Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
Brenda Michael adored her dad, Benny Binion. She and her dad had a relationship like no other. Although he was a successful business man that made his fortune in the world of gambling, his passion was to be a cowboy. Eventually, after moving his family from Dallas to Las Vegas and getting them situated comfortably he amassed a ranch in Montana in 1943. Brenda was only two.
Brenda was born in Dallas, Texas, the middle child of five. Barbara was six years older, Jack was four years older, then Brenda, Ted was 16 months younger, and Becky was three years younger. “We moved to Las Vegas, when I was five. It was a very small town, only 15,000, when we got there. But gambling was becoming a major force and it grew rapidly. Daddy ran crap games and a policy game in Dallas, but after World War II was over, the ‘powers that be’ tried to shut down gambling. So we moved,” explained Brenda.
“My dad was always particular about his girls. He didn’t want us around the casino,” Brenda remembers. “We’d go eat and that was it.” Brenda remembers her mother staying at home with the children and driving them to Saint Joseph Catholic School growing up. She graduated from Catholic High School with 42 in her graduating class. “Daddy bought our home because it had a place for horses. I don’t think he even looked in the house. It was seven acres and we always had horses,” she laughed.
The ranch finally grew to 210 sections, including one pasture that was 98 sections. “I looked forward to going back to Montana in the summer. I always liked the ranch. I’d cry when I had to come back to Las Vegas. I was the only one that cried,” she admitted.
Benny wanted everything done on the ranch the way it used to be done. “He refused to use four-wheel-drive pickups because it tore up the land. We did everything with horse and wagon. Daddy bought fifty WWI wagons that had never been uncrated. They would fill them with cake, take them out in the pastures, feed, and come back,” remembers Brenda. She has a very vivid memory of everything that was done on the ranch.
When Benny Binion was sent to the penitentiary over income tax, when Brenda was 12, she was very sad because she didn’t get to go to the ranch. She just knew no one would take care of the horses, and she couldn’t see them. He didn’t get released until 1957, on a technicality. Turned out Brenda was right. The hired hands that were left to tend to things on the ranch were told not to sell the horses, but they did sell the cattle. When the hired hands heard Benny was out they disappeared. There was only one filly left. “We had no idea where they went, and those that were left had gotten down in the Missouri breaks, so Ted and I started riding the Missouri River breaks trying to find them. The horses knew the trails but we didn’t. It took years and since none of the studs had been cut we ended up gathering nearly 1,200 horses. Two that we found were named ‘Happy’ and ‘Sappy’. We took them to a rodeo and boy could they buck,” said Brenda with a big smile. “We took nineteen horses, including Happy and Sappy, to Harry Knight at Great Falls and he bought them and they ended up in a rodeo in Belgium. Benny recognized Brenda’s interest in the horses and although she was only seventeen he asked her to register all their horses with the American Quarter Horse Association. “The inspector came from Amarillo to inspect them, they were all cataloged. Every summer they would upgrade until they got papers.
Brenda fell in love with Bert France, a cowboy from Las Vegas, who rode bareback and saddle broncs. She was just eighteen. He qualified for the first National Finals Rodeo in 1959 in the bareback event. Three months later he was killed, on July 4th, in an automobile accident. At the time he was leading for the All-Around in the Rodeo Cowboys Association. Brenda had traveled with him that summer, but was at the ranch at the time of his accident. She tried going back to school but she couldn’t concentrate on her studies. She went to work at Bank of America, but spent summers at the ranch in Montana that she loved.
A bronc rider from South Dakota was coming to the ranch and starting horses for Benny. His name was Andy Michael and in 1963 he and Brenda were married. Their daughter, Mindy, was born the following year. They lived on the ranch until Mindy needed to start school. They moved to Amarillo in September, 1969. Brenda and Andy were married 27 years, and divorced in 1990.
Brenda had always wanted to get in to the cutting horse competition, but was always too busy. The year after Benny died she bought a mare, ‘Lena Leo War Lady’ and the first cutting competition to which she took her, in Reno; the horse won the open. Brenda went home with more than $25,000! Brenda admitted, “she was a lop-eared mare, that was pretty plain looking, but she could cut.” She spent the next four years in the cutting circle and did quite well.
When Brenda’s mother passed away, in 1994, Brenda was named the executrix of the estate. It was a full time job and she had to give up her cutting competition. “Everything had to be appraised and taxed, and finally we had to sell the ranch.” All of the stress had contributed to Brenda’s poor health. She broke her femur due to an infection and spent 20 days in the hospital battling osteomyelitis. It look Brenda three years to recover from this debilitating health issue.
Brenda continues to live in Amarillo. She bought Lighthouse Ranch which is next to Palo Duro Canyon and runs cattle on it. She has watched her two grandchildren, from Mindy and Clint Johnson, past Saddle Bronc World Champion 1980, 1987, ’88,’89, grow to adults. Ben, winner of the Texas High School Cutting Horse title in 2009, now owns restaurants, and he and wife, Kaitlin, have two children, Porter and Emory, and are expecting twins in February. Janie is a WPRA barrel racer, works for Ride TV with the PBR Velocity Tour and is presently a sideline reporter.
Brenda continues to be heavily involved in the bucking horse business through the Benny Binion World Famous Bucking Horse Sale which is held during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, and watches son-in-law Clint work with Dr. Gregg Veneklasen with Timber Creek Veterinary Clinic in creating clones and taking embryos of proven bucking stock. She supports many projects held in Amarillo involved with rodeo and the western way of life. Brenda received the Ken Stemler Pioneer Award in 2015 at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for her commitment to professional rodeo through the Binion Bucking Horse Sale that benefits the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and is used for youth educational scholarships.
Brenda proudly continues to do the things her dad taught her that were important. “He was part of the vanishing breed of westerner that saw that the western way was not lost. He thought a handshake was better than a bond. His word was better than any written agreement. He taught me a lot of great things. I met a lot of nice, interesting people. I’ve always been proud to continue my dad’s work,” said the red-headed, quiet spoken woman, who has always been there to support her community, the rodeo world and the people in it with their western way of life.