Winning competitions is rewarding, but it’s just a test to see how well you’ve done your job as a horse trainer.
I train and show horses. Everything’s gotten so specialized that all I do anymore is ride reined cow horses. But roping is what got me into training horses. Roping, and a man named Bob Johnson.
Bob Johnson was a well-known roping instructor who lived in western Idaho, a few hours from where I grew up in central Idaho. Once, when I was in eighth grade, my uncle took me with him to one of Bob’s calf-roping clinics. Everybody called Bob “Coach,” because he’d coach you. If you did it wrong, he’d tell you, and you had to do it again. Bob was pretty hardcore. I remember being tired and sore and having tape on every finger. I wasn’t really big enough to flank calves. Hell, I don’t think I weighed a hundred pounds. But Bob taught me how to nose calves over.
From that first year on I don’t think I missed one of his clinics. I went religiously every spring.
At those clinics, I spent more time riding Bob’s horses than riding mine. I was kind of the poor kid who only had one horse. Bob would say, Go to the barn, catch the horse in stall fourteen and get on him.
I really admired the life he led. I thought that was the coolest thing ever—to ride rope horses all day long and go to jackpots and rodeos on the weekends. At my age, from my naïve point of view, that seemed like the good life, and I strived to have a place of my own some day. Even though my mother trained and showed paint horses, at that age I didn’t realize you could make a living training horses. It was kind of a light bulb moment, like, Hey that’s an option.
I begged and begged Bob for a job, but he and his son, Barry, trained together. Bob didn’t keep enough horses for multiple employees. I would have just about worked for free, if he’d have let me.
A couple years after I graduated high school, Bob called. He said Barry had back surgery and couldn’t work and would I come help out that winter. I jumped at the chance. I had been helping at my Dad’s farm and ranch and roping at jackpots and amateur rodeos. I told my Dad I was leaving for a couple of months. I worked for Bob, and when that job was done, I started riding some outside colts and got another horse-training job. One thing led to another, and I just never went home.
Bob’s place was west of Caldwell off Chicken Dinner Road. It wasn’t fancy, but it was neat and well-kept. He took a lot of pride in his place. It was really functional. He had cattle pens close to the indoor arena, which made it easy to get calves in. He had stalls down on a lane, which made it easy to catch horses. You didn’t spend half a day walking four miles to go catch horses. You could efficiently get several horses worked a day.
I thought a lot of Bob. I still do, even though he passed away just last month. He was a big influence on my life and career. My family and I even live on Chicken Dinner Road. Bob’s place is on the south end, and ours is on the north end. When I was building it, I thought a lot about the functionality of Bob’s place, how it made things flow and could make a day easy.
Not that my days are easy! Between my training and traveling to shows and Jessie’s training, showing and, this year, rodeoing, we stay busy. And our two daughters do about anything you could do on horses—team rope, breakaway, run barrels and poles, tie goats. They’ve even been showing cow horses for a couple years. Am I living the dream? Some days, yes. Some days, not so much! But seriously, I’m a lucky guy. I have an amazing family, and I get to do what I love to do every day. I don’t know how a man could ask for more.
Knack for Training
It was a long time before I started training and showing reined cow horses. That was never my original goal. Early on, I trained horses so I could be a better roper.
I started working with a guy named Bus Hudson. He was more of a horse trader. He’d buy anything and everything. Old Bus, he’d buy a loose horse from the sale barn if it looked right. He’d bring it home and say, There it is. Get it started.
I remember several loose horses he bought—geldings that were four and five years old that went on to be good rope horses. I had a knack for getting horses started and headed down the right path. In the meantime, I wasn’t making a living roping, and I didn’t want to starve to death. Training was steady income. One thing led to another. In the beginning, the showing was just a way to make my rope horses better.
Dan Roeser lived near me, and he would go to quarter-horse shows and compete in the halter and the pleasure class, the reining and the cow horse. And then he would ask me to show them in the roping. The level that his horses were, how broke he had them and how easy it was to make that transition to rope horse really intrigued me. So I decided I needed to learn how to do it.
I started training more and more rope horses. With rope horses you get a lot of people wanting a miracle in thirty days. They’d either screwed them up or bought a problem and wanted me to fix it in a month or two. It became a revolving door.
Eventually, it got to the point where I didn’t want to ride horses for just thirty or sixty days. Show horses stay around longer. These days, I have horses that I started as colts, trained and showed and had them retire their career still at my place.
One of the best horses I ever trained was a little mare I started called Starlight Kisses. She was the product of a sire and dam that I trained and showed also. The sire, Shady Little Starlight, was Open Hackamore World Champion. He won close to eighty-thousand dollars. The dam, Kissed by Shiny Lips, also had a respectable show career. But their offspring, Starlight Kisses, surpassed both of their career earnings.
The only time I ever won the Snaffle Bit Futurity, the year’s biggest show competition for reined cow horses, was on Starlight Kisses in 2015.
In the reined cow horse, we compete in three categories: herd work, rein work and fence work. The herd work is a lot like cutting. The rein work involves a series of spins, stops and lead changes. What differentiates us from the other disciplines is the fence work. You hold a single cow at the end of the arena to show the judges you have control. Then, you run the cow down a fence and turn it—once to the left, once to the right—and circle the cow in each direction. It can be pretty fast-paced. Horses sometimes fall, and there are wrecks. It shows the horse’s ability to handle a cow at speed.
Reined cow horse events are modeled after traditional cowboy work. I take pride in training horses that are so versatile. A lot of horses we’ve shown go on to be rope horses or barrel horses or working cow horses. Once we’ve laid that foundation and done the work it takes to compete at three different events, the horses are usually ready for whatever you want to do on them. They’re well-rounded individuals.
Starlight Kisses was one of those well-rounded horses. At the 2015 futurity, it was her special talent in the fence work that got us the win.
Unfortunately, her show career and life got cut short. The very next year, the owners were trying to get an embryo out of her, and she got a rectal tear during palpation at the breeding facility. There’s just no repair for that injury. For animals as big and strong as horses, they can be fragile, too. We all know they don’t last forever, and you have to enjoy them while you can. But you never expect to lose a great four-year-old. That was one of worse days of my life.
I’ve lost several very good horses. It’s just part of it. But I really loved that horse. She was like family.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. As a kid growing up, I kept a bunch of different animals—dogs and horses but also a deer, skunk and crow, whatever I could catch while baling hay. My wife, Jessie, was the same way as a girl. She’s still the same way. A couple years ago she had a coyote pup, and she brought a turtle home from Texas during her last two weeks of rodeoing this year.
What an amazing two weeks those were! Jessie was on the bubble in the barrel racing. During her last week on the road, she entered eight rodeos and placed in seven, winning enough to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, her first time ever. I always knew she had it in her. It was just a matter of time.
Jessie’s very good at training futurity horses. She likes it as much as I do, seeing the progression and having one that is good and that tries to please you and takes the training well. That’s why she went on the road this year. She knew her horse Cool Whip was special. Jessie ran his mother in high school and college. I guess Cool Whip’s a bit like family, too.
Our daughters are both horse crazy, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising, since they’ve been on horses their entire lives. Sierra’s twelve and Shawny is thirteen.
We’ve never forced them to ride. Honestly, sometimes, it’s the opposite. We have to rein them in. They’ll come home from school and go catch horses and be on them bareback riding down the ditch bank or chasing each other around the arena. They’re pretty comical.
The other day, we were roping, and the girls wanted to ride. They had homework, so I sent them to the house to finish up. Well, I looked up, and they came riding into the arena while we were roping, which is fine. They do it all the time. But pretty quick, they started racing. They were both bareback and getting a little carried away, over-and-undering from one end of the arena to the other. I was like, Hey, you guys slow down! One of you is gonna take a header into the fence.
I guess they take after their mother. Jessie is exceptionally gifted. I’m always amazed by the things she can do. If we’re roping, and Jessie picks up a rope, she catches every steer. If she’s running barrels, she can get on a strange horse and in ten minutes have it doing a pattern that looks flawless. She’s shown cow horse with me. It took her one summer of practicing and showing to be competitive.
Me, I’m not quite that way. I’m a slower learner. To this day, I don’t think that I’m as naturally talented as a lot of the trainers out there, so I try to outwork them.
Horse Show Chaos
The most horses I ever took to one futurity was eight. That was almost suicidal. It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever tried to do.
The Snaffle Bit Futurity lasts for a couple of weeks. You’re riding three-year-olds, essentially competing on babies. The show goes on all day long. The only time you can work your horses in the arena is at night. The more horses you have, the more hours it takes to get them ridden at night, and the more time it takes you to show them during the day and, consequently, the less sleep you get. That year, I ended up riding and practicing all night long and then showing all day. It snowballed into a two-week, non-sleeping marathon.
I couldn’t have done it without having Jessie there to organize everything. I was so tired and not really thinking clearly. She made me lists to keep me on track: You need to be on this horse at this time. That horse needs to be saddled at this time. This horse needs its legs doctored and wrapped.
She saved my bacon another year, too, when I ended up with four horses in the Snaffle Bit Futurity finals. I was trying to do three events with four horses in one long day. I had at least one horse in every set. It was so chaotic, but Jessie had the horses lined out and helped me recruit people to warm them up. And it paid off. My horses finished second, fifth, twelfth and fourteenth.
The World’s Greatest Horseman competition in February showcases the best of the best in our sport. It’s not a futurity. We only bring our best horses, animals that have withstood the test of time and events and competitions. I’ve never won it. I was third last year. It’s definitely on my bucket list.
One reason I look forward to the World’s Greatest Horseman competition is that it adds a roping event called steer stopping to the herd work, rein work and fence work. I still love to rope. It’s what I do for fun and recreation. Some people have a boat or take a vacation. I go to a jackpot team roping.
In the steer stopping, you’re like a header without a heeler. You’re behind a barrier. The steer’s in a chute. You’re judged on how your well your horse runs to the steer, rates the steer, and, after you rope the steer, how well your horse stops.
Preparing a horse to do four events and be competitive at every one requires extremely good horsemanship. Not many horses and riders ever reach that level. Last year I think they had the highest number of entries ever, and that was only about forty-five.
This year, I’ll be riding a new horse that I picked up in Forth Worth. The one I finished third on last year was at the end of his show career, so we semi-retired him. Shawny shows him some, and Jessie might ride him in the NFR Grand Entry in December.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that training horses is a long slow process. I enjoy starting colts, seeing them ridden for the first time. You work with them day in and day out. You watch them progress to the point where you’re showing them. You and your horse step into that arena, and there are five judges watching your every move, your every step, seeing how good of a job you’ve done. That part is rewarding. But it’s just a test to see how well you’ve done your job as a horse trainer.