"I have had a great ride through life. And when life would seem to turn against me,
the Horse always saved me." ..... Mike Thomas
Mike and Cappi ... Photograph by Tami Jo Gramont
Mike Thomas was born on April 8, 1940, sharing a birthday with the legendary Thoroughbred, Three Bars. Between 1943-44, Mike spent a year and a half in an experimental hospital with advanced kidney disease. He was not expected to live. It came down to an experimental drug that at the time would prove to be either revolutionary or a death sentence. There was only enough for one of two boys in the hospital and the medical staff did not know if it would kill or cure. Mike was selected only because of the strength of his mother and family. His mother took the gamble, along with his Dad.
Mike lived, the other boy did not.
This situation made a major impact on the rest of Mike's life. "Why was I spared and where would the other boy be now?" Two weeks after release from the hospital, he saw a black pony by the barn. He had never before seen a horse or a pony. It was love at first sight! That was 64 years ago.
In February, 1947, Mike saw his first rodeo, the famed La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros in Tucson, Arizona. At that moment, at the age of seven, he decided that was the life he wanted to pursue: to explore all aspects of horses and livestock. He had already been riding horses with his mother, Jane B. McCarthy Thomas, who now did everything she could do to make his dream come true. The famed Pete Martinez of Tucson, Arizona, was his first teacher of horsemanship.
His mother's family ranched in Mountain Home, Idaho. She loved the ranch life. Mike's next ten years were filled with Junior Rodeo and jobs in Livestock Sale Barns.
In 1957, he was hired to work at the famed Boquillas Cattle Company of Seligman, Arizona, a 15,000-head cow/calf operation. He experienced a "baptism by fire" that summer and only the incredible patience of Slim and Dorothy Gillum helped him survive his overall ignorance. He feels that this job was, and still is, the greatest experience in life that a 17-year-old could get. They did not cut him any slack whatsoever!
During the next ten years, Mike was involved with Arizona State University and University of Arizona. This included the rodeo teams in calf roping, bulldogging and team roping. He became the Regional Director of the West Coast Region of the NIRA and was awarded a Gold Card for life under Sonny Sikes. He did graduate work in Reproductive Physiology and Animal Nutrition and spent a summer at Purdue University learning techniques in Plasma Progesterone Qualitative Analysis, first with paper chromatography and later with thin layer chromatography. He collected blood samples from thousands of cows while studying embryonic mortalities in heat-stressed dairy cattle and could palpate a 28-day embryonic pregnancy. He also worked in cattle feedyards for several years, doctoring cattle while going to school.
The next ten years saw Mike and wife Sharon Rose Christopher Thomas moving to Brush, Colorado, after the premature death of their son, Sean Michael Thomas. Their first job at the well-known Colorado Feedlot paid $125 a week. Mike did team roping on weekends and managed two cow/calf operations part-time while working full-time.
The spring of 1971, with well-organized calving and first computer programs designed by Mike and Bruce Bainbridge, shook the cattle world. Lots of horses and patterned cattle made it all work, and humans learning how to work from the inside of a horse and cow, not the outside in! The program ran successfully for several years.
In the early '70s, Mike created Livestock Management Services, Inc. The company managed several ranches for absentee owners, creating innovative breeding and cattle-handling systems designed to efficiently handle thousands of head of cattle with the least possible stress, never getting a horse or a cow upset. During the early '70s, two daughters, Michelle and Shannon, were born after ten years of marriage. Mike also developed a Beef Management Program for Syntex Agribusiness and Livestock Management Manual called the "Cowpedia" and the first all-inclusive computer programs of ranch management, called "Cowputer"!
Mike was retained as an expert witness in several multi-million dollar lawsuits involving purebred cattle in Bismarck, North Dakota; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and other courts and organized teams of experts with nationally-known veterinarians, Ag economists, geneticists, biochemists, financial experts and many other professions. Success led to success with each successful outcome.
Mike also designed a 1,000 cow semi-confinement dry lot system that worked as well. He served as an expert witness in several other Federal and District Courts and represented ranchers and farmers in bankruptcy courts developing their reorganization plans.
And horses were the keystone of every operation!
During the early '70s, Mike started hearing about a man named Ray Hunt. This happened while touring about 14 states giving lectures on the Beef Management Program, "Cowpedia" and "Cowputer". The basic system involved horses, cattle and ranch management at a very intensive management level. Mike made up his mind that he had to meet Ray Hunt. He did not believe the stories he was hearing and thought Ray Hunt "...must be some kind of gimmick guy!" But he was very wrong.
His first meetings with Ray Hunt in mid-'76, '77 and '78 left Mike shocked, speechless and very humble. After years of rodeo, ranch management, feedlot management and purebred cattle operations, Mike now realized he didn't know diddly-squat about a horse, or cattle, either. During this period, Mike took over the now-infamous Madison River Cattle Company of Three Forks, Montana, a company in deep trouble.
Madison River Cattle Company was in debt over its ears, with over $1.1 million in losses the first year. Interest rates were building to 20% on dead money. The ranch owned a great non-paying asset: 170-200 head of ignored, unstarted young and older horses.
Mike hooked up with Ray Hunt and started taking three-, four- and five-year-old horses to Ray's clinics. The herd was basic Moon Hancock (Herd Sire: by Tough Company by Chicaro Bill and out of Panzarita, a famed broodmare of runners as she was. His dam was Mrs. Ogles by Joe Hancock and out of Triangle Lady 7 448 a Burnett Ranch Mare (6666) and Silver Black, a linebred Old Sorrell).
The Madison River Cattle Company bunkhouse was filled with ex-convicts, people whose lives were going south. They were treated well, but as the performance bar was raised, they quit on good terms. Mike started filling the jobs with enthusiastic young people. These young cowboys and cowgirls knew they could experience Ray Hunt Clinics with a variety of colts and horses, and choose among horsemanship, cow working and ranch roping clinics. The opportunities included exposure to Ray Hunt, and Tom Dorrance in the early years, in many, many clinics in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and other northwest states.
Everybody - well, almost everybody - knows Mike hired Buck Brannaman underage at 16 because Mike was told he'd graduated from high school, normally accomplished at 18. Buck was coming through the most trying part of his life! (See "The Faraway Horses" by Buck Brannaman, Lyons Press.)
What most people don't know is that the magic of Madison River Cattle Company was equally important to many young people like Preston and Julie Lord (Ristau); Jim and Ann Aller Overstreet; Doug Kirk; Mike Beck; Mel and Freddie Obrigewitch; and at least two dozen others in the same age range, who rode for the brand and are now famous names in the horsemanship world. Madison River Cattle Company had a lot of farming and livestock, generally 1000-3000 head of yearlings, and ran about 700 cows through the winter as well.
But today, after 30+ years, the memory of the incredible young people who got a fair chance to succeed with the ranch, along with the friendship of Mike and Ray, Bill and Tom Dorrance, is far more important.
Mike's biggest asset at the Madison River Cattle Company was the incredible lady who ran the cook house, feeding 3 meals a day to as few as 10-15 in the winter and as many as 50 in the summer. Her cooking was legendary! There was not a “soap salesman” in the country that didn’t know that if he could get an 11 am meeting with Mike, he might just luck into one of LENA THORGRAMSON'S INCREDIBLE LUNCH MEALS. Lena was loved by every person on the ranch and for many years later. She passed away about 4 years ago. Lena and her husband ran a camp at the famed Padlock Ranch until he passed away and she came to Madison River Cattle Company as a widow. She too was born on April 8: Mike, Lena and Three Bars - what a ride!!
In 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona, Mike met a 14-year-old boy who took a huge interest in the way he was working with colts and problem horses. He showed up on a steady basis. Mike sponsored one of Buck's earliest clinics, which turned out to be a huge clinic in colt starting and horsemanship despite a June temperature of 118 degrees. Mike got the young fellow a spot in the clinic. That boy would later go to Montana every summer through high school and college, working and riding colts with Buck. Before, during, and after graduation, he went on the road and worked for Buck for about 6 years before going on his own, carrying with him the memory of thousands of troubled horses and the good outcome each had experienced.
That young boy turned out to be more than a great horseman... PAUL DIETZ of Desert Hills, Arizona, a very sophisticated horseman with multi-dimensional talents on a mustang, a rope horse, reining and cutting, and working Grand Prix Dressage level horses on the same day!
Over the years Mike has been very proud of the young people who dedicated their lives and horses to the Inner Circle of Quality Horsemanship, and it is for this sole reason that this website has been created.
Mike continues to work with problem horses and people, but at 68 years of age, is really pushing the careers of people like Paul Dietz, Buddy Uldrikson and his very dear friend, Bonnie Jean Kerr. The friendship with the Inner Circle is a most treasured memory and his friendship with Ray and Carolyn Hunt and family is sacrosanct!!
"Just remember one thing: there are many very great horsemen and horsewomen from the Inner Circle that never give clinics and their names are not publicized and many are far greater than dozens of people who are famous and giving clinics. This site is for you folks to enjoy and contribute your thoughts: The real “unsung heros in my tally book"!
“This includes Jane B. McCarthy Thomas, my mother, who made it all possible…
It is a wonderful life!”
"Mother's Love is this: Beyond the scope of thought itself is mother's steadfast love, it shines across the whole wide world, like brilliant stars above. A mother's love will still go on when other loves are done. Through thick and thin it stays the same, there is no greater one. A mother's love is sacrifice and shelter from life's storm, always there to comfort us, forever sweet and warm. A mother's love is pure and good, it shows us how to live; for through it we are made to know the meaning to forgive. It is a beacon light to follow, a tender blissful kiss: a garden of red roses, a mother's love is this."