White Hat




By Jim Overstreet

Jim Overstreet on Mae in Great Falls, Montana in 1976
Jim Overstreet on Mae in Great Falls, Montana in 1976
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I rode over the rise toward home.  A line of a dozen horses trotted across the meadow below me.  A big, roan mare toward the back flexed all four legs and took a few steps in a kind of odd squat.  She straightened up for a couple steps then dropped to her knees and then the ground.  She was obviously in terrible pain.  Her month-old foal circled with alarm then sneaked close enough to touch her with his nose.   The mare rose but quickly dropped back down and writhed in the grass.  Resisting the urge to run, I kicked the colt I was riding and trotted rapidly to the barn.

If I had a favorite horse, this sick mare was probably it.  She and I had a long and sometimes glorious history.  I called her Mae, but her registered name was Lady Lou Hancock.  Her sire was Osage Roan, a son of Little Roan Hancock and her mother was a daughter of Leo Hancock who was by Leo and out of a Joe Hancock daughter.  In addition to Leo and the Hancock in her pedigree, she had more speed on both sides. Osage Roan’s mother was by Osage Red, a son of Question Mark who tore up the tracks in California during the late ‘40s.  Her mother’s dam was by Stormy Weather, a son of Lucky Strike, whose colts all seemed to have a lot of speed.

I tied my colt in the barn, grabbed a halter and returned to the meadow.  Mae had been up and down a time or two while I was gone but hadn’t moved far.  She was down again when I got there.  I haltered her and convinced her to get up, and then led her to the corrals.  I knew it was colic or worse but inspected her all over hoping to find a bee sting or something that might cause these symptoms.  There was nothing.  I sprinted to the house and reached a vet on the second try.

My dad ran Mae’s mother on a share deal with Earl and Alice Holt who owned her.  She was a big unbroke mare that you could catch and lead if you did everything just right.  The first time I noticed Mae, she and a half dozen other youngsters crowded around a feeder as my brother and I walked through the corral.  Mae spooked and jumped over the feeder.  At the time I had been riding a few hunters and I took note.  She was a gangly, plain-looking roan filly whose legs were a little longer than her mates.  I kept an eye on the mare for the next couple of years, but I was going to college out of state and never laid a hand on her.  Dad figured she belonged to the Holts.

When Mae was two, I worked a deal with them to break her and to split the money when we sold her.   The first year I only rode her a couple of weeks.  She showed no inclination to buck and broke easily. The second summer, I used her to move cows.  She was never nasty, but she wanted to do everything at a run if I would let her—uphill or down, it didn’t matter—and she didn’t like me slowing her down.  Everything she did happened suddenly.  From stop to full speed was a matter of one stride.  Even her turns were sudden.  I heeled a few hoof-rot heifers on her that summer.  With calf roping in mind, I taught her to track cattle but avoided heading big cattle.  Even then, I could tell she had a lot of speed.  She also had an extraordinary amount of stamina. I put hours and hours and miles and miles on her.  Sometimes I nearly had to exhaust her to get her to walk to the barn. That fall, I roped calves in an arena on her for two weeks. The first time I chased a calf out of the box, she ran so fast that for a few strides I thought she might be running away.   After the second lesson it also became obvious that she had the most natural, calf-busting stop imaginable.

It seemed like it took the vet forever to get to my place even though it was a trip of only six miles. “She’s got colic,” he said, “or a twisted gut.”  Twisted gut?  At the time, that was a death sentence in our part of the country.  He gave her several shots, painkillers and muscle relaxants, I think, and listened to her abdominal cavity.  He didn’t say much and we waited.

Winter quarter, the year Mae turned five, I attended Montana State University to pick up a few credits to graduate.  I practiced with the rodeo team.  For a month or so, I used another mare that I had been competing on.  The calves were big and as they grew, we’d gone from tying them in the ten to twelve second range to the fourteen to sixteen range.  I decided it would be good for Mae to expose her to the noisy indoor arena and all the strange horses.  At first, I had to lope her quite awhile to ride her down enough to cope with it all.  But she ran so hard and stopped so much harder that suddenly, I was back to tying those calves in the ten to twelve second range.  By this time she had gotten fairly tall, 15-2 or better.  She was long and slim, almost thoroughbred looking.  She had a big head and a too-long neck.  On the positive side, she had a long sloping hip and a lot of bone.  But by most people’s standards she was downright ugly when she was standing still.  Despite her size, she got in the ground low enough that she was easy for me to step away from to get to a calf.   I managed to rope at the college or with a local roping club six days a week for three weeks or a month.  The old hands in the area just shook their heads at how hard she ran and stopped.  I thought I was a great rope horse trainer.

Later that spring I took her to California for a few weeks.  We placed in our first rodeo at Folsom.  We got out late on a big Charlois calf in Cottonwood but caught up quickly.  Afterward, Walt Woodard’s dad, Sheldon, found us in the parking lot, “How’s that mare bred?” he wanted to know.  “She can really run.”  We placed another time or two and won at Stony Ford before going home to Montana. I’ve never been on a horse I thought could touch her in the length of an arena.

I had always had ambitious goals in the rodeo arena but only sporadic success.  Riding Mae, I knew I could do much better.  However, I had a problem, I didn’t own her.  I was still riding her on my original agreement to sell her and split with the Holts.  When I went to see them, I figured that I would be able to buy them out for what she would have sold for before I broke her.  At first they talked about keeping her for their son in case he ever wanted to learn to rope.  Then, after an hour or so we arrived at a price over three times what I had planned on paying.  I left a little stunned by the price but extremely relieved to finally own Mae.

Riding my “new” horse, I was soon in the race for the year end Championship of the Montana Rodeo Association.  I missed a calf at a late rodeo and we ended up the year in third place.  For the next two years, we placed almost every weekend.  I was MRA Champion Calf Roper in 1975 and 1976.  She was calf-roping horse of the year in 1975 and should have been the next year.

Bill Armitage, a rancher neighbor, attended the 1975 Fourth of July rodeo in Ennis with his brother-in-law.   I rode into the arena with Mae’s thick tail nearly dragging.  She held her homely head high with her chin tucked.  Bill told me later that his brother-in-law shook his head in disgust and said, “With all the horses the Overstreets raise, you’d think Jim could ride something better than that when he comes to town.”  It was a fairly tough roping for those days with several ten second times already recorded.   I let the calf move more than I had planned and had to hurry.  Mae boiled out of the box in her usual burst, positioned me for a quick shot, and buried up as took my slack.  I stepped away and tied the calf to win.  When Bill told me this story, I acknowledged that Mae was not pretty to look at; and he agreed with me that she was a beautiful rope horse.

Late in the summer of ’76, at a rodeo in Ronan, Montana where it had rained the day before and there was a slick spot in the box.  It was a short score and I drew a hard running calf.  When the gate man’s hands started to move, I let Mae start.  The gate hung up before it opened, and I checked hard.  Mae skidded on the slick spot and for a moment, I thought she was going to fall over backward on me.  Of course, the gate man hurried and opened the gate as quick as he could.  By the time we got straightened up, the calf was a full third of the way down the arena.  For some reason, instead of pulling up and going home, I let Mae run.  We must have been running in AAA time when we overtook that calf.  I roped as quick as I could and Mae locked up in her crunching stop just like on any other run.  As I recall, we tied that calf in a short 11 and took home third money.

Mae had one normally good trait that occasionally got us too far down the arena and out of the money.  She was very cowy.  She would have followed a calf through a maze if I’d asked her to.  Twice, hard running calves started ducking before we caught up.  She followed each duck from too far back and it took us a while to get within roping range.

In 1977 we led the PRCA Montana Summer Circuit for most of the year.  Unfortunately, I was unable to practice for or compete in the mid-winter finals, so we did not win another championship. Mae and I only rodeoed occasionally after that.  Over the years, she continued to grow and thicken.  By the time she was ten, she probably stood about 15-3 and weighed over 1300#.

Eventually, I bred her.  The foal at her side as the vet and I looked on helplessly waiting for the colic to subside was her second.   Time passed and there was no improvement. By then, I don’t think we could have gotten her on her feet.  The vet asked if I wanted him to “open her up.” I knew that the chances of her surviving abdominal surgery there in the dirt was probably close to zero.  Hauling her for twelve hours to the Veterinary College at Fort Collins was out of the question.  As I was weighing the choices, Mae lifted her head, looked right at me and nickered.  She seemed beg for me to stop the pain.  Her toughness and life-long independence made this plea even more heart-wrenching.  I still get a hollow feeling when I think about it.  Walking to the house with long quick strides, I returned with my pistol.

Lady Lou Hancock—Mae—is buried on a knoll above the meadow where she died.  I often think of her with fondness when I ride past.  In many ways she was the epitome of the good old-time Hancock horse—hard running and hard stopping with a lot of cow sense. I’m sure she liked roping calves every bit as much as I did. She was a perfect fit for me.

This article appeared in the Western Horseman magazine and in 2008 won first place in the Feature Article category from the American Horse Publications.

© J.R.Overstreet

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