Buy more than a horse; buy a part of our family. Here is our story:
The Willingham’s have been raising horses for 50+ years……it is more than a job. It is a way of life--a passion. Don Willingham, now known to everyone as PaPa, began that passion by instilling in his sons the love of good horses. “There are few things in life better than a rope in your hand and a good horse between your knees”. PaPa grew up when horses were more than a past time or a tool….they were also transportation. “I can remember riding to town in the buckboard and we would only go once a week”.
The first horse PaPa ever owned was a buckskin mare. Dean, PaPa’s brother, PaPa and a family friend drove out to New Mexico in a clapboard truck to pick up a load of quarter horses that were “wild as mustangs”. They brought them home, unloaded them and that was the start of something PaPa never got out of his system. He chose the buckskin mare because she was the prettiest one in the group. He named her after a movie star and rode her home.
As PaPa moved on in his life, circumstances such as severe drought and bad crop prices took him to places that weren’t convenient for horses but he took them with him anyway. “I can never remember not having horses” says Donna, the oldest daughter, “They were always around”. PaPa and Larue, now known to everyone as MoMo, spent the first years of their marriage in the Arlington, Texas area. PaPa worked for GM and Chance Vaught but he never left his love of horses behind, returning home every weekend to see the family and work with his father-in-law O.B. Estep on the farm. There is story after story of Donna, Jeff, Deena, Joe and Jim, the Willingham children, with each of their riding horses.
Finally in 1967, PaPa was able to buy the Willingham home place from his father and move back to Oklahoma. That ranch is what is now the “Rafter W”, home to Willingham Quarter Horses. Horses were not always the focus on the farm. PaPa started out farming peanuts and raising cows, just as his father had done. It was about the time of the move home that PaPa was introduced to the Hancock bloodline through a gelding that O. B. had traded for to do ranch work on. “I can still see that blue horse…big footed, raw boned, and ugly headed, he could eat out of the bottom of a 55 gallon drum and look you in the eye…..but he could flat run”.
As the economy changed, the focus of the farm changed first to feeding out steers then to milking cows. It didn’t matter what the focus of the farm was, horses always had a part in the life of the family. During the time the family farmed and operated the dairy, horses were mostly used to rope and ride for pleasure. Socks, Sam and Yeller and later Levi and Gray were the horses that were used to rope and for the kids to ride. These were the first horses that got Don, Jeff and Jim thinking along the lines of horses that could perform and could babysit. An opportunity arose to refocus the farm yet again. The end of the dairy business was the beginning of Willingham Quarter Horses.
After leaving the dairy business, there was more time to focus on raising horses. By this time the third generation of Willingham’s was old enough to be involved in the feeding and care of the horses. They were all riding by then and they all wanted their own horses. As the family was growing, the need for riding horses was growing. Don, Jeff and Jim realized the best kind of horse for the family was one that could switch back and forth from roping horse to kid horse.
Jeff bought his first mare in 1990. Pumpkin was bred to Heck No Hancock “Roanie” for 3 years but didn’t have a single colt live past 1 year old. PaPa and the boys partnered with a neighbor on a red roan stallion, Shane-Man Hancock in 1992, in order to have a stallion to start breeding mares to. He was a different looking horse than the Hancock that PaPa started out with. He was a smaller horse, and a better headed horse. Papa bought his first mare Peppy in 1993. In 1996, Jim bought his first mares. After Jim joined in, the three of them started really trying to raise horses. They started with a group of less than 15 mares. This was the beginning of the WQH breeding program although PaPa and the boys were thinking on a much smaller scale at the time. As the interest in raising horses grew, Jeff and Jim decided to buy a Hancock Stallion, and base the breeding program on the Hancock/Blue Valentine bloodline. They purchased Pyote Valentine “Red” in 1998 from The Wagon Wheel Ranch and everyone was surely excited. Red was a sorrel/chestnut horse with a lot of bone, about 15.1 hands tall, a nice head and a fantastic personality. He was by Pig Creek Roan and out of a Rowdy Blue Man daughter. Since there were so many of the Willingham’s involved by this time, and so many were kids, Jeff and Jim decided that they needed to focus as much or more on personality as looks. Red really fit the bill. He was extremely gentle. The kids could get in the pen with him, pet and catch him, and while breeding mares he was controllable with a word. At this point, PaPa, Jeff and Jim started being more selective with the broodmare band. They had a great stallion, and now they needed mares with good personalities, looks, the Hancock bloodline and COLOR! Since they were breeding to a sorrel stallion, they tried to build up a group of roan mares in hoping for roan colts.
They put Red into roping horse training in 2002 and while he was gone, they had to come up with a way to breed the mares.
Jeff and Jim and Laurie, Cody, Cory and Casey--the older group of Willingham grandkids--made a trip to Wyoming to the “Come to the Source” Sale to buy a stallion already breeding age and ended up with two that weren’t old enough—Wyo Chuckkar Boy “Wyo”, a black stallion, and Dart Hancock “Dusty” a grullo roan stallion. Buying those two stallions didn’t solve the problem for 2002 breeding season, but the 2003 breeding season was set.
Jeff and Jim found and arranged to lease Wrangler Joe Hancock and bred our mares to him in 2002. The excitement level was high because Wrangler Joe was homozygus for the roan gene. Red was only producing about 50% roan. That was the only complaint with him. With Wrangler Joe, foaling season resulted in a pasture full of roan colts. Obviously, getting color was going to require another stallion. After doing some research--looking for a Hancock horse, with a homozygous roan gene, preferably blue roan--Jim found “Blu” on the internet. He was a blue roan, 16 hands tall, big boned, and homozygous roan and homozygous black. It seemed he was custom made for the WQH breeding program. Jim got in touch with the guy and on a Monday in May 2003, Jeff, Jim and Laurie drove from Coleman to College Station, Texas to pick him up. It was love at first sight! He was the biggest Quarter horse they had ever seen. He had the big bone, the blue roan color, and after spending a little time around the horse, they discovered that he had the personality that was so important. He was perfect. As soon as Blu arrived on the place, the family surrounded him. Kennedy and Trevan—the youngest group of Willingham grandkids--then 2 and 3, immediately wanted to ride. Jim lifted them onto his back while he stood there in the front yard. He was surrounded by people, all excited and talking, with 2 kids on his back, and all he did was graze! What a fantastic buy! Blu was really the block needed to turn raising horses into a business instead of only for pleasure. The broodmare band was about 30 mares at this point and continued to grow as Joe, Neil (Deena’s husband), Laurie, Cody, Cory, Casey and MoMo have bought mares to add to the band. Somewhere along the line, Jeff and Jim started thinking of a way to get our horses out there to the public. Partnering with 3 neighbors in 2005, they arranged the “Foundation of Legends” Quarter horse sale, concentrating on Hancock bloodlines and color. The slogan, appropriately, was “The Kind Your Kids Can Ride.” WQH had struggled for years to produce horses that had color, size, good conformation, good personality, the ability to perform, either in the rodeo arena or the show ring, and that you could ride just for pleasure, and still feel comfortable putting your kids on. After years of hard work, the original dream was reality. At this point, we choose a brand, the Rafter W. This was the basis of our breeding program for the next several years.
Willingham Quarterhorses had grown to the point of owning 4 stallions when we decided to cut back. Red wasn’t producing colored colts, so we sold him in 2006 and continued on with Blu, Wyo, and Dusty. In 2007 we decided to sell Wyo, and try and get another roan stallion. We purchased Rowdy Blue Jet “Rowdy” a bay roan stallion in 2007. At this point our mares were numbering close to 70.
In 2010 right before breeding season, we lost Blu. This was upsetting to the whole family. He was the star of our show, and with his passing we had to make some serious adjusting to our breeding program. We had been keeping Blu daughters, and each of us still in the program today has at least one Blu daughter that we are raising colts out of. We leased 2 stallions from a family friend to make it through the breeding season, Wrangler Blu Hancock “Stoney Larue” and Katty Joe Wrangler “Wyatt”. Fortunately, that year, we had 2 sons of Blu that we kept for stallions, RW Rey Del Rio Blu “Rio” and RW Blu River Cowboy “Cowboy”. After Blu’s passing we cut our mare band back, selling most of the solid color mares and keeping roan mares. In 2010, to have enough stallions for breeding season, we leased Big Red Stretch “Stretch”, a roan son of Blu from another family friend. This kept us going until 2011, when Rio and Cowboy were old enough. We bought Cee Heart Five Star “Romeo” a dun stallion in 2012. He was kind of an experiment for us, he is a smaller horse than what we were raising, and we were hoping for some athleticism. The sale of September 2012 was supposed to be our final sale. It was a hard decision to make, but with the sales of horses on the internet and the number of mares we had cut back to, we were not producing enough colts to make a sale.
At the beginning of the 2013 breeding season, we acquired a racehorse, a bay, Jess Follies, “Jess” and took another horse on lease, Sky Blazer 7695 “Ladd”. We have many current and upcoming barrel racers in the family, and are hoping the racehorse can put some speed in some of the Rafter W horses.
In August of 2015, we lost Jess Follies to an infection. He bred a few mares that year and had some great babies. We had already kept two daughters from him, just didn’t expect to lose him as quickly as we did. This same year we acquired two more stallions: Leo Hancock Hayes Jr and JMLL Rowdy Dally. This was a trip that had not been taken in a while, Jeff, Jim and Laurie headed out to Montana to pick up “Dally” and on the way home they stopped in Kansas to pick up the new “hopeful” Chisom, Leo Hancock Hayes Jr. He was our hopeful because our senior stallion Rowdys Blue Jet was getting old and losing steam. He turned out to be everything we hoped for, he had the mind like the rest and was built like a TANK!
Then, in June of 2016, we lost our senior stallion, Rowdys Blue Jet. He was an amazing stallion, great minded babies and the confirmation we love. We did manage to keep a few of his daughters to carry on his name.
Currently, Willingham Quarter Horses stands 6 stallions. We have about 35 mares, colts of all ages, and a variety of riding horses. We have decided after one year with no sale, we will remain on the internet marketing groups and to continue to conduct our business. In doing this we have shipped several horses several thousand miles and made so many more connections throughout the United States and even a few overseas. The horse business has been good for us, we have met a bunch of people, made many friends, and done some traveling, all because of horses.
Throughout the years, the horse business has consumed not just Papa, Jeff and Jim but the entire family. We are now 4 generations into our program, Papa and Momo, their kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. For us, a love for horses and doing things together is a family emphasis; some of us have cut back, a few of us don’t own horses, but Willingham Quarter Horses and the Rafter W, still stands for the same things it stood for in the beginning. Good horses with good minds, looks and ability, being worked, raised, and ridden by our family in Coleman, Oklahoma.
From our Family to Each of You:
We have worked for years to produce horses that each member of the family can be proud of--horses that have color, conformation, ability and personality, that kids can ride, that will be a pleasure to be around, and that will perform for you at any level. The “Rafter W” on their hip is important to each of us and nothing leaves the WQH ranch that does not have the characteristics that we advertise. We do not sell anything that we wouldn’t be proud to keep for ourselves. Today, we offer you the opportunity to own, not just a horse, but a Willingham Quarter horse, a part of our family.