Horses of the Big Dry

America's Horse

 (1 of 3 in series)

What a country it must have been! From the 1890s until the 1940s, Miles City, Montana was indisputably the Horse Capital of the World. Generals from the world’s armies came here to buy warhorses; draft horses were raised for southern farms; polo horses were exported to England; and coach horses were sent to bustling city centers. Many of these horses ran north of Miles City on vast unfenced prairie and breaks that stretched from the Yellowstone River north to the Missouri and from the Musselshell River east to the Redwater.

This region was only sparsely settled before the homesteaders arrived and was nearly depopulated following the Great Depression. Dubbed "The Big Open" by famous pioneer photographer L.A. Huffman, its residents knew it better as "The Big Dry."

Before 1940 the horses here were of varied breeds: Percherons, Shires, Cleveland Bays, Standardbreds, Morgans, Foxtrotters, and French Coach among them, but Thoroughbreds -- many of them provided through the government’s Remount Service -- prevailed. (The Ft. Keogh Remount Station in Miles City started in 1912 and processed more horses during World War I than any other station, but most of its horses were Morgans.) Some Remount stallions were simply turned in with wild horses, in other cases, ranchers had mares from well-blooded stock like Ogden (TB), Official (TB), Easter Boy (TB), Post War (TB), Rey de Los Angeles (TB) and Grand Vizier (TB).

By 1940 branded and "slick" horses still ran by the many tens of thousands on the northern range. Mechanization, drought, and The Depression added to the horse glut. Failing homesteaders often turned mortgaged horses loose. "There were horses on every hill in those days," old-timers recalled. Stud fights were common and brutal. It was survival of the fittest.

The growing market for the new "short horse" of the southwest, the Quarter Horse, would challenge and change this equine mongrelization. Two men -- very different in some ways, much the same in others -- played big roles in redefining the range horse of The Big Dry. Lester Ben (Benny) Binion was a short, stocky, high-rolling Las Vegas casino owner born in Texas in 1904. Corwin Allen (Bud) Kramer stood over six-seven in his boots and was born to The Big Dry in 1913.

Binion is said to have never attended public school. He got his education traveling with a horse-trading father. Having heard that Montana grew the strongest horses, he came north in 1940 and leased a ranch near Hardin. A year later he trailed 150 horses north to a sprawling ranch he’d purchased east of Jordan. It contained, by most accounts, 95,000 deeded acres and a couple hundred thousand acres of state and federal leases. Binion bought and traded land so totals varied.

Bud Kramer maybe finished the third grade. He was a quiet but rough, hard-living man who put together a huge ranch – 160 sections at its largest -- by capturing, breaking, and marketing wild horses after returning from World War II where he’d been a cavalryman. Though a legend in his time, Bud was often outshone by his spunky, diminutive wife, Bobby Brooks Kramer, a lady bronc rider and pilot. Together they ran thousands of horses, cattle and sheep, but were best known for their rodeo stock. Besides putting on their own rodeos they supplied stock to contractors like Beutler Brothers, Everett Colburn and Leo Cremer. The incomparable Descent, six times PRCA Saddle Bronc of the Year, wore the Diamond A of the Kramer string.

While Kramer had the home base, local reputation and range-raised resources, Binion had southwest connections, finances, and a passion for the fledgling sport of cutting. His little black gelding, Nigger, a son of Band Time (TB) won the first three world titles (1946-48) in the National Cutting Horse Association.

There were, of course, already some southwestern "short horses" in The Big Dry. Horses of Copperbottom breeding had come north with Texas trail herds but larger horses were more common. Besides the Kramers, ranchers like the Harbaughs, Twitchells, Savages, Millers, Tot Robertson, R. B. Fraser, Harry Ross and others had bred big country horses for years. To this pool of Thoroughbreds and range ponies, Binion brought a Quarter Horse stallion of distinctively royal heritage.

George Clegg, a 1939-model dun named for the pioneer Texas breeder, was by Tommy Clegg and out of Lady Coolidge making him a full brother to the famous Bert P-227. Bert’s reputation as a sire of hard-knocking rope horses gave George Clegg credibility with Montana’s cattlemen and Binion’s crossing of him on Band Time (TB) mares sealed the deal. Longtime Big Dry rancher and Quarter Horse breeder Ray Beecher remembers a George Clegg gelding he owned. "He was the perfect horse if there ever was one," he recalls. "He was as smart of a cowhorse as I ever rode."

Binion’s next major sire was Comet Binion, a 1940 son of Chief Wilkens by John Wilkins by Peter McCue. More of a throwback to the Thoroughbred days, Comet Binion sired big, stouthearted horses that covered ground but could be cold-backed as colts.

Bud Kramer suspected the Quarter Horse had come to stay and his visits to Binion’s annual ranch sales only confirmed that. Whether intentional or not, he back-trailed Binion south to find his own type of Quarter Horse. In 1955 Little Texas E, a son of My Texas Dandy, was a 12-year-old match racehorse in Sonora, Texas. His owner, H.T. Espy, didn’t want to part with the stallion but needed money to finish building a new house, so Little Texas E, a half-brother to Clabber, went north to Garfield County.

"He was a nice horse with flat bone and a good disposition," remembers Gary Crowder, the Kramers’ longtime trainer and adopted son (see sidebar). "His colts stood 16, 16-1 and were really cowy." Kramer put Little Texas E on the better of some 300 mares he’d purchased from Harry Miller.

Lorin Abarr, now semi-retired, worked often through the years for both Kramer and Binion. "Those Little Texas E colts were just my type of horse," he says. "I broke a bunch of them. They had plenty of gas, good withers, they were tough and good gallopers."

To complete their breeding battery the Kramers went to Holly, Colorado to purchase Thirsty, a son of Leo. Instead, they came away with the yearling colt Thirsty Jr. The Leo blood infused a smaller, "typier" bloodline into their program. "Just good all-around horses," Abarr recalls.

Binion, meanwhile, had a constant stream of stallions moving in and out of eastern Montana. "Daddy always ran at least 200 mares so we had 15 to 20 head of stallions around all the time," remembers his daughter, Brenda Michael. Notable among these stallions were Rodeo Buck, a dun colt purchased from Hoss Inman in Colorado and Stan The Man, a Top Deck son out of California. Rodeo Buck progeny quickly scattered to area ranches and arenas while the Stan the Man colts became known as "big circle" horses that could carry cowboys all day. Another stallion in the battery, and Brenda Michael’s personal favorite, was Bob Levis, a 1956 sorrel of Gold Mount and Norfleet breeding.

Garfield County rancher Phillip Murnion bought many Binion horses through the years and remembers Stan the Man and Bob Levis well. "Bob Levis was Brenda’s barrel horse," he recounts. "He was a very nice horse. I owned a stallion, Walkin Man, that was by Stan the Man and out of a Bob Levis mare. He was a great horse, easy to break. One of the two best horses I’ve ever owned in my life."

A later Binion sire, On The Money Red, still influences the breed directly today as a leading sire and grandsire of barrel horses.

The third major component of the Kramer program came to Montana from the famous JA Ranch of the Texas panhandle. J.B. Jordan, a Big Dry rancher, bought Side Twist, a gray son of Hard Twist from the JA but didn’t own him long before the Kramers acquired him. Like his famous sire, Side Twist was known to be very fast but noticeably ornery. "He was a little busy," Crowder remembers. "He and his colts were fine if you didn’t mess with them, but if you picked on ‘em they’d ante up."

By the early ‘60s the Quarter horse dominated the northern plains. The Kramers bought 80 acres outside of Billings where they built a large indoor arena and training facility. Bobby, who was eventually enshrined in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, spent much of her time there building a nationally recognized cutting and reining horse program with Crowder.

Both the Kramers and Binion helped carry the breed forward through the Seventies. Tragically, Bud Kramer died in a truck accident north of Miles City in 1979. The ranch near Cohagen was soon sold, but Bobby and Crowder continued their program in Billings where Bobby remained active with horses into her late 80s. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 91. Crowder now runs the Kramer-Crowder operation with his wife, Linda.

Benny Binion bred top Quarter Horses, and lots of them, through the 80s until dying of heart disease on Christmas Day, 1989. The Montana ranch remained in the family until its sale in 1997. A final dispersal of the ranch’s horses drew a crowd of buyers from all over the nation. Many came for a last chance at Binion breeding while others probably wanted to own a piece of history and take home a horse with Binion’s TJ brand.

The Big Dry is still big, often dry, and vastly open. There are more fences, bigger wheat ranches, and fewer horses than when Binion and the Kramers saddled their ponies for a day’s ride. And while Benny, Bud, and Bobby may be gone their stamp remains on the Montana horse industry and will for years to come.