The color blue symbolizes loyalty, commitment, honesty.
It’s the color of the wide Texas sky cowboy Chester Stidham, 69, has worked beneath his entire life. And it’s the color seen in the eyes of Flo, a seven-year-old mare that saved his life last year.
“I was in the pasture with her,” Stidham recalled. “It was a Wednesday.”
Possessed with an uncanny memory, Stidham seems to remember the day of the week whenever anything happened in his life.
“She was going to have a baby. And I wanted to see how far along she was,” he said. “I leaned down to see if she was making milk to have her baby.”
Alone in the pasture and the brush, Stidham suffered a stroke.
“It hit me all at once,” he added. “It was just like somebody hit me upside the head and knocked me down.”
He rolled over in the dust, seeing the panoramic sky open up above him. But he also saw the tranquil blue in Flo’s eyes. The brown and white paint horse has the rare trait called glass eye or wall eye. The orbs glisten like baby blue marbles in the sun, like a double image of the earth seen from space.
“I fell,” he said. “I was disoriented. I really didn’t know what to do. And I knew that she knew something was wrong. I put my arm over her back and she led me back to the gate. That’s amazing that she knew something was wrong. I think God had something to do with the deal with her saving my life when I had my stroke.”
Stidham managed to climb into his truck and drive home. He laid down, still not sure what had happened to him. The next day his nephew, K.C. Castleberry, came to visit.
“I knew he wasn’t like himself,” Castleberry said. “He was always jolly and had a story to tell, but not this time. I took him to the hospital, and they determined that he had a stroke.”
After months of rehab in Decatur, Stidham went to live with his nephew in Paradise.
“It’s a lot different,” Castleberry said of his uncle. “But he hasn’t lost any memory. He’s still Chester. He’s just got a little limp in his get-a-long.
“It’s been a blessing. God does things different ways for a reason. I brought him here so he can help take care of things, and so we can get him to ride again. He does little things he can around the ranch. He helps not only me but all the young cowboys coming up.”
BECOMING A COWBOY
The traditional cowboy continues to vanish from the North Texas landscape.
“Well, number one, (a cowboy) is not a guy that wears a hat and a pair of boots,” Stidham said. “It’s a man that pays his dues to society by going out and working and learning the way of a cowboy. It’s not being a rodeo cowboy. There’s a difference between the rodeo cowboy and the true cowboy.”
At age 16 Stidham began working at the horse sale in north Fort Worth.
“I started slipping off and going to the horse sale and making $5 a day cleaning manure out of trucks,” he said. “I’m like most kids; I wanted to ride a horse. Then I was coming from Decatur one Saturday, and my parents and I saw a man down 287 Business riding a mule. That fascinated me. That man was named John Lindsey. And I asked my parents the next weekend if I could go see him.
“I walked all the way from Fort Worth to Saginaw to go see him. I went up there every weekend after that, and he started me riding horses. He would let me get on a colt or two. If I got bucked off, he said, ‘Get back up there.’ He kind of acted like my daddy.”
From there, Stidham went on to work at ranches all over the area and in Oklahoma and Kansas. His near perfect memory helped him excel at the job.
“We’d get the horses in and separate them by weight,” Stidham said. “And I remembered better than the other guys where every horse went after they came in. I was always good with memory.”
But the hours were long, and the pay was little. The reward was working out in the open, beneath blue skies and riding horses.
“What lots of people don’t understand is that being a real cowboy is working from the time you get up until the time you go to bed. You don’t find many people who do that anymore. Most people around here are rodeo cowboys. Weekend cowboys.”
The lifestyle was lonely at times.
“Cowboys don’t know about personal life,” he said. “He gets a girlfriend who comes in on the weekends. That’s all he’s worried about. And some beer.
“Learn to go to bed early and get up early; learn to eat right; beans and potatoes and steak; and you’ll be all right.”
Lindsey taught him the ways of being a horseman: how to ride, handle, rope, take care of and what to look for in a good horse. Those lessons helped Stidham recognize and develop those traits in Flo.
“She’s the mare that I raised,” he said. “I’ve been with her since the day she was born. Her mother died about a year after she was born.”
But Flo had a wild streak.
“She bucked off a lot of people that tried to ride her,” Stidham said. “I sent her to some friends to break her, and they said, ‘Come get her. She’s going to hurt somebody’.”
At 2 years old she was still too small for him to ride. But he saw a remarkable thing when he returned home from Fort Worth one day.
“That little ol’ boy of mine and his mother were riding her,” he said. “She never bucked with them.”
Flo eventually had a colt that Stidham gave to Castleberry.
“He works with him every day,” Stidham said. “You brush it. You raise its feet. You spend time with it. It’s just like a kid. If you’re good to a kid and show him support, he’ll show you respect.
“That’s the main thing. You need the respect of the horse. You send him where you want to go. He don’t send you where he wants to go.”
LOOKING THE PART
Stidham’s not only a cowboy in the classical sense. He also looks the part. He wears boots up to his knees, tall enough to protect against mesquite thorns and snake bites. He wears chaps and worn leather cowboy cuffs with a silver star of Texas embedded in each one.
The sun has worn a squint and lines around his soft, wizened eyes. A mustache as full and gray as a raccoon tail rolls over his lips. That look has made him famous among Western photographers.
Back in 1997, Parker County rancher Thomas B. Saunders told Stidham that David Stoeklein wanted a black cowboy for his book “Cowboy Gear.”
“Not a rodeo cowboy, but a real black cowboy,” Stidham said. “Tom B. told me to come out on a Friday and bring a horse. I was there at 6 a.m. I thought it was Madison Square Gardens. The whole place was lit up. Shoot, that made me some money. A cowboy makes enough money for one day. That made me enough for four days.”
From there, the offers kept coming. Next he did a Chevrolet commercial.
“I got a call on a Wednesday that I needed to be at DFW airport on Friday,” Stidham said.
Then he was the subject in another book titled “Texas Cowboy” and then another called “Don’t Fence Me In.” He was later featured in an Applebee’s commercial.
“Outside of John Wayne, he was named the most photogenic cowboy ever,” Castleberry said.
PASSING IT ON
Stidham’s stroke pulled the reins on his burgeoning career as a model and actor. At the same time, he sees the way of life he grew up in fading like a sunset in North Texas.
“You can look around and see they are breaking up all these ranches and building subdivisions,” he said. “The taxes are lots of it, the inheritance tax. If your daddy died and he had 5,000 to 10,000 acres you’d have to sell half of it to pay for it. You can’t do anything with it then.
“It’s a disaster. That’s what it looks like. They cut out the farm land for growing things and raising cattle. If you keep on, there’s not going to be a place to raise livestock. People don’t understand where they are going to get their food from.”
But he’s trying to pass down his knowledge to his 15-year-old son, Dalton “Cooter” Stidham, and to his nephew K.C.
“His knowledge of horses is extensive,” Castleberry said. “I’m the only cowboy nephew he’s got. That’s what made us so close. He’s my uncle, but we got a father/son relationship. I’m learning now about the olden way of the cowboy. I’m the modern cowboy. And he’s one that had to cowboy for a living. I still gotta do some things the old cowboy way.”
His path was similar to his uncle’s.
After high school he moved to Winnsboro and got a job with a guy cleaning cattle trailers.
“I always wanted to be around horses,” he said. “I couldn’t rope calves good, so I started riding bulls. Did that for five years. And finally decided it’s a little better to team rope and calf rope than bull riding.”
Stidham appreciates how the rodeo cowboys, although riding in the bright lights and for fame, keep the tradition alive. And his son, Cooter, who will be a sophomore at Boyd High School, said he has already learned the most important lesson from his father. It’s a lesson symbolized in the color blue.
Cooter explained: “My dad taught me you always have to be honest, to yourself and to everybody you deal with.”