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Chip Schweiger

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Cowboys have a lot of tools at their disposal, but certainly one of the most important tools of the trade is a cowboy’s cow horse. A good horse can make all the difference in working cattle, competing in rodeo events and, generally, in getting work done on the open range. And as cow horses go, the quarter horse are the breed of horses preferred by cowboys due to their muscular build, cleverness, agility and calm demeanor. In a world of famous quarter horses, there are a select few that stand above all others. Certainly Peppy San and his brother, Mr. San Peppy, come to mind, as do Wimpy P-1 and Old Sorrel. But of all the well-known ranch horses used by cowboys, there is only one foundation horse that carries almost equal parts praise and head-scratching confusion. And, in that, a very unique horse.

A unique breed is born

Joe Hancock was registered as number 455 in the American Quarter Horse Association (or AQHA). He was foaled most probably in 1926, based on the best information we have. What we do know is that he was a brown stallion, registered as bred by an unknown breeder, but later research determined that his breeder was Mr. John Jackson Hancock. His sire was a son of Peter McCue named John Wilkens and his dam was a half Percheron mare noted as being “a dark bay mare of solid, smooth and well balanced proportions,” although the AQHA’s stud book, regretably, gives his dam as “unknown.” This unusual cross gave Joe Hancock his stout conformation, calm yet tough disposition, incredible speed and natural cow sense. Joe Hancock had a streak on his face and, when grown, stood over 15.3 hands high.

Joe Hancock raced in match races for a number of years, although no official records of these races exist. At one point, there were advertisements run in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Daily Oklahoman stating that “Joe Hancock is open to the world, from standing start to ⅜ths of a mile,” although at the time, there were few breeders willing to match their horses against Joe Hancock. And, even though all of Joe’s racing took place before the formation of the AQHA in 1940, he is the first quarter horse credited with running the quarter mile in 22 seconds. An exceptional feat considering races were held along dirt roads and small town tracks. When Joe Hancock ran out of competitors he was sold to the Burnett Ranch (known today as the 6666 Ranch) and the rest is history. He sired seven foals that earned their Race Register of Merit with the AQHA. He also sired two foals that earned their Performance Register of Merit with the AQHA – Brown Joe Hancock and Red Man.

A genetic freak

Photo of Joe Hancock taken in Oklahoma, probably around 1927.

The modern definition of Joe Hancock is that he was a freak. A genetic freak, whose blood was greatly effective in transmitting the positive qualities to his offspring and whose genes, procured from his great sire and grandsire, took successfully, if not sometimes freakishly, too, with most of the mares to whom he was bred. However, let me be clear: the word “freak” implies nothing against the horse, and I don’t mean it to be a slight in the least. There have been many freaks, with distinctively outstanding and powerful genetics, in the history of the quarter horse breed. Janus, the greatest foundation sire of the breed, was a freak. There just weren’t any other horses like him except his sons. 

Peter McCue, himself, Joe’s grandsire, was definitely a freak. He was a huge powerful stallion who stood 16 hands and weighed 1,430 pounds. Peter McCue’s son John Wilkens, out of a thoroughbred mare, was another tremendous horse, freakish in that his hoofs were so fragile and soft that he never lasted on the track, even though the few times he did run, he proved himself extremely fast. The story is told that in one race, John Wilkens threw all four of his shoes the first 100 yards out of the gate. 


“It has been said Joe Hancock’s dam was half Percheron. His brilliant racing record and his great colts make this seem unlikely and unimportant.” 

– Curious and ill-informed notation appended to the registration of Joe Hancock in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Stud Book of the American Quarter Horse Association, published in 1941.

The mating of John Wilkens to Joe Hancock‘s Percheron mother was perhaps done with the idea of eliminating, in the offspring, the sire’s fault of soft, immature hoofs. At any rate, Joe Hancock inherited the great running ability of his sire, but he was certainly free from his father’s fault. It’s been said that once in preparing Joe for a race, his hoofs had grown so long and were so hard that a small hand hatchet was used to trim them instead of the regular farrier’s nippers. Joe Hancock was a big rugged horse, with lots of speed and good, straight legs, two characteristics that are still found in the Hancock line. What he has produced, and what his sons and grandsons produced, make Joe Hancock one of the truly splendid work horse sires of the past three-quarters of a century, but not one without controversy. Some swore by the stallion’s abilities and others cussed his curious breeding.

Hancocks are tops on the ranch

Within this family, it’s true, there is likely as wide a difference in type and conformation as will be found in any other bloodline. But for horses, regardless of what they look like, who can get up and do the job expected of them, I believe Hancocks can’t be beat. They are tops on the ranch, unexcelled in the rodeo arena and hold their own on the straightaway race track. For horses with a real and worthwhile economic value, they have definitely proved their worth and have won the acclaim of trainers who use and ride horses themselves daily. Hancocks rarely tire from long days working livestock, and when they do, it’s long after other horses have lost their pep.

Vintage Western Horseman magazine cover.

In fact in 2007, Western Horseman magazine chose Joe Hancock as number three on their list of the top five ranch horse bloodlines. But still, the Hancock line of the Peter McCue family of this quarter horse breed, which includes all the direct and indirect offspring of the famous founding sire, is also one of the most controversial groups in the ranks of quarter horses. Damned by some and praised by others, these horses have been called everything in the books — from rough, awkward, feather-legged puddin’-foots to smooth, graceful, slick-performing all-around cow horses.

In the eyes of most cattlemen, the top horses are those natural cutting and roping animals. It seems they have to be born with a certain cow sense. And, no stallion has produced more top ranch and rope horses than old Joe Hancock. Today, rodeo competitors, ropers and ranchers appreciate Hancock-bred horses for their big, stout conformations, grittiness and cow sense. Some Hancocks are known for their buck, big feet and less-than-asthetic heads, but staunch supporters say few foundation bloodlines produce such hardworking horses.

My Hancock-bred mare

The Hancock-bred mare I call, Whiskey, by Drews Poco Hancock. AQHA registration number 5661662.

I was well-aware of both the controversy surrounding Hancock-bred horses, and their reputation as hard-working, rock solids when I purchased my Hancock-bred horse last year. I was unfazed by the negative reputation of a Hancock, so much so, that the horse I found was not only Hancock-bred, but a mare and a five-year old mare, at that. The jokes from my friends started almost immediately. “Better make sure your insurance premiums are paid up!” commented one trusted friend. “Since she’s five, you’ve only got five more years of her trying to dump you in a tree,” said another. But as the jokes subsided, the respect for her bloodline and her work ethic ensued.

Whiskey and me.

Joe Hancock‘s descendants are exceptional at giving their all — most anything asked of them — so long as they are asked the right way. And, what I’ve learned in the last year of my time with Whiskey (I know, never name a mare “whiskey,” and especially not a Hancock-bred mare. You’re just asking for trouble, I’m told) is to ask the correct way. Push the right buttons and respect both her abilities and her intelligence, and there is no finer horse when there is serious work to be done. Whiskey is not crazy about going around the arena in circles and she leaves the dancing patterns and spins to the reining horses. But, truth be told, I’m also not crazy about going around the arena in circles and spins make me dizzy. Now, I have great respect for horses of all disciplines, and especially the elegant waltz performed by a reining horse and rider, but for me a hard-working, smart horse with an innate cow sense is the perfect partner. Whiskey makes me better as a rider because of her honesty and because, once I get past the occasional obligatory toss of the head, she is just plain fun to ride!

So, if you are looking for a smart, hard-working horse with natural cow sense, I believe you’ll find no better a horse to fit the bill than a descendant of ol’ Joe Hancock. Yes, you may be challenged at times, and yes, you will need to be a confident horseman (or at least willing to challenge yourself to be better). But, in return, I believe you’ll find a special horse that will never give up on you and will also get the job done. Hancocks are special because they are unique. Unique in their abilities. Unique in their, umm, complicated reputations. And, unique in their innate cow sense. And, that mis amigos, is exactly why cowboys ride Hancock-bred horses, and why I do too.

As always and until next time, happy trails! ★


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25 comments on “Why Cowboys Ride Hancock Bred Horses

  1. Audett Davis says:

    I have had my mare for a year now and she is 5 now. Everything you have mentioned I see in her. Love learning about her breeding. A roan beauty! What a star susie

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sounds like you’ve got a great horse there!

      Like

    2. Shawntel Wells says:

      I love the hancock horses. One of my best mares is hancock and soon to get a hancock stud colt. In my experience; like is worded in the article… you got to push the right buttons. People that bash “ hancock horses” obviously aren’t good enough horseman to know how to ride and respect a hancock horses

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sherman M. Green says:

    Good morning Chip, I’ve own several Hancock bred horses and I agree with you on getting them to work with you. ” They are almost a breed all their own”! Once they lean you and you learn and respect them as a partner you have them for life. I’m sure by now people are learning they all the things said about them is not true. Any horse can be a “Bronc” if pushed and not trained by the right hand. I will always own ” Hancock” bred horses because they are true cowboy breed! See ya down the road, Sherman M. Green

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howdy SDherman. Thank for your message. The more people I talk to about Hancock-bred horses, the more of these positive stories I hear. I’m glad to hear about yours. You and I both know, you will have a willing, trustworthy partner for life with your Hancock-bred horse. They are just that good!

      Like

  3. JoBeth Howard Shaffer says:

    I enjoyed your article about the Hancock line of quarter horses. Joe David Hancock, the owner of Joe Hancock, was my grandfather. One of my fondest memories as a child was going to Mammie & Grandpa’s on the weekend. All of my cousins would also be there . While Grandpa was busy, we would bridle up a couple of horses & race. When Grandpa caught us he wasn’t happy—said we were “ruining his race horses.” This all resulted in him buying Shetland ponies for the grandkids to “race.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an incredible story of your childhood, and memories you are surely proud of. As you know, your grand-daddy would race Ol Joe against anyone, never lost, and eventually people got tired of losing to him! Your grandfather sounds like a generous, caring man, who was also one helluva horseman and breeder.

      Like

  4. Chad A. Danielson says:

    Bought a Hancock horse ranch broke for my then 13yr old son to make a heading horse. He took to it like a duck to water he did try our grit a couple of times but now I’ve turned down more money than I ever imagined for him. Am currently looking for an other Hancock young one to start again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They will keep you as a honest rider, but man, they are so smart, and competitive, and I think that’s what makes them so good in the roping pen!

      Like

  5. John Donnelly says:

    Joe Hancocks dam was allegedly a riding Percheron rather than a draft. These are rare now days but apparently common at one time. I’ve had a few Hancocks. Most would buck, but buck honestly. Stomp their feet a couple times, pin their ears back and buck straight. When they hit the ground you thought you teeth were coming out. The premier rough country stockhorse. Could go up and down the mountains at 9000 feet for forty miles and still try and throw you off on the way home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always found that any buck from a Hancock-bred horse had more to do with HOW a rider was asking the horse to do something rather than WHAT the rider was asking, at least in my experience. They are, as you write, a horse that goes all day long and still keeps their energy! And, I bet those huge feet help with the rough country, huh?

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  6. Jim Gregg says:

    they are known as BIG CIRCLE horses..not arena horses.. better fit for a 20 section pasture

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are true ranch horses, so I agree with you that’s where they are most at home is in open country. At the same time, they excel in the roping pen as well, so they get used there a lot. They are a great all-around horse!

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  7. JW says:

    I was lucky enough to meet the youngest son of John Hancock years ago, and listen to his stories about Joe Hancock. Mr. Tom said that Joe Hancock’s dam was a half Percheron half thoroughbred mare they had on the ranch. Makes perfect sense if you’ve been around them. He said they used Ol Joe for everything. They would ride him to town, enter the rodeos, compete in several events, match race him afterwards, and let him breed a couple mares while he was there. And then ride him home lol! He said his daddy never said no to someone who wanted to breed to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great story! It’s interesting how we meet people in life, sometimes by chance. Ol Joe was, in fact, used for everything, much like Hancock bred horses today. It’s interesting that he shared with you what sounds like fairly happenstance beginnings for such a great bloodline.

      Like

  8. Judy Gentry says:

    We have a gray horse that is a double bred Hancock gelding my husband had him going fairly well when he fell and broke his neck and has not been able to ride since we would like to see someone that appreciate this blood line to have him and make him a great horse I know he has it in him, we just can’t do this any more , old age creeped in on us

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Judy, so sorry to hear about your husband’s fall. Hope he’ll get better soon.

      Like

  9. bonnie depriest says:

    My grandpa had a Hancock mare when I was a kid. She as run in a local barrel race as a young mare. When I was 9, I got to enter my first youth rodeo with her. She hadn’t been raced in between, but knew the pattern. Goat tying didn’t go as well! On a long trail ride that went long past dark, she got me home far ahead of the rest of the group. She had a fantastic running walk. She was hard to catch, and we were never able to fix her racing back out of the horse trailer. I never remember her bucking, but she sure taught us to ride!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bonnie, your story is like so many others I’ve heard about how unique, but also how incredible these Hancock-bred horses are! They certainly have their own strong personalities, but they will do anything for you and they are as smart as any horse I’ve ever known. Thanks for the great story!

      Like

  10. Julia says:

    Yup… don’t make em like they used to! Love King Ranch rolling out some again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julia says:

      My 18 yr old is Cashas Steel Hancock Touche’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow! Probably going strong as ever at 18.

        Like

  11. Bonnie Jones says:

    I bought a Joe Hancock bred colt at 4 1/2 months even then he was so calm never got upset over anything, more curious, now he is a 2 y.o. never bucked acted like he had been ridden every day of his life, of course I was out messing with him a lot because anything I wanted to teach him he got it the first time, what an awesome blood line, I am sold for life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is exactly how I feel. They are great horses from an excellent bloodline. The best kept secret in stock horses in my opinion!

      Like

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