The little ATV rumbled its way through waves of tall grass and rolling pasture before coming to a halt in a small grove next to a creek. There, a group of quarterhorses perked up their ears, spotted hay in the back of the ATV, and shyly ambled over to further inspect.
Mary Steyskal leaned this way and that in her seat, looking over each horse for any number of unhealthy signs: a limp, jutting ribs, hard breathing, blisters. Satisfied with each and every one, she started the vehicle up again and continued to the next part of the herd. Her collie, Gracie, runs alongside her the entire trip before taking a cooling dive into the creek when she crosses it.
It’s just another day on Steyskal Ranch where, since 1987, Mary and her husband Stan have been listed on the American Quarterhorse Breeders Association’s leading breeders list every year.
One hundred acres of their farmland, located south of Papillion, is dedicated to raising only hay and horses. Their breeding program registered as exceptional when their stallion, Tiger Leo, was inducted into the National Snaffle Bit Association for his prolific achievements as a maternal sire. Tiger Leo would go on to sire 481 foals in his lifetime, including 11 AQHA champions and one world champion.
In 2001, the NSBA presented the Steyskals with the Jack Benson Award for contributions to the pleasure horse industry via their breeding program. They are now listed as All-Time Leading Breeders of Performance Horses.
Tina Tiger Leo carried on Tiger Leo’s line, winning numerous championships at shows in the years that followed.
Quarterhorses are a diverse breed, capable as racers, rodeo performers and hard ranch workers, and one of the most popular breeds in America. The AQBA has more than 5 million registered horses.
“It’s a horse that does everything,” Mary Steyskal said. “It can excel in every category you put it in, and in our case, it has.”
Steyskal said the horse breeding and show industry has changed over the 40 years she and her husband have taken part in it. Before the economic downturn, having horses specifically bred for each category of show, cutting, racing and more had become more prevalent. But with the price of breeding, training, medical care, shoes, feed and hauling each horse to the show increasing, a shift is returning the all-around class to popularity.
When asked if there is a secret to their success, Steyskal laughed as she unchained a fence gate to gain access to the southernmost pasture. Gracie just ducked beneath and kept going.
“To be a true breeder, you have to be a student of the horse and the breed, to remember form and function of the horse,” Steyskal said.
Constantly improving upon what the horse can already do with each generation is the challenge breeders must meet to succeed.
Diversity, too, is a key she said. Staying in one part of the map of breeder knowledge will limit a program. To improve, a breeder must go out into the world and see what else can be achieved.
“Today a lot of people aren’t educated in correct conformation,” she said. Equine conformation is the evaluation of a horse’s bone structure, musculature and proportions.
“We see more lameness issues because not enough emphasis is placed on conformation.”
The breeding industry is in a state of transition, she said.
Into the southern pasture, the sky opened up wide as the ATV, Gracie in tow passed a feed shed specifically made for young horses to step under a fence to get food while their moms stand watching. White paint peeled from the sun-bleached wood.
But don’t ask Steyskal to make a prediction as to where the industry is going, despite payoffs of winnings getting larger and larger. Some classes pay upwards of $100,000 for first place, she said.
With less and less land available for grazing and letting horses run free, however, there is another question mark on the horizon.
In 2006, the ranch downsized, selling 50 heads and the Steyskals now handle about 30 horses.
When the day comes the Steyskals no longer wish to care for the horses, they plan to sell the ranch entirely. As she shifted more gates to let another group of horses gain access to the creek, she took a moment to view the hillside.
“This is how it should be. Someday this will all be houses,” she said. “But at least right now it’s as it should be.”