The temperature was over 100 degrees F with a heat index 12 degrees higher. It was sticky with humidity in McLouth, and Jan Miller had spent the morning cleaning stalls and grooming, feeding and watering the horses.
That might sound like grinding work, but not to Miller, 76.
“It’s easy; isn’t anything to do with horses that’s hard for me. I just love it. Nothing’s work if you love what you’re doing,” Miller says. “I love horses. Horses have been my life. They’re all I’ve ever wanted to do.
“Fortunately my husband, Sam, puts up with me and is an asset to horse operations. Sam knows the horse business too and doesn’t ever let down on the work side either.”
Miller was born in Lawrence, but moved to her father’s home place at Waverly, Tenn., when she was a year old. Her first horse was a painted walking pony named Hopalong.
“I rode walking horses my Uncle Jess trained for Roy Acuff,” she says. “I rode five-gaited and walk-trot horses with coaching from Uncle Jess.”
She went to a one-room country schoolhouse for all grades.
“I learned to churn butter,” Miller says. “I thought we were wealthy when we got a hand pump in the house for water.”
Her father encouraged her interest in horses.
“Dad was a horseman and always encouraged me. ‘What’s stopping you?’ Dad would always ask when I wanted to try something new with a horse,” Miller says.
Well, nothing stopped her then or now. Not unlike the song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Miller says she “has done everything that can be done with horses.”
After moving back to Lawrence as a young teenager, Miller’s youthful horse knowledge expanded.
“My Aunt Louise and Uncle Jess lived south of town at Clearview Farms,” she says. “I rode horses for fun and started learning about hunters and jumpers. Uncle Jess taught me how to train harness ponies, and we showed harness ponies and trotters under harness. Then I took up barrel racing and competed successfully in horse shows and rodeos.”
Her father was a policeman in Lawrence and got into real estate sales but was always interested in horses.
“We bred and raised quarter horses and Appaloosas,” she says. “Our Oklahoma Star line was athletically prolific. I’ve always really liked an all-around horse.”
No dresses for her
After high school graduation, Miller enrolled at Stephens College, an all-female college in Columbia, Mo., where jeans were prohibited.
“Mom thought I was too much of a tomboy, and you had to wear dresses to attend Stephens College,” Miller says. “I hated dresses, still do. I don’t own a dress, so I got by wearing jodhpurs.”
As would be expected, Miller took her horse to college with her.
“Country Boy was a great horse I showed in working hunter. He was a better horse than I was rider,” Miller says. “I really liked college, made good grades, but still spent most of my time at the stable, even studied there.”
Her favorite recollections from college include time spent with Kalarma Copper, a 17.1-hands, sorrel, blaze face, stocking-legged world champion walk-trot horse.
“He had been donated to the college, but Mrs. Shirley Drew Hardwick, the stable director, and I trained him to harness. I was privileged to show the gorgeous horse in ladies fine harness classes,” Miller says, the memory bringing a smile five decades later.
After getting married, she and her husband and daughter moved to Wyoming, where she worked for a ranch for a few years before coming back to Kansas.
She and her second husband, Sam, got into the horse breeding business, and she also helped train calf-roping horses.
A whole-family endeavor
While raising her family, Miller participated in a wide variety of horse activities including team roping.
“I loved it all from the little shows to the bigtime. My daughters and I competed in about everything there was,” she says.
Maturity and health setbacks that would stop most haven’t slowed Miller’s horse enthusiasm.
“Sam and I now breed and raise horses,” Miller says. “We’ve live-cover bred 55 mares this year to our great buckskin stallion JC Flashbac, who everybody knows as Davy. He just finished breeding the last mare yesterday,” she says.
Davy is a proven all-around performance producer with offspring winning national and world championships in several events. Featuring Smart Little Lena, Topsail Cody, Doc O’Lena and Bueno Chex, Davy’s services are demanded by mare owners throughout the country.
“Our customers are the ones who’ve made our horses. They are the ones who show and win with the horses of our lineage,” Miller says.
With 75 mares in peak times, the Millers now own 20 quarter horse broodmares at their Jefferson County horse operation.
“We’ve had several stallions through the years and kept fillies back as broodmares for mating to Davy,” Miller says. “We sell all but a couple of our own foals before they’re a week old because of their strong heritage.”
Miller still shows foals in area competitions and futurities, but no longer rides.
Victoria Searcy from Leavenworth handles their training and performance showing.
“Victoria does an awesome job. We have two of our buckskins being shown now,” Miller says. “We’ve raised a lot of buckskins, but actually bay is my favorite color.
“Disposition is most important for horses, balance, athleticism, willingness and forgiveness, while color is the least significant.”
Finding horses for other people
A walking encyclopedia of horse pedigrees, Miller adds to her entrepreneurship by merchandizing and locating horses for others.
“If somebody wants to sell or buy a horse, I have nationwide contacts and attend many sales,” she says. “I sell a lot of horses and can generally find a horse for anybody although it sometimes takes a while.”
Handling so many horses would seem to demand a large staff.
“No. No. No. We do everything ourselves,” Miller says. “It’d be impossible for anybody to work for me. I’m too demanding. I want everything clean, done my way, done right, so Sam and I are the ones who do the work.”
With seven children between them, Miller and Sam have 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
“Our children don’t show anymore,” Miller says. “But our grandchildren and great grandchildren compete successfully showing our horses.”
No slowdown is in sight for Miller.
“I feel blessed to get to still do this and most thankful for all the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know along the way. I was brought up with the philosophy there’s nothing you cannot do if you want to really do it,” Miller says. “Dad always insisted, ‘I’m not saying it will be easy but if you want to do it bad enough you can.’ I believe that.
“I love everything to do with horses. I’ll keep going forever.”
Buchman is a Flint Hills rancher and free-lance writer. He writes from Council Grove.