(2 of 3 in series)
Quietly known as one of the premier horseman in the northwest, Gary Crowder’s life story could have been written by Charles Dickens, had Dickens known the remoteness of Sun Prairie, Montana where Crowder grew up.
Born one of 16 children, of whom 13 would survive, he left a one-room country school at 14 to work on area ranches after his father died. At 19 he was drafted and served a tour in the Mekong Delta of South Viet Nam. He came home planning to move to Colorado when he crossed paths with legendary cowgirl Bobby Kramer. Twenty years, and thousands of horses later, she would legally adopt him as her son.
This path toward adoption began with a friend’s insistence. "Smokey Armington convinced me to go with him to shoe horses at the Kramer place," Crowder, 63, recalls. "The only Kramer place I knew was the ranch at Cohagen but he said they had a place on the edge of Billings." While they were there Bobby asked Smokey if he knew anyone who would ride colts for 30 days. Smokey nodded at Gary and Bobby talked the young Army vet into staying.
Crowder already had big country credentials; taught as a boy by Smokey’s father, Dutch Armington, who he still considers the best horseman he’s seen. His work for the Kramers stretched from one 30-day stint to another to another. "I did a bit of everything back then, both in Billings and Cohagen," he says. "I helped the Kramers put on rodeos. I picked up, roped calves and team roped. When we started showing I did everything but ride English. I showed at halter, reining, working cowhorse, western pleasure. Bobby wanted to specialize in cutting so we did that."
Still lean and straight as a post, Crowder’s always been a hard worker with the horse’s best interest at heart. "He was a good all-around hand in the hills," says Lorin Abarr who used to work at the Cohagen ranch. "There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on a horse and he was a workin’ sonuvagun." Today the Kramer-Crowder horse ranch is in the hands of Crowder and his wife, Linda, and the days are still long and full of activity. "We train horses and people," Crowder says. They have one son, Kale, a college student.
In 1998 The Quarter Horse Journal featured Crowder in a four-page article on traditional colt training that showed Crowder tying up a colt’s hind leg. He still follows the traditional methods but admits his attitude has mellowed. "I’m more patient than I used to be," he says.
As for being adopted by the Kramers that was a process long in its resolution. "Bud and Bobby talked about it for years," he explains. "Bud had a daughter by a previous marriage but Bobby never had any kids. They were going to incorporate the ranch and I wanted to buy into it but Bud thought adoption might be the better way to go. After Bud got killed we finally got it done."
Some suggest business was as much Bobby’s motivation as affection. Notoriously hard to work for, she may not have wanted to risk losing the person she had often described as "the best hand with a horse I’ve ever seen."
Through 40 years Crowder has racked up a slew of points, awards, titles, and trophies but the hardware and paperwork mean less to him than the horses and the people. When asked who were the best cowboys he’s worked with he mentions Abarr, Lynne Taylor, Don Avila and Doug Williamson. The names of favorite horses scatter like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze. There was Bobby’s first cutting horse Bessie Twist, Best Rocky Twist, Thirsty Bars, Kramer’s Hi Five, Devil Doctor, Kramer’s Doc and Doctor Zee.
But one does stand out. While most breeders want to talk about the ones they’ve raised, Crowder’s favorite was an equine urchin that caught his eye at a herd reduction sale. "Nifty Rags was the best horse I’ve ever rode," he says. She came through a sales ring in 1968 – not long after his return from Viet Nam -- as an abused chariot horse. "She was a real live wire," he recalls. "Really nervous, but she had big, intelligent eyes. I thought I had her bought for $60 but the auctioneer ran me to $220. That was a lot of money back then.
"I used her for a turn-back horse for about three years before she began to settle down. She was half-Thoroughbred. When I got enough points on her for an inspection I was afraid the inspector wouldn’t like her, but he said she was just the type of horse the AQHA needed." Nifty Rags was by Party Rags (TB) and out of Nifty Jeepers. After retirement from competition she raised10 foals. "She was all heart," Crowder remembers fondly.
The abused chariot mare with the Dickensian name and the lean country boy from the north side of the Missouri Breaks shared more than teamwork and accomplishment. Theirs were similar stories. Both traveled a rough trail before given a home and a chance to prove them selves. In their respective ways, they communed from the cup of adoption.