Retired civil engineer Gary Westergren may have come into horses later in life, but he’s making up for lost time as one of barrel racing’s leading breeders and owners.
Every time Jessica Routier and Fiery Miss West ran down the alley at the Thomas and Mack Center Arena in Las Vegas, Gary Westergren held his breath as the duo rounded each barrel. The pair from Buffalo, South Dakota, ultimately made nine clean passes through the short course over 10 days at their first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2018 and finished as 2018 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Reserve World Champion.
“I was there the whole time. One of the advantages of being retired is you can set your own schedule for the most part,” chuckled Westergren, who bred and owns ‘Missy.’ “I had never been there before. I always watched it on TV since I started with the horses. It was pretty neat to be there and see your horse coming down that alleyway.”
Westergren, a retired civil engineer from Lincoln, Nebraska, told Routier when they met that seeing a horse he raised run at the NFR was his goal. While Routier thought Westergren was suffering from delusions of grandeur, the team of Routier, Missy and Westergren actually accomplished that lofty goal a year earlier than expected.
Now, they’re looking to repeat the process.
“Like I tell my non-horse friends, it’s like pro golf,” Westergren said. “There’s no guaranteed contracts. You’ve got to start over the next year. Now we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to get back.”
Westergren stumbled into horses while on a consulting assignment for the railroad, developing heavy haul lines for hauling coal from the Powder River Basin south of Gillette, Wyoming, to the Great Lakes.
For the first four years of the project, Westergren traveled to western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming with the land acquisition team and talked to ranchers and farmers about the railroad coming through their property. During that time, he met John and Lis Hollmann of Frenchmans Quarter Horses in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
“I would be out in Hot Springs, South Dakota, for a month at a time,” Westergren said. “On the weekends, when we weren’t going out on the project, I’d go help them feed their horses. In the spring of 2001, I was out there around Memorial Day, and when we went out to feed the horses, the mares didn’t come down that morning. Lis said, ‘Well, there must be a new baby.’ So, we went out into the pastures, up in the trees and all the mares are standing there protecting this new palomino filly.”
The filly was owned by Lis Hollmann’s mother Francis Loiseau, breeder of WPRA World Champion French Flash Hawk (“Bozo”), WPRA world champion sire PC Frenchmans Hayday (“Dinero”) and Equi-Stat’s all-time leading living barrel horse sire Frenchmans Guy. The filly was by Frenchmans Guy and out of one of Loiseau’s good mares, PC Frenchmans BoJet, by Boon Dox John and out of Frenchmans GoJet, a daughter of Jet Mack and granddaughter of American Quarter Horse Association Hall Of Famer Caseys Ladylove.
For Westergren, finding the filly that morning set him on the path to the horse business.
“At that point in time, my dad was in failing health toward the end of his life,” Westergren said. “When he was in the hospital, I think it was after heart bypass, he was always [grumpy], so I started calling him Sunshine, just to give him a hard time about it. Lis ended up naming this filly ‘Sunshine.’ Francis owned her and she took it to a sale in the fall; she didn’t bring the money they wanted so they brought her back home. I said maybe that’s an omen I should buy Sunshine.”
Westergren himself was trying to figure out what to do in his retirement, and horses seemed to be the answer.
“My dad worked six to seven days a week all his life, and when he retired, he was kind of lost,” Westergren said. “I started thinking pretty seriously about what I would do in retirement. So, I bought Sunshine.”
Westergren ended up buying Sunshine’s full sister the next year, and the year after that he also purchased Firewater Frenchman, a son of Fire Water Flit and out of PCfrenchmanslisbet, a full sister to both Bozo and Dinero.
“When he was born down at the 6666’s in Texas, the vet had written ‘tan colt’ on the papers, so I just started calling him Tan Man,” Westergren said.
In 2005, PC Frenchmans BoJet had a bay filly by Royal Quick Dash. Although he didn’t want to buy another horse, the color sealed the deal.
“I was in Denver on business, and the phone rang at 7 a.m.,” Westergren said. “Lis Hollmann said, ‘Westergren, you’re screwed.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Cause BoJet had a bay, and she’ll cross on the Tan Man.’ So, I bought [Frenchmans] Bo Dashus—that’s Missy’s mother.”
Once Westergren had his horsepower, he needed a rider. He followed the Hollmanns’ lead and sent ‘Bo Dashus’ and Special French Bear (“Annabelle”), a daughter of Special Effort he raised out of the second Frenchmans Guy-PC Frenchmans BoJet daughter he purchased, to a trainer in Wisconsin to be broke to ride. The trainer turned out to be Shelly Mueller, Jessica Routier’s mother.
“We figured Annabelle had some potential, so then there was the question of who was going to ride her,” Westergren said. “I got introduced to Jessica at a barrel race in Rapid City. Jessica and I started talking about what we want to do. She had a lot of success at the high school level and college level, and she was living in South Dakota, which made a lot of sense logistics-wise. Over the next several months, we sent emails to talk over a couple of things, and we decided we’d team up and see how Annabelle would do.”
Westergren says what appealed to him the most was that Routier had the same philosophies about horse care and taking a long-term approach with their careers.
“I wasn’t quite sure exactly how aggressively I wanted to be campaigning horses, other than I had an interest in it,” Westergren said. “We started slow. She had Annabelle, and I had a few others I sent up to her that she ran. Annabelle had the most success of all those. The others ended up being broodmares or being sold. Then Missy came along.”
Ironically, Westergren says Routier was tight-lipped about Missy’s potential.
“She started telling other people before she told me about Missy,” Westergren said with a laugh. “I picked up from other people that she was talking about Missy, but it’s one of those things you don’t want to jinx yourself or have false expectations, especially with young horses. Some of them can be unpredictable. Some peak early and some peak late.”
Routier soon realized the type of horse she had in her barn.
“Jess had seen early on that Missy had a lot of potential,” Westergren said. “Usually, I take them up to a trainer who lives near Jessica when they’re 2. Then they go to Jessica’s ranch and she starts riding them as 3-year-olds. I kept asking, ‘Does this one have potential? Do we keep her or do we sell her? Make it a broodmare?’ There’s no use campaigning a horse that doesn’t have the talent or the mental side of the game to have some success.”
Westergren says Missy raised the benchmark of success for the team.
“Before Missy came along, we were looking at things from a circuit finals standpoint,” Westergren said. “Jessica had been to the Badlands Circuit Finals for many years on [her own horse Especials Smoothie], and that was the benchmark.”
Now, the benchmark is a return to the NFR.
“I’ve got some siblings to Missy that are up there at Jessica’s ranch,” Westergren said. “We’re trying to figure out who the next Missy is or who is the backup horse. I’ve got two full brothers, a half-sister and half-brother that are up there right now.”
Being the Sunshine
Westergren retired from his engineering consulting firm in 2014 and has stayed busy with horses ever since.
“Rodeo has kept me pretty busy, going around and seeing how we’re doing and trying to see who is going to be the next Missy,” Westergren said. “I put about 30,000 miles on my car last year going around to rodeos.”
While the majority of his horses stay on the ranch near Hot Springs, South Dakota, Westergren has Annabelle with him in Lincoln.
“My mother’s 94 years old, and it’s her favorite,” Westergren said. “We have a producer who comes up and puts on barrel races on Wednesday nights. When the weather’s not too bad, I take her out there and she likes to watch the horses.”
Westergren also put twins Rachael and Jamie Hansen on Annabelle. Rachael made the College National Finals Rodeo on the mare last year, but since she’s now busy with nursing school, it’s Jamie’s turn.
“It’s been fun going around following Annabelle and the girls and seeing how they do,” Westergren said.
At a college rodeo in River Falls, Wisconsin, Westergren had three of his horses running in the barrels.
“That was fun, that weekend,” Westergren said.
Westergren enjoys seeing his horses put a smile on their riders’ faces.
“You like to see your horses have success, but you like to see the young people have success too,” Westergren said.
“You’re helping them. Everyone is proud of their horse when it’s doing well. People are proud of their barrel horses as if it was their child. You like to have them proud of the horse, especially when it’s yours. It’s always rewarding when you run into someone that’s proud of a horse you sold. You like to see the smile on their face.”
This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.