More than half of the working day in the saddle checking and doctoring cattle makes top cow horses and their cowboy riders alike.
“I’m on horseback tending cattle everyday about five or six hours,” said cowboy Justin Keith at Allen, Kansas.
“I usually have three head of horses caught up and use them in rotation. Ride one horse, and then switch horses the next day. If a horse goes lame, or something, I’ve always got a spare,” continued the Lyon County rancher, noting that sometimes he’ll change horses at noon if there’s lots of work remaining after a tough morning.
It’s that experience for horse and rider that made Keith two times a champion in the recent ranch horse competition featured during the Flint Hills Beef Fest at Emporia.
Topping a dozen entries in the junior division was especially pleasing for the cowboy. “I rode Chief, my five-year-old blue roan Quarter Horse gelding; I have raised and completely trained myself. That makes winning more special then riding an old seasoned horse that’s been around lots of places, or ridden by several different cowboys,” Keith insisted.
Ranch horse competitions are based on work done by cowboys in their everyday profession. It’s not a set “dry work pattern,” but contestants are expected to display their horse’s ability cantering circles, doing rollbacks, pivots, sliding stop, backing and spinning. “Every part is really essential to prove a horse’s athletic ability to get cattle work done right here on the ranch,” Keith admitted.
Yet, the ultimate test for horse and cowboy comes when the gate opens and a renegade steer is turned into the arena. “The ‘cow,’ as we often refer to the cattle being worked, first has to be ‘boxed’ at one end of the arena to prove horse and rider control,” Keith explained. “The ‘cow’ is run down the fence, turned both directions, and then I have to rope, stop and hold it.”
This is a judged competition with the best combined performance scores taking the prize. “It definitely requires a good horse, and Chief is Paddy’s Irish Whiskey-Driftwood bred to be athletic and sure has natural cattle working ability,” Keith credited.
However, training and experience, just like with any sports star, are essential to excelling. “I started Chief at two, and have ridden him three years doing everything that can be done with a horse and cattle,” verified Keith, admitting that many horses with that much work still don’t perform with such perfection.
“Chief is a smart athlete with lots of cow sense. I’ll credit that, even if he’s mine, and I’ve done all the riding on him,” the cowboy added.
It’s a complete misnomer to give entire credit of accomplishment to the Quarter Horse. Keith is a lifelong cowboy, growing up horseback doing everything imaginable in competition arenas and most importantly in Flint Hills pastures.
Keith has horse sense, cow sense, natural ability working with livestock, perfection only possible from first hand experiences doing it every day, rain, snow, 110-degrees under the scorching sun in a dry, dusty dirty feedlot, or the roughest, most-hazardous pasture terrain.
“I’m involved with my dad Brian Keith in Keith Cattle Company,” Keith said. “The operation includes a 3,000-head starter lot, about 3,000 cattle grazing native pastures, and 250 momma cows.”
Obviously, there’s plenty of cattle work for a cowboy and his horses. “I and another cowboy ride the starter lots every day, make sure we check and get a count of pasture cattle at least once a week, and sometimes several times, depending on the conditions,” Keith said.
Not a day goes by that working ranch ability isn’t put to a test in the growing lot. “Something’s generally always got a tinge of sickness. I suppose we doctor a couple handfuls a day; it’s better to get a head start if a steer acts a bit under the weather,” the cowboy insisted.
While it’s not a task really wanted for profitable cattle production, cowboy and his mount generally get an extra adrenaline flow when a critter has a droopy ear. “We don’t rope ’em, but sort a sick one out of his pen, drive it down to the processing area into the chute for treatment,” Keith explained.
Tending cattle requires considerably more than working on horseback, but Keith often shies from those tasks. “Dad operates the feed truck, and we have other ranch help to do certain chores. Dad is a good hand on a horse, too, and he’ll help out when I get in a bind. I really prefer the cowboy duties over the mechanical work,” the cowboy admitted.
Second championship for Keith at the Flint Hills Beef Fest came in the intermediate division riding a sorrel, blaze-faced Quarter Horse gelding called Scorch. “He’s my mom, Brenda Blair’s horse. She uses him on the ranch, but I’m fortunate to be able to ride him sometimes in competition,” related Keith, noting he’ll typically ‘tune’ the gelding a couple of times before an event.
“Obviously, Scorch is a smart cow horse, too, or he wouldn’t even place, let alone win, in that kind of competition. There were about 15 in his class, and some tough horses and cowboys,” Keith continued.
High rankings for the cowboy and mounts collected points in the Midwest Ranch Horse Association, which sanctioned the Emporia competition. There were also divisions for youth, peewee, novice and open divisions based on experience of riders and horses.
“Only the junior division is categorized by age of the horse,” noted Keith. “Intermediate division entries generally don’t have the experience of those in the open.”
Lifetime in the saddle unquestionably improves cowboy skills, but Keith is animate in crediting not only his mounts, but assistance given to him by those even more seasoned with horse experience.
“I’m fortunate that my dad, mom and stepdad, Paul Blair, are all outstanding riders and have provided me advice and good horses to ride ever since I could set in a saddle. They continue to share their advice and wisdom to this day, which helps me immensely,” Keith said.
“However, I’d be completely remised not to credit Brad Weller, horse trainer at Garden City, for all of the help he’s given me learning about horses and training techniques.
“I worked for Brad while I was in college. He is such a talented horseman, and knows how to get the most finesse out of a working horse. I still go out to Garden City every year to watch, learn and train under Brad. He’s the greatest,” Keith acknowledged.
Still behind most every successful cowboy is a cowgirl. “My wife Kelsey is an essential part of everything we do with horses, cattle and all of the ranch work. I sure wouldn’t get anything done without her,” Keith appreciated.
As if all this doesn’t sound too much for one cowboy, Keith has collected numerous horseshow and rodeo awards growing up, is a competition team roper, and member of the Keith Cattle Company ranch rodeo team, entering a dozen or more events annually, often coming away with success there, too.
“There’s no life I would rather live than the life of a cowboy,” Justin Keith insisted.