By Bob Welch
Craig Haythorn is a Western feature writer’s dream. To begin with, his look is straight out of Central Casting: a perfectly creased hat, starched shirt and jeans neatly folded into the prettiest custom boots this side of Charlie Dunn. He’s tall and rugged, a white mustache so old-timey you want to spell it ‘moustache.’ His hands show a lifetime of work yet possess the deftness to handle a rope like a maestro conducting an orchestra. The sharp eyes hold a twinkle that don’t reveal what’s going on under that hat but leave no question something dang sure is. He shakes men’s hands and doffs his hat when addressing a lady.
His family’s history is ripe for adaptation into the latest Taylor Sheridan mini-series. Craig himself built on that legacy to produce and compete on some of the best horses of his generation. And not one drop of the persona is a put-on. Haythorn is the quintessential rancher of his era. What shaped him and drives him is not mysterious to him or anyone who cares to see it. He is a man of work and what stirs his soul is no different than what moves in the souls of all good folks.
The origin of Nebraska’s Haythorn Land and Cattle Co. is at once uniquely American and incredibly improbable. In 1876, in the wake of love lost, 16-year-old Harry Haythornthwaite (Craig’s great-grandfather) stowed away on a ship set for America. When discovered, he was forced to care for a set of Hereford bulls to pay for his passage. Upon arrival in Galveston, the importer of the bulls hired the youngster to continue to care for them. He became a cowboy and made four trips up the trail—two to Kansas and two to Nebraska.
After the second trip to Nebraska, he stayed in Ogallala, married, and filed on a land grant near Arthur. He and subsequent generations put all their savings and credit toward buying more of the fertile Nebraska Sandhills ranch country.
“It’s fragile country,” Craig says. “There’s about two inches of topsoil and underneath that is sand.”
Harry and his wife, Emma, had two boys, Walt and Harry, Jr. With no acrimony, the two brothers divided their interest in the ranch right down the middle when the state built the Kingsley Dam and condemned a good portion of the original ranch. Harry Jr. formed Haythorn Ranch and Walt formed Haythorn Land & Cattle.
About once a generation, a devasting winter storm would wreak havoc on the Haythorns. In 1913 Harry and Emma lost 800 head. In 1931 Walt was caught horseback in a blizzard but bumped into a gate he recognized. He put his left leg over the fence and followed it all the way home. They lost hundreds of cattle that year, too. In 1949, snow drifted above the 18-foot doors of the barn and tunnels had to be dug to get horses out to water.
In 1917 Walt and his wife, Hazel, had a son, Waldo, who was Craig’s father. Waldo is largely credited with expanding the ranch’s acreage. He was also an AQHA and NCHA judge, active in many national associations and made friends across the country. He was honored with induction into the AQHA Hall of Fame.
Craig attended Texas Tech University, and upon graduation returned to Nebraska to the ranch. He’d been home a month and was working a colt when his grandfather drove up in a Chrysler New Yorker—he drove 36 of them, buying a new one every other year for 72 years. Walt stepped out of the car, handed Craig a checkbook and told him to take over the southern division of the ranch. A man of few words, he got in his car and drove away.
In 1975, shortly after Craig took over the south ranch, one of those treacherous blizzards hit once again. When the storm stopped, Craig began to survey the damage and figured they lost around 750 calves. Once the county roads were cleared, Walt called Craig and told him to meet him at the highway. Craig saddled a horse and loped through the snow to meet his grandfather. When he told him the news, Walt’s simple reply was, “It could have been worse, it could have killed the cows.”
Craig Takes the Reins
Walt, in fact, had an outsized influence on Craig’s development. The two were much alike. Quiet, hard-working and introverted yet highly competitive and driven to excellence. Walt lived in town and had an indoor barn where Craig would rope calves during the winter months of high school.
“He’d keep track of how many I could rope in a row,” Craig recalls. “He’d tell me, ‘You can’t win anything if you don’t rope them around the neck. Miss? That’s a girl’s name.’ If you missed one, that was a cardinal sin.”
On average, he could rope 70 or so in a row.
“Once I roped 100 and once I roped 99,” he says. “I’ll never forget that. That kind of patterned my life. If you’re gonna go, try and win and be competitive. He and my dad both had a lot to do with me being real competitive. When he went, he went to win.”
Craig won the Nebraska’s High School Rodeo Calf Roping and Cutting titles four years in a row. And that competitiveness never left. He won steer ropings, steer wrestlings, horse shows and ranch rodeos….well, he’s still winning them.
That success, along with his quiet nature, led many to think he was aloof and arrogant.
“I wasn’t, I was just shy,” Craig says. “When I was young, I didn’t talk to people much, but my dad was the complete opposite. He was the greatest ‘people person’ I’ve ever known. I wasn’t born that way. I’m more like my grandad, but he never did change. I was just bashful, and I’ve worked at that my entire life.”
To those who know him, he’s become a blend of his father and grandfather. He’s self-assured but approachable. For a man of the outdoors, he’s refined and tasteful but will put people at ease around him. When he walks into a room, you can tell he’s got ‘it,’ but you’d never hear it from him.
“I’ve never wanted to be on a pedestal,” he says. “I know I’ve made some mistakes, but I feel good about who I am. I haven’t done a lot that I’ve been real disappointed in. I can look in the mirror and be proud of myself because I’ve worked at who I am today.”
In some ways, the Craig Haythorn story is very simple. He was groomed to run a ranch by overachievers. He was given the opportunity and the resources to excel and he took those and ran with them. He put his own stamp on how to do things, but never abandoned the traditions that got Haythorn Land and Cattle where it was when he took over.
To wit, as Waldo and Bel’s only son (Craig has a sister, Sally who remains involved in the ranch), he was tasked with running the hay crew at the age of 13 while Waldo was on the road judging horse shows or putting on seminars. As a freshman in college, Walt turned over all the horse paperwork for him to manage.
“I was looking for studs and mares all the time I was in college,” he says.
And that’s where Craig really made his mark on Haythorn Land and Cattle.
Since the first generation, the ranch has poured resources into horseflesh. Harry trailed 500 horses from Baker, Oregon, to Nebraska to break and sell to the Rosebud Indian Reservation (The story, in fact, was the inspiration for Robert Duvall’s feature film, Broken Trail).
Later, the ranch used government remount stallions from Fort Riley and Fort Robinson. Harry’s son Walt bought a railroad car of mares from the Waggoner Ranch and in 1946 he bought a horse named Sport out of Oklahoma. That horse became Nebraska’s first registered American Quarter Horse as well as grand champion at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.
“My dad loved horses and my grandad loved horses,” Craig says. “And it’s always been a passion of mine, whether it was a work horse or a cow horse. It’s been a passion of all five generations.”
Traveling the country as a judge, a line of cutting horses by a horse named Eddie began to catch Waldo’s eye. Eddie was a 1940 7/8 Thoroughbred registered as an American Quarter Horse. The owner had no interest in selling, but after four attempts, he finally relented. Eddie became the foundation of the Haythorn Quarter Horse program. Later, the ranch added King, Hancock and Driftwood blood. Eddie Eighty, a grandson of Eddie out of a Hancock mare became the ranch’s next great horse.
As Craig began to exert his influence on the ranch, he found a wife, Jody Madden, and they married in 1983. Jody had a daughter, Shaley, from a previous marriage and later came sons Sage and Cord.
His first big move in the horse program was the purchase of 11 daughters of Buck Hancock to cross back on Eddie Eighty. Later, Craig mixed in Three Bars descendants through Colonel Freckles, Doc O’Lena, and Playgun. Those bloodlines still carry the breeding program today.
The best horse Craig ever owned and rode is a stallion named PG Shogun, or “Gunner.” He’s a son of Playgun that Haythorn bought as a two-year-old from Dick Pieper.
“He was probably the greatest horse I’ve ever ridden,” he says. “He was a very unusual horse. I don’t guess I hardly ever showed him that he didn’t win first. He was just an extraordinary horse. He’s never had a pimple on him, never had any injections.”
Gunner was breeding mares right up until he passed away this spring. Craig tried, but couldn’t bring himself to bury his old friend. He waited for Cord to return home from a rodeo to do the job. Just as Craig carried on his family’s traditions, Gunner carried on the traditions of the horse program.
“It’s a challenge every day to keep size, bone and foot in a horse,” Craig says. “My dad was a stickler for withers. We’ve always liked a little more size.”
Craig’s commitment to his ancestor’s vision in the horse program earned Haythorn Land and Cattle the AQHA’s first-ever Best Remuda Award in 1992.
The type of horse coming off the Haythorn place—and the sheer number of horses being raised—led to the ranch’s next enterprise. At one time, in the late 1980s, Haythorn Land and Cattle was running more than 900 head of horses counting both draft and Quarter Horses.
In 1995 they built an events center to host ranch horse sales. Every four or five years the ranch would throw a shindig and offer horses of all ages. It’s tempting to think that these sales and the horse program are what made Haythorn Land and Cattle so renowned. But there were generations of men and women who made those horses to begin with.
Hosting the sales morphed into renting the venue for events and even a mobile catering business—sometimes feeding up to 3,000 people. Jody took the lead on those enterprises and developed them into a contributor to the ranch’s bottom line.
“She’s a blessing,” Craig says. “I’m very lucky to have her. And she’s the dam to those two boys I’m so proud of. There’s nothing to tear us apart.”
Get Craig talking about his family: Jody, Sally, his sons Sage and Cord, and he gets, as he says, “sappy.” Despite all the accolades and publicity, the one thing that truly moves him are the people he loves.
Shaley is married to Sha Griffin and they’ve lived in the Abilene, Texas, area for over 25 years and have two sons, Tell and Rye. Sage is married to Kelley and he manages the northern division of the ranch. They have two children, Steel and Stoli. Cord and his wife, Katie, live on the south end with their kids, Haven and Conley.
The feeling of family even extends to the men and women who’ve worked on the ranch through the years.
“I’ve always said I’d never ask a guy to do anything I couldn’t do myself,” he says. “I can do anything that needs done here on the ranch—and could since I was 20. Part of our success has been the people that have worked here for the past 100 years. We have been very fortunate here with wonderful help and they’ve stayed a long time. We’ve had men here for 50 years.”
In most of today’s families, each generation charts its own course and starts afresh. The Haythorns’ perspective, however, spans their own time as the ranch’s stewards. Harry, Walt, Waldo, Shaley, Sage, Cord and their children all have an influence on the decisions Craig made as guided Haythorn Land and Cattle for his nearly 50 years.
“I have a passion about this ranch and I’m extremely proud of our heritage,” he says. “Family means everything to me. That’s the way I’ve constructed my life. I was very fortunate to find Jody and our two boys have been a Godsend. How many people today would have both sons come home? For both of them to come home means the world to me.”
His boys returning home to at once maintain the values and traditions that allowed the ranch to thrive for 140 years and take the ranch in new and exciting directions seems to almost overwhelm their father. His pride and pleasure in them swells in his chest, causing a catch in his throat. It means more to him than any buckle he’s ever won or article that’s ever been written about him.
He ran a hay crew at 13, could rope 100 calves in a row in high school, roped steers at Cheyenne, won horse shows and ranch rodeos across the West, but his greatest accomplishment is without question doing the same thing Harry, Walt and Waldo did before him: creating an environment for the next generation to pick up where he left off. In ranching, there’s nothing more. ★
The National Golden Spur Award and the Ranching Heritage Association Working Cowboy Award are the most prestigious awards given by the ranching and livestock industries. Annually, the Western community comes together to recognize the inspiring honorees of these accolades through the National Golden Spur Award Honors.
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This article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of the Ranch Record. Would you like to read more stories about NRHC and ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.