Cowboy Culture

Virginia’s ranch horse legacy and the cowboys keeping it alive.

David Zielinski

To see him on a horse wearing leather chaps, work gloves, and a broad-brimmed cowboy hat, you might think Mike Jennings was riding the range in the Wild West. But Jennings is on his farm in Berryville, watching a cow trot along the edge of his arena. As the cow picks up speed, Jennings signals his quarter horse, a top competitor known as MC Very Shining Cee, to get to work.

The horse surges forward in a burst of speed, overtaking the cow. Then, in a single fluid, athletic motion, he lifts his chest, shifts his weight onto his hindquarters, and pivots on a single hind foot, blocking the cow and bringing him up short.

When Jennings says, “whoa,” the horse, the cow—even the wind—stop.

It’s just another day in the life of this Virginia cowboy and his finely tuned ranch horse, whose lineage can be traced back 200 years to the single horse that started it all: Janus. 

Tony Gibson

An Astonishing Era of Horse Breeding

Janus arrived in Virginia from England in 1752. A small, quick sorrel, he was blessed with big bones and powerful hindquarters. A grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, the horse from which the thoroughbred is descended, Janus had raced successfully in England and, in Virginia, he excelled at quarter mile races, often held on main streets in small towns.

His offspring, unmatched in speed, durability, and uniformity of shape, included 28 of the 43 recorded quarter racehorses born between 1758 and1783. At least 10 more were close relatives. Thanks to Janus and other top stallions, the years prior to the American Revolution marked “a new and quite astonishing era of horse breeding .… in Virginia,” as equine historian Fairfax Harrison observed in his 1928 book, The Equine F.F.Vs, which details the horses imported from England to Virginia before the Revolutionary War—an equine version of The Social Register.

Later, as Virginia pioneers headed west into Kentucky and Tennessee, the horses that accompanied them embodied Janus’ strengths. Good riding horses, they excelled at racing as well as pulling wagons. Quick, tough, and hardy, they evolved over the next century into the American quarter horse.

At home in Virginia, the legacy of Janus was cut short when, during the Revolutionary War, many of his descendants were deliberately drowned by British soldiers, marking the end of what Harrison called, “the heroic age of horse breeding in Virginia.”

In the late 1800s, William Anson, a British polo player turned Texas rancher, was the first to research the colonial origins of the quarter horse. Today, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) notes that, “while it cannot be said that Janus founded the breed, it can be argued convincingly that he shaped and formed it significantly.” 

Steve Meadows: World Champion Cowboy

“I’ve always been drawn to the cowboy way of life,” says fourth generation horseman Steve Meadows of Staunton, the all-time high-point American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) winner—worldwide—in ranch riding events.

Even as a teenager breaking colts, his idols were the trainers in Texas, Arizona, and California, who embodied the cowboy horsemanship of ranch life, cutting cattle out of a herd, roping them, or herding them with the seasons.

Meanwhile, he worked in the family business, buying and selling horses at regional sales. The Meadows’ horses looked sleek and performed well for buyers—and Steve was the kid who rode them through the sale ring, showing off their moves to attract high bids. “I’ve never had a job that wasn’t in the horse industry,” he recalls. “For a long time, my goal was to make enough money to support my family. I never thought I could be famous.”

Tony Gibson

That changed in 1999 when he showed In Zippos Image to a series of wins in Western Pleasure at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress and the American Quarter Horse Association World Show. Soon after, the AQHA introduced ranch riding events. “I was attracted to that, the way the horses moved and how natural they were, like what the cowboys rode.”

By 2014, he’d focused his business on ranch riding events. Clients come from as far away as Massachusetts and California to ride with him. Today, he has amassed 16 World Championship titles. His wife, Becky, has also earned one World Championship, as has his daughter, Noel.

Tony Gibson 22Gates Photography

Highly respected by his peers, Meadows was nominated as the 2018 Most Valuable Professional in Virginia by the Virginia Quarter Horse Association and voted the AQHA Most Valuable Professional. An accredited judge for multiple equine associations, he has chaired the AQHA Professional Horseman’s Council.

He could live anywhere but, Meadows says, “I love living in Virginia. We can work in the arena or go out on the trails. You can’t find a more beautiful place to be a cowboy.”

Patient, Fast, Agile, and Docile

Today’s quarter horse is also the product of the great ranches of Texas, among them the King Ranch, whose holdings total 1,300 square miles, nearly the size of Rhode Island. There, where cowboys depended on them for survival, horses were bred to possess the temperament, intelligence, cow sense, and endurance required for ranch work.

Tony Gibson 22Gates Photography

They needed patience as cowboys checked miles of fences; speed to run down rogue cows; agility to make sharp turns to cut a cow from a herd—and they’d need to be docile enough to pull a buggy to church on Sunday. Strong bones and feet, and a soft mouth to respond to rein cues were also crucial.

The best of these horses took top honors at horse shows across the country. In 1940, the year the AQHA was founded, the first horse listed in its studbook was Wimpy, a small and compact sorrel stallion owned and bred by the King Ranch.

From Texas to Virginia

In the 1960s, Helen Groves, heir to the King Ranch empire and known as “the first lady of cutting,” moved from Texas to Virginia, where she’d graduated from Foxcroft School in Middleburg in 1945. A member of the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame, the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame, and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, she established the 3,200-acre Silverbrook Farms in Middlebrook—and brought along the cowboy way of life, a result of a childhood spent working beside the cowhands on the ranch.

Silverbrook focused on Santa Gertrudis cattle and King Ranch bred horses. At last, the descendants of Janus had returned to Virginia.

Silverbrook hosted annual cutting competitions in which riders would demonstrate their horses’ cattle-working skills. These events were described as the largest east of the Mississippi, with horses from 15 states and Canada in attendance. Groves noted that the King Ranch “wanted horses that were all-around horses.”

She put that concept to the test when she fox-hunted on one of the ranch’s horses. Today, thousands of Virginia horses still spend their days wearing Western saddles and heading out on trails, much as the Old West cowboys did when they doctored cattle or checked fences.

Tony Gibson
Western Horse Showing in Virginia

During the 1960s, the popularity of the Western-style horse expanded throughout Virginia. In 1962, the Virginia Quarter Horse Association formed. Breeding programs sprung up in Warrenton and near Danville and Forest. And, by 1995, Virginia had its own High School Rodeo Association.

Today, several of the world’s top ranch riding competitors are based in Virginia. Western horse competitions held here include ranch riding, cutting, roping, and even a cattle drive. In 2021, Virginia hosted 14 AQHA shows, with one—the Spring Breakout—attracting more than 7,000 entrants.

This year, the show’s Hylton Maiden Western Pleasure Futurity event will pay out more than $100,000 in prize money. Other events recently held in Virginia include the National Reining Horse Association’s Mid-Atlantic Reining Classic, the largest reining event on the East Coast, with payouts to competitors of over $600,000.

Mike Jennings of Berryville and Steve Meadows and Matt Gouthro of Staunton have all earned championships in ranch riding events at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio. The world’s largest single-breed horse show, it attracts more than 650,000 people annually. To win it, you need the horse that made the American West. You need the descendants of a strong, compact sorrel stallion who arrived on the shores of Virginia centuries ago.

Tony Gibson 22Gates Photography

Western Gear

A cowboy’s horse needs specific equipment.

Western saddle with a horn. What sets these heavy, sturdy saddles apart is the horn, which provides both comfort and stability when cowboys stand in the stirrups, taking pressure off the horse’s back. The horn is also essential for leverage when pulling a log or roping a cow.

Breast plate. Straps across the horse’s chest and under its belly prevent the saddle from slipping when the horse makes quick moves.

Back cinch. This strap attaches to a ring on either side of the saddle behind the rider’s seat. It provides stability, particularly if the horse has to rope a cow or drag a log or navigate hilly terrain.

Where to Catch Cowboy Culture in Virginia

Bull riding headlines the evening, as riders try to hang on for the required eight seconds. “It takes a different breed to play this game and ride bulls,” says organizer Matt Lamb, a former national-level competitor.

The action continues with barrel racing, where women gun their horses making hairpin turns around a set of barrels to beat the clock. The rodeo, held on the second Saturday of each month, attracts 2,500-3,000 people.

David Zielinski

To see cowboy-style horse trading, visit Lexington’s Horse Park for the Great American Ranch and Trail Horse Sale, held each April. The first of its kind nationwide, the three-day event offers a chance to bid on the horse of your dreams. In 2021, the high seller brought in $70,000 from an online bidder in Hawaii.

Here, horses showcase their intelligence, temperament, and athletic skills in ranch-style competitions while potential buyers learn the ropes in clinics and seminars. Meadows and other Virginia trainers have consigned horses and ended up with the high sellers at this show. @oakheightsfarm,

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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