In the July 2012 issue, we gave you an update on Jacks Vaquero, aka "Cowboy." The senior gelding is now teaching 4-year-old TJ Hammond of Idaho to ride. We first introduced our readers to Cowboy in the April 2006 issue. Review that article below.
A tiny girl sits atop a nondescript brown gelding. They're waiting to compete in a barrel-racing class for riders 5 and under at the Washington State Junior Rodeo Finals in October of 2005. The girl's tawny hair is tucked neatly under a straw hat; her babyish face is doll-like. Her legs reach only halfway down the horse's sides.
The gelding begins to prance slightly, his neck bowed obediently to his rider's hand. The girl's mother leads the pair down the alleyway and turns them loose in the arena, then stands aside, holding her breath.
The girl leans forward and the gelding sprints toward the first barrel. As he nears it, the girl sinks into the saddle and the horse wraps himself around the metal can, digging in with his hindquarters and bending through his middle. He finishes the turn and springs toward the second barrel.
"This isn't the first time this horse has done this," drawls the announcer. Just short of the second barrel, the gelding switches leads, and again the girl sinks into the saddle. The pair spin around the second can, perfectly synchronized, and leap toward the third. One more tight, neat turn, and they're headed for home. The girl stands in her stirrups and shoots her rein hand forward, urging her gelding on with everything she's got. The horse responds with a surge, tripping the electric eye at a full gallop.
Their time makes them the only pair in their age group to break the "teens"; they win first place. The girl smiles happily and claps her horse's neck.
The mother smiles too, blinking back tears. Twenty years ago, she was the little brown-haired girl on this same gelding, racing around barrels, winning prizes. To see her daughter now, running and winning on this cherished, aged horse, brings the most exquisite flush of emotions.
But?we're getting ahead of the story. It begins two decades earlier, in Lewiston, Idaho. It's the tale of Jacks Vaquero, also known as Cowboy, the plain little Quarter Horse with the great big heart.
It was July 2, 1981. Jami Yochum (the mother in our opening vignette) was only 4 years old, but she remembers the day vividly. It's when her parents, Johnny and Debbie Rynearson, took her out to the pasture to see a little brown colt, just 1 hour old. A colt intended to be Jami's own someday.
The Rynearsons and their two daughters lived on five acres in a rural part of Lewiston. At the time they had 18 horses, some on their own property and others boarded in nearby pastures. This newest foal carried the blood of several American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame luminaries, including Poco Bueno and Two Eyed Jack (see "Cowboy At A Glance," page 2). "We were firm believers in Two Eyed Jack horses," Debbie recalls. "You could do everything with them."
Though bred for success, the colt perhaps didn't appear so at the time. "I remember thinking he looked a little like a mule," says Jami. "He had that typical light 'muley mouth' that true brown horses do, and big ears. But he was cute and well muscled, and also friendly, curious, and unafraid. I got to pet him, and he didn't act bratty and try to bite like some of the other babies I'd been around."
The foal, registered as Jacks Vaquero, came to be known simply as Cowboy (English for vaquero). At the time of his birth, Jami was already becoming a skilled rider on her talented Shetland Pony. Over the next four years, the 10-hand-tall Candy would carry her as Jami learned to love a variety of events, including barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, and goat tying.
Cowboy, meanwhile, was growing and impressing everyone with his levelheadedness. "I remember clipping his ears when he was a weanling," Debbie recalls. "I used big clippers--they were awfully loud--but he didn't even move. If I hadn't already known it, that alone would have told me he was special."
In the winter of Cowboy's 2-year-old year, Jami's father started him under saddle. An experienced horseman who helped his neighbors with their young stock, Johnny found the newly gelded horse to be calm and willing from day one.
"He's the kind of horse you could ask to climb a tree, and he'd say, ?Which one?'" says Debbie. "I remember riding him across neighbors' land to cutting clinics on cold, snowy days in the winter of his 3-year-old year, and he was great. He wasn't all that interested in cattle or the cutting machine, but he walked out smartly to get there and let us expose him to a bunch of different things."
By the time Cowboy was 4 and Jami was 8, the Rynearsons felt the two were ready for each other. Jami started riding the 14.1-hand gelding under her parents' supervision, while continuing to show her Shetland. Then, one day in 1985, things changed forever.
"A local barrel-racing club my mom had founded was having its finals competition," Jami recalls. "I ran Candy in the first run of my age group, then tried Cowboy in the second. He was so much faster, so much more powerful! It gave me an adrenaline rush. I had complete confidence in him, though, so it wasn't scary,just incredibly fun."After that,the pony was retired, and Cowboy became Jami's steady partner.
"He was and is a quick learner," Jami says. "In addition to barrel racing and other rodeo events, I did everything with him?trail riding, 4-H fitting and showing, Western pleasure, showmanship, trail. He excelled at it all." A clever horse, Cowboy also excelled at untying himself. "He's a regular Houdini," says Jami. And though a kind, quiet eye is one of the gelding's best traits, he's not a lapdog sort of horse. "I wouldn't say he's standoffish, but he's not at all cuddly," Jami explains. "He definitely doesn't like being petted around the head." Other quirks include a loathing of llamas ("something about the smell," Jami thinks) and a passion for Twizzlers red licorice ("he can eat a whole bag").
His most distinguishing eccentricity, however, is something his family calls "the Cowboy shuffle." It's the little strut he does just before and after he makes a run.
"He doesn't get hard to handle; he just takes these short little steps and is very perked up," notes Jami. "It's how we know he's going to win."
For several summers in the mid- to late '80s, Cowboy became the quintessential family horse. At rodeos, Jami would ride him in her four events, sister Tracy would goat-tie and rope on him, and their mom would goat-tie on him as well. "He never got dingy from competing so much," says Jami. "He has a great mind, and I think all the variety kept his outlook fresh."
It's not as if he never had his moments, though. At his first nighttime rodeo, with lights and spectators, the gelding lost his customary poise.
"The crowd was right behind the first barrel," remembers Jami. "As we headed toward it, his head came up and he gawked at all those people. By the time I got his mind back on the pattern, our first barrel was 'way wide.'"
The rest of the run went well, however, and after a few more runs with big crowds, Cowboy seemed to change his mind. "He ended up running better at night rodeos," Jami observes. "The bigger and louder the crowd, the faster and better he ran."
Jami began to have serious success with her gelding. By the time she started high school in 1991, she'd won several barrel racing association championships and rodeo all-around titles. "Most of the other kids I competed against had one horse to run barrels and poles on, and another to rope and goat-tie on," she muses. "I just had Cowboy, but it was always enough."
Not At Any Price
The unexpected death of Jami's father in 1991, during her freshman year of high school, devastated the young horsewoman. "I was very close to my dad," she says. "He loved horses and rodeo, and much of what I know I learned from him." Though friends and family comforted Jami and her sister and mother, it was still sometimes hard just to sit in the house. At those moments, Jami would go to Cowboy.
"He was my rock--I could go ride for hours and tell him anything. It was my way of escaping. Other kids might've turned to drugs or getting into trouble; I just focused even more on riding and practicing."
The year her father died, Jami and Cowboy qualified for the first of four Idaho State High School Rodeo Finals. They didn't win in any of their four events, but they held their own in tough competition. "I learned Cowboy could run with those big, high-dollar barrel horses," Jami says proudly.
In her sophomore year, Jami and Cowboy again qualified for the state finals, this time making it to the Fallon, Nevada, "mini-nationals," where they finished in the top 10 in barrel racing.
In her junior year, Jami relocated to California with her mother (Tracy was off to college on a rodeo scholarship). Jami and Cowboy qualified for California's state finals, then returned to Idaho mid-year and qualified again for that state's finals. During their stay in California, a rodeo enthusiast asked Jami--repeatedly--how much it would take to buy her little gelding.
"I kept telling him he wasn't for sale," Jami recalls. "Finally he gave me a strange look and said, 'You mean to tell me that if I handed you $50,000 for him, you wouldn't sell me that horse?' I told him no."
In the summer of 1993, Jami and Cowboy were the barrel-racing champions at the Lewiston Roundup Rodeo, a prestigious win. Over the next five years, the gelding continued to carry Jami to the pay window at rodeos close to home.
"I can honestly say that in all my years competing on him, there was only once that he didn't try,"she says."I took him to an amateur rodeo in Halfway, Oregon. It was a five-hour drive over a winding road, and it was the only time I hauled him by himself.
"I guess he didn't like traveling alone, because when we got there he literally loped the barrels. I couldn't make him go! Since then, I haven't taken him to a rodeo by himself. And, now that I think of it, I guess he's entitled to one bad day."
'A Good Friend'
In 1999, Cowboy began his second act. By then, Jami had married, and in July of that year she and her husband, Trever, welcomed their daughter, Scout Marie, into the world. At 3 days old, the newborn took her first "ride" on Cowboy, then 18.
"For the next several years, I daydreamed about the time Scout would be riding him for real," says Jami. "I couldn't wait."
In the meantime, although she'd quit running barrels and poles on Cowboy in 2000, Jami continued to rope on him. "He loves going and I just couldn't leave him at home," she explains. Then, in the summer of 2004, "the day" finally arrived.
"We have a video of it," Jami says, laughing. "There's Scout, just turned 5, sitting in her little barrel saddle atop Cowboy, and they're loping circles in the arena as if they've been doing it forever. It was quite the moment."
The newly formed pair trotted and loped their barrels and poles for a year, taking it easy and getting acquainted. "Cowboy went whatever speed Scout asked of him," Jami says with pride.
Then, last summer, Scout began pushing the accelerator, and Cowboy responded by laying down his neat, fast runs. "She got a taste of winning, and there was no turning back," says her mom. "She's got the rodeo bug, big time."
Scout views the relationship in more personal terms. "He's a good friend to me," she says simply. She repays his generosity by scratching the itchy spot on his withers. But can she reach up that high?
"No," she says. "My mom and dad pick me up."
When she's in the saddle, though, she needs no help other than the indulgence of Cowboy. For her, the little horse with the big heart, now 25, is still winning rodeo events, still doing his trademark strut.
Jami says she's still glad she didn't even consider accepting fifty grand for him 13 years ago. "He was priceless then, but he's even more priceless now that my daughter is riding him."
Jami's mom, now married to veterinarian Fred Haskin and living in Elk Grove, California, says it's hard to summarize what the gelding has meant to her family. "He's just Cowboy, the horse we've always depended on for everything," she says.
And Scout, despite her tender age, has a horseman's grasp of the value of her partner.
"He's the best horse I've ever had and probably will ever have," she says emphatically. "And I love him."
Cowboy at a Glance
Breed: American Quarter Horse.
Registered as: Jacks Vaquero Cowboy. Age: 25 (foaled 1981 in Lewiston, Idaho).
Bloodlines: By Two Eyed Skeeter (Two Eyed Jack, AQHA Hall of Fame sire x Pats Miss by Pats Star Jr) and out of Tascosa Dell (Tasco Jack x Barbara Dell by Dino Dell). Dino Dell was by Poco Dell, by the legendary Poco Bueno, foundation sire and AQHA Hall of Famer. Dino Dell's dam was Quo Vadis, the AQHA Hall of Fame mare now immortalized as a Breyer model horse.
Occupation: Child's first horse, family horse, tough-to-beat barrel racer, all-around rodeo horse.