Fort Worth’s new state-of-the-art Dickies Arena has transformed the landscape of the venerable Will Rogers Memorial Center and very soon, a treasured work of art will adorn one of the complex’s entrances to honor a National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) pioneer.
In conjunction with the NCHA Futurity, Buster Welch and his unparalleled contributions to the sport will be immortalized with the unveiling of a larger than life-sized bronze statue of the famed cutter aboard King Ranch’s iconic Peppy San Badger (commonly known as “Little Peppy”) during a ceremony on Dec. 11 at the Dickies Arena.
The program is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. It is open to the public.
“One of our tenets is historical preservation and preserving the history of our sport, and Buster really embodied why cutting became a thing,” said Laura Wood, the executive director of the NCHA Charities Foundation, which is managing the project. “He got the first — along with others — the first Futurity located here in Fort Worth, which really kind of launched all of the wonderful events that we enjoy today here.
“We wanted to honor that.”
Welch, a member of the NCHA, American Quarter Horse Association and Texas Cowboy halls of fame, is both cowboy and competitor.
The 91-year-old, a leading voice for a premier event for 3-year-olds, won a record five NCHA Futurity titles (1962, 1963, 1966, 1971, 1977), as well as four NCHA World championships (1954, 1956, 1974, 1976). In addition to Little Peppy, some of his notable equine partners included Marion’s Girl, Dry Doc, Mr San Peppy and Haidas Little Pep.
The carving, depicting Welch and Little Peppy cutting a Santa Gertrudis cow — a breed developed by the King Ranch — is the handiwork of sculptor Kelly Graham. Based in Weatherford, Graham is a former professional cutting horse trainer who earned more than $326,000 in the show pen, until turning to art full time.
The Welch sculpture has been a three-year project for the artist.
“Every day, this is what I’ve been doing, working on this,” he said.
It’s also a little bigger than life-sized, “about 10% bigger.”
“The Clement family, in honor of the King Ranch, made the lead gift to make this statue possible,” Wood said.
Fundraising efforts are ongoing through the NCHA Charities Foundation. Details on how to donate can be found at nchafoundation.org.
“The bronze is a well-deserved tribute to a man that had the forethought and knowledge to help promote and develop the idea of cutting as an actual sporting event,” Graham added.
“[He helped develop] the thought of a futurity, giving a person a reason to get a colt broke two or three years younger than what they ever did in the ’50s, the early ’60s. And, therefore you breed them earlier,” he continued. “He created a lot of work for a lot of people … a job training. I mean, he learned all of what he learned from the old cow hands sorting cattle in roundups on the open range as a young man. And he used and developed that knowledge in his everyday life, training and showing some of the most legendary horses we’ve had.”
Welch was self-made, starting from scratch as a 14-year-old who decided he had had enough of books and his schooling in Midland. School walls were too confining for a boy raised in the open spaces of a ranch, though he later acknowledged quitting school was a mistake.
He got a job breaking colts on the ranches of Leonard and Foy Proctor in Midland. Not yet an experienced horseman, Welch, according to an account in Western Horseman, made himself useful by doing other things, such as “cutting wood for the cook, moving the bosses’ horses to wherever they were fixin’ to work cattle and holding the ‘cuts’ while cattle were sorted on the range.”
In doing so, he was able to watch the Proctors and more experienced cutters do their thing every day and observe the methods behind finding the best from a horse.
It was several years later, in Las Vegas on the ranch of Homer Ingham, that Welch said he got his first real opportunity to train horses. One of the first was Chickasha Mike, whom Welch bought from Ingham for $125.
“Mike” had never seen the inside of a corral, according to the story, but Welch broke him and began using him in regular ranch work, including cutting. The horse eventually won the first five cutting competitions he entered, all in 1952.
Welch later sold Mike to Bill Hale of Odessa for $8,500.
Since that day, cutting has been Welch’s life.
“It needed to be done,” Graham said of the statue. “I mean, due to the efforts of guys like Billy Bob Watts, Zack Wood, Marion Flynt and others, and, obviously, Buster, they got the Futurity to Fort Worth in 1966. At that time, the only equine event held was 33 performances of the Fort Worth Stock Show.”
According to Graham, the plan after the unveiling is to put the statue in the exhibit hall for a few days before it is moved to its permanent home at Gate 42, one of Will Rogers Memorial Center’s entrances off Trail Drive.
“When you pull in with your horse on the Will Rogers grounds, you have to drive right by, in that entrance with your horse trailer, and you can look out your window and less than 20 feet is that sculpture, and it’ll be very people friendly,” he said. “It’s not all jacked way up off the ground; it’s very low to the [ground]. It’s very people friendly.”
Said Laura Wood: “Kelly actually had started this, and he came to the Foundation and the Foundation voted on it and said, ‘Yes!’ This is important because another one of our tenets is educating and promoting the sport, and so this allows a lot of visibility to the general public, an opportunity to learn a little bit more about it, and also a nod to the past and sort of how cutting has influenced all the rodeo sports we have in Fort Worth.”
* This article was updated Dec. 4 to include information about fundraising efforts and how to donate.