A Big Circle Rode Well - Lynne Taylor

Western Horseman

He rode broncs, managed mustangs, headed wrangler crews, and at 70, Lynne Taylor is breeding Quarter Horses for big country and long days.


"When I think of the cowboy of the American West and the qualities you expect in one, like being unpretentious and humble, I think of Lynne Taylor," says cowboy cartoonist Wally Badgett of his fellow Montanan.

Like a good horse of solid color, Taylor may not stand out in a crowd, but when folks have needed a horse hand, and more, he’s one they’ve turned to. And having entered his seventh decade Taylor isn’t slowing down, he’s just choosing his challenges more carefully.

"At my age I really don’t need to be starting colts," says the slim, soft-spoken cowboy from Shepherd, Montana. Up until a couple years ago he was not only starting colts but picking up at rodeos. Today he turns the initial rides over to younger men, like his stepson, Tim Sonberg, but Taylor still polishes a cavvy of colts on 12-hour days behind cattle.

Born near Kaycee, Wyoming in 1935, Lynne relocated to Miles City at 12 when his father came north to trade ranches. A sudden spike in land prices derailed the father’s plan but didn’t kill the boy’s hopes for big country and salty horses. After graduating from high school in 1953 Lynne went to work for Les Boe and Bob Pauley at the local sales yard and at Boe’s sagebrush and gumbo ranch north of town.

"My sole purpose in life then was to ride saddle broncs," Taylor

recalls. Knowing he’d be drafted eventually, he enlisted in the Army. "I was afraid Uncle Sam would call just as I got to riding broncs well so I decided to get it over with." After a tour in Germany, Taylor returned to the states and competed in college rodeo for Colorado State and Dickinson (N.D.) State.

He got his PRCA card in ’59 and for seven years made a living rodeoing and working for big ranches like the famous Kramer Ranch at Cohagen, Montana. The Kramer Ranch ran up to 3000 horses -- Taylor remembers gathering herds that stretched "from skyline to skyline" – and it was here young men came to be hands. When bronc rider Denny Looman made it to the Kramers’ Taylor was already there.

"Lynne was a tough bronc rider and a good bull rider, too," Looman recalls. "But he was an outstanding country cowboy. He rode some bad ones in the hills. He wasn’t scared of nothin’. I had more respect for him than just about anybody." The two would later travel together for years and make their marks on some of rodeo’s best horses.

As rodeo producers as well as ranchers, the Kramers gave Taylor his first job as a pickup man. It was a natural position for a man who liked to go about things in a simple way without drawing attention to himself. He would pickup for 38 years including 14 years for Marvin Brookman.

His bronc riding peaked in the mid-60s and the quiet cowboy probably shone brightest in his hometown during the matched bronc ridings held with the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Taylor, Looman, Johnny Ley, Hi Whitlock, Alvin Nelson, Jim and Tom Tescher and other top cowboys were matched against the best broncs in the nation, horses like Jake, Big John, Sunset Strip, Sage Hen and Indian Sign. A 1965 photo of the contestants by the Western Horseman’s Dick Spencer captured Taylor’s manner. He was the one looking straight at the camera and smiling.

His easy-going ways made him a role model. "He was like a hero to me," says saddle-maker and horse trainer Charley Snell. "There was just something about the guy. I saw him get on some rank, chute-fighting horses but he was always cool as a cucumber." Snell would go on to train under and travel with famed clinician Ray Hunt, but he realizes now it was Taylor who first modeled how to behave around horses. "He showed those horses respect and kindness," he says. "And kindness wasn’t something we talked about back then."

Though quick to laugh and comfortable in range tipis and back-country bars, Taylor never settled for less than competency. "As a pickup man I can’t think of anyone who was better," says Badgett who was a top rough stock rider in the early 70s. "He was always well-mounted and capable and was one of those people you were always glad to see. "

Besides riding broncs and bulls and picking up, Taylor also team-roped off his pickup horses. Badgett once partnered with Taylor in the team roping at Augusta, Montana. "I think it was the only money I ever won team roping," the cartoonist says.

Taylor rode broncs for 20 years, covering many miles and making many friends on the way. In his era he ranks Joker, Jake, Trails End, and Big John as the best saddle broncs and Indian Sign as the rankest. "The best bronc riders I saw were Casey Tibbs, Marty Wood, and Brad Gjermundson," he says. "But the toughest man to put on the ground was Larry Kane. "

In 1966, troubled by loose horses running on federal land in the Missouri Breaks, the government offered Taylor a job suited to his skills: gathering wild horses just north of his old stomping grounds at the Kramer Ranch. A year later he married Marion Sonberg, a pretty young divorcee with three children: Sandy, Christy, and Tim. Five years later the family moved to Billings when he was assigned management of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.

In Taylor, the government had a man who knew horses and how to handle them in rough country. And the Pryors are rough. From the 8000-foot Dry Head Overlook to the bottom of the Bighorn Canyon, the Pryors are cut by nasty, brushy, rocky draws and populated with bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bears. "When I started there were about 200 horses and we culled them down to about 120, and tried to keep them there," he says. This was before aircraft were allowed and the gathers were by horseback. Remnants of Taylor’s lodge pole horse traps can still be found on East Pryor Mountain.

"We also cut mustang studs for other wild horse ranges," he says. "We could generally cut 50 head a day, or about 10 head an hour, but one time we cut 300 horses in three days."

His next challenge was perhaps his largest and would test his management of both horses and men.

When the Latigo Corporation, the driving force behind the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive of 1989, needed a head wrangler for its 60-mile, week-long event they turned to Taylor and entrusted him with a crew of 80 men of his picking and the care of 3,337 horses. There was a lot of work, some fun, and a few wrecks along the way, but the cattle, horses, wagons, and riders eventually made it from Roundup to Billings. Speaking of those wranglers, Taylor says: "There will never be a crew of men like that put together again."

The Montana Centennial Cattle Drive celebrated the past just as the future banged on Taylor’s door with a heavy fist. By 1990 the political turmoil surrounding the wild horse issue had taken its toll on the pragmatic horseman. For 18 years he’d managed the Pryor mustangs with a cowboy’s practicality, but activists, politicians, and environmentalists had become a large part his daily work life.

Finding himself entangled in red tape, he decided to pitch his slack. He grabbed a chance for an early retirement from the BLM and turned his attention to day-working and formulating a Quarter Horse breeding program.

"Through the years I’d rode a lot of good horses and figured I could breed them myself," he says. "I guess the pickup horse was my model. They’re the perfect blend of size, speed, stamina, and heart."

Little did he know he would not only breed horses, he would help preserve and blend two established cowhorse breeding programs.

One day at the Public Auction Yards in Billings Taylor bumped into an old friend, rancher Bub Nunn from the Missouri Breaks. Nunn had brought three weanlings to town from his new Hancock-bred stud, High Rolling Roany. "Roany" was by Roan Prairie by Cibecue Roan by Red Man. Roan Prairie had been a pickup horse, Cibecue Roan a rope horse, and Red Man was well-known as the sire of the great rope horse, Blue Valentine. Taylor purchased Nunn’s colts and kept the best of the three, Roanys Tomcat, as the foundation of his new program.

He picked his mares carefully and ran the horses at ranches he worked for. The final piece in his breeding puzzle came through the Shelhammer Ranch at Melstone. "Time and time again I saw Shelhamer hands roping and doctoring calves on three-year-olds in snaffle-bits," he says. "Those colts were all the same: tough and quick and cowy." And they carried the same blood.

Bob Shelhamer had a quiet but storied breeding program of line-bred "Oswald" horses. He’d heard about the original Oswald, a double-bred Peter McCue, when he made a trip to Kansas in 1958 to buy a Bill Cody stallion. "Everywhere I went people were talking about this Oswald horse," Shelhamer recalls. "But no one knew where he was or if he was alive. They said he was being run in two or three match races in the mornings, contested on in rodeos in the afternoon and kept in a chicken coop."

Three years later Shelhamer learned that Walter Clark of Forsyth, Montana had found the stallion. "I traded for him and began dogging steers off him right away. He was the best dogging horse I ever rode and it was the best trade I ever made, " the 90-year-old Shelhamer says. "I was a happy camper when I got Oswald."

Oswald would produce Oswald’s Pete who sired Mr. Pete Oswald who sired Awesome Pete. When Shelhamer was ready to retire he offered to sell Awesome Pete to Taylor.

"The first time I pulled a rope down on that colt he was three years old," Taylor says. "I roped a big heifer and drug her into a stock trailer. The stud just pinned his ears back and went to work like he’d done it all his life."

Before long Taylor had horses scattered over eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. His marketing plan was to ride colts where they’d be seen, either on big ranches or at jackpot team ropings.

"We were moving a herd of cattle the other day," he says. "I looked around and started counting how many of my colts were bring ridden: five, six, seven, eight. Heck, I think there were nine of my colts there."

Gradually, his horses began moving beyond the short grass prairie. Tom Peila, manager of the large Lookout Ranch in northern California, buys started two-year-olds from Taylor. "There are a lot of what I call ‘half-day’ horses around," Peila says. "You ride them for half a day and they’re done. With Lynne’s horses I know what I’m getting. They’re big and strong and have seen big country. As twos they are full-day horses. As threes they are two-day horses."

PRCA pickup man Duane Gilbert of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming also rides Taylor horses and has a Roanys Tomcat stud on his mares. Trading horses is a way of life for most pickup men. They need to do it to supplement their income. "These Taylor horses are hard for me to part with," Gilbert says. "I want to keep them." One of them, a red roan named Sunday Creek Pete, saw use in 2004 as a three-year-old and was used extensively last year. "He won’t be for sale for the next four, five years, or maybe forever," Gilbert says.

But for his young horses to be good horses they have to see big country and that keeps Taylor riding regularly for a number of big ranches. Marion often rides with him, as does son Tim when he’s not running his own horse business in Florida.

When not moving cattle or cutting studs, Taylor is checking on the mare bunches and yearlings he has scattered from Kaycee to the Missouri Breaks. Somehow, his original trail has been re-ridden and populated with horses of his design. It has been a big circle for Taylor, and one well-ridden, but there are still horizons looming. There are no rocking chairs in his immediate future.

"I guess I’ll stay horseback," he says. "Its all I’ve ever done or wanted to do."