Ranching in central South Dakota can be both breathtaking and backbreaking. The Cowan family has learned what it takes to survive while building one of the most successful horse programs on the Northern Plains.
By Frank Holmes
Ranching in central South Dakota can be both breathtaking and backbreaking. The Cowan family has learned what it takes to survive while building one of the most successful horse programs on the Northern Plains.
Ranching on the Missouri River Breaks of central South Dakota is not for the faint of heart.
The “Breaks” are part of the vast Northern Plains region, where summers are short and hot, and winters long and cold. It is a land where weather-related words like “scorcher” and “whiteout” routinely work their way into conversations.
To be successful here requires more than just knowledge, ability and desire; it requires staying power.
As a third-generation native, the late Pat Cowan of Highmore, South Dakota, was part of a ranching, rodeoing and horse-raising family that had been tested and tempered by the land for more than 125 years. It should have come as no surprise that he, too, would not only survive his portion of the test, but prosper in the process.
The South Dakota chapter of the Cowan story had its beginnings in the late 1800s, when young Lawrence Augustus Cowan moved with his widowed mother and younger brother from Minnesota to a homestead south of Harrold, South Dakota.
Born into a farming family, Lawrence branched out into cattle ranching as a young man. In or around 1906, he married Mary Tighe, a farmer’s daughter from southeastern Nebraska. Lawrence and Mary had six children, including Arthur Paul Cowan, born in 1909.
In many respects, Arthur “A.P.” Cowan was the individual most responsible for making horses and rodeo an integral part of the family’s lifestyle. After striking out on his own, he settled on a cattle and horse ranch southeast of Highmore, and married Mary Gregg, a rancher’s daughter from nearby Crow Creek, in 1935.
As a horse breeder and trader, A.P. participated in the last years of the horse-drawn era of transportation and agriculture. With a breeding program geared to producing riding and workhorses, he supplied thousands of animals to the U.S. Cavalry, and to farmers and ranchers of every ilk.
After the age of mechanization replaced the horse with tanks and tractors, A.P. began acquiring rodeo rough stock. In 1947, he produced his first rodeo on the ranch, and it was followed by in-state contests at Seneca, Watertown, Winner, Chamberlain, Kimball, Fort Pierre and Pierre.
In February 1955, the South Dakota Rodeo Association was formed and, by this time, the Cowan name was well known in stock-contracting circles. A.P. was chosen as one of the new association’s first directors and rodeo judges.
Over the course of two decades—from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s—A.P. and Mary Gregg Cowan built their ranch and rodeo holdings, and started a family that eventually included six children. Of these, it was the eldest son, Pat, born in 1936, who took up the family banner.
Full Speed Ahead
Pat Cowan, as noted by anyone who knew him personally or witnessed him in action, was a driven man. Whatever the cause, if Pat got involved, he got involved at full speed.
From the mid- to late-1950s, the 20-something cowboy called upon his inner drive and sense of urgency to turn himself into a top all-around SDRA cowboy.
In 1955, Pat was named SDRA champion calf roper and bull rider. The year 1958 proved to be his best, as he was named SDRA all-around champion, champion calf roper and reserve champion bull rider. In 1959, the then-33-year-old was the association’s reserve champion saddle bronc rider.
Throughout his rodeoing years, the young South Dakotan built his Cowan Cattle Company ranching interests. In 1957, Pat married Elayne Carmody, a schoolteacher from Parkston, South Dakota. The couple had nine children: Doug, Todd, Patti, Mari, Tigh, Caly, Shannon, Tork and Treg.
In 1959, the first of several tragedies struck Pat and Elayne, when Doug was killed at the age of 1½ in a freak barnyard accident. The fact that he was in Pat’s company at the time weighed heavily on the young father’s mind, and he lost much of his drive to compete as a rodeo cowboy. It didn’t take long, however, for him to find new outlets for his seemingly boundless energy.
Comes a Horseman
Through rodeo, Pat had established many lasting friendships. As noted by his son Tigh, several of those friendships positively impacted not only the family’s horse endeavors, but the entire Northern Plains Quarter Horse industry.
“In the late 1950s, my dad began to put a Quarter Horse program together,” Tigh says. “Stanley Johnston of Rees Height, South Dakota, and Clarence Bearry of Fort Pierre, were the two men who had the most influence on the program in its infancy.
“Stanley and Dad were the best of friends, and they had rodeoed together in the early to mid-’50s. Stanley was a few years older than Dad, and he got into Quarter Horses first. He was a top horseman, and responsible for bringing such influential stallions as Poco Speedy [by Poco Bueno], Orphan Drift [by Driftwood Ike], Doc’s Jack Frost [by Doc Bar], and Sak Em San [by Peppy San] to South Dakota.
“Clarence Bearry was one of the state’s first great racehorse men. In the 1950s and ’60s, he incorporated such top speed-bred stallions as John Red [AAA, by Red Man], Lonsum Polecat [AAA, by Leo], Sea Bar [by Lightning Bars] and Country Rebel [AAA, by Rebel Cause] into his race- and breeding program.
“As Dad set about putting together his Quarter Horse program, the Johnston and Bearry horses were an important part of the process.”
From Rodeo to the Racetrack
By 1963, Pat Cowan had decided to get serious about becoming a Quarter Horse breeder, and the first steps he took in that direction led right to Stanley Johnston.
“Tex Fulton of Miller, South Dakota, was Dad’s brother-in-law, and they rodeoed together in the 1950s,” Tigh says. “One day, they drove to Stanley’s place and informed him that they were in the market for a good-looking stallion with enough speed to catch a calf.
“Stanley showed them a 7-year-old sorrel by Lightning Bars and out of Bonnie A., by Joe Reed II. He was a good-looking horse with a little bit of chrome, and AA-rated on the track. Tex and Dad did some trading and wound up with the horse.”
Right off the bat, the partners decided to take their new acquisition, Laughing Boy, to the track. Handicapped by his age, the game competitor managed to run fast enough to beat some AAA-rated racehorses.
Training and racing the horse accomplished one additional thing—it turned Pat Cowan into a racehorse trainer. Over the next decade-and-a-half, Cowan enjoyed considerable success as a North Country racehorse man.
Throughout this period, Cowan built his horse herd. While the Cowan-Fulton-owned stud Laughing Boy was never an overpowering racehorse, he did turn out to be an excellent broodmare sire. Some of his daughters became foundation producers for the Cowan breeding program.
It would be some time, however, before that venture took center stage. First, there was a return to rough stock to be dealt with.
Gains and Losses
As the Cowan kids began to reach 4-H and high-school-rodeo age, Pat scaled back his track commitments and turned, instead, toward becoming the best rodeo father and mentor he could be.
For rodeo mounts, the family again went to Stanley Johnston. By this time, the breeder had discovered what turned out to be a golden cross—that of Doc’s Jack Frost on Driftwood Ike mares.
Recognizing the potential behind the Johnston pedigrees, Pat and Elayne Cowan were quick to add Runnin Gunn and Quickdraw Cline—full brothers by Doc’s Jack Frost and out of Prissy Cline, by Driftwood Ike—to the Cowan Cattle Company remuda.
In a circumstance that would become bittersweet, it was actually Elayne who chose Runnin Gunn in the early fall of 1974 as her son Tigh’s personal mount. In November 1974, the 41-year-old ranch wife and mother passed away, the victim of a brain aneurysm.
“As I look back,” Tigh says, “I can see where Dad was at the center of everything we did. But Mom was always right there, too. I remember her as a really good mother and a hard-working ranch wife. Her passing was hard on Dad, hard on us older kids, and especially hard on Tork and Treg, who were just 6 and 4 at the time.
“I was blessed to have reached the age where I had some solid memories of Mom to fall back on. But the two youngest boys didn’t have that luxury. To this very day, we’ll be out working cattle or something, and they’ll ride up and want me to tell ’em what Mom was like.
“But we dug in and we dealt with it. Grandmother Cowan stepped in and helped out, but it was really the two older girls, Patti and Mari, who assumed most of Mom’s role. They cooked and cleaned and got everyone off to school. And we got on with life.”
For Pat Cowan and his eight kids—then aged 4 to 14—getting on with life included a return to the arena.
Back to Rodeo
“When it came time for us kids to rodeo, Dad was pretty supportive,” Tigh says. “He always knew what was going on, but he was good at letting us do our own thing.
“In 1979, when I was a freshman in high school, I won the high school saddle bronc championship in Gillette, Wyoming. After that, it came time to compete in the South Dakota 4-H Rodeo Finals in Watertown.
“After winning the national title, I didn’t think 4-H competition was going to be that big a deal. I had gone out and bought a new poly bronc rein. As I was climbing on my last mount, Dad crawled up behind the chute and asked, ‘What kind of rein do you have there?’ I told him and he said, ‘Don’t you think you should scuff it up a little and take some of the smoothness off it?’
“ ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘this is the way it’s supposed to be. I know what I’m doing.’
“All I had to do to win the state title was stay on my last bronc for eight seconds. But, on about the second jump, that pony popped six inches of that rein loose and bucked me off.
“After we got home, Dad said, ‘Let me see that thousand-dollar bronc rein.’
“ ‘It didn’t cost a thousand,’ I said. ‘It only cost 12 bucks.’
“ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I saw the saddle you could’ve won, and I’m guessing it cost $750. And that trophy buckle you could’ve won had to cost $250. So that means that bronc rein cost you around a thousand.’
“Like I said, he let us do our own thing, but he didn’t miss much.”
Slick bronc rein notwithstanding, Tigh proved to be an extremely competitive all-around rodeo cowboy. In addition to his 1979 national saddle-bronc title, he was the 1977 South Dakota 4-H junior boys all-around champion; the 1982 National High School Rodeo all-around reserve champion and reserve champion saddle bronc rider; and the 1980 and 1981 South Dakota 4-H senior bareback champion.
After high school, Tigh continued to compete in college and SDRA-sanctioned competition in six events. In 1985, he made the step up to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and narrowed his focus to three events—saddle bronc, steer wrestling and calf roping.
But Tigh was not the only Cowan kid who could ride. Older brother Todd and younger brothers Tork and Treg made regular trips to the winner’s circle throughout their 4-H and high-school years, with Tork winning the state high-school bulldogging championship in 1987 and Treg winning the state high-school all-around championship in 1988.
Household duties prevented the four Cowan girls from competing in rodeo as much as the boys, but they remained an integral part of the ranching and rodeo scene.
On the ranching front, Pat Cowan was up to his old tricks, aggressively turning the Cowan Cattle Company into one of the top cow and horse outfits on the Northern Plains. Dating back to when he began putting his Quarter Horse program together, he had been searching for just the right stallion to place at its head. In 1979, he found him.
A New Dawn
“By the end of the 1970s, things were back to running pretty smooth around Cowan Cattle Company,” Tigh says. “Runnin Gunn and Quick Draw Cline, our two Stanley Johnston-bred geldings, were doing a bang up job for us, not only as rodeo horses, but as ranch horses. When Dad had a chance to go back to Stanley’s and buy a weanling full brother to the geldings, he jumped at the opportunity.”
The colt Pat Cowan purchased at the side of its dam was Sun Frost, a 1979 palomino sired by Doc’s Jack Frost and out of Prissy Cline.
“Dad’s biggest dream was to raise a good-looking stallion that was fast enough to catch a calf and ‘cowy’ enough to be a top cutting horse,” Tigh Cowan adds.
“He felt from the very beginning that Sun Frost was the horse to help him achieve these goals.”
A Sire is Born
Pat Cowan started Sun Frost and trained him for cutting. In 1981, as a 2-year-old, the stallion was ridden by Tigh to a win at the regional high-school rodeo cutting in Watertown.
While showing considerable promise as an arena performer, Sun Frost’s show career was cut short due to the even greater promise he demonstrated as a sire.
By this time, the nucleus of the Cowan Ranch program was in place, with Sun Frost at the head of a broodmare band rich in the blood of the Johnston- and Bearry-bred horses.
The fact that the program was on the right track was quickly validated as champions whose names bore the “PC” prefix began showing up in cutting and rodeo arenas throughout the country.
In 1984, Cowan Cattle Company held its first horse sale. Billed as the “Cut and Loop Performance Sale,” it saw such top arena and breeding prospects as PC Lace N Leather and PC Sun Socks pass under the gavel.
Sun Frost was on his way as a sire, but fate decreed that Pat would not be around to see what a masterful selection he had made. In the fall of 1985, tragedy revisited the Cowan family on October 5, when Pat was killed in a plane crash.
“It was late in the fall, and we were gathering cattle in a big pasture north of Chamberlain,” Tigh Cowan recalls. “Dad’s friend, Tom Taylor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, owned a plane.
“Dad came to me that morning and said, ‘Tom and I are going to hop in his plane and come up and help you boys out. We can circle those cattle from the air and save you a lot of time.’
“So, that day they flew in to where we were working. They helped us for a while and then some weather came in from the northwest. It was a typical Midwestern storm, with dark, angry skies and a lot of thunder and lightning.
“Dad and Tom got ready to fly home. I asked Dad if he was worried about flying in that kind of weather, and he turned to Tom and asked, ‘Are we?’ Tom said he’d flown in a lot worse. I tried to talk them into leaving the plane tied down in the pasture and riding back with us in the truck and trailer, but they decided against it.
“They wound up hitting a 200-foot radio tower and crashing right on the Buffalo County line, 10 miles north of Chamberlain.”
In just a little more than a decade, the Cowans had lost both mother and father. It would have been understandable if one or both of these catastrophic losses had torn the family apart and scattered it to the four winds.
In fact, the tragedies had the opposite effect.
“Dad’s death was an earth-shattering event to all of us,” Tigh says. “But he had been preparing us for the challenges that lay ahead. We just didn’t know it.
“Dad was the kind of man who, whenever there was a problem, would sit down, figure out what to do and get after it. And he had a sense of family that was unshakeable. He instilled these values in us, and they were a big part of what held us together.
“So, we eight kids pulled together and got the job done. And we survived.”
Survival in rural America during the decade bounded by the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s was not just hard on the Cowan clan, it was hard on the entire agricultural community.
The energy crisis of the mid-1970s was followed by the gas and oil collapse of the early 1980s. Cattle weren’t worth as much, horses weren’t worth as much, and, for the first time in a lifetime, land wasn’t worth as much.
If these circumstances weren’t enough to try a person’s mettle, there was the winter of 1996–97, in which more than 250,000 cattle perished in North Dakota and South Dakota. It was a season Pat Cowan’s youngest son, Treg, remembers all too well.
“There came a big snow on Halloween,” he recalls. “From that point on, the snow never left.
“We winter our cattle on the Missouri River Breaks, where they have plenty of protection from the elements, so we weren’t overly concerned. But, that winter was as long and cold as any of us had ever seen. In addition to our own cattle, we had ‘maintenance cows’ we were taking care of. I used to get up before dawn every morning and feed. I’d make a big loop and get back home after dark.
“By the time spring hit, we were pretty worn out. And then, on April 6 and 7, we got hit with a massive spring blizzard that dumped three feet of snow on the ground, with 70 mile per hour winds. This was right in the middle of calving season, and stockmen throughout the Dakotas lost a lot of cows and newborn calves. We knew of a lot of horse breeders who lost mares and foals, as well.
“We never did lose a lot of stock, but we did have to spend most of the winter buying hay. By the time the cattle were back on summer pasture, we were staring at a $500,000 feed bill.”
Faced with another potential catastrophe, the Cowans came up with a game plan.
A “Frosty” Fix
After Dad died,” Tigh Cowan says, “we continued to run the ranch as Cowan Cattle Company. In 1994, Todd decided to strike out on his own as Cowan Ranch. He started using the TC prefix and brand on his horses. Myself, Tork and Treg reorganized as Cowan Brothers LLC, and we kept the PC prefix and T4 brand as ours.
“When the blizzard left us with that huge feed bill, it was up to myself, Tork and Treg to make it right. We huddled around the kitchen table one night, just like Dad and us boys used to do, and we decided to have a horse sale.
“Sun Frost had a few foals that were really making names for themselves, and we had added a stud named Docs Oaks Sugar to our stallion battery in 1987. He was a 1983 bay sired by Doc’s Oak and out of Miss Sugar Bingo.
“With his Doc Bar and Poco Tivio breeding on top, and his Sugar Bars and Leo Bingo breeding on the bottom, he was Dad’s kind of horse. His first foals out of the Sun Frost daughters showed a lot of promise, so we felt we could put together a nice set of sale horses.”
By the mid-1990s, Sun Frost was, indeed, one of the North Country’s most celebrated sires. Thanks to horses like French Flash Hawk and Frenchmans Guy, the stallion’s reputation as a performance-horse sire was secure.
French Flash Hawk, “Bozo”, a 1987 sorrel gelding by Sun Frost out of Casey’s Charm, was smack dab in the middle of a storied barrel-racing career that would see him carry Kristie Peterson to four Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world championships, five AQHA/WPRA barrel-racing horse of the year titles, and earnings in excess of $1.3 million.
Frenchmans Guy, a 1987 palomino three-quarter brother to Bozo, was also a top performer and promising young sire. He would go on to become 2001’s top barrel futurity sire, the number two sire for all ages and divisions in 2005 and 2006, and the sire of earners of more than $1.8 million.
The Cowan Brothers Quarter Horse Production Sale was held at Hart Ranch Arena in Rapid City, South Dakota, on October 18, 1997. Among the top offerings was a complete set of Sun Frost sons and daughters, including PC Frenchmans Hayday, a 1995 palomino stallion by Sun Frost and out of Casey’s Charm. A full brother to Bozo, “Hayday” sold for a sale-topping $65,000 to Mel Potter of Marana, Arizona.
“ ‘Hayday’ was without a doubt the biggest draw of the sale,” Tigh Cowan says. “Mel was another one of Dad’s friends from his rodeo days, and had leased some of his Driftwood-bred mares to us in the past. He turned Hayday into a top PRCA performer with more than $230,000 in earnings, and he’s also been a great outcross sire for Mel’s line-bred breeding program.
“The sale wound up being a good one. It grossed more than $385,000 and that went a long way toward digging us out of the hole the previous winter had put us in.”
The Beat Goes On
As the decade of the 1990s gave way to the new millennium, Cowan Brothers LLC grew and prospered. Expanding on their father’s Angus-cross herd and cattle-management business, the brothers switched the focus to yearlings and developed a database management business to better track individual weight gains.
On the horse front, Pat Cowan had added the likes of Tuff Time Peppy, by Peppy San Badger, and Boon Dox John, by Boon Bar, to the stallion battery before he died. Cash Native, a AAA son of Dash For Cash, was incorporated in the program in 1995.
Lone Drifter, a 1980 dun stallion by Driftwood Ike and out of Moore Yen SI 95 by Yendis SI 95, was leased from Mel Potter for several breeding seasons, contributing several top sons and daughters to the mix.
And, finally, a full set of Sun Frost, Boon Dox John and Lone Drifter sons—PC Gunner Wood, PC Sun Wood, PC Laughing Sundust, PC Reddy Frost, PC Dox Cajun and PC Redwood Ike—began to shine as junior sires.
From 1997 through 2003, Cowan production sales achieved the dual goals of keeping the program in the public eye and getting horses into the hands of people who would campaign them.
Keeping pace with the cattle and horses, the Cowan clan was rapidly expanding, as well.
Tigh and Jill Cowan and their six children reside on the home place south of Highmore.
Tork and Melissa (O’Neill) Cowan and their three children currently call Melissa’s native Australia home, while Treg and Renee (Knox) Cowan currently manage a separate ranching operation in the Highmore area.
The four Cowan girls have all married and left home, but have stayed in the state.
The Cowan operation has proven to be a generational phenomenon. Dating back to the late 1880s, each generation of the family has had the luxury of being able to fall back on previous generations’ knowledge of cattle and horses. And, as evidenced by the current crop of Cowans, the same holds true as far as rodeo is concerned.
“It’s been fun watching our kids grow up and rodeo,” Tigh Cowan says. “They’re going about it the same way we did, breaking and training their own horses. They have had some help from Scot and Jodie O’Bray of Belvidere, South Dakota, who start a lot of our horses under saddle and train them to become good performance horses, but most of the kids’ experience comes from the school of hard knocks.
“From our family, Patrick, Breelyn, Hayden and Logan are hard at it. Pat competes in saddle bronc, bulldogging, heading and heeling, and calf roping. Bree competes in barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, ribbon roping and, when someone is short a partner, team roping. Hayden competes in team roping and bulldogging, and Logan competes in barrel racing, pole bending and breakaway roping.”
She might be younger than her rodeoing cousins, but Tregg and Renee Cowan’s daughter, Sydney, has served notice that she intends to become a serious arena competitor, as well.
“At the Kadoka rodeo last July,” Tregg says, “Sydney and her 5-year-old gelding PC Red Seeker collected their first barrel-racing paycheck. Their lifetime earnings are resting right at $15.36, but we’ve got all the confidence in the world that amount is going to grow.”
Sunrise . . . Sunset
Dating back to when Pat Cowan was in his prime, recognition of his accomplishments began to surface.
In 1982, he was the recipient of the Heartland Saddle given each year by the Heartland Committee in recognition of an individual who influences the lives of youth through 4-H and rodeo. In 1990, five years after his death, he was named to the South Dakota Hall of Fame in the field of agriculture.
As for Sun Frost, he more than justified Pat Cowan’s faith in him by becoming one of the Quarter Horse breed’s all-time leading arena performance sires. To date, he is the sire of the earners of more $2.2 million and the grandsire of the earners of more than $3.25 million in barrel racing, roping, cutting and reining. What’s more, his get have excelled at every level of competition—4-H, high school, college, AQHA and pro rodeo.
Sun Frost died on January 22, 2007, having just officially turned 28. The Cowan family had long prepared itself for his death, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow.
“Sun Frost was one of the few living, breathing connections we had with Dad,” Tigh says. “He was Dad’s horse from the get-go, and that was the way we always thought of him.
“With both of them gone, it’s like the final chapter to the story.”
Behind the Brand
The passing of Sun Frost might well have signaled the end to one chapter of the Cowan family story, but it did not signal the end of the book. With one generation of family gone and the second and third generations either in their prime or just starting to shine, the saga will continue.
For as long as Pat Cowan was in charge, the family holdings were known as the Cowan Land & Cattle Company. After Pat’s death, his sons took over the management of the operation—first as Cowan Brothers LLC and then as Cowan Brothers LLC/T4 Quarter Horses.
The T4 brand itself dates back to the early 1970s. Conventional wisdom has it that Pat’s wife, Elayne, suggested the brand, and that it stood for the first letter of first name of her four sons. Unconventional rumor has it that, from the days of Pat Cowan right down to the family’s current crop of up-and-coming rodeo stars, what the “T” really stands for is “tough.”
Frank Holmes is a Western Horseman contributing editor.