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Back When They Bucked with Howard Haythorn
Written by: Ryan Johnson< Back to Articles
Horses have been part of Howard Haythorn’s life since he was a kid. Actually, they run through the genes of his family. Haythorn, a National Finals Steer Roping contestant, grew up on the back of them, rode them for rodeo, and raised and trained them.
The Maxwell, Neb. cowboy was born in 1927, the great-grandson of Harry Haythornthwaite, a stow-away on a ship from England to America in 1877. When the captain found the sixteen-year-old boy and discovered the boy was raised on a farm, he was assigned to care for the Hereford cattle on the ship. When he arrived in America, he eventually made his way to Ogallala, Neb., where he shortened his name, married, and began the family tradition.
Howard, the son of Harry Jr. and Emaline (Menter) Haythorn, was born in 1927 north of Ogallala. When the Kinglsey Dam was built in 1941, part of the Haythorn ranch was taken for the dam, and Harry Jr. split the cattle with his brother Walter and headed east to Maxwell, Neb., to begin his own ranch. Harry Jr.,’s ranch was the Haythorn Ranch Co. (not to be confused with his brother Walter’s ranch, the Haythorn Land and Cattle Co., north of Ogallala, and now owned by Walter’s grandson Craig Haythorn.)
Before he could drive, Howard was calf roping at rodeos with his Uncle Walter. Uncle Walt, a saddle bronc rider as well as a roper, would load him up and take his nephew with him. There was no high school rodeo in those days, so they competed together at local shows. In addition to calf roping, Howard showed cutting horses and team roped.
He attended high school at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kan., (“my mother thought I needed more direction,” he quipped), graduating in 1945. He had an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, but his dad died when he was nineteen, and he was needed on the ranch.
Then Uncle Sam called; Howard went to Korea, serving for eighteen months, and “I saw all the action I wanted to see.”
When he came home, his rodeo career was about to change. Waldo, Walter’s son who was also a roper, told him, “You can throw away your calf rope. I found us a new sport. We’re going to start tripping steers.”
The two of them, fast friends, began their rodeo career together. They had the natural talent to rope, and the horse power, but they got some additional help from a world champion. Three-time world champion steer roper Ike Rude spent several summers at the Haythorn Ranch, teaching Waldo and Howard the intricacies of steer roping, while they trained his horses. They rodeoed together, the three of them competing, with Waldo and Howard sharing a horse in the early days.
In those days, nearly every little town had a rodeo, but not all of them had steer ropings. The two of them traveled near and far, hitting the local shows but also going as far as Cheyenne Frontier Days and Pendleton, Oregon.
Howard competed at the National Final Steer Roping in 1959 and 1963, finishing fourth in the average and twelfth in the world in 1963. The prior year, he and Clark McEntire flagged the finals. Waldo qualified for the NFSR four times (1958, 1960-61, and 1963).
The two also competed in a lot of match ropings, which were common back then. Entry fees might range from $300 to $500, usually with no purse, and only ten to twenty competitors. The matches might be four or six head, and they paid on the rounds and the finals.
Howard raised and trained nearly all of his roping horses. The best steer roping horse he ever had was a black horse, Little Pick, who started as a tie-down horse. When he and Waldo started steer roping, he turned Little Pick into a steer roping horse. “You could do everything on him,” Howard said. Howard roped right handed on him, and Craig, Waldo’s son, roped left handed on him. Pick was a kind, gentle horse, and when he got some age on him, Howard gave him to three little neighbor girls to show in 4-H. A few years later, at a jackpot in North Platte, Howard’s horse wasn’t doing so well, so he called the girls’ dad and asked him to bring the horse to town. Howard won the rodeo on Pick, the girls lost their 4-H horse, and Pick got turned out to pasture, never to leave the ranch again.
He loved all the rodeos, but two especially stick out in his mind. Pendleton was a favorite, because of its grass arena and no chutes. But when he was roping calves, the Ak-Sar-Ben rodeo in Omaha, Neb., was the best. They provided each contestant with a twelve-foot box stall, a forty-acre polo field on which to exercise horses, a sack of oats, a bale of hay, and straw.
Howard bought his Rodeo Cowboys Association card before he went to Korea in 1951, but the ranch and his family were his first priority. He married Sue Ann Cochran the same year, and after competing at the NFSR in in 1963, he slowed down, not rodeoing full time after that. “I never intended to go to the National Finals (Steer Roping). That was not my deal. I had a ranch to run. I just went because I had the chance.”
The Haythorn Ranch was known for its Herefords and its horses. Harry Haythornthwaite, the English stow-away, had gathered 500 head of horses from Burns, Ore. in the late 1800’s and railed them to Nebraska. Howard continued the tradition of raising, training and selling quarter horses on the approximately 20,000 acre ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. The operation has about 1,500 cows and replacement heifers, and 20 to 30 mares that are bred to four stallions.
Waldo and Howard were best of friends, Howard said, “probably closer than if we’d have been brothers. We never had an argument. I could tell him what I wanted, and he could tell me, and it didn’t bother either of us.” They were cousins, but also brothers-in-law, having married sisters. The two traveled together till Waldo suffered a stroke in 1989. Howard said, “If he can’t go, I quit. I didn’t want to go if he couldn’t go.”
Howard and Sue Ann, who passed away in 2010, had three children: Mary Helen, Margaret, and Harry Byron. Mary Helen passed away in 2015. Margaret is married to Darrell Ruh, and they live in Kenesaw, Neb. Harry Byron and his wife Londa live just a quarter-mile east of where Howard lives. “He comes to the ranch every morning,” Harry said, “to check on us, to make sure we’re out of the bunkhouse and doing our job.” Howard plays cribbage in Brady, a small town near the ranch, and occasionally rides. Last year, he went to ride with his eight-year-old great-grandson, Harry Edward, and Howard asked one of the ranch cowboys to saddle his horse for him. The cowboy didn’t want to, saying he’d get in trouble. Why? Howard demanded. Harry and Londa don’t want you to ride anymore, was the answer. Howard told him, “if you don’t saddle my horse, you’re going to get in trouble with me.”
In 2009, Howard was honored by the AQHA for breeding American Quarter Horses for 50 consecutive years. The ranch won the AQHA’s Remuda Award as well. Howard is an inductee in the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and he was given the 1983 Trail Boss Award from NebraskaLand Days in North Platte. He is a gold card member of the PRCA. He, his father, and his grandfather have all been inducted in the Nebraska Sandhills Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Life has been good: his rodeo friends, school friends, and ranching. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said. “I’d starve to death, doing anything else. I’ve enjoyed everything. I’ve enjoyed it all.”