Korkow Rodeos LLC first started in the stock contracting business for amateur and professional rodeos more than 70 years ago in central South Dakota, when Erv Korkow formed the company that simply states, “The Brand That Bucks.”
Now, 72 years later and into the third generation of ownership in T.J. Korkow and his wife, Brie, and T.J.'s father, Jim, and his wife, Carol, the Korkow brand is alive and well.
In Garden City this week for the annual Beef Empire Days PRCA Rodeo at the Finney County Fairgrounds, the Korkow family and their crew of trained ranch hands bring some of the highest quality bareback and saddle bronc horses into town — now a tradition that is more than 15 years in the making.
But just how does a rodeo stock contractor build such a strong remuda (a band of horses) of bucking horses over nearly seven decades? It is a question that has many different and sometimes complicated answers.
With current top-rated horses that include half-brothers Onion Ring and Bad Onion, both born in 2010 in the pastures of the Anchor K Ranch, 20 miles north and east of Pierre, S.D., the Korkow brand continues to produce bucking horses that compete at nearly all of the top-rated PRCA rodeos from the Great Plains to the West Coast, and in the wintertime along the southern Gulf Coast states.
“It really starts out with our annual winter pasturing where 50 to 60 mares run together,” T.J. Korkow said Wednesday while preparing his group of 20 bareback horses and 27 saddle broncs for the three nights of competition during the BED Rodeo. “In the spring we gather the mares and then split them into bands with different studs. From there, we end up with about 50 to 60 new colts each year.”
The expanse of the Anchor K Ranch allows the Korkows to use about 400 to 450 acres for each of the two groups to run during the spring season, where according to T.J., there is “plenty of grass and water.”
Last season, Bad Onion was the top bronc voted at the prestigious Pendleton (Ore.) Roundup and also has been chosen twice to compete at the PRCA National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, including in 2018, when his rider placed third in the fifth round with a score of 88 points. Another of the Korkows' elite saddle broncs, Meat Cracker, placed first in the fourth round of the NFR with Rusty Wright aboard, with a score of 87 points, earning Wright a payday of $26,230.77. For his entire 2018 season, Onion Ring was voted the No. 2 bareback horse by the PRCA.
But these recent successes owe their rich history to the genius of T.J.’s grandfather, Erv.
In the early 1970s, Erv purchased five big mares from legendary stock owner Chandler “Feek” Tooke, then began his own breeding program at their South Dakota ranch. Tooke, who had a ranch and rodeo company in Montana, began the breeding process with a stud named King, who produced Prince, generally regarded as the top breeding horse in the history of the sport. Those mares were bred with colts from such studs as Grey Wolf and Timberline. Thus, the Korkow breeding program was born with a bloodline that includes General Custer and Custer.
Onion Ring and Bad Onion are half-brothers, sharing the same dad, Junior, while Onion Ring’s mother is Yankee Doodle and Bad Onion’s mother is Chester. The moms are half-sisters, T.J. said.
Moving back a generation earlier, Yankee Doodle and Chester’s dad (stud) was Sheep Herder, and from him came such bucking horses as Queenie and Confused Sheep. All of these horses were selected to compete in one or more NFR in Las Vegas.
The mother to Junior, Vidalia, was born in 1993 and the father (stud) for Vidalia was Confused Velvet, born in 1983. Thus, the lineage dates back several decades and multiple generations, according to T.J. Korkow.
“I think some of the biggest changes today is that there is such a fine line of what you call inbreeding as opposed to line breeding,” T.J. said. “Inbreeding is when it’s just within the Korkow brand. We did a lot of outcross breeding with that group of 600 horses (Queenie, Confused Sheep, Chester and Yankee Doodle), and it worked really well. We did have other colts that just were not as good.”
T.J. said that once the lineage began to lengthen in number of years, the Korkow line breeding also became stronger.
“Bad Onion and Onion Ring are part of that full Korkow breeding and they have a lot of fire, kick and longevity and have an attitude,” he said. The horses each weigh about 1,300 pounds, and their height, estimated from the low end of the mane to the hooves, is about 6 feet.
While many of the younger horses remain home in South Dakota over the winter (T.J. estimated their total at about 400 now), he puts some of his elite bucking horses on the truck and heads to the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida for the winter circuit.
At the Rodeo Houston in March, Bad Onion was ridden to a winning qualifying score of 91 points by Zeke Thurston while Onion Ring was chosen for the Final Four where Casey Field, a four-time world champion, scored a 92 and won a $50,000 payout for one of the richest awards in rodeo history for a single ride.
Onion Ring had one of his best rides of the winter season at The American in Dallas, where Ty Breuer rode him to 86.5 points and a tie for first and also had a first at the Lufkin, Texas, Angelina Benefit Rodeo, where Bill Tutor scored an 89.
One way of analyzing the quality of the horses is how the scores are tabulated. There are two judges in the arena, and each provides a score for both the rider and horse, those totals combined. During the 2018 season, Onion Ring had an average score of 43.58 on 18 rides.
What qualities does a bucking horse have that separates the great ones from the average ones?
“I think most people would think they’re wild and crazy and you can’t handle them,” T.J. said, “but most of our really great ones are manageable and it starts out with our training them when they are just babies.
“There is a lot of repetition in what we do with them every day — they’re fed the same way every day with buckets of grain by the same people, so the horses know what to expect.”
As part of the early training, T.J. said, the young colts are sorted, then sent down the alley to get ready for the chute, and the process is repeated time after time.
“At about age 4, we do what we call 'dummy' rider bucking,” T.J. said. “We put a 10-pound box on them and the box has a flank rope. We use a remote control where we can release the flank rope and the box will fall off. We film the rides so we can see exactly how a horse is performing and we get an idea if they’re any good.”
Producing rodeo stock is an obvious expensive venture, with T.J. noting that most bucking horses don’t appear at a pro rodeo until they are about 4 to 6 years old.
“You might get 15 to 40 good ones out of all those over a period of that four to six years,” T.J. said. “You can have a brother and a sister, or two brothers or two sisters, and they are not always the same. We usually start a horse in bareback as the rider is more free to spur the horse in the ride. A saddle bronc needs more time and you just have to assess their style.”
T.J. said a horse that moves from being a bareback to a saddle bronc is one that is usually up in the air, drops their head and flips their rump up high and TKOs the rider.
“If they’re a bit too out of control as a bareback, we’ll switch them over to saddle,” T.J. said.