World Renown Horse Trainer-Judge Was True All-Around Cowboy, Friend Of All
By Frank J. Buchman
The horse industry has lost one of its best.
From a small child, Bill James was a cowboy, and every facet of his life had a major impact on nearly all phases of the equine business.
Standing room only church attendance for the memorial services drawing acquaintances, everyone an admirer and personal friend, from around the country made obvious verification of who the Abilene horseman really was.
Yet, there was also apparentness Bill James was forever a cowboy whatever he did on horseback, evaluating others’ horses around the world, coaching riders in most disciplines or being dad, grandpa, great-grandpa, to his obviously forever most respectful and adoring family.
Passing of Bill James on June 11, 2015, brought vast reflections from all of who he really was. Friend, renowned horseman in his own right, Chaplain Sam Ed Spence of The Race Track Chaplaincy of Texas, Grand Prairie, Texas, near Fort Worth, shared “The Bill James Story,” composed by a family member.
Still, the opening sentence in the writing would likely bring smirks and various directional nods depending on the crowd, certainly there are those cowgirls who’d likely readily agree: “Bill was larger than life, and movie star handsome.”
Born November 3, 1934, on a Clay County family farm, James got his first pony from his grandfather when he was just four, and it was soon obvious “Bill liked being in the saddle better than on a tractor seat.”
His horsemanship skills first became most apparent when James, still in early elementary school, acquired a grade mare named Flicka, and “taught her to do many tricks.”
Leadership abilities showed through when James as a member of the Clay Center Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter. He was elected 25th president of the Kansas Association of FFA, the leadership position also served 25 years later, on the Kansas FFA’s 50th anniversary, by James’ oldest son, Dee James, who additionally served as a National FFA officer .
Attending Kansas State University in 1952, Bill James was called to the cowboy life, started breaking colts to ride, and soon became demanded for his horse training abilities in larger circles.
James’ first major win was at the National Western Stock Show, Denver, in the reining competition on a barefoot bay horse owned by a Kansas horse breeder.
This accomplishment soon attracted additional clientele, including Claude Howard of Sedgwick, an early Kansas Paint Horse breeder.
“I first saw Bill James at the first national Paint Horse show in Hutchinson, and Bill’s abilities with horses were apparent,” said Spence, early day executive secretary of the American Paint Horse Association (APHA).
James had three horses at that first national show and responded by earning national titles with all three.
“After viewing the quality of some of the others horses at the show, James is said to have decided Paint Horses were a horse of the future,” according to Duke Neff, now the longest-standing-active Paint Horse judge, who was at that same first show.
Neff reflected those memories and others of Bill James during the memorial services.
Also in attendance at that first show nearly six decades ago was Jack Campbell, who became a leading Paint Horse breeder, and well-known horse auctioneer.
One of the first big time horses exhibited by James was Adios Amigos, a 1962 brown overo stallion, owned by Howard.
The national champion two-year-old, reserve champion three-year-old and national champion junior reining horses sold to Neff, who had James continue campaigning Adios Amigos to an APHA Championship.
“When Adios got that final reining point to complete his championship at a South Dakota show where it was 10 below zero, Bill came up to me, and said, ‘I guess I have to buy your supper.’ I said I should buy yours, it’s my horse you won with. Bill said, ‘It takes a good horse to win, I was just riding him.’ Bill was that kind of a trainer and horseman,” recognized Neff, who then stood Adios Amigos to sire many Paint Horse winners including supreme champion You Bet Amigo.
Among other leading Paint Horses with accomplishments credited to James’ training were eight supreme champions: Bold Chick, Cowboy Ranger, Power Chick, Rapid Ranger, Red Mount, Rio Rita Bar, Skipetta and Snip Bar.
Sprocket was bred, raised, owned and shown by James to be national champion yearling, two-year-old, three-year-old and aged stallion, the only Paint Horse to have that record of repeated halter show accomplishments. But, Versary Bars was also shown be James to be a four time national champion.
From the old schoolhouse gymnasium in Clay County, James and his wife, Carole, moved their training operations to Dickinson County when they bought their homestead which was developed into the renowned 3J Ranch just north of Abilene.
The training facility has hosted horses and horsemen from around the world, and continues to do so as the James’ prodigy, their grandson, Jamie Stover, a leading trainer in his own right, works out of the facilities.
Seems pertinent to emphasize, and only certain ones can understand and appreciate the difference, but Bill James was first a cowboy, who had abilities in all phases of handling a horse.
Most every discipline of horse competition found horses James had trained or had an influencing part of it. From the halter show, to the pleasure division, to reining, and all aspects of each thereof, but most likely closest to his heart were the ‘real’ cowboy events.
This was of course cutting contests and winning at every level, but also roping and tying calves, team roping, and likely tripping a few when the neighbors needed doctoring done, or just for fun out behind the barn when nobody was looking.
The 3J Ranch was just that, a ranch, and cattle were there, for practicing, and perfectioning all events. There were fresh cattle, for working, tying or stretching, as on numerous occasions, James pickup-trailer rig was at the sale barn, selling, and acquiring new stock.
A good horse was a good horse whatever the breed and lineage, mattered not whether it was a Paint, hot blood, cold blood, gaited walking horses, James appreciated them all as was noted by one who’d ridden a dressage horse at his barn on occasion.
Quarter Horses had a major role in the 3J Ranch operations, and Colonel Hotrodder, a sorrel stallion by Colonel Freckles, stood to a full book of public and James’ mares annually. The stallion sired point earners, winners not only in the cutting and roping pens, but in most events in which one could be saddled and a leg thrown over his back.
At the first American Quarter Horse Association World Show, 50 years ago, James rode Sir Skip Dandy to be the reserve world champion in team roping heading.
An especially memorable occasion for James and his family was “receiving a standing ovation upon winning the working cow horse class in front of a packed house in Jackson, Mississippi.”
Yet, of all the winners under James’ tutelage, one very close to his heart was Three Jay Colonel, bred, raised, and trained at the 3J Ranch. With James in the saddle, Three Jay Colonel, a 1993 sorrel sired by the James’ Colonel Hotrodder, was the 2004 AQHA High Point Ranch Horse Versatility, further proof that James was an all-around cowboy.
A versatile competitor, Three Jay Colonel collected AQHA open points in calf roping, heading and heeling. He was the ranch horse versatility champion at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, in 2003 and 2004, and was inducted into the National Western Hall of Fame. Likewise, the homebred-trained stallion went on to sire AQHA and National Reining Horse Association point earners.
The “life story” verifies “Bill read the horse journals and magazines from cover to cover, so he knew all of the bloodlines like the back of his hands, and likewise knew everybody who was who in the horse business.”
Vast knowledge of every aspect of horses was apparent such that James was demanded among horse people around the world to evaluate their horses. He judged the AQHA World Show nine times; the APHA National Show three times, the Palomino World Show, and nearly every major horse show in the country.
Moreover, James judged horse shows three times in Australia, twice in Brazil, as well as in Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Paraguay, Switzerland and Venezuela.
During a tribute to 50 years of Great Paints and People, Bill James was inducted into the American Paint Horse Association Hall of Fame in 2012 along with Adios Amigos, and Skip Bar, Sam Ed Spence, Claude Howard, Jack Campbell, and other Paint Horses and breeders-owners, that James had worked with.
With his busy cowboy life, Bill James was always “in a hurry, and patience was never a strong suit.’ Jamie Stover, inborn horseman like grandpa, trailing at his idol’s boot heels, early on reminded: “You ought to be a little more patient Grandpa.”
It’s verified: “Bill had a softer side with apparent affection” for his wife of 46 years Carole, their daughter, four sons, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, with always innermost obvious sadness for the loss of daughter Diane at an early age.”
“The 3J Ranch had a revolving door. Everyone was welcome. Bill’s love of the horse business filtered down to all of his family including the youngest great grandson Tripp, who enjoyed their afternoon naps in Grandpa’s king size bed as soon as they’d finished watching Gunsmoke.”
Pastor Kerry Coup appropriately recognized all sides of Bill James during the services, acknowledging his strong faith and regular Sunday attendance at the Lifehouse Church.
“I am confident Bill James lived by Proverbs 21:31: ‘The horse is made ready for competition, but victory rests with the Lord,’” Coup concluded.