Ben Emison, for more than 50 years a giant in the realm of cutting horses, died Thursday at a Fort Worth area hospital after a brief illness, friends and associates confirmed.
Mr. Emison was 81.
Emison, a member of the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Members Hall of Fame, took on roles as horseman, auctioneer, sales and limited-age show producer, equine insurance agent and author over the course of six decades.
In 2000, with Milt Bradford and Jim Ware, Emison co-founded Western Bloodstock, which they built into one of the largest performance horse sale companies in the country. Ware left the company before it was sold to Jeremy and Candace Barwick in 2013.
The company, which also produced farm and ranch sales and dispersals, became indispensable to the cutting industry through three major sales in Fort Worth — the NCHA Futurity Sale, the NCHA Super Stakes Sale and the NCHA Summer Spectacular Sale.
Since the founding of the company, tens of thousands of horses have gone under the hammer at Western Bloodstock auctions.
“He taught me everything. He was with me every step of the way” since the acquisition, said Jeremy Barwick, who met Emison at a horse sale in Cresson when he was 16. “He was about as good a friend as you can have.”
Emison was a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Cutting Horse Association, an NCHA director and Executive Committee member.
In the 1990s, Emison and the late Bobby Pidgeon produced the Western Heritage series of limited-age events in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, as well as in Texas cities Abilene and Belton. The events became widely popular among trainers and owners because of their sizable purses, and with fans because of an extensive schedule of activities.
In 1997, Emison purchased what became the Ben Emison Insurance Agency.
His contributions to cutting, NCHA officials said in a release, “were invaluable.”
“I don’t know cutting itself would look different,” Barwick said, “but I think the way horse sales are done would look a lot different” without Emison’s influence.
“Ben brought so much integrity to the business. Everyone trusted him. I don’t know anyone who would say a bad word about Ben. He was just a genuine, sincere guy.”
Emison was born in Arkansas and raised a cotton farmer, but it was cowboying he wanted to do, romanced by the way of life while growing up on Roy Rogers movies. After high school, he went to work as a ranch hand in the Ozarks, Texas and Mississippi.
“I had my go-round in cowboyin’, but I didn’t get tuned into the cutting horse business until 1957,” Emison said on the eve of his induction into the NCHA Hall of Fame.
That introduction to cutting was a chance meeting, he recalled, at the 1957 Little Rock Stock Show. It was love at first sight.
He went to work for Edwin Johnson, who taught him how to train.
“I got to do what I always want to do,” Emison said. “Train cutting horses and show.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t his destiny.
While working for Thaggard Farms in the late 1960s in Mississippi. Emison’s boss, Lamar Thaggard, asked him to take on the additional duties of buying and selling horses for the ranch. In doing so, Emison began to learn that side of the business.
He acquired his auctioneer’s license through mentor Ike Hamilton, who, Emison once said, “was like a daddy to me.”
In 1975, Emison began producing his own consignment sales, as well as those at cutting horse shows. A chance meeting in 1979 sealed his fate. Helen Groves, the great-granddaughter of Bob Kleberg and owner of Silverbrook Ranch in Baird, Texas, asked him to manage the Silverbrook Farm sale.
“I was trying to train horses, too,” Emison said in a past interview, but “finally, I just had to give up training [because] I got so busy with the sales.”
“He was a friend to all and he treated everyone with fairness and integrity,” Bradford reportedly told the NCHA. “We were partners for 13 years and in all those years, there was never a cross word between us. It is hard to imagine the Futurity Sale this year without him standing next to the podium with a catalog in his hand.”