National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) officials, dignitaries, fans and even a couple of Hollywood celebrities assembled inside Fort Worth’s brand-new Dickies Arena on Wednesday evening for the unveiling of a Kelly Graham-commissioned statue of a cutting horse icon.
Those on hand to honor Buster Welch applauded enthusiastically as Graham and others pulled the curtain on the larger-than-life statue of Welch and his famed Peppy San Badger (“Little Peppy”) cutting a Santa Gertrudis cow — a breed developed by the King Ranch.
Its eventual permanent home will be on the grounds of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, outside Gate 42.
“It means I’ve had a well-lived life,” said Welch, 91, on what the honor meant to him. “It’s an honor that it’s appreciated and that it turned out much better than I thought it would. The cutting horse turned out better. He was a real important horse in early America.”
The Clement family, in honor of the historic King Ranch — where Welch led the training program for years — made the lead gift. Officials also announced on Wednesday that Rex Tillerson and his wife, Renda, have also given a gift.
Fundraising efforts are ongoing through the NCHA Charities Foundation. Details on how to donate can be found at nchafoundation.org.
The King Ranch is the home of current stallions The Boon, Kinenos Moon, Marsala Red and El Rey Hidas. Each has Little Peppy in his pedigree as well, of course, as the blood of Mr San Peppy and Old Sorrel.
“My parents, Judy and Jamey Clement, were the ones who said the King Ranch needs to be involved with this,” said James Clement III, horse division manager at the King Ranch and sixth generation family member. “Buster is such a huge part of our history. Those horses, that man made a tremendous impact on our ranch and they will forever. Now we have The Boon, Little Peppy’s grandson, so these bloodlines keep going.”
Welch, a member of the NCHA, American Quarter Horse Association and Texas Cowboy halls of fame, is both cowboy and competitor.
He was a leading voice for a premier event for 3-year-olds, winning a record five NCHA Futurity titles (1962, 1963, 1966, 1971, 1977), as well as four NCHA World championships (1954, 1956, 1974, 1976).
“We’ve known Buster through the years,” said actor Robert Duvall, a bit of a horseman who has done some show jumping. “A great guy. He loved the way my wife rode a horse. She’s from northern Argentina.
“I met him through the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. A good restaurant. He was looking for the same steak place we were, too. He said, ‘you’re Bob Duvall.’ I had a feeling it was him. He said, ‘I’m Buster Welch.’ I said, ‘I thought so.’ I had heard about him.”
Actor Barry Corbin was also on hand.
In addition to Little Peppy, some of Welch’s notable equine partners included Marion’s Girl, Dry Doc, Mr San Peppy and Haidas Little Pep.
Welch won the 1977 Futurity with Little Peppy. The pair followed that with a win in the NCHA Derby in 1978. After induction into the NCHA Hall of Fame, Little Peppy was named Reserve World Champion in 1980 and won the Open Division of the 1981 NCHA Finals.
His impact as a sire was even greater, with his offspring winning more than $25 million.
“As my wife used to describe him, he was like a ballet dancer until he got in trouble and then he was Joe Louis,” Welch said. “He could be so light, kind and pretty until he got in a little trouble and then he would get tough.
“He liked working cattle better than I do. He loved to outthink a cow. It’s hard to explain something as unique as this horse was. It’s above my vocabulary.”
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,” said Kelly Graham, the sculptor. “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.”
Based in Weatherford, Texas, 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,” Graham said.
“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.”