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
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.
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
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.
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! ★