My Journey with the Rickmans of the Spirit of Blackjack Mountain

Francine Locke Bray
Francine Locke Bray

Friends of the Heritage Horse Foundation doing business as The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain, is a 501c3 nonprofit located in Antlers, Oklahoma whose mission is “To preserve and promote the foundation herds of the Colonial Spanish Horses designated by the Oklahoma Legislature as The Heritage Horse of Oklahoma and deemed “CRITICAL” by the Livestock Conservancy” were featured as ACTHA’s Charity of the Month in the April issue of the ACTHA Monthly Magazine.  A contributing author and information source for that article was Francine Locke Bray, who herself has an interesting history with the Spanish Mustangs.  Here is Francine’s story of how we’d like to say, she “came home to the Spanish Mustangs.”


By Francine Locke Bray

In February of 2009 I answered a query in the Choctaw Newspaper, the Biskinik.  It was from Monique Schaefer of Windrider Farms in Pennsylvania, an owner and breeder of Spanish Mustangs.  She was looking for descendants of six families who once lived in Pushmataha County, OK, and owned and bred Spanish Mustang horses.  My maiden name is Locke, one of the families she was looking for.  The query intrigued me so I answered and she returned my email with a telephone call.  Monique told me that a good number of these Spanish Mustangs descended from those owned by my great-grandfather, Victor M. Locke, Sr., and are considered very rare.  She explained that the horses had been grazing on Blackjack Mountain, a mountain northeast of Antlers, OK, for over 100 years.  In the Fall of 2007 the lumber company which now owned the lands that had originally been given to the Indians for “as long as the rivers flow and the grass grows” had notified the ranchers that they were to remove all of the cattle and horses.  Therefore, in 2008 a roundup was held to begin removing the stock. The main breeding herd of Spanish Mustangs is owned by Bryant and Darlene Rickman, ranchers south of Antlers.  Monique gave me Bryant’s cell phone number telling me that I should contact him the next time I was in the area.  I had a scheduled visit to McAlester in mid-March of 2009 so I made that first phone call to Bryant to see if we could meet.  We set a date for my visit, Thursday, March 19th.  Little did I know what I was getting into!

Bryant and Darlene Rickman
Bryant and Darlene Rickman

I arrived in Oklahoma on March 10th and worked in the Garrard Ardeneum for the next week.  I have a certificate in Museum Studies with a concentration in archives and had been cataloguing a large collection housed in McAlester.  On March 16th I drove to Tulsa to pick up Susan (my sister) at the airport so she could travel with me for the next week.  We planned to do some road-tripping, work on her lands, and visit with some friends in Antlers that I wanted her to meet, culminating with the visit to meet the Rickman’s.  We were scheduled to meet Bryant at his home at 10:30 in the morning of the 16th.  However, we had been on the road and sightseeing so much that I called and begged off until 1:00 p.m.  I thought that would certainly be fine since we really didn’t know this man and, really, how long would we be there, maybe an hour or two? We had a dinner appointment at 6:00 p.m. and were due to be in Dallas that night.  BIG MISTAKE!!  It began to rain “cats and dogs” and we had to drive from Clayton, OK down to south of Antlers and find our way to the Rickman’s – a route I had not previously driven.  We finally made it and, as I parked my car in front of their house this medium height man in a big, white cowboy hat came out of the house, up to the car, and gave me one of his BIG bear hugs, stating, “I can’t believe I am finally meeting a Locke.”  Darlene was at work but Bryant called her to come home and meet us, which she did.  While Darlene compiled a portfolio of materials for me to take home, Bryant talked, and talked, and talked!  And talked some more!  Well, after about FIVE hours (he denies he talked that long) of listening to his story, I was hooked!

Photo by One Horse Joe LaMere
Photo by One Horse Joe LaMere

Finally, in the pouring rain, he took us out to see the horses in his yard and over to what he was calling the Locke Pasture to see the horses descended from those owned by my great-grandfather.  For a city born and bred-girl, I will never forget those first encounters with the horses.  By the way, despite the rain and the now late hour, Bryant kept saying he wished we would stay so he could take us up the mountain to see the horses still on Blackjack!

One of the most amazing things about my story is that, since the mid-1950s, I and various members of my family have been in and out of the Antlers area at least once a year.  For the past 15 years I have been in Oklahoma, visiting and working in McAlester part-time, and visiting the Antlers area at least twice and sometimes three times a year.  I have met and worked with a number of local people but NO ONE ever mentioned the horses, Gilbert Jones, or Bryant Rickman.  We knew, from my father, that the family had owned horses but thought that they “were all gone.”

The only story we had passed down to us was that when my Dad, at age 8 (1925), visited his grandfather in Antlers, his grandfather told him, “There is a horse on the mountain with your name on it.  If you can catch it, you can keep it.”  That is a phrase that Bryant later told me Gilbert would tell the young folks who came looking for a horse.

Spirit of Blackjack Mt_Jennie Sweetin-Smith_019
Photo by Jennie Sweetin Smith

Many times, throughout 2009, as I began to talk about the horses to other Choctaws, Oklahomans, and the World at large, I heard, “but I thought they were all gone.”  I thought the Garrard Ardeneum was the best kept secret in Oklahoma, I now know better – it is the horses!  Bryant and I have talked about this many times, he telling me how hard, especially after my 1984 Antlers Homecoming visit, Gilbert Jones tried to find our family but with no success.  As I continue on my journey with the Rickman’s and their horses, and researching their history, I am beginning to understand how that might have happened.  However, that is a whole ‘nother story!

In the meantime, answering that query, making that first phone call, and subsequently meeting the Rickman’s has become one of the most amazing journeys of my life.   I am forever grateful to them for their friendship and for trusting me with researching and writing the history of the Choctaw ponies.  They are good, good people and what legends are made of.


See the complete article article in the April Issue of the ACTHA Monthly Magazine, featured on page 34 >>

Visit the Spirit of Blackjack Mountain’s Website >>

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