South Dakota Blizzard

The Atlas blizzard claimed the lives of some fine American Quarter Horses.

By Alexis Bennett
The American Quarter Horse Journal
November 21, 2013

Gathering survivors

Gathering survivors after the South Dakota blizzard in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Betty Dikoff)

It has been a little over a month since a killer blizzard swept through western South Dakota. In less than three days, it left behind 30 inches of snow. Residents clamored to their fields on Sunday, October 6, to count the losses that Atlas left in its wake.

South Dakota stock and residents are a hearty bunch who continually weather even the most challenging conditions – floods, blizzards and the various obstacles that Mother Nature throws their way.

Although it was October, light snowfall is not unusual. But, this storm was of another breed. It was forecasted to be much smaller. So the blizzard warning that came just hours before the cold, heavy rain and 70-mile-per-hour wind caught residents completely off guard.

The end of October into early November is the time that ranchers and cattleman bring in livestock for sales or moved them to winter pasture.

With weather in the mid-80s just days before the storm arrived, many cattle and horse owners still had their livestock in summer pasture. The animals hadn’t even grown their winter coats.

Along with fallen trees, devastated infrastructure, loss of power and a complete halt of daily living; the storm decimated herds of cattle, sheep and horses.

Here are the stories of a few people we talked to:

The Myerses

Lifelong American Quarter Horse owners and breeders Bill and Deb Myers of St. Onge, South Dakota, were among those affected by the storm.

Luckily their stallions, including  Colours Of A Lady and the legendary barrel racing sire Frenchmans Guy were housed safely in a barn.

Bill and Deb were able to bring the weanlings safely inside as well.

“We had a two-sided windbreak where the weanlings were,” Deb said.

But, they took extra precautions to ensure their safety; haltering a mare they had in with the herd to lead the weanlings to the barn through the storm. Had they not, the entire crop would have easily been buried, even behind the windbreak.

“The snow swirled around instead of blowing,” Deb said. “It made snow drifts where they don’t normally form.”

The mares were another story. More than 40 of their mares were out to summer pasture. There were pond dams to break the wind, but nothing more. Of those 40 mares, the Myerses lost several mares.

These include French Wild Heart (Frenchman GuyWild Heart Tu), A Hot Toddy (Paddys Irish Whiskey-Hot Brandi N Wine), No Shake For Deb (Royal Shake Em-Miss Shawnee Deb), Redhotrollercoaster (Hot Colours-Decka Seeker), Hot Brandi N Wine (Hot Colours-Fleeting Pie) and Lehi Rose (Special Effort-Six Tiny Roses).

When Sunday, October 6, came around, they were finally able to make it out for a head count in a four-wheel-drive tractor.

The Dikoffs

Betty Dikoff of Hermosa, South Dakota, said that she is lucky to have made it out with her Quarter Horses, but sustained losses elsewhere.

Her daughter, Amanda, a longtime all-around competitor and 2013 AQHA World Championship Show qualifier in ranch horse pleasure, also tends a herd of sheep. Of the 100 head, they lost three ewes and one buck in the storm. They also lost about 10 percent of their cows.

They consider themselves luckier than most.

“If we had them where we normally have them, they would’ve been buried under a drift,” Betty said.

“One of my neighbors lost about 80 to 90 percent of their cattle,” Betty said.

The Brunners

AQHA 30-year breeder, Patty Brunner of Rapid City, South Dakota, grew up in a ranching family, and she knows that November 1 means it’s time to move the livestock from summer to winter pasture.

The same applies to horses. The Brunner family had some of their mares on pasture 20 to 30 miles away. It had plenty of windbreaks, but it didn’t matter.

The snow fell heavily and was wet and heavy itself so it just seemed to smother the animals right where they were.

“All the mares that we lost were show mares,” Patty said.  

Of the seven mares that were turned out, they lost five. One was  Miss Three Jewels, the dam of one of their best homebred stallions, Executive Flash by Talls Executive

Patty has been breeding for years, her sons have shown and now her granddaughters show.

The loss is a hard hit.

The Reinholds

Lone Tree and Rainbow Bible ranches, owned by Larry and Robin Reinhold, incurred one of the biggest horse losses in the blizzard.

Between their Lone Tree cattle ranch and the Rainbow Ranch bible camp, the family lost 90 head of horses. Of that huge number, 25 of the horses were saddle horses for the camp.

Every summer, the family hosts a vacation bible camp for 6- to 18-year-olds. They have a string of solid ranch horses that can do it all. They work cattle, babysit, trail ride and even get through some rodeo events when they need to. Campers are taught to ride these horses and then the kids compete in a rodeo at the end of the camp. The campers love the horses and look forward to it every year, even picking out their “favorites.”

The horses at the camp are essential to the program, they are “literally priceless,” Robin said.

These horses have weathered plenty of South Dakota storms before, but this one was so intense and with such little warning that the camp horses got lost and drifted out of the draws.

“The camp horses were out in a pasture with a lot of deep draws,” Robin said. “It’s rugged pasture with deep draws and a lot of breaks, so we weren’t worried.”

The family “aggressively” gathered horses and cattle in the worst places and put them up in good shelter and in places with windbreaks along the barn.

Even then, they lost 48 out of that group.

It took several days before anyone could even reach the camp horses by horseback.

Two of the Reinhold girls saddled up and rode out.

What they found was shocking. They counted 31 of the horses that they had grown up with scattered on top of a hill.

“It’s a catastrophic loss,” Robin said, the exhaustion clear in her voice.

They lost six of their up-and-coming horses, too, but “we have a great herd of young geldings that just need to be in the good hands of a good trainer to put the time on them,” Robin said. “This is a three- or four-year process,” though, so it will take time to rebuild the remuda.

Many horse people have reached out to the ranch, making horse and monetary donations in an attempt to make up for some of the loss.

The losses are not limited to horses. Many ranchers lost their cattle and their livelihood in that storm. Due to the government shut-down and the failure to pass a farm bill, many cattleman and ranchers are left wondering what is in store.

Many found neighbors’ cattle scattered across their property. The storm was so intense that the animals just drifted.

A few lost cattle were the least of the problems when some ranchers lost their entire herd.

“One neighbor had 400 head of calves ready for the sale and only 41 made it,” Deb said. “I feel badly for some of the younger guys who have the cattle as their bank collateral. If they lost that, then they don’t have anything to pay their bills with, their lease, they’re going to go bankrupt. It’s really sad. When you lose a crop of calves, it’s a problem that costs a lot. That’s what we’re up against when we have floods, but when you lose the factory (the cows) then you’re talking years to recover.”