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The Rundown: Heritage Behind Ranching

KT Ranch and Longhorn Cattle Co. of eastern Washington prove that ranchers aren't the kind of folks who just sit by idly.

By Tara Matsler
The American Quarter Horse Journal
June 12, 2014

Don Akehurst of Longhorn Cattle Company an AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder in Ellensburg Washington

Don Akehurst surveys his American Quarter Horses at his ranch, Longhorn Cattle Co., in Ellensburg, Washington. (Credit: Tara Matsler) WATCH: View bonus photos from Longhorn Cattle Co. and listen as Don explains what he looks for in a broodmare.

We all have those days. You know, those days that, if given the chance, we would go back in a heartbeat to relive it again and again. There, we could just relish in the day’s perfection. August 13, 2013, was one of those days for me. 

On my itinerary that Tuesday were photo shoots and interviews with two AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders: KT Ranch and Longhorn Cattle Co. I was killing a few birds with one stone. I was already up in Washington to cover the AQHA Region One Championship in Monroe for The American Quarter Horse Journal, plus I staying with my parents in my hometown of Snohomish, just eight miles southeast of Monroe. But to reach the ranches, required a jaunt over the Cascade Mountains.

Acting as my Journal assistant for the ranch trip was my mom, Annette. This is a woman with a storied past of ushering and welcoming foals and calves into the world. She loves to saddle up for a picturesque trail ride. She also knows a thing or two about talking to folks – some may say she’s been blessed with the gift of gab. And as a horse-show mom, she has perfected the art of holding miscellaneous items and has the uncanny ability to avoid dropping them. Let’s just say she was the perfect sidekick for this trip that involved audio recorders, extra camera lenses and interviews in an ATV. 

At 4 in the morning, we hit the road. We climbed into the Cascade Mountains, then dropped over the alpine pass under the cover of dark skies and pine trees. We drove past Ellensburg, known for its Labor Day weekend rodeo. When Interstate-90 hit the Columbia River, we bore right and crossed the water, the morning sun glistening off sleepy waves. Sigh. 

Up the hill Mom’s Ford Escape climbed, and we twisted our way past hay fields, farmers working to put up yet another cutting of alfalfa and orchard grass. Finally, we landed between Connell and Othello, and on the doorstep of the Pierson family’s KT Ranch. 

While the ranch got off the ground with Don and Pam Pierson, it was the couple’s daughters, Toni and Kellie, who inspired its name. 

Now Toni and Kellie have kids of their own. The younger women have husbands, too, and each member of the family performs a role on the ranch. Toni and Kicker Meacham live around the bend from her parents, while Kellie and Ben Geddes homestead just across the way – and by across the way I mean across five pivot-irrigated fields.  

“Our ranch was started long before we were ever born. Our parents are third-, fourth-generation ranchers. We can trace our family history back to ranching since the beginning of time,” Toni told me jokingly. 

KT Ranch has their hands in a few different cattle pots. The ranch raises horned Herefords, Brafords, black Angus and commercial cattle. And, of course, American Quarter Horses. 

The ranchers have learned a lot over the years, and they’ve found that there’s usually an easy way to do things, and there’s a hard way.

For instance, when it’s time to wean their foals, the Piersons apply a low-stress weaning technique developed by the cattle industry (see “Simplifying Separation” in the May 2014 Journal). It’s gradual weaning, and I’ll admit I was impressed by this approach; it greatly differs from the cold-turkey weaning technique my family has always employed. 

Speaking of impressive weaning practices, the Akehursts of Longhorn Cattle Co., my second stop for the day, have what they claim is a tried-and-true method for determining if it’s time to wean a colt. 

“When it gets to be August, we’ve got to really watch the babies because when they start chewing on the mare’s tail, we wean them,” Greg Akehurst told me (see “Down in the Valley, Up on the Range” in the June 2014 Journal). “When that first tail gets chewed, you pull them colts and there’s never a cry. The mamas are worse than the babies when you wean at that time.

“But if you let them go another night, those mares will all come in with tails this long,” he gestured, holding his hands about a foot apart. 

Greg’s father, Don, is the patriarch of Longhorn Cattle Co. of Ellensburg, Washington. Don is one of those cowboys who when he speaks, you soak up all the knowledge you can glean. Eighty-three years young, Don bought his first American Quarter Horse back in the early 1950s, and he has been breeding Quarter Horses for nearly 50 years. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Gold Card member still saddles up and rides every day, but he’s gotten smart about not getting on the backs of unstarted colts anymore. Leave that stuff to the young kids, he says.

KT Ranch and LCC joined AQHA’s elite group of Ranching Heritage Breeders at about the same time and very early into the program. Greg says it was Toni Meacham of KT Ranch who suggested that the Akehursts apply to the program. And it was a move each ranch is grateful for every day. 

“With a working cow ranch, it’s tough to make it. It really is,” Greg said. “A lot of other operations around the country have oil wells or they have other companies feeding their operation. There’s really very few of them that are really just making it on a ranch basis.”

He adds that it’s a blessing to be recognized, thanks to the Ranching Heritage Breeders program, for their steadfastness to the lifestyle. 

As the sun set on August 13, 2013, I knew I had stared perseverance right in the face. It was the weathered creases worn by Don and his beauty of a bride, Barbara, better known as “Buttons.” It was the twinkle in Greg Akehurst’s eye as he looks to new endeavors to keep his family’s Longhorn cattle and Quarter Horse ranch in the black. It was the flinty gazes of Toni and Kellie, who also work full-time jobs off the ranch, as they surveyed their commercial and show cattle, plus American Quarter Horses that harken back to great foundation lines.  

To witness that kind of determination in the eyes of America’s ranchers, well, that’s a day I’d gladly live over and over. There’s a heritage behind this career – this passion – we call ranching. And it’s a heritage I pray we hold steadfast to preserve. 

Enjoy more horse-showing quips, quotes and anecdotes from AQHA Internet Editor Tara Matsler by visiting The Rundown archives at www.aqha.com/therundown.