Buster himself was a wild colt – headstrong and rebellious. He dropped out of school and ran away from home when he was but 14. Had Buster been born in New York City rather than in West Texas, he may have been just another social casualty. Instead, he grew up to become one of the most celebrated horsemen and cattlemen of the 20th century.
Some years ago, his longtime friend, Bud Wellman, a Texas history professor at Jarvis Christian College, wrote a 150-page manuscript chronicling his exploits. After reading it, Welch dismissed it as “just a bunch of bragging.”Wellman, however, was not insulted. He’d worked for Welch, lived on his ranch, bird-dogged him everywhere, and back-tracked to all the places he’d been. Wellman knew that when it came to Buster, it was hard to exaggerate.
Welch is the Paul Bunyan of the cowboy world – bigger than life and every bit as entertaining – with one central difference. Most of the Buster stories are true. Yet Wellman also understood that Welch is a private man – a person who prefers to be the spinner of tales rather than the central character in someone else’s story.
Buster was born near Sterling City, Texas, on May 23, 1928, the youngest of eight children. After his mother died, his grandparents, Bud and Elizabeth Welch, stepped in to rear him, doting on him as only grandparents can.
His granddad was a Mills County sheriff and deputy sheriff for nearly 20 years – swapping roles with a fellow officer because of four-year term limits. Bud was also a stock farmer, so Buster was raised around horses and cattle.
When his dad, Charles, remarried and settled in Midland, Buster returned to the clan. Yet he never quite settled in. After all that solitary attention, being one of 12 children didn’t suit. At age 14, Buster stole away in the night on a broncy gelding named Handsome Harry.
He rode 45 miles to Foy and Leonard Proctor’s ranch southwest of Midland. Foy didn’t think twice about hiring him. It was 1942 and the country was engaged in World War II. Men were in short supply. Buster had visions of being a cowboy, but in the beginning, he was given menial tasks.
“I was more of a flunkie than anything else,” Buster recalled. “People used to talk about the energy shortage back in the ’70s. Heck, they didn’t know what an energy shortage was. I was 16 before I ever knew my name wasn’t ‘Get Wood.’ ”
His greatest education came while holding the cuts as Foy and Leonard worked the herd. It fueled a desire. One day, he wanted to be the one making those cuts. He realized that the success or failure of a ranch depended on those decisions.
“I studied Foy and Leonard,” Buster recalled. “They had gone to college, which was unusual, and I knew they were smart. They were also real good horsemen and good cowmen. They had a quiet way of riding horses. They knew when to ride up and they knew when to pull up. Their horses didn’t chase the cattle, they handled ’em.”
Their horses ran hard and stopped straight, hocks in the dirt, heads low. They didn’t toss their heads when they hit those stops, like so many Welch had seen. And they changed direction with a great economy of motion – right back through themselves.
But Buster was restless. At 16, he left the Proctors to take a job at Roy Parks’ ranch west of Odessa. “I wanted to get closer to town. … to the perfume and the gas fumes,” he laughed.
He stayed a winter and a summer – long enough for Roy Parks Jr. to help him develop his roping skills. It also gave him a chance to observe Rastus MacIntosh and Andy Hensley work cutting horses. Buster would later come up against Hensley and Royal King in the show pen. “They were hard to beat,” he confirmed.
His tenure at Parks’ ranch was short, however. A bunkhouse mate had an affinity for drink, and the liquor made him mean. Buster felt it prudent to lend a hand elsewhere.
Cowboy jobs weren’t hard to come by. Buster was a good hand and a hard worker, attributes that were welcome at Reynolds Cattle Co., the Pitchfork, the Four Sixes and elsewhere. He also worked for James Kenney, a tremendous horseman whom Buster considers one of his greatest mentors.
As a young cowboy, Buster spent many a day breaking horses. Over one period of about 18 months, Buster saddled approximately 200 head of horses.
“That’s true,” Buster confirmed. “I broke 108 horses for the X-es, (Reynolds Cattle Co.). Then when I left there, I went to Midland and broke about 100 head of horses for Mr. Bob Hill, who was selling them just as fast as I could get them broke.
“There hadn’t been many horses broke during the war, and in both sets, they ran up to 8 years old,” he explained. “But those older horses were easier to break. They were more sensible. You could ride them and go on.
“The way we broke horses then, we didn’t do all this fancy stuff – horse whispering. We four-footed them,” he recalled, referring to the practice of roping a horse’s legs, laying the animal down, then tying the feet. By subduing a horse in such a manner, a lot could be accomplished in a hurry – feet could be shod, manes and tails trimmed, headgear applied.
“At the X-es, I had eight big, old wagon wheels that somebody had rigged up with bull rings,” Buster said. “And I had a big, stout ol’ crippled horse that I’d use to lead them out there with. I’d tie the horses to those wagon wheels with my staking hackamore. They could run and jerk the wheels around and drag them about a foot.
“The next morning, I’d go out there and tie a foot up, sack ’em and hobble ’em, and saddle ’em. Then I’d take the staking hackamore off and slip my riding hackamore on, let the foot down, unhobble ’em, get on and just let ’em go off.
“Twenty miles I could ride,” Welch recalled, “and not many of them bucked. I found that if I didn’t fool with their heads, they’d just get to long-trotting. I believe that fooling with the head is what makes them blow up,” he explained.
The idea was simply to get the horses cowboy broke.
Of course, Welch never did have a problem staying atop a horse. Bud Wellman recalls watching Buster break colts at the King Ranch. A horse might be bucking up a storm and Buster would be holding a conversation as though he were sitting on the fence, all the while petting the horse’s neck.
Buster’s oldest son, Ken, tells of a time when a man showed up at the ranch with a horse so broncy that it had bucked off several good cowboys. Upon hearing the problem, Buster politely said he was sorry he couldn’t help him, but he wasn’t in the business of riding broncs; he trained cutting horses.
Exasperated, the owner baited him. “ ‘When people told me you were the best horseman around, they didn’t tell me you were a coward,’ ” Ken recalled the man saying. “Well, that made Dad mad.”
The next thing he knew, his dad had the horse saddled and was on the bronc’s back. “He spurred everywhere that horse had hair,” Ken recalled, “but that horse never threw him. When Dad got done, he handed the reins to me and said, ‘If you want to ride saddle broncs so bad, you take him.’ ” So Ken did. The horse bucked him off three times before Ken finally got him lined out.
Ken went on to become a top saddle bronc rider. He won the Rodeo Cowboys Association Rookie of the Year title in 1972. Buster never discouraged him from satisfying his curiosity about his ability. His dad’s only advice was not to make rodeoing his life. After his championship year, Ken returned to ranching.
And lest you get the wrong impression, Buster was not one to pick fights with horses. Ken recalls being reprimanded by his father for being overly rough.
“I was pretty Western when I was young,” he admitted. “One time, my Dad looked at the spur marks I’d left on a horse, and he just shook his head and said, ‘I’ll sure be glad when you get over that.’ ”
Not surprisingly, his children grew up with a fierce determination to make it on their own. Buster’s second son, Greg, for example, rose through the ranks to win more than $4 million in cutting before dying of cancer in 2004.
Ben Jenkins gave Buster his first real opportunity to train a cutting horse. When Jenkins sold his ranch, he gave Buster half-interest in a gelding named Candy. Buster took Candy when he went to work for George Glass. Glass ran about 900 head of cattle and calved year-round, so Buster always had some good excuse to work Candy while he was tattooing, weaning and branding.
One weekend, Buster hooked up with a couple of buddies and went to a small rodeo at Penwell. Rumor had it that Foy Proctor had brought a horse with a strong desire to buck. “Now, I’d ridden Foy’s horses,” Buster grinned, “and they were paying $5 to ride it.
“Buster Cole was having a cutting there, too. There were just three of them, and I watched ’em, and I thought, ‘Shoot, ol’ Candy is better than that.’ So I got my friends to haul the horse back over there. I rode Foy’s old bucking horse and made $5, and I won the cutting and I think I got about $15. Then Ben Jenkins bought me out of ol’ Candy.”
It was Buster’s first profit in the cutting horse world. It was a powerful enticement.
His next investment was a horse named Chickasha Mike, purchased in 1950 for $125. The 6-year-old stallion was untouched, arriving with a witch’s knot in his tail, which Buster promptly cut off right below the dock. Although it didn’t do much for Mike’s appearance, that short tail didn’t affect his cow sense any.
“He made a cutting horse right quick,” Buster said.
“That first summer, I’d take my bedroll and Chickasha Mike to the rodeos and sleep out and eat at the hamburger stand. And you know what? Nearly every one of those cuttings would pay around $500 in cash!” he said incredulously. “I think that summer I won around $7,000.”
Buster says the old-timers thought he put on too much of a circus act with his horse. But, of course, the judges didn’t hold it against him. Welch eventually sold Chickasha Mike to Bill Hale, a Mercury-Ford Dealer in Odessa, Texas, for $10,000.
“I got a brand-new four-door Mercury, loaded, for $3,700 of it and the rest in cash,” Buster said slowly, still savoring the recollection. “He was a good, tough little horse. He really got me started.”
Of course, by the time Buster sold Mike, he already had an ace up his sleeve – a mare by the name of Marion’s Girl, owned by businessman Marion Flynt. Buster describes Marion’s Girl as a horse so finely balanced that at more than 15 hands and 1,350 pounds, people still referred to her as “that little mare.” She suited him to a tee.
In 1954, Buster won his first NCHA World Championship on Marion’s Girl. They did it again in 1956, with Chickasha Mike and Leonard Proctor in second place right behind them.
In the 1950s, Buster was doing day-work and scrabbling to get a foothold in the cattle business. He had married at 19, and it wasn’t long before he had four children to support. Ken arrived in 1949, Greg in ’52, Ruth Ann in ’56, and Georgia in ’60.
Although he was training quite successfully for the public and already had two World Championships under his belt, Buster considered horses a secondary occupation. He envisioned himself a rancher. He was leasing what he describes as “little rawhide deals” – small, worn-out parcels that no one else wanted – and running cattle.
“When the drought hit in the ’50s, it immediately took me out,” Buster said. “But the good thing for me – not for anybody else – was it stopped everybody from making money. Cattle went from 50 cents down to 15 cents.”
Many cattle growers didn’t survive. As people got out, good ranching country finally opened up. Determined to make it, Buster was then able to lease better land and to stock it with the help of his friends at Midland National Bank.
When Buster walked in to sign for his loan, bank owner Andy Faskins called Buster over and slapped him hard in the stomach with his big Scotsman’s hand. He told the president (who only days before had refused Welch the money for cattle he’d already contracted for), “As long as this boy’s belly stays that hard, you lend him all the money he wants.”
“I was never turned down for a loan after that,” Buster asserted.
However, staying afloat in the cattle business was never a simple matter. There were many times when Buster’s horsemanship skills kept his ranching enterprises alive.
In the ’60s and ’70s, everyone involved in cutting was trying to figure out ways to make it grow.
“There were 10,000 wild ideas going around and probably three of them were good,” Buster laughed. “I think Marion Flynt and Zack Wood were doing us a favor by keeping us from chasing every rabbit that jumped up,” he said of the former NCHA president and the executive director.
One idea that did spring to life, however, was a cutting horse futurity. Horses could not be shown prior to the event, which kept the playing field level and kept owners making their futurity payments. Not everyone was gung-ho, of course, so Buster kept a low profile and quietly lobbied to break down resistance.
“Like the car dealers, we wanted everyone to have a new model every year. It gave people a reason to breed for cutting horses,” Buster explained. “And boy did it work – far better than we ever thought it would!”
Buster won the first futurity, held in Sweetwater, Texas, in 1962, riding Money’s Glo for Charlie Boyd. He won the futurity four more times after that: in 1963 on Chickasha Glo; in ’66 on Rey Jay’s Pete; and in 1971 on Dry Doc. In 1977, Buster won it for a record fifth time aboard Peppy San Badger (Little Peppy). What’s more, Buster had the double satisfaction of seeing his son, Greg, win the NCHA Futurity on Little Tenina, a daughter of Little Peppy, in 1991.
Those who know Buster agree he was extremely competitive, yet he wasn’t obsessed with winning.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care. Wife Sheila dismisses that notion by recalling the occasions when she and son Greg got fired as turnback help when things didn’t quite unfold as Buster had planned. He’d soon get over his ire, however, and they’d return to their corners.
Ken once overheard a young cowboy ask his dad what it was like to win one of the big Fort Worth events. Buster replied that while it was certainly exciting and lots of fun, in truth, once he’d made his run, his mind turned to other things – primarily what needed to be done back home.
Longtime friend Kay Floyd, who worked for Marion Flynt, says Buster’s nonchalance could drive her former employer to distraction. While Flynt was worrying about whether Buster was going to win a title with one of his horses, Buster would be up in the stands trying to win a few dollars playing gin rummy. To Flynt, Buster didn’t take showing seriously enough.
Buster admits there is some truth to that. He once told a writer that he loved showing cutting horses like another person loves dancing, “but dancing wouldn’t be your life.”
“I’m not belittling cutting,” he assured, “and I’m real thankful for what it’s done for me, but I didn’t figure on it for my life.”
It’s an interesting perspective from a man who accrued more than $1.6 million in NCHA lifetime earnings and sold millions of dollars worth of horses based on their potential to win.
Yet Buster has always believed that great horsemanship is simply a tool of the cowman’s trade – and what Buster wanted to be first and foremost was a cowman.
King Ranch heir Helen Groves showed with Buster for many years and was the beneficiary of much sage advice. “Buster often said: ‘You must meet all things with equanimity. You win, you’re happy; you lose, you’re disappointed – but don’t let either one of them carry you away.’
“There are many things that Buster said that are good life philosophies,” Groves observed.
Sharing philosophy is second nature to Buster. Although he never finished his formal education, he is a scholarly man with a penchant for history and politics and economics. He’s got a quote for every occasion and is especially fond of reciting quips from Winston Churchill, the witty and irreverent former prime minister of England.
Buster has a knack, too, for getting along with people from all walks of life – rich, poor, famous or infamous. He is the proverbial magnet, with an easy charm that beguiles men, women and children alike.
By the 1960s, Buster had already hit his stride showing cutting horses. However, it was still a relatively small community. He felt the key to making it pay better – in addition to making it more fun – was getting more people involved.
He was leasing the 18 Ranch near Roscoe, Texas. Heeding the advice of longtime cowman Roy Spires, who predicted the filaree – a purple-flowered native groundcover which cattle adore – was going to be so plentiful “that the Bank of America won’t be able to stock this ranch,” Buster had gone back to the bank. He left with a note for $225,000 and promptly bought 2,500 head of steers for $95 apiece.
With plenty of inventory, Buster got the brainstorm to start a cutting school. He printed up fliers and sent them out. The response was immediate. Trainers, aspiring trainers and non-pros alike wanted to ride with him.
Kay Floyd remembers attending one of Buster’s schools when she was just 16. On the night she arrived, everyone was sitting around the bunkhouse talking and laughing. Suddenly, someone started shrieking. Everyone ran outside as though a fire alarm had gone off. Turns out, someone had spied an armadillo. The chase was on. Guests wanted to get a look at the unusual critter while the Texans wanted to turn it into soup. At Buster’s cutting schools, there was always something hilarious going on, Floyd says.
More impressive, Floyd remembers, is how quickly horses and riders improved under Welch’s instruction. When Buster saw fit to swing aboard someone’s horse, amazing transformations could occur in just a few minutes.
“I swear he’s half horse,” Floyd observed.
What’s more, Buster’s enthusiasm for cutting was contagious. Floyd said that at first she just wanted to watch. But by day three, she couldn’t wait to get on a cutting horse.
“They say you never really learn a subject until you teach it,” Buster said. “I think I enjoyed that aspect more than anything. It made me really understand what I was trying to do. Even though you know how to do a lot of things, you don’t always know why. And in the doing, you discover the why. Then you can improve on the how.”
Buster loved the synergy that existed among the horsemen and women who came to ride and exchange ideas, many of them already top hands. “Boy, you had to be on your toes to stay up with them,” he chuckled.
Even when there weren’t schools, young trainers appeared on the doorstep like pilgrims. Many stayed on to work. However, Buster was different with the men and women in his employ. He rarely instructed or advised. Instead, he allowed them to watch and do. He never wanted them to feel as though they were under a microscope.
But he also despairs that educating riders was more challenging than training horses. He hoped more of them would pick up on the subtleties that motivate a cow horse, rather than being aggressive with spurs or reins.
“I can show someone how to run and slide one on his hocks right quick, but I can’t show him how to get into that horse’s mind so he wants to,” Buster noted. “I was so sold on the purity of a cow horse. That’s what I wanted to get across.”
Sheila admits that it was hard not to be captivated by the man, but she was more than a little skeptical of his training methods. She had brought a horse that was bad about leaking out from the herd. Sheila was astonished, however, when Buster set about fixing the problem by letting the horse come out farther and farther with the cow.
What could he be thinking?
Although she could not bring herself to tell him, she thought she had a better approach to solving the difficulty. She laughs now that she ever presumed to know more about training a horse than he did. What she quickly came to understand is that Buster respects a horse’s intelligence – and uses it to best advantage.
Buster let her horse get himself into trouble. When he got out of position, he then had to hustle to keep from losing the cow. Buster knew if the horse had any sense at all, he would soon figure it out without a lot of babysitting from his rider. And that’s just how it worked.
One of the things Sheila still admires about her husband is his problem-solving skills. He never underestimates anyone or anything, and he’s always willing to experiment. In fact, he’s known to ponder problems at length.
For example, one year he went to Colorado with a load of sour cattle. All he had to work in was a broken-down round corral. As he made the pen serviceable, a Burl Ives’ song about “a string with no end” kept running through his head. That soon collided with thoughts from an article he had read about deafness and circular patterns of hearing. The author had related it to other circular patterns in the universe – the rotations of sun, earth and moon. That led Buster to think about the circular nature of a roundup and how traditional cowmen worked their cuts out of a circular herd with no fences to break the flow.
Before long, Buster had figured out how to make best use of that round corral. He put his herd in the center and worked a single cow around it. This simple idea revolutionized the way an entire industry trains cutting horses.
Of course, Buster’s brain has always worked overtime. He earned a reputation for being a hard-driving employer, notorious for starting workdays at 3 or 4 a.m.
“No one will work you any harder than Buster does,” Bud Wellman confirmed. “He has a way of putting the psych on you.”
But those who worked for Buster say they never resented the back-breaking pace, because when it came to putting in a day’s work, Buster more than matched his men stride for stride. Today, he requires more shut-eye than the four or five hours he used to operate on, but he still has that restless energy that makes it hard for him to sit still for too long.
Friends say that Sheila has been an ideal partner for Buster – intelligent, strong and glamorous, yet very down-to-earth. However, she was never a woman to be relegated to home and hearth. She met Buster when she was horseback and always intended to stay that way. She’s happy to ride the roundups and wields a vaccination gun as skillfully as anyone during a branding. And, of course, she’s been a formidable force in the cutting pen.
They have been married for 36 years, having wed in 1972. Their union was not without its complications, however. Sheila had two children, Dolin and Nina, from her first marriage, and, of course, Buster had four from his. Combining households was never as simple as The Brady Bunch.
Yet the partnership has endured.
There is a tremendous amount of affection and respect between them. Buster calls his wife “Mo,” a name bestowed by their granddaughter, Whitney, when she was a baby just learning to talk. Buster can distinguish Sheila’s slender figure on horseback from a quarter-mile away, a simple silhouette backlit against a morning sky.
“Buster and I believe we are soulmates,” Sheila said simply.
She is a fiercely competitive person and liked nothing better than being on the road showing horses. She admits she has not always been the best about accepting instruction from her spouse. Buster’s ability to keep helpful suggestions to himself until asked has been a blessing to their marriage.
“You know, she’s won more than a million dollars in cutting,” Buster noted with a simple measure of pride.
And while never one to be overly sentimental when it comes to horses and horse trading, the only animal Buster never put a price tag on was Sheila’s Doc O’Leo. They were offered more than $125,000 for him, but Buster turned it down. His wife adored the horse, and, over her protests, Buster reasoned that taking the money “wouldn’t change their lifestyle one bit.” Sheila went on to win nearly $200,000 with Doc O’Leo, including an NCHA Non-Pro World Championship.
King Ranch era
Another era in Buster’s life began when he met Tio Kleberg and Joe Stiles at the 1973 NCHA Futurity. Buster had placed third on a horse that traced to King Ranch bloodlines; the two men were anxious to talk to him.
King Ranch had long been known for its working stock – as well as for its Thoroughbred racing bloodlines – but had strayed from producing and promoting arena horses. Kleberg and Stiles wanted to change that. Recognizing opportunity, Buster told them he had just the fix – a stud by the name of Mr San Peppy.
Buster had won the NCHA Derby on Mr San Peppy in 1972, and had purchased him in partnership with Jay Agnew for $50,000 from Gordon Howell. Mr San Peppy, of course, was of King Ranch lineage through his dam, Peppy Belle. He was standing fifth in the NCHA Open top 10 in 1973. Buster made it clear to Kleberg and Stiles that his personal goal was to make the stallion a World Champion.
That certainly got their attention.
The next year, King Ranch leased Mr San Peppy with an option to buy him at year’s end. By then, Stiles and Kleburg so respected Buster, too, they asked him to come on board as a breeding and training consultant.
Because the cattle business “looked like it was about to go in the tank,” Buster weighed his options and accepted the position. He asked Ken to manage the home ranches, while he, Sheila and the younger kids packed up and moved to Kingsville.
Buster signed on for one year and stayed for eight. He continued in a consulting capacity for seven more years after that.
During his tenure with the King Ranch, Buster won two Open World Championships with Mr San Peppy (1974 and 1976) and made him the first horse to earn more than $100,000 in NCHA open competition.
In 1977, Buster won the NCHA Futurity with Peppy San Badger, a Mr San Peppy son. Helen Groves describes it as one of the most memorable events she’s ever witnessed, on par with seeing War Admiral win the Belmont Stakes wire-to-wire.
Buster, too, counts the Futurity Championship on Little Peppy among his career highlights. He rode to the herd that night with utter confidence, believing his mercurial horse was too quick, too strong and too smart to get outfoxed by a mortal cow.
In fact, less than two weeks after the Futurity, Buster bought Little Peppy from King Ranch, after managers decided that the ranch really didn’t need a junior sire. Their goal in acquiring Little Peppy had been to promote his sire. But Buster felt it would be a mistake to let him go, so he dug deep into his own pockets.
In 1978, Buster won the NCHA Derby with Little Peppy and showed him to 10th place in the year-end standings. At that point, ranch directors reconsidered their need for a junior sire, and Buster agreed to sell Little Peppy back to the King Ranch. In 1980, Welch and Little Peppy hit the campaign trail again and ended the season as Reserve Open World Champions.
As both Mr San Peppy and Peppy San Badger began to prove themselves as sires, King Ranch climbed to the top of the cutting horse breeders list. Buster, in turn, had the satisfaction of training and showing some of the stallions’ best offspring, such as Haidas Little Pep, Peppymint Twist and Miss Peppy Also.
The real beauty of the arrangement, in Buster’s view, was that he also got to use these horses for ranching. Welch often commuted home to West Texas to gather cattle, work the herd and rope at brandings. He believes it made them better horses.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Their years at the King Ranch were heady times, to be sure. But Buster and Sheila never planned to take up permanent residence in Kingsville. In the early ’80s, they returned to West Texas. Buster continued to train horses and to build a small empire. The family holdings eventually grew to include more than 60,000 acres of leased and owned land.
Buster has always been inclined to stash cattle anywhere there’s good grass. At one time, he ran about 1,500 cow-calf pairs on five different ranches. However, a drought that started in 1994 prompted Buster to reduce his herd to around 1,000 purebred Angus.
For 20-some years, Buster and Sheila have lived near Rotan. Several years ago, they sold the 25,000-acre Double Mountain River Ranch, and moved onto the adjacent 18,000-acre Criswell Ranch, enough, as Buster puts it, “to put meat on the table.”
Two decades ago, he also began marketing calves to Coleman Natural Meats, which fits nicely with his philosophy of herd improvement. He’d rather cull than use implants that can camouflage poor producers. That decision coincided nicely with public demand for naturally grown foods.
“Keeping heifers” with Welch’s “B Lazy W” brand are in high demand by other producers as well. However, that brand is something of a misnomer. There has never been anything lazy about Buster Welch. In recognition of all that he has achieved, Buster has been honored with countless awards. He’s been inducted into several halls of fame.
On May 23, Buster turns 80. But his story is by no means complete.
He still oversees the running of his ranch, and remains a familiar figure at cutting events. And wherever he goes, people gather to talk and listen.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” agreed friend and historian Bud Wellman. This, of course, is the real testament to the man.
Reach Betsy Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org.