Over the last 100 years, there really is no equal to Will Rogers when you calculate the sum of his parts as a stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, humorist and social commentator.
“I have a lot of big ideas,” Will said in 1930, five years before his death in a plane crash in Alaska, then not yet a state. “They just don’t seem to work out. There must be a bit of college professor in me somewhere.”
He was one of a kind.
Before all else, of course, Will, was a cowboy who cherished his sidekick horses as much as he did nourishment itself.
His affection lives in posterity in the statue “Riding into the Sunset,” commissioned by Will’s close friend, Amon G. Carter, and sculpted by Electra Waggoner Biggs. The art portrays Will atop his treasured Soap Suds.
It sits in five locations: the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas; at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas; at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, and at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
It speaks a one thousand words about who Will Rogers was.
“Dopey had lived with us for 19 years and now he left us. He was a little, round-bodied, coal-black pony with glass eyes, the gentlest, greatest pony. I don’t know why we called him Dopey, we meant no disrespect.
“When 19 years of your and your children’s lives is linked so closely with a horse, you can sorter imagine our feelings. He was one of the family, he raised our children and learned them to ride. He never hurt one in his life. He did everything right.
“And that’s a reputation that no human can die with.”
Our sister publication, Western Horseman, published a retrospective of Will and his best buds, titled, “Will Rogers and His Horses,” in 1963 by Arnold Marquis.
With the downtime we’re in, we thought it’d be a perfect time to reflect on one of the greats of the Western performance horse industry.
He was of another time and place, but make no mistake, Will Rogers is a part of every horse and every rider.
Here is Part I of “Will Rogers and his Horses.”
By ARNOLD MARQUIS
That was Will Rogers. Roping and riding were as much a part of him as being funny. Will knew horseflesh and loved it. He always rode the best. Horse traders were constantly trying to corner him, but almost no one who tried “to sell him ever succeeded. When he saw what he wanted, he went after it – until he got it. He knew the value of a good horse.
“Old Comanche put you up so close to a steer you didn’t have to rope him,” said Will. “You just reached over and slipped your rope on him.”
Will owned scores of horses, maybe a hundred. Nobody knows how many. Whenever he wasn’t tied up doing something else, he was with his horses.
Every one of them was a character – Comanche, Soapsuds, Bootlegger, Dopey, Cowboy, Chapple, Robin, Angelo, Shorty, and all the rest.
Will had no interest whatever in breeding, or in papers, or in the “looks” of a horse. What interested him was what the horse could do.
He had his own way in handling horses. One hard and fast rule was that whenever he bought a horse, the bit and bridle went with it. That bit and that bridle belonged to that horse and under no circumstances was ever to be used on any other horse.
He started acquiring horse savvy from his earliest childhood out on the Dog Iron Ranch near Oologah, Indian Territory, not far from Claremore, Oklahoma. He started riding soon after he started to walk.
When he was 10, his beloved mother died. He was the youngest in the family, the only boy. He took it, bravely, but hard. A man named Houston Rogers used to ride over to the Dog Iron on a dun-colored pony with faint black markings. Houston let the youngster ride it. Willie’s father noticed that he liked the horse. For $10 and a horse named CM, he bought the dun horse for Willie.
This was Comanche, Will’s first horse, all his own. And this was the beginning of an attachment that was to go on for years and end in heartbreak.
Comanche was about 5 years old when Will got him, stood about 14 hands, and weighed about 950 pounds. He was fast, smart, and, working with Will, became one of the best known roping ponies in that part of the country.
Will grew up on Comanche. He spent every possible minute with him. A lonely boy, as he rode Comanche he talked to himself – about what, nobody ever knew. Comanche filled a deep need left by the loss of Will’s mother.
About that time, in the late 90s, steer ropings – the forerunners of today’ s rodeos were becoming popular around Indian Territory. Cowboys came from far and near to rope and tie down steers and to ride “pitching” horses. In these local steer ropings on Sundays and holidays, Will, now a young man, got his first experience riding Comanche.
In one of his first competitions, when the steer hit the rope, Comanche was jerked off his feet and Will went flying. Will picked himself and Comanche up and tried again. Down went Comanche and Will again.
“Try it once more, son,” said the judge, “and if the steer knocks you down again, tie up yore horse’s feet and I’ll give you time.”
Will won his first “first” when he was 19. Against a field of 10, Will “tied his cow” in 52 seconds flat. With that sweet taste of success in his mouth, he competed in every steer roping he could attend.
His 52-second “first” looked good to him until he saw a steer tied down in 34 seconds. He sought out the cowboy that did it. That is, he sought out the horse that the cowboy rode, a big sorrel named Robin. Will bought him for $125, one of the finest roping ponies he ever owned.
Will rode Robin in parades and roped the girls by the feet, streetcar motormen out of their cars, and sometimes dignitaries who became a little irked and had to be kidded out of it. Will was good at both.
Around Claremore and Oologah, Will built quite a name as a roper. For the next couple of years he ranged farther and farther afield. He competed in shows in Memphis, Tulsa, and Springfield, Mo., and many others. The last big “steer roping” he attended was at the San Antonio International Exposition in October, 1901.
The next spring his itchy feet took him away from the Indian Territory country. He was never again to live in the land of his birth.
Long about that time most of the young bucks in Indian Territory were excited about tales coming out of the Argentine. The cattle business down there, the stories went, was growing like wildfire. That was the place to be.
Will left Comanche at the Dog Iron and, riding some old cayuse, started cross-country with another cowboy, Dick Parris, for New Orleans. But before Will reached Argentina, 10 weeks had passed and he had been to Galveston, New York, and Southampton.
He showed the Argentines something about Indian-country roping, and he learned something from them, too.
“I hadn’t even got close enough to that steer to start swinging my rope when I heard something whizzing over my head,” Will said. “A guy 20 feet behind me had thrown clear over my head and caught the steer! ”
Three months in the Argentine, and Will was off to South Africa with a cargo of cattle, hard-tailed mules, horses and sheep.
That was just about the time of the Boer War. Will got a job breaking horses for the British Army. The British had no idea how to cope with American horseflesh.
“American ponies killed more British soldiers than Boers,” Will wrote.
Soon he was looking for another job. He went to see Texas Jack, who was touring South Africa with his Wild West Circus.
“Texas Jack,” Will wrote his father, “had been offering 50 pounds to anyone who could do a rope trick that he does, the Big Crinoline, when he lets out all his rope. ‘Course the Big Crinoline is common at home, so that’s the first thing I did. I knew nothing about that 50-pound reward until he gave me a job, right then and there. We cannot try for the money after joining the show.”
Texas Jack billed Will as The Cherokee Kid, Fancy Lasso Artist and Rough Rider.
Will liked the circus life, but he missed Comanche. He wrote home saying that he might be back by April, 1903, but, if I don’t get back in April, tell Jim Rider he can rope on ole Comanche next Fourth.”