Women of the West — Heather Stiles
She took a decade-long detour from the ranching lifestyle, but Heather Stiles’s heart was with horses. When she followed her heart, she found her home.
Interview by SUSAN MORRISON Photograph by ROSS HECOX
Heather Stiles grew up on the legendary King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas, where her father, Joe Stiles, managed the Quarter Horse division. After graduating from college and working in the futures trading business, Stiles, 44, gave up city life in 2004 to operate her own asset management company, train her cutting horses, establish Stiles Land & Livestock with her brother in East Texas, and get back to the cowgirl lifestyle she loves.
I LIVED IN Chicago and then New York. I worked in the futures industry on the brokerage side, came back to Texas and traded electricity for a couple of years, then went back to the futures business. I’m very glad I did it, but I was unhappy. When I finally figured out why, it was simple. Giving up the horses was terrible.
MY DAD let me start showing Peppys Gem. One day he said, go get ‘Gem’ and lope him around, and then he said cut on him. From there I got to show him. That was something else. To start on those kinds of horses was a real blessing.
THE CALIBER of horses I got to ride was tremendous. It’s a good measure for me training horses and showing, because I always try to stay at that level and keep that caliber of horse.
WHEN I WAS a kid, King Ranch used to have a lot of tourists that would come through there. I loved to get those studs out and parade them down the barn. The tourists thought it was great.
BUSTER WELCH has been a tremendous influence on my life. When I’m around him, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. He makes me feel like I can conquer the world. Buster has a special way of bringing out the best in people. He’ll always find what you’re good at and focus on that instead of the bad stuff. That positive attitude has helped me in everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been.
MY MOM died when I was 13. I’m grateful that I had her in my life for 13 years. Growing up the way I did, she made sure that I was involved in other things, and had some manners and some culture. She was a feminine influence when I really wanted to be a cowboy.
MY GRANDFATHER, Leonard Stiles, and my father instilled a good, solid way of living and operating. My grandfather was a tough but fair man. He was the kind of man you’d want to do business with. They did a lot of business with different types of people, in different countries and in different ways, but they always kept their integrity. That’s important to me. That’s been a big factor in my operation.
YOU’VE GOT TO have a lot of optimism to be involved in this lifestyle. There are challenges, but there’s never a time to give up. It’s just not an option.
WE HAVE tiger-striped cows that we cross with an Angus bull and raise black baldy calves. It is an integrated business. I get to work the calves, and it’s good for my horses. It doesn’t hurt them to have a job other than that pen out there.
WHEN I BOUGHT this place, my dad had a Little Peppy mare with a filly on her by CJ Sugar. That was the first one that I broke and started. I had her going real good on a cow and I took her to [trainer] Greg Welch; he said he’d help. That was the year he died. Buster said, ‘You can train that mare. You can do it. Just go ahead and finish her.’ And I made the [National Cutting Horse Association] Futurity finals that year.
I GET HELP, for sure, from anybody who will listen to me or give me the time. You learn from everybody.
WITH THE YOUNG horses, it’s a very hopeful experience. Every day you think, well, this could be two steps forward or half a step forward. When you get a colt that really understands what you’re asking him to do and wants to help you and wants to be on your team, there’s just nothing that beats it.
IF THERE IS a horse that makes an impression on me, I will pay attention. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, but that’s the way you get to where you’re good at identifying a good horse. You’ve got to develop your own set of standards that work for you. It’s an art, for sure.
I FEEL REALLY fortunate and really blessed to be able to do what I do. I still have horses and cattle, and can continue the tradition and the way of life. I probably wouldn’t know what else to do. Or I’d go crazy doing anything else.
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