Legacy of a Lifetime
by Ruth Wiechmann
Originally Published in the Horse Edition of the Tri State Livestock News, 2013
1958. The American Quarter Horse Association was a fledgling organization, not yet in its twentieth year. Horses that today we consider legends in the breed were household names: Three Bars, Leo, King, Wimpy, Buck Hancock; their get and grandget were racing, cutting, ranching, setting records, and forming the foundation of the breed as we know it today.
In 1958, one of those legendary sires died. That horse was the great King P-234. Considered by many the archetypical quarter horse, King had and still has more influence on the quarter horse breed than most of his contemporaries. Owned for most of his life by Jess Hankins, King made a name for Hankins and his brothers by the colts he produced. King’s colts were stamped with his mark: with few exceptions they had type, conformation, athletic ability, cow sense, and golden dispositions. King P-234’s last colt crop was born in 1958.
Bernie Janssen grew up in Minnesota during the same years that King’s colts were making such a profound impression on the horsemen in the fledgling American Quarter Horse Association.
“I was always the ‘little guy,’” he said.
Sometimes being a smaller kid had its perks! When Bernie was in his teens, neighbor Kenneth Uden put him on a mare that he hauled around the area to match races. Shady Lady was black, and she was fast. Bernie loved it. Ken Uden introduced Bernie to registered Quarter Horses, and to King P-234 bred quarter horses, and it was love that would last for a lifetime. It was also love for a lifetime that blossomed between Bernie and Ken Uden’s niece Sherry. Bernie and Sherry married in 1959, shortly before Bernie left to serve in the U.S. Military.
In 1958, the young Minnesotan decided to start raising horses. He had spent two years in college, intending to become a Lutheran pastor, but after two years of studying, his love for horses won out. Bernie had never owned a registered Quarter Horse before, but from his experience growing up with Ken Uden’s horses, he knew what he wanted.
Bernie purchased his first two registered mares at R. L. Underwood’s dispersal sale in 1958. Underwood, president of the AQHA from 1944-46, was well known by the breeders of his day to have one of, if not the best bands of quarter horse mares in the early days of the registry. While other breeders raised horses to supply their ranch remudas, Underwood bred horses because they were his passion. His mares were considered to be the most uniform herd of mares in his day. It was from this herd that Bernie chose his first two mares. Little Chick and Calf Roper were both daughters of Underwood’s famed Golden Chief, and Bernie brought them home to Minnesota.
Bernie bred these first two mares to a King P-234 grandson, King Jacket. Owned at the time by Dr. Steinhauser, and standing in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the palomino horse sired by L H Chock was also a grandson of Blackburn on his dam’s side. He had been shown in AQHA halter and performance classes, and won some money in NCHA competition. He also won the Grand Champion title cutting at the Minnesota State Fair under Steinhauser. Those first breedings to King Jacket both resulted in fillies. Bernie sold one, and kept the other; a cute palomino out of Calf Roper that he named Ropette. When Ropette came of age, Bernie bred her to a son of King named Dooley Slo Poke. She foaled a filly in 1962 while Bernie was stationed in France in the army, a filly named Kings Slo Jewel that Bernie trained to cut on the neighbor’s herd of cows as well as his own holsteins.
Bernie first showed her at a cutting in Walnut Grove, Minnesota in 1965. Together they took second place. Later he showed her at a cutting in Harlan IA, and the duo beat War Bond Leo, owned and ridden by Dave Martin. At the time, War Bond Leo was ranked the number one cutting horse in the nation! Martin was so impressed that he offered Bernie a breeding to War Bond Leo for the catty mare.
The years went by. Bernie added to his herd. He bred Leo horses, as well as the King line, but the King horses were always his favorites. When the Hankins brothers had their dispersal sale, Bernie hooked up a two horse trailer and drove to San Antonio, Texas.
He also added to his herd from the program of Keith Overstreet, a man from Leon, Iowa, who concentrated the blood of King P-234 son Easter King in his herd.
Some of the very best King mares Bernie ever bought came from the Creek Plantation in Georgia, owned by W. S. Morris, III. Claudia Miss and Top Joker Miss produced some of Bernie’s best, including Kings Black Widow, the mare that Bernie considers the best horse he has owned in his lifetime.
Bernie’s friend Dave Bishop, who lived near Rochester, owned a pretty black mare named Miss Poco Marybee that he hauled to Georgia, along with another mare, to breed to Continental King. Bernie happened to see Dave at a cutting. Dave mentioned that he had two stud colts in pasture sired by Continental King.
“What are you going to do with em’?” Bernie asked him.
“Well, I’m going to sell them,” was Dave’s reply. Bernie wanted to go take a look, but Dave was going to be out of town for a while.
Bernie laughed, remembering…
“I about went cuckoo, having to wait two weeks to go look at them!”
When things finally worked out, Bernie went over to take his pick. Both had so much potential! What would have been had he picked the other colt? He couldn’t afford to buy them both. After agonizing over the decision, he picked the colt he named Kings Poco Discount. The little fellow was a son of Continental King, out of a daughter of Poco Discount.
Kings Poco Discount, trained and shown by Bernie Janssen, won the reining at the Utah State Fair, and went on to sire two Upper Midwest Cutting Futurity winners.
Now Bernie needed some new blood to cross on his Kings Poco Discount daughters. Through the influence of Al Buchli, whom he’d met at the Hankins brothers’ sale, he decided to breed to a stallion in Canada, a double bred King P-234 stud named March King Breeze. He hauled two mares to Canada, and after some considerable hassle making trips back and foth across the Canadian border, ended up with two fillies. He was pleased with both, but he still didn’t have his stud prospect.
Hauling the mares up and back and dealing with crossing the border had been so inconvenient that Bernie asked March King Breeze’s owner to ship him some semen. This was in the early days of AI breeding, and the technique was not perfected as it is today. But it was worth a try. Bernie had his vet synchronize his mare, Kings Miss Purity. She cycled, the semen arrived, and it was no good. There was not much of a chance of getting the mare bred with it, but the vet said, “Well, so long as we have it, and the mare is ready, we may as well put it in her.” Somehow she conceived, and King Brown Legacy was born. Bernie had the perfect outcross for his Kings Poco Discount mares.
After Bernie rode Kings Black Widow to win the Upper Midwest Cutting Futurity in 1993, he had high hopes for other horses to show, but sometimes, as with all mice and men, the best laid plans fall apart.
A young daughter of Kings Poco Discount and Town Joker Miss he was preparing to show died suddenly, and for no apparent reason.
Then Kings Poco Discount died prematurely. Bernie had intended to show Kings Poco Discount’s fancy grullo son, Kings Poco Breeze, but when his sire died, he was turned out with mares instead of hauled to shows.
A few years later, Bernie was devastated again, when the handsome grullo horse somehow broke a leg and had to be put down.
By then, Bernie was starting to feel his age.
“We all get old,” he said.
2006 hit, the horse market crashed, the economy headed south, and Bernie’s mares stood in the pasture and did not get bred for three years. Things looked bleak.
In 2009, Bernie split the mares up, and turned two studs out: King Brown Legacy, and his young grullo maternal brother, Kings Pure Breeze. There would be another crop of King colts, but Bernie was looking for someone else to carry on the program. Several people expressed an interest, but each, for one reason or another, failed to make a deal.
The one bright spot on the horizon was Kings Breeze, a 2004 bay colt by King Brown Legacy and out of Bernie’s cutting mare, Kings Black Widow. Bernie had had James Pease, a young man from the neighboring town, start some horses for him over the years, and Bernie gave Breeze to James to start riding. James and Breeze hit it off.
“I don’t know if the man made the horse, or if the horse made the man,” Bernie says proudly. “It’s probably some of both.”
James started showing Kings Breeze in AQHA reining classes in 2009, and the bay colt was stellar. He didn’t always win, but he always did well. By the end of the year, he had earned his AQHA Performance Register of Merit, and he finished the year as the AQHA Region 2 Junior Reining Champion. 2011 again saw James and Breeze take top honors in the AQHA Region Two/SDQHA show when Kings Breeze won the Senior Reining Championship title.
Something still needed to be done with the mares at home in Minnesota. Over the years Bernie had gotten many lucrative offers from people wanting to buy his horses that he turned down. He could have sold them now. But when the time came for someone else to carry on the breeding program, money wasn’t the issue. The horses were the priority.
There are lots of other horses in the world, and even other King horses in the world, but in Bernie’s experience there were none that compared to this group of horses. Over the years Bernie had owned and ridden many horses, other King P-234 bred horses, and other horses of the popular AQHA bloodlines of the day. Most were good, some were better, but none could quite compare with the King lines he had used in the nucleus of his program. He used other horses in his program over the years, but they just weren’t quite as good as what he already had. Over time he had weeded the others all out. There was just something special about this little group of King mares. He wanted them to stay together.
So it came to be that the King mares came to South Dakota. In January of 2010, Bernie got a phone call from a lady looking for a King bred filly to start riding.
“You wouldn’t happen to want some broodmares, would you?” he asked.
After a few phone conversations, Bernie was convinced that this was the right place for the horses. In April, when the snow finally subsided enough to get trailers into the place, the King mares were hauled to Perkins County, South Dakota, and turned out in the pasture to foal. Since 2010, Ben & Ruth Wiechmann have managed Bernie’s breeding program on their ranch, where they also raise commercial Angus and baldie cattle with the help of their five children.
Today Bernie’s legacy is carried on at Badger Hole Ranch. Mares and stallions that still have King P-234 on their papers graze on the prairie, and another batch of athletic, good minded, King bred colts is growing up.
“The Good Lord knew what He was doing,” Bernie told Sherry.