|ROTAN, Texas – On cattle ranches and within rodeo circles, the name Buster Welch speaks volumes.
As a “cowboy’s cowboy,” Welch is a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Hall of Fame, and the NCHA Members Hall of Fame. In the western sport of cutting, where the horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a calf away from a cattle herd, Welch is a pioneer and innovator.
He’s a four-time winner of the NCHA world championships, five-time NCHA Futurity champion and holds numerous horseman and cattleman awards.
“In the world out here, he’s pretty big medicine,” says auctioneer Scott Franks from A & S Auctions in Waco, Texas.
And much of that big medicine from Buster Welch will be up for sale at the A & S Auction facility in Waco on June 7. The sale will feature more than 500 items, including many of the bits and spurs Welch used, and developed, throughout his long horse training and competitive years. In addition, the auction offers other Western and cowboy antiques.
Within cutting horse circles, just to own something that Welch had his hands on – or used throughout his lifetime – is a thing to be revered. That, according to Franks, is what is pushing the interest in the auction.
“We’ve already received calls from throughout the United States,” Franks says. “The thing about Buster is that, not only does everyone who knows him respects him, but they also like him. He is what he is, he’s a straight shooter, there’s no BS about him. Once you meet him, you’ll never forget him.”
Soon to be 80 years old, Welch is hard to catch up with. During the last week of April he was still swinging onto his saddle every morning before day break, finishing up the spring branding on the 45,000 acre spread where he runs his cattle. During this spring and fall work, he still does the job the old-fashioned way. The cattle are still managed on horseback, calves are roped and dragged to the branding fire, and the cowboys still gather around the chuck wagon after a long day.
Most of the items up for sale were everyday work tools for Welch. An early pair of J.O. Bass spurs, made in Tulia, Texas, and worn by Welch while riding some of his world championship cutting horses, is expected to bring $10,000-20,000.
“And, I’ll tell you why, there’s two reasons,” Franks says. “Number one, they’ll bring $10,000 to $12,000 to $13,000 just because they’re J.O. Bass spurs. And you might as well add 40 percent more because they were used by Buster Welch, particularly on a championship horse. Anything connected with Buster Welch, people really treasure.”
The cowboy in Welch, though, looks at all this a bit different.
“I’d still be wearing those spurs today, but people started telling me they were too valuable,” he says. “They were real light and they stayed down on the boot well. But, I became afraid I’d lose one of them.”
Welch also had a different take on a J.O. Bass bit, used in his championship years, that is expected to bring a $4,000-7,000 at auction, according to Franks.
“I gave Buster a proof of the sales catalog and he wanted one change,” the auctioneer said. “He wanted us to add: ’all my horses loved the mouthpiece in this bit.’ That’s the only change he had in a 76-page catalog. He wasn’t interested in the value. He was more interested in how the horses loved that bit, and how well they worked with it. I think that tells a lot about the man.”
In addition to several other Bass spurs and bits, A & S will be selling Kelly Brothers, K.B. & P., McChesney and Crockett pieces owned by Welch.
“When you look at these items and where they have come from, they’re not just bits and spurs – they’re part of the Western heritage,” Franks says. “Buster Welch, in addition to being an iconic horse trainer and cowboy, made an invaluable imprint on the West.”
Welch contracted with A & S several months to sell his 60-year-old collection of practical tools of the cowboy trade, many of them finely crafted. Again, it was out of practical necessity – Welch is still a working cowboy not a museum curator.
“I just didn’t have a good place to display them,” Welch said. “And some of them just started to come up missing … it got to where I’d keep a lot of the stuff in a safe … and that was no good.”
Welch’s impact on the sport is still seen today on a regular basis.
Many of today’s competition cutters ride saddles built around an original Welch design and use round pens for training their horses – another Welch innovation. “I started a bit that has also become very popular in the cutting horse circles today,” Welch says. “People call it the “BW” or “Buster Welch” bit – it’s really in demand for modern use.”
A bit that came from another ranch, inscribed with the Buster Welch design, is expected to bring $1,000-2,000, according to Franks.
Welch has almost a reverence for the Old West, particularly anything related to ranching.
Of all the accolades he has received throughout his career, one of the more personally cherished is the Charles Goodnight Award he received in 1998. Welch had been an admirer of cattleman and former Texas Ranger Goodnight, long before novelist Larry McMurtry penned his novel Lonesome Dove, largely based on the adventures of Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving.
Whether from a ranch house, bunk house or chuck wagon, Welch is quick to expound on his knowledge of and devotion to the heritage of the Texas cowboy.
“I’ve never considered myself to be anything but a rancher,” he says. “I got into the cutting business only after ranching got too tough. I had to have something to survive on, and horses was about all I knew.”
Welch won his first NCHA Championship Futurity in 1954. From that time on, Buster Welch became a household word within cutting circles, ultimately collecting more than $1.5 million in earnings.
He continued to win, and with his earnings his Texas ranches continued to grow. At one time, cowhands didn’t know which grew the fastest on the Texas flatlands, the mesquite or the size of Welch’s ranch holdings. Despite his wagon loads of accomplishments, Welch remains a modest man.
“I’ve heard plenty of musicians say that what they wanted was a long, lasting career,” he says, “and I guess I’ve had that. But, I’ve never really been anything but a rancher.”
Contact: (254) 799-6044
Eric C. Rodenberg