A Matter of Will
In a star-studded AQHA career that spanned five decades, Jerry Wells utilized a simple but effective formula to rise to the top.
By Frank Holmes
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Saturday, November 19, 1994 — For anyone who had made it a point to follow the fortunes of the American Quarter Horse Association World Show, the scene was a familiar one.
Hat in hand, the lanky showman accepted the championship trophy for Misters Tradition’s victory in the 3-year-old stallion class. What made this occasion especially noteworthy was that it was the 50th time that the man had visited the winner’s circle at the AQHA’s premiere event.
It was a high-water mark in the 21-year history of the show but, again, one that did not come as a surprise to those who were familiar with Jerry Wells.
Jerry was, after all, a horseman. It was what he was born to be, and it was all he ever wanted to be. He rose from humble beginnings to become a standard bearer within the Quarter Horse industry, and although at times it seemed to the contrary, there was never any magic formula behind his many achievements.
On the contrary, what it all boiled down to was a natural eye for a horse and an overwhelming will to win.
In The Beginning
Jerry Lee Wells was born to L. V. and Leona Wells, on November 9, 1940 in Sulphur, Oklahoma. The eldest of four brothers, he was followed in order by Jerold, Joe and Jim.
Jerry’s parents were divorced in 1958. Jerry was a senior in high school at the time and a gifted athlete whose prowess on the football field was such that it earned him an athletic scholarship to attend Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Industrious even as a teenager, Wells managed to balance his school and sports responsibilities while also holding down a variety of part-time jobs. After his parents separated, he and his brothers stepped up and shouldered their share of maintaining the family household. As Jerry would remark years later, “My brothers and I never viewed the fact that we had to help support our mom at such an early age. We were raised to work hard and we were raised to take care of each other. To us, it was the normal way of doing things.”
Dating back to his early teens, Jerry had found he also had a knack for handling horses. When he was still in high school, he began working for Dr. Jack Donald of Sulphur, OK. The doctor had a few foundation Waggoner-bred horses, but nothing of real import.
After spending one-half year in college – just long enough to see the football season through – Jerry returned to Sulphur and sought his former employer’s advice on how to advance himself in what he had decided was to be his life’s work — training and showing horses.
Dr. Donald arranged an introduction for the teen-aged horseman with legendary trainer Matlock Rose who was, at the time, the head trainer for G.B. Howell’s expansive Quarter Horse operation near Seagoville, Texas. Wells wound up apprenticing under Rose for roughly one and a half years.
In 1961, the then 21-year-old horseman left south Texas and journeyed to the northern part of the state to go to work for George Tyler of Gainesville. Tyler was renowned throughout the land for his talents in both recognizing quality in a horse and then capitalizing on that quality in both the show and sale ring. And, under the watchful eye of the older man, young Wells was able to hone his own natural talents as a halter horse fitter and exhibitor.
In 1963 fate decreed that Jerry Wells should return to assist in the development of a young Donald-owned stallion by the name of Otoe.
Donald had, a year earlier, stunned the Quarter Horse world when he gave bud Warren of Perry, Oklahoma, $20,000 for Otoe while he was still at this dam’s side. Sent to the tracks as a 2-year–old under the tutelage of Wilbur Stuchal, Otoe earned a AAA rating. Conditioned and shown by Wells as a 3-year-old in halter competition, he become the breed’s youngest AAA-AQHA Champion. Retired to stud, he went on to become an all-time leading sire.
In a 2006 Legends 7 interview, Wells reminisced about Otoe: “From a personal aspect,” he said, “Otoe put me in the Quarter Horse business. He came along when I was just getting started and showing him is what gave me the recognition and the boost that I needed in order to establish myself.”
“But, even more that what Otoe meant to me personally, he meant as much or more the Quarter Horse breed. He as a big, pretty horse, almost perfect in his conformation. As a halter horse and a sire, he changed the way we looked at horses.”
Marriage and Family
And, as important as horses were to a “twenty-something” Jerry Wells, they were not his only interest. In June of 1964 he was married to his high school sweetheart – a local girl by the name of Betty Cope. The union would last a lifetime and prove to be a picture-perfect one.
“I met Jerry when I was a junior in high school,” Betty Cope Wells says. “He was five years older than me but that never mattered to me. We dated during my junior and senior years and then I left for college. I only went one year though and then I returned home and we got married.”
“Of course, Jerry was a good-looking, popular figure around town,” she continues, “but he was more than that, he was a quiet, true southern gentleman. And those two things were probably what I found most attractive about him. He was always holding car doors open, and saying ‘yes sir’ or ‘no-ma’am’. And he was that way with everyone his entire life.”
By the mid-1970’s, the Jerry and Betty Wells family had grown to include daughter Nancy, born in 1969, and son Marty, born in 1971.
And by this time Jerry had also become a pretty fair hand with a rope.
“When you come down to it,” Betty Wells says, “calf roping was Jerry’s first love. Throughout our early years together, he would go to jackpot roping almost every weekend. He was a pretty tough roper, and if things didn’t go his way, he’d always just say, “I need to practice more.”
“That was Jerry’s answer for everything – whether it was sports, halter, roping or hunting. If he ever had an outing in anything where he didn’t do as well as he thought he should, he said he just needed to practice more. I can’t tell you how many evenings I spent turning out calves so he could rope them.”
A Supreme Turn of Events
By the mid-1960’s, Jerry Wells had made enough progress as a trainer that he was able to strike a deal with George Tyler take in a few outside show prospects.
A.B. Green of Purcell, Oklahoma, was one of his first clients, and, in early 1966, he brought the young horseman a 3-year-old AAA-rated son of Three Bars (TB) by the name of Kid Meyers.
The AQHA had just come out with the Supreme Champion award. After showing and riding Kid Meyers for several months, Wells felt that he had the potential to qualify for the new honor. Green gave the go-ahead and sweetened the pot by telling his young trainer that, should he make the stallion the breed’s first Supreme Champion, he would buy him a brand new Buick Riveria.
On August 20, 1967, Kid Meyers did indeed become AQHA Supreme Champion Number One and Wells became the proud owner of a brown Riveria with white bucket seats. And, when it came time to send Kid Meyers home to Purcell to stand at stud, Green offered Wells a full-time job as his resident trainer and breeding manager.
Jerry and Betty stayed with Green for approximately a year and a half. In 1969, he was offered a job working for Paul Travis of Norman, Oklahoma. Travis was another race horse man who believed that his sprinters should have enough conformation to compete successfully in the show ring.
While with Travis, Wells turned two world champion running stallions – Pana Bar and Tiny Watch – into AQHA Halter Champions. And, in the process, his reputation as a top halter horseman began to grow.
No Place Like Home
In 1970, at A.B. Green’s suggestion and with his backing, Jerry and Betty purchased a home and 50 acres across the road from Green in Purcell. Over the course of the next decade, the couple began what would be a lifetime of buying and selling top horses and building up their facilities.
By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, they had progressed to the point where they were breeding 750 mares a year to such stallions as Sonny Go Lucky, Red Sonny Dee, Boston Mac, Te N’ Te, Winchester, Conclusive and Triples Image.
It was also during this time that Betty Wells became actively involved in the showing end of the business.
“I had grown up around horses,” she says, “but I had never done any serious riding or showing. By the early 1970’s, I thought I’d like to learn how to ride pleasure horses so I asked Jerry to teach me how.”
“By this time, he had turned himself into a top all-around hand. Most people today see Jerry as only a halter horseman, but he was always a lot more than that. He was the most talented man I was ever around when it came to breaking and starting young horses, and he was good enough with a rope to have joined the PRCA if he’d been so inclined.”
“To make a long story short, he turned me into someone how could at least go out and not be embarrassed at the end of a halter shank and on the back of a pleasure horse. That’s not to say it was easy. At first, I had a dickens of a time picking up leads. I’d be in a class and Jerry would holler out at me, ‘You’re on the wrong lead!’ And, after the class, he’d always say the one same thing: ‘We have to practice more’.”
In time Betty Wells became more than an exhibitor who just managed not to embarrass herself. During the mid- to late 1970’s, she showed such Wells stalwarts as Two Eyed Dandy, 1974 World Champion Aged Gelding and All American Congress Grand Champion Gelding; Splash Bar Maid, Superior halter and multiple world champion producer; and War Machine, AQHA Supreme Champion and earner of Superiors in halter, western pleasure and hunter under saddle.
By the early 1980’s, Jerry and Betty Wells were among the nation’s elite Quarter Horse owners, trainers and exhibitors. At the same time, they began to feel that another move was in order.
“There is no way to overstate how important our Purcell ranch was to us,” Betty Wells says. “It was there that we built up our business and it was there that we raised our children. But, by 1982, we were beginning to suffer a little burnout.”
They sold the Purcell ranch and moved the business to Sulphur, where both of them had been raised. They bought land and built a place just north of town right off Highway 177. They lived there for the next 16 years. Jerry changed focus, retiring somewhat from the breeding side of the industry and concentrated more on buying, showing, selling and running a few horses.
In 1988, Jerry says they really got lucky. They had raced a few horses. In 1987 Jerry bought a horse named Merganser as a yearling at the Select Sale in Ruidoso, New Mexico. He put Merganser in training with Jack Brooks. In 1988 Brooks took Merganser to the racetrack and Merganser showed what he was made of, and what Jerry had seen in him as a yearling. He won the West Texas Futurity, the Sun Country Futurity, the Rainbow Futurity and the All American Futurity, earned in excess of $1.3 million and ended up being named the World Champion Running Horse that year.
In 1998 Jerry and Betty got an offer on the Sulphur ranch from Lee and Alma Liles. The sold it and came back to the Purcell area and bought 100 acres south of Purcell on State Highway 59. Building from the ground up just the way he wanted it, Jerry made this ranch into one of the showplace ranches in the area.
He and Betty got settled in on this new ranch in 1999. He brought in Perpetualism and stood him for two years. It was here that Jerry began his fight against a foe that he couldn’t out work, that “more practice” couldn’t make for a win. Jerry fought five different kinds of cancer from 2000 through his death in 2008.
But he fought and still continued working. His grandson, Brendan Barr, was just in grade school, but he wanted to show horses. Jerry bought horses and trained both the horses and Brendan. From 2001 through 2005 they hit the road and campaigned through 159 shows. Brendan and grandpa’s horses qualified for two AQHA Youth World Shows and come home with the 11 and Under Justin Rookie Award in 2001 with Pause To Reflect. In 2003 he won a Youth World Championship with Hes Only Roscen Roll and another Youth World Championship in 2004 showing E T Coleman. It runs in the family.
Grandson Brendan was not the only grandchild on the road those years. Granddaughter Brittney was not even in school. She also showed halter horses. At one show, the horse she was to show came up lame just before the class. Jerry would not let Brittney show the horse. You should see the picture of Brittney with her foot square on the ground and a scowl on her face showing Grandpa how she felt. She was dressed and ready. It was not fair.
Father Knows Best
Both of the Wells children – Nancy Wells Berry of Ada, Oklahoma and Tennessee and Marty Wells of San Juan Capistrano, California — wholeheartedly agree with their mother’s assessment of Jerry Wells, the father, role model and coach.
“Dad was a driven man,” Nancy Berry says. “Whenever he set his mind to do, he was going to do it to the best of his ability, whether it was breeding and showing horses or just staying in shape. All the while we were growing up, he had a weight room in the house and he’d get up every morning and work out. He’d say 200 pounds was his ideal weight and he’d work out and do as many push ups and sit ups as it took to stay under that weight.”
“Dad also had an unbelievable eye for a horse. He could look at one as a rough weanling or yearling and tell exactly what it was going to look like as a mature horse. He basically picked every horse that I ever owned or showed and I’ll be the first to admit that he never sent me into the show ring with anything other than the very best horse he could lay his hands on.
“Someone asked me once when it was that I realized that my dad was famous. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until after he was gone. He just never saw himself as anyone other than a man who loved good horses and was blessed to be able to make his living with them.”
“The fact that he was someone who the world viewed as ‘famous’ didn’t really occur to me until the day of his funeral. I sat there at his memorial and listened to person after person reminisce about dad and what he had meant to them over the years. After awhile I said to myself, ‘Man…I guess dad really was famous.’ ”
As far as Marty Wells is concerned, many of his memories of his father are related to two passions that the father/son pair absolutely shared. “Anyone who ever spent any time around dad,” he says, “knew how much he loved football and roping. Throughout my early school years and into my teens and twenties, dad was like having a combination athletic and rodeo coach around.”
“He taught me all he knew about sports and all he knew about roping. He even sent me to Matlock Rose one year to work on the roping and he always saw to it that I was well-mounted and had plenty of fresh calves to practice on.”
“As soon as I stepped off the school bus every afternoon, he’d be ready for us to head to the roping pen and we’d stay out there until dark. And, I guarantee you, I heard that ‘we have to practice more’ mantra more times that I care to remember.”
The Legend and the Legacy
And so it played out for Jerry Wells as horseman, family man and industry shaper.
The number of champions that he was a associated with over the course of his long and accomplished career is far too expansive to detail here. AQHA has all the records.
Suffice it to say that, dating back to when he showed Otoe to win some of the biggest stock shows and state fairs in the country in the early 1960’s, to when he showed to the last of his amazing string of 61 world championships in the show ring in 1999, Jerry Wells carved out a firm place for himself at the very pinnacle of Quarter Horse history.
Wells led the AQHA Open division charts in the number of World Championships won for decades. And Betty Wells led the amateur division charts with for years, also. Daughter Nancy had 11 Youth World Championships and son Marty had four. From the time Jerry’s name hit the top of that chart, every year when that chart was published, his numbers just kept going up and up. His nearest competitor’s numbers were nowhere close.
And these show ring achievements simply do not take into consideration the man’s lifelong love of Quarter racehorses. His race record includes An All American Futurity winner and World Champion Running Horse in Merganser, two Rainbow Futurity winners, two Sun Country Futurity winners, four All American Futurity finalists and one Ruidoso 550 Yard Championship.
From Frank Merrill, Employee, Partner and Friend
Frank Merrill, AQHA Past-President and a highly accomplished horseman in his own right, offers up the rare and personal look into the man who the AQHA world came to know as “Mr Halter Horse Man.”
“I first met Jerry Wells in 1968,” he says, “at Lou Tuck’s dispersal sale in Littleton, Colorado. Jerry was buying race-bred broodmares with conformation for Mr. Travis.”
“By way of background, I was eight years younger than Jerry and I had the distinct privilege of following him as an understudy of George Tyler and Matlock Rose. Mr Tyler thought very highly of Jerry and was instrumental in my eventually going to work for him.”
“In fact, I’ve always told people that I received my undergraduate degree at the Tyler and Rose college and my PhD at the Jerry Wells college of fine horsemanship.”
“I went to work for Jerry shortly after he and Betty bought that first place in Purcell. I lived there in a single-wide trailer home and learned more from Jerry than I can ever detail. Jerry and his brothers were like a second family to me. In fact, they often referred to me as the ‘fifth brother’. I simply cannot put into words what Jerry Wells has meant to me over the years. To begin with, from a personal standpoint, our joint ownership of Boston Mac was one of the greatest of all my horse experiences.”
“But, on a far grander scale, I feel that Jerry Wells was one of the finest horsemen the western horse industry has ever known. He entered into the business at a time when the ‘bulldog’ Quarter Horse was still very much a part of the landscape. More than any single individual that I can point to, Jerry singlehandedly changed the halter horse industry.”
“With horses like Boston Mac, Te N’ TE, Impressive and Conclusive, Jerry injected the type of Thoroughbred breeding with stock horse conformation that changed the industry forever. He used those stallions to inject ‘hybrid vigor’ into the breed and came up with individuals that, at first, were taller, more elegant and yet maintained that all-around athleticism that enabled them to work on the rail and compete in all of the cattle events.”
“And Jerry did all of this in the most unassuming manner. He was such a good-looking, athletic-looking man that, whenever he entered a room, he was like a magnet to the people around him. But all he ever wanted to do was breed and show good horses and be a good husband and father to Betty, Nancy and Marty; and maybe watch a football game now and then.”
“From a personal standpoint, Jerry’s passing has meant that I’ve lost a dear friend and mentor. As far as the horse world in general is concerned, and the AQHA in particular, we’ve all lost one of the greatest horsemen of all time: an industry changer, an industry shaper, and a man who enriched the lives of so many of us.”
Jerry Wells was inducted into the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 2007. He was inducted into the World Conformation Horse Association Hall of Fame