Mike Major is every bit the modern-day cowboy with decades of experience lending itself to his success both in and out of the arena. Mike was raised as the son of a cattleman, Buddy Major, and grew up pushing cattle, match racing, and competing in rodeos across New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Colorado. His youth, spent working for his father on large ranches, is where his start as a horseman truly began; he can regale anyone with his “wild west” stories of starting all the colts alone at a ranch miles from town or of the long days pushing cattle to the stockyards in Magdalena, New Mexico, through any type of weather. He now has an aversion to mules, stemming from his handshake deal with his dad as a trade – Mike would break five mules for Buddy and, in turn, Buddy would give Mike his first two mares going back to Apache Star Rey.
“At 14, I was running the Mertz Ranch when I came back from working for Bob Lee,” Mike explains. “Bob Lee is who introduced me to the cutting horses, he was probably the biggest inspiration to me concerning horsemanship. He showed cutting horses and cowboyed, and his horses were so darn good. Especially because my horses were just junk, old race and rope horses. We traded horses and rides back and forth; he took one of the horses I had and won the New Mexico (Cutting) Open on that horse three years in a row. He would send me horses to ride outside, and I’d ask him to start some horses in the cutting for me."
As Mike aged into his early adulthood, he competed on the rodeo scene in both rough stock and timed events while living in Magdalena, New Mexico. He specialized in bull riding and team roping, then ventured away from the rough stock events (and the injuries included) as he started his family with his first daughter, Devan. His love of horses and riding, as well as raising cattle, didn’t stop there, however, and Mike entered the cutting horse scene and continued to develop his breeding program with his first stud Leovada Chic. A jack of all trades, life also found Mike running a trucking business and a sale barn as his family again grew to include daughters Becca, Micaela, Avery, and son Austin.
The opportunity of a lifetime came up in the early 1990s when Mike purchased the Flying A Ranch in Fowler, Colorado, and moved his family from Belen. With 21,000 acres of ranch land, having dependable horses became pivotal to completing the job day-to-day. With the addition of daughter Alexa, Mike found himself running 550 cows and growing his band of ranch horses, including a few mares and three studs, Bright Mito Bars, Joys Double Feature and Leovada Chic. He continued to team rope as ranching allowed but focused on growing his cattle herd and running the ranch.
While ranching, Mike stayed passionate about the horse bloodlines he passed on through his breeding program, growing his herd to encompass over 100 broodmares and eight studs at its largest on the plains of Colorado. While team roping in large jackpots and pro rodeos, along with competing in local ranch rodeos, Mike continued to improve his horse training and cattle herds, as well.
In the early 2000s, the Major family grew with daughters Shanae and Kiana, and also a dark bay stallion colt. The addition of Smart Whiskey Doc set Mike on a path he didn’t see coming. Smart Whiskey Doc was a 1999 bay stallion by Paddy’s Irish Whiskey out of Smart Little Carol. With a Cinderella story of his own, “Whiskey” won the Colorado State Fair in 2003, then had to fight back from a neck injury to team with Mike for his first ranch horse versatility championship as the 2006 Bayer Select Working Cow Horse World Champion. This was the first event to truly capture the blend of skills a horse needs to succeed on the ranch and in the arena. From here, Mike found a new passion and began his journey perfecting the versatility ranch horse both in breeding and training.
“Smart Whiskey Doc was the first one I trained and showed. I didn’t know what a lead change was or what the cones on the side of the arena were for, but it was really a learning curve. Being a pretty good horseman on the ranch versus being a good horseman in the arena was two different worlds completely,” Mike says of that first show. “I just worked my butt off to become good in the arena, too, and learned everything I could learn by watching the top horseman in the reining cow horse at the time.”
Whiskey continued to be successful under Mike, going on to win the AQHA Open World Champion Versatility Ranch Horse title in 2009 and 2010. He was also named the World’s Greatest Versatility Ranch Horse by the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association, along with finishing as High Point Horse for the Versatility Ranch Horse division in 2006 and 2007. Whiskey’s bloodlines proved successful, namely with his daughter Black Hope Stik, who’s dam, Hope Stik, goes back to the band of horses Mike traded Buddy for at the beginning of his life. Black Hope is best known for her brideless cowhorse run at the Project Cowboy, where she and Mike secured the championship win in 2010. Mike and Black Hope, a 2006 black mare, also won the 2010 Battle in the Saddle Ranch Remuda Challenge and the 2012 AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse Open World Championship.
Mike continues to see success of his “stik” horses, named after the brand that adorns their left hip signifying over 50 years of breeding selection by Mike. The bloodlines continue to prove successful, winning a Register of Merit on XX (Chica Shine x Hope Stik). Currently, his success can be seen on Pool Stik, a 2016 gelding out of Hope Stik by Chica Shine, a stud Mike has also won numerous World Titles on. As he starts the last filly out of Hope Stik in 2021, he is excited for the new crop of two- and three-year-olds.
“I’ve bought a lot of high dollar mares, and out of all the mares I’ve had, the good ones have always gone back to those original horses,” Mike says. “I’d buy those good mares to see how they’d compare to those horses we were raising to see if our program was going in the right direction, but now looking back on it, I should’ve kept a lot more of those fillies our of Avery’s Blue Roan and Hope Stik than I did.”
Mike’s horse breeding and training philosophy is best defined by establishing a strong foundation of softness, collection, and body control. He’s quoted in The Fence Post in 2013 saying, “It’s kind of like a dance, if you take someone and you want to tango with them, and they have never done the tango before, there’s no way in the world they are going to be able to do it. But if you’ll teach people the dance steps, and it’s the same with the horse — teach them the maneuvers, teach them how you want them to move their feet and move their body to be soft and then you can go ahead and start trying to do your performance and the different maneuvers. That way the horse has the some insight as to what you’re trying to get done.”
Mike now enjoys training his own and client’s horses in Bowie, Texas where he continues to see success in both the AQHA and Stock Horse of Texas show arenas. He and his family continue to run cattle in Belen, New Mexico, where all of his show horses are used as ranch horses for both spring and fall works.
“What we really always strived to get was horses with a good mind and a good confirmation. If you have horses with a good mind and structured correctly, you usually end up with an able horse. A trainable mind is what you strive for.”
"A trainable mind is what you strive for.”