle,” McGhee said.
But, there was considerably more than making a living as a cowboy for McGhee. “I competed in the United Rodeo Association, roped calves, team roped, did some winning. Then, I started putting on jackpot team roping competitions, had 15 to 18 a year, some big ones; Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day. I did that for 22 years.
“I really enjoyed sponsoring those roping competitions at the Donohue Ranch headquarters. I made so many friends. Ropers would look forward to coming to our place. We had 780 teams entered one time, that was the biggest,” calculated McGhee, who competed at his own events, and other jackpots throughout the Midwest.
While he’s capable at both ends of a team roping steer, McGhee is noted as heeler. “There are some good headers, and they can sure make a heeler look good, too. I’ve had lots of good headers.
“Together we’ve won quite a bit over the years,” said McGhee, counting his trophy buckles, and pointing out the saddle won at a major competition in Iowa.
Although he hasn’t put on jackpots recently, and doesn’t go to nearly as many as a decade and two ago, McGhee entered three team roping competitions this past year.
“They’ve been memorial jackpots for cowboys that I’ve known over the years, and I feel it’s important to enter the benefits in respect of their memory,” he said. “And, I placed in two them; that made me feel good, too, being 60 years old.”
When he heard about one of the first ranch rodeos being organized more than 25 years ago, McGhee put together a team, competed successfully, and has had his teams, with varying members, as a serious threat to all comers at ranch rodeos throughout the Midwest and on the national level ever since.
“Our team has been to the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Finals in Amarillo four teams. We won the cow milking one time, but never did win the whole rodeo,” McGhee said.
However, the norm was more often in the winner’s circle. “Some years, we were at a ranch rodeo nearly every weekend. One year, we won 12 out of the 15 ranch rodeos we entered; that was 1995. We’ve had some good runs, but there’ve been plenty of times we’d leave with our tail between our legs,” McGhee admitted.
Likewise, McGhee sponsored a number of ranch rodeos throughout the years. “We had a ranch rodeo at Garnett for 12 years, and I contracted livestock for other ranch rodeos and jackpots around the country,” he said.
“We furnished livestock for the American Royal ranch rodeo several years, and competed in it as well. We never did win that one, either, but have lots of fond memories of it, and of all the other cowboys and their teams.”
McGhee leased steers for the All-American Cattle Drive to Montana in 1995. “That’s a deal I probably shouldn’t have gotten into. It’s a long story, and the ranch rodeos as part of it were a lot of fun.
“The main thing I finally got my money out of those cattle, but it took an awful long time,” grinned McGhee, remembering the involved negotiations, not so pleasant when happening.
Of all the horses he’s ridden, one raised by McGhee’s family still stands out from all of the others.
“Mr. Que, a grandson of King, was an orphan that Dad and us kids raised on the bottle. We broke him at three, and doctored thousands, tens of thousands of cattle on him. He’d pull anything, was really a nice head horse, but also a family horse. Dad rode Mr. Que, my brother and I rode him, my nephew learned to rope on him.
“That black gelding was so ornery. We couldn’t keep him in a pen unless it was wired shut. Otherwise, that horse would let himself out, go eat grain out of the bin, and let himself back in the pen. Mr. Que wasn’t the fastest, but he’d get to one quick enough, and had so much personality.”
Father of two grown children, a son and daughter, along with having eight grandchildren, McGhee lost his first wife to illness. “I couldn’t stay in our home due to the memories, so I moved to this place, and later married Linda. She does all of the book keeping. That’s about a full time job, even though Linda is also employed at the bank,” McGhee said.
His children rode horses extensively when young, but are not involved today. “They helped do everything, but I guess I worked them too hard. Some of the grandchildren like to ride, but I don’t know how far that’s going to go either,” McGhee said.
Only entering one ranch rodeo last year, the McGhee Ranch with McGhee as captain along with Maurice Ball, Keith Morrell and Travis Kopf won the Morris County Invitational Fall Ranch Rodeo at Council Grove.
“We won the steer branding, were second in both the team penning and team roping, and ninth in double mugging out of 16 teams. It was one of those good days,” McGhee analyzed.
Dissolving his longtime partnership with Joe Donohue five years ago, McGhee acquired ownership of his diverse ranch operations where he was headquartered until dispersing that real estate recently.
“I’d like to buy another ranch, maybe over around Welda, continue grazing cattle, have a cowherd, do some more roping, maybe even go to several ranch rodeos again,” McGhee forecasted.
Having been involved in cattle at all levels of value, overhead and risk, McGhee said, “I’ve made money on cattle with the highest interest rates, and considerably lower values. But, I had time on my side then.
“Now, cattle are so high, but so are all of the inputs. Even with interest rates low, if they’d move up just a few points, there are people who would be in trouble. It’s a different time than I’ve ever seen.”
There’s no shortage of horse flesh around the McGhee Ranch, and those cowboy-mounts have considerable value dollar-wise and beyond.
McGhee, who has raised foals out of broodmares sometimes in the past, commented, “The overall horse market is low, because of a variety of outside influences. But, well broke using horse still bring a good ticket, and I think they always will.”
Having viewed considerable changes in rodeos and every type of horse competition, McGhee, likewise, is optimistic for their continuation and possible growth.
“It costs so much to go down the road. Horses are often the least expense these days, but cost of trucks, trailers, taxes, upkeep and the fuel make it hard for the average person to compete,” McGhee evaluated. “It’s all in the priorities, and those who get it in their blood, they’ll find the way.
“In my lifetime as a cowboy I’ve had the opportunity to work with some very good hands, and I really do appreciate that,” McGhee emphasized.
“I’ll be riding my horse for my living and my entertainment as long as I’m able,” cowboy Les McGhee summarized.