The “plain old cow horse” of King Ranch.
By Bruce Beckmann in America’s Horse
Bob Kleberg, manager of the King Ranch, walked out to look over a jump course that carpenters had constructed in one of the pastures. His wife, Helen, who raised hunter-jumpers, had ordered the construction of a course worthy of the Olympics and asked Bob his opinion.
“I have a plain old cow horse that could jump those things,” Bob said. Helen looked skeptical as her husband asked a cowboy to bring in a particular stallion. As Bob took the chestnut stud in hand, Helen asked if he needed a saddle. “Never mind the saddle,” Bob answered. He swung up on the stallion bareback and legged the horse through the course, clearing every jump.
“How did you know that horse would jump?” Helen asked.
“It was easy,” Bob explained. “The way he can jump prickly pear and mesquite showed he would have no trouble on this easy footing.”
Bob was right on all accounts but one – the stallion was no “plain old cow horse.” First of all, he was bridlewise enough for neck reining. Secondly, his smooth gait allowed him a bareback hand gallop. Lastly, he was athletic enough to clear the jumps.
Of course, Bob already knew these things, as did nearly every other King Ranch employee. As veterinarian J.K. Northway remembered, “I saw Richard Kleberg (Bob’s brother) and George Clegg rope off him and ride him all morning and then race him in the afternoon. His daily work consisted of regular ranch routine with the remuda. Bob had made him into a superior cow horse. You could rope, cut or do any other ranch work on him, and he was not just adequate – he was superior.”
The Kiñenos, or “Kings’ Men,” as the historic horsemen that worked for the King Ranch were called, were particularly awed by the stallion. They marveled at how he handled the still, dusty heat and humidity of south Texas while gathering cattle in the thorny mesquite, how he worked a rope tripping the wildest steers or dragging the smallest of calves, his good disposition and his ability as a sire.
In the Kinenos’ native tongue, he was called el Alazan Viejo … the Old Sorrel.
Old Sorrel was bred by George Clegg and foaled on his ranch near Alice, Texas, in 1915. A rancher fond of match racing, George owned a one-eyed son of Peter McCue named Hickory Bill that he mated to a Dr. Rose mare.
Years later, Dr. Northway said, “Old Sorrel’s mother was supposed to have been a Thoroughbred mare that was bred and raised in Kentucky. A friend of mine, a Dr. Rose, owned and operated some ranches in Mexico and practiced dentistry on the side in Del Rio, Texas. He was interested in improving his horse stock, so he went to Lexington and bought a carload of mares. I think he got them for $125 each. He took them to Mexico, and they lost their identity. He turned them out on his ranch. He later became horse-poor and sold a carload to a rancher in Alice, Texas.”
That rancher was George, and one of those mares produced Old Sorrel.
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Bob visited George one day in 1916 and saw Hickory Bill colts out of Thoroughbred mares that George called his “wax dolls.” The crossbreds impressed Bob, who sent his cousin Caesar back to George’s later to pick out a stallion prospect. Caesar picked a sorrel colt at the side of one of the Dr. Rose mares, a pair George priced at $125. Caesar bought them, and George later led them from Alice to the King Ranch.
“When he was broken and tried for cattle work,” Bob wrote, “Old Sorrel proved to be the best cow horse we had ever had on King Ranch. He was exceptional as to beauty, disposition and conformation, smoothness of action and fine handling qualities. Having seen other stallions, even after they had proven their merits for breeding, carry on for only one generation, we determined, if possible, to perpetuate the wonderful qualities of this stallion.”
Bob’s methods for the perpetuation of Old Sorrel’s type were inbreeding and linebreeding. For inbreeding (the mating of closely related individuals) to work, only the most superior individuals were used. Naturally, the superior stallion was Old Sorrel, but for mares, Bob used Thoroughbreds.
“Dad put my Thoroughbred mare in the Quarter Horse mare band,” said Helen Groves, Bob’s daughter. “He told me that crossing Thoroughbred to Thoroughbred just came out bad for a ranch horse. He said to me, ‘Isn’t it wonderful when you breed a Thoroughbred to a Quarter Horse how they come out sound?’ ”
Some of the ranch’s Thoroughbreds came from Sam Lazarus, president of the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railroad Co. In a letter to Caesar dated November 2, 1910, Sam provided the parentage of these mares as Thoroughbreds registered by the Jockey Club. Other mares – Water Lilly, Ada Jones, Lady of the Lakes, Verna Grace – Bob bought from George, John Almond, John Dial and Ott Adams.
The offspring of Old Sorrel and the Lazarus mares included Little Richard, Cardinal, Solis, Macanudo, Hired Hand, Babe Grande, Little Man, Tino and Melon. These stallions were selected as sires because of their likeness to Old Sorrel’s conformation and their ability to perform ranch work. At first, fillies from the Old Sorrel-Thoroughbred cross were inbred back to Old Sorrel – the results, according to Bob, “while encouraging, were not exceptional.” However, when Solis, Macanudo, Cardinal and Hired Hand were likewise inbred to the daughters of those Thoroughbred mares, the results “were like magic,” Bob said.
Old Sorrel sired 116 registered Quarter Horses before he died in 1945. However, through linebreeding (where all horses relate to one relative), every Quarter Horse produced on the King Ranch since Old Sorrel has carried his blood.
Wimpy, P-1 in the AQHA Stud Book, was by Solis and out of Panda, a daughter of Old Sorrel and a Thoroughbred mare.
Old Sorrel was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1990.