(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

THAT FRANTIC second weekend in September has galloped back once again to this massive Sandhills ranch, and there’s no time to horse around. Well, actually, there are horses all around.

Hundreds of cowboy boots move about the grounds of the Pitzer horse ranch, but they’re surrounded by more than twice as many hooves. The horses are everywhere on this Wheeler County spread, which is just a quick canter northwest of the little village of Ericson. They lounge in their paddocks and stalls, whinny longingly from trailers, charge about corrals at roping events, and some just stroll past you in the hangar-sized barn as if it were their own equine resort.

Most of these quarter horses will trot onto the stage and circle about the ring above all the eager onlookers while the auctioneer’s tongue sings their praises faster than a hip-hop rant. It’s showtime once again at the Pitzer Ranch Fall Sale, which each September is one of the most anticipated quarter horse auctions on the Great Plains.

“The dynasty that this particular ranch has built for itself has created their own excitement,” said Kyle Elwood, a 43-year-old auctioneer from Salina, Kan., whose cadence beats the drum for bidding as colts step into the ring, sometimes joined by mom for a daily-double purchase. “People stay in this bloodline. They realize that there’s a good outlet for the market on this breed of horse.”

“They’ve been riding horses like this back in the days of the gladiators and we still do it the same way,” said Jim Brinkman, the ranch’s owner, who at 53, is still a world-class steer roper, African big-game hunter and the only grandson of Howard Pitzer, the horse trader who started the ranch in 1944 and created this prized bloodline that he pitched to horse buyers across the region with the first sale show in 1977.

Pitzer was a bear of a man and a ranching legend known across the Sandhills. He lived to trade for horses, and in 1964, he came up with his deal of the century when he sold some of the ranch’s cows and bought a sturdy 3-year-old sorrel stallion who had a dark copper tone with a small head and big, magically expressive eyes. His name was Two Eyed Jack and he would become the greatest sire in the history of the quarter horse industry. Jack produced 1,416 foals on this ranch, with 119 champions, and generations of versatile and reliable horses Brinkman has now almost crafted into a breed within a breed.

“We breed them this way,” he says matter-of-factly, barely able to stand still as he appears eager to vault his long and lean frame over the rail and join in on the roping exhibition riding on just a few feet away. “It’s the survival of the fittest around here. You herd about 300 mares and you know if she ain’t good enough you get rid of her.” This horse marathon of sales is run by Brinkman, his wife, Tana, and their daughter and son, and the September showcase often has 800 horses changing hands, with many of the four-legged deals the offspring delivered from the ranch’s own 250 broodmares. Over the years, celebrity spectators have included real Cowboys from the Dallas football team as well as country legends like Dale Evans and Lynn Anderson, who was never promised a rose garden here, just splendid steeds for her other spectacular career as an equestrian riding champion. The Brinkmans also hold a smaller spring sale, but it is the heralded Fall Classic that really woos buyers via cyber space.

“We ship all over the world,” said Sarah Brinkman, Jim’s daughter and roping partner at the rodeo championships. She helps run the ranch and the sale with her parents and her big baby brother, Sam. Sarah says all the horses from the Pitzer Ranch are born to be sold.

“We’ve got a spreadsheet,” she says of the Pitzer herd. “We brand them all. Each foal gets a mare number on the left butt cheek, and then a stud number on the right butt cheek.”

Those branding marks have caught the eyes of horse-flesh fanatics visiting from distant lands such as Hawaii, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Australia, and riders on ranches even sandier than the Sandhills - Israel. This kind of horsepower can be more expensive than a lot of the four-wheel rides of Nebraska’s motorists, with saddles at the fall show going for as much as $2,000. But no matter how deep those pockets, or how shiny the boots are, any rancher who lives to roam on the back of a horse in the open range is from the same breed in Jim Brinkman’s eyes.

“I’ve been to a lot of different countries and a redneck’s a redneck no matter where in the world you go,” he says. “They’re all the same. There’s a lot of the John Wayne syndrome at a lot of dude ranches and you can tell it’s a put-up deal, but we actually live like this. You wake up in the morning and there’s a lot fires burning and you put out the biggest one and just save the little ones until it gets dark. Then you start all over again.”

But the real fire chief at this sale might be Jim’s wife, Tana. She’s a former college volleyball player and a rodeo beauty pageant queen, but now she eagerly crowns herself as the queen of gofers.

“I go for this and I go for that,” she says with a laugh. “My husband and I, we’re just firemen. We just put out the worst fire. Have you ever seen the sign: Behave like a duck. Stay calm on the surface, and paddle like crazy underneath.”

For Tana, that crazy paddling in September includes updating the website on a computer that Jim is basically allergic to, making all the sale workers breakfast, picking up trash, cleaning toilets, and feeding and loading the horses. She’s also a photographer and an artist, which comes in handy when she writes her three books each year.

“I put out three novels a year,” Tana says. “The spring catalog, the fall catalog, and the bull catalog.”

Tana was a volleyball star at Burwell High, which got her a scholarship at Hastings College, and during that junior college season she also wore the crown as Miss Rodeo Nebraska. But after her junior year, she gave up college, and three days after giving up her Miss Rodeo crown, she married into this wild ranching ride on Aug. 13, 1980.

“We married fairly young,” Jim said. “I was in a hurry. Always have been.”

Jim was always in a hurry to ride off on his dreams, so he won his first world roping championship in the American Quarter Horse Association at age 16. He also knew in a hurry that this tall gal across the hills was going to be his partner at the ranch, and in life. He knew it the first time he saw tomboy Tana outriding all the guys at the rodeo.

“Later he would tell me, ‘You always had the little purple, sparkly pants and you beat all us boys in the calf ride,’ ” Tana said. “He said I was the only girl who’d come over and play basketball and shoot prairie dogs. He didn’t have to go on a date.”

Of course, Tana’s toughest job was trying to get her husband to stop hopping about after he broke his neck in fall from a horse. “He was a great patient for about two weeks,” Tana said. “Then he was getting a little stir crazy. He’s not one to sit and watch TV.”

“Pain’s a good way to know if you’re alive,” said Jim, who’s also broken his legs and ribs in riding crashes.

His daughter shares his riding talent and glory, at the rodeo events. It won Sarah a college scholarship at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where she graduated in 2004. In their team roping competition, Sarah is the header and while on horseback lassoes the head of the steer, and Dad is the riding heeler who swings a rope over the heels or legs. But while she shares those trophies, she also shares her father’s journeys with pain. At last fall’s festival, she limped about in boots and jangly spurs after injuring her ankle in a recent ride, but that’s a little boo-boo compared to falls with horses that left her with a painful back injury and kidney damage.

“You ride enough of these and you’re going to get hurt at some point,” Sarah said. “They’re animals. They’re unpredictable.”

Of course, she also has a quick pain reliever, with a relaxing visit to the medical spa she owns in Ord. “That’s my girl time,” Sarah said with a smile.

RIDING A HORSE in the Sandhills seems to help with the falls in life too. In 2006, a tornado swept through Ericson and destroyed Jim and Tana’s ranch home. They didn’t miss a stride. After staying in a modular home, they converted the space above their barn into a three-bedroom penthouse and now can literally take their work home with them. And after Sarah dealt with the pain of divorce, she decided to move back to the ranch and raise her son, Kale, to grow up to be a cowboy. He’s 3 now, eager to join in on this September show. He has been riding a horse longer than he could crawl, following his grandpa’s every move.

“He just gets on the horse and rides with us,” Sarah said. “I wanted him to grow up here and kind of have this lifestyle. He loves it. He loves doing everything with Grandpa. We’re down there on the trail course with him and he’s on the front of one of the horses. He’ll probably be just like Grandpa.”

Young Kale rides on with his grandpa, just like his grandpa rode on with his own grandpa, the guy in the white cowboy hat named Howard who started it all. He was a big man with a big voice, and an even bigger heart to those who knew him best. But he did things his way, and everybody else learned fast that they better follow his trail.

They called him Pile-driver Pitzer in high school because of the way he drove his leather helmet into his opponents on the football field, but for his family, it was just “Gramps,” or “Grandpa.” He died in 1998 at the age 85, but at last year’s fall sale, his only child, Kay Brinkman-Miller, proudly carried on the family tradition at age 75.

When her mother, Florence, died two years ago on Mother’s Day at the age of 99, Kay became the last link to the beginning of Howard’s ranch. She too has a home on the ranch, but jokes that she is an old-timer and has willingly handed the reins to her son, Jim. But her mind can do a quick gallop back in time.

She remembers when this land here was nothing more than an alfalfa field, and she laughs at how she knew she was in trouble as a girl when Howard would call her Katherine. Her mind’s eye takes her back deeper, to those early days in Omaha, when Howard tried to scrape out a living for his family as a stockman. And she’ll never forget his chuckle, or what a showman he was.

“He loved to show,” Kay said. “When I was a little girl and we lived in Omaha, he showed dogs.”

Pitzer started growing this ranch in the 1940s by renting out grass for 25 cents an acre and taking in cattle. He got by on the guile that carried him through the Depression, and the horsetrading instincts his father taught him. Every time Howard traded horses he seemed to come out on the winning end, and used the meager profits to buy more land and more cattle until one day that little ranch had grown to 30,000 acres with hundreds of Angus cattle. While the Brinkman ladies of today grudgingly deal with the computer world of sales, Howard Pitzer’s computer was the figuring he did with that notebook and pencil he carried around in those huge, meaty hands.

DURING HIS 45 YEARS as a veterinarian in the Sandhills, Dr. George “Doc” Baker has overseen the examinations of all the horses shown at the Pitzer Ranch sales. Baker said Two Eyed Jack was probably the finest horse he’s ever handled in a career that saw Baker also become a giant in the breeding industry. In 1966, Baker was the first vet in Nebraska to conduct an artificial insemination program on mares. He figures he stared at the back end of a horse close to a million times while examining the uteri and ovaries of mares.

“I’ve done well over a half million rectal palpations and that’s no bull,” he says. But there was nothing artificial about Two Eyed Jack.

The Don Juan of quarter horses preferred a closer dance, although Doc Baker says the mood did not always strike him and even a sparrow flying by would distract him. The Barry White music didn’t work, but Two Eyed Jack always seemed to have his eyes on palominos and other light-colored mares. The most memorable breeding incident Baker recalls was when Jack got injured during a strut about the breeding barn.

“We led him past a potential row of mares to be bred and Jack liked to squall at them and act like the big hero, the big macho,” Baker said. “One morning, he struck one of the pipe panels, pulled back and injured his shoulder. He looked at me and he actually had tears in his eyes. He thought, why did I do that?”

But Jack’s many missions that were accomplished developed this breed known worldwide for its sturdy conformation, riding versatility and gentle disposition.

“The Jack horses are very athletic and they’re easier horses to get along with,” Baker said. “We look for horses with good feet and legs. We look for horses with good, big eyes. You get horses with small eyes and maybe they’re deep set in their head, those horses are not going to be trustworthy. They’ll be suspicious. Horses see two different worlds from each side.”

Pitzer was said to have eyed Two Eyed Jack twice before finally making his historic purchase in 1964. He saw him 10 days after his birth, and when he was 2 at the Denver Stock Show, where legend has it that Howard ironically joked to buddies that the horse would make a fine gelding. That would have been the unkindest cut of all. Although the stallion was a versatile performer for years in show competitions and a hard worker cutting those cows on the ranch, he did his best work when it was time to really get down to business. In his prime, Jack stood just over 15.1 hands high and weighed 1,350 pounds, but he was the King Kong of quarter horse sires.

The master stallion was sterile the last 10 years of his life, but Two Eyed Jack’s sturdy legs kept him on solid ground into his 30th year. Then the end came on March 2, 1991.

“He slipped on a little patch of ice outside of his stall,” Baker said. “I went and talked to him and kind of rolled him up a little bit and he groaned.”

Baker told Howard the news and he quickly agreed to have his beloved companion put down. He knew it was time, and Baker says that when he looked in Jack’s eyes he saw the same answer from the horse. “He just the same as told me, ‘hey, it’s time,’ ” Baker said.

Six years later, both Howard Pitzer and Two Eyed Jack were inducted into the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame in 1997. A year later, the other half of this dynamic duo was also gone. Sarah remembers how much her great-grandfather had slowed in those final years, but he used the modern horsepower to stay on top of the ranch.

“He’d always drive up in his Suburban and honk the horn,” Sarah said. “We’d have to go out to him and he’d give his instructions for the day.”

Then one Friday, there would be no more instructions. Kay took her father to the hospital because of a heart condition. After visits with him Saturday and early Sunday, the hospital staff phoned Kay the news shortly after noon. “He was talking to them and he kind of gave a big sigh and said something about having a really good life and he just died out. Out that fast. And for him I was very thankful. It would have been hard on him to be in his wheelchair.”

THE LEGACY OF the horse and his master rides on through the generations. On that second weekend in September, the crowd herds in, along with the flies that hover around juicy burgers plated from the grill. There are plenty of booths selling ranch memorabilia, including one run by Kay’s daughter, and Jim’s brother, Jane Qualm. She lives nearby on the Pitzer original homestead, running her own ranch with her husband, Joel, and their five daughters. The memories of growing up here stay with her, like the easy rides Two Eyed Jack would give her, and the gentle heart and little chuckle Grandpa Howard had.

But she also doesn’t forget the pranks her older brother played on her. Jim was always horsing around and conning his gullibly kind sister into doing things for him. There was the time Jim faked breaking his leg, and Jane dragged his sled all the way home for him. Or he’d pretend he was too exhausted from football practice to check a trap line on the river, and little sister would end up skinning the catch for him.

These days it’s payback time. “He’s very scared of snakes and I’m not,” Jane says. “Every now and again I get him with a snake.”

He may flee from snakes, but Jim Brinkman chases after the biggest animals in the wildest lands of Africa. When they’re not busy with the sales or handling their 600 registered cows, Jim, Tana, and their son, Sam, unwind in hunting grounds where lions roar and hippos charge through their tents. The Brinkmans say the exotic kills help with mandated wildlife management and the meat feeds many local families. Jim has downed a zebra, but tomboy Tana struck back in 2010 by bagging a giraffe. Tana says they tried all the exotic meat, including a tasty, but very chewy sirloin from a 50-year-old elephant.

But the real adventures of the heart for the Brinkmans are always in the heart of the Sandhills. For Sarah, her favorite moments are those long quiet rides into the evening past the Cedar River and off into the hills. It is a spiritual journey for her dad, too. Jim Brinkman isn’t much of a churchgoer, but he finds one on every ride into the Sandhills.

“I don’t have to have a church to talk to God,” he says. “I can just be out here and see the sun coming up and the grass a-growing and mule deer over here in the valley, and you’ve got a whole meadow covered with mares and colts. There isn’t nothing prettier than that.”

So if you see a lanky cowboy riding off into those hills, hush. There’s a church service going on. 

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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)