He’s a multiple American Quarter Horse Association and National Reined Cow Horse Association world champion. He served as the mount to earn an AQHA All-Around Amateur title. He’s been piloted to high-scores at the World’s Greatest Horseman challenge. So when owner Nelle Murphy decided to ease up on the show schedule of Bald N Shiney in 2014, it’s safe to say that he deserved it.
“We never officially retired him,” she clarifies with a laugh. “But we’d done what we wanted to do on him. After my brother, CJ, showed him a few times to get more experience in the show pen before his first NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2014, we decided to let ‘Hank’ just hang out at the ranch. We rode him at home, but we didn’t have any real plans to show him again.”
But then, as things go with horses, circumstances changed. And then changed again. Soon Hank found himself back doing what he loved—showing off in the show pen. This is the story of his return, which will warm your heart and teach you a few lessons in longevity and giving back to a horse that’s given so much.
The phrase, “Horse show family” isn’t a cliché for the Murphy clan and the Shopbell family. Trainer CJ Shopbell not only shares a name with Nelle’s brother, but also has a fatherly bond with Nelle and CJ’s dad, NRCHA Hall of Famer Don Murphy: He worked for Don before going out on his own and remains close with the legendary trainer.
So when CJ and his wife, Michelle, needed a horse for their young son, Brent, to learn to ride, Hank seemed like the perfect choice. It’d be good for Hank to get the exercise and teach the 6-year-old boy the ropes. Nothing too serious yet—just the walk-trot classes and some ranch halter.
“But then their daughter Baily’s mare turned up in foal,” Nelle recalls.
“Baily, age 9, was ready to go show and needed a horse. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted her to show Hank. We all talked, and my dad thought it’d be good for her and for the horse.”
That proved true for everyone involved.
Hank, ever a Steady Eddy in the show pen for the Murphy family, didn’t change during his hiatus. Nelle loaded him in the trailer and drove to Sadler, Texas, to introduce him to his new connections.
“He hadn’t been ridden in a year and a half when Nelle brought Hank over to our place in March,” CJ recalls. “But I didn’t have any reservations. Baily’s mare was kind of a fire-breathing dragon, so I knew she could get along with Hank. Sure, he has his quirks, but Hank doesn’t want to do any more than you ask him to. I figured they’d get along fine.”
They did. Nelle recalls that Hank did his usual headshake that she expected, and then the pair got down to business, even boxing a cow during their first ride. But it’s not easy, both Nelle and CJ agree.
“Baily has to ride him,” CJ says. “He’s not going to just do it for her. She has to be the pilot. They’re still working on their connection, and she can’t just put her hand forward and expect him to do everything. She’s had to learn how to ride him.”
Being the dedicated rider she is has helped Baily in this endeavor. Every day after school, she makes a beeline for the barn, whether it’s a day she’ll work on reining maneuvers or cow work. They try to spread out different parts of Hank’s schooling across the days, so he doesn’t get as much wear and tear. At 22 years old, Hank’s a senior—especially in the competitive realm. The Shopbells’ veterinarian keeps a close eye on Hank’s overall health, paying particular attention to his joints and any other senior concerns. But CJ says Hank is an easy keeper.
“I might get on him twice a week to school on him, but Hank’s pretty self-sufficient,” he shares. “We take it easy on him—I don’t want him to hurt himself.”
Nelle adds that, as the owner, she’s closely involved in Hank’s care.
“I wouldn’t let just anyone do this with my horse,” she says. “I still own him, so I have responsibility for his well-being. They lease him so Baily can show him in AQHA events, but I’m completely involved. They take as good care of Hank as I ever did. Plus now he gets ridden every day and stays legged-up, which helps keep him happy and healthy.”
“You know what they say,” Nelle says with a smile on the way to watch Baily ride. “‘All horses deserve to be loved by a little girl.’ Hank’s getting that right now from Baily, and he deserves it. I got him when I was 22, and I spoiled him, but not like Baily can.”
Baily, quick to say she’s been loping since she was 6, has become pretty possessive of her companion. Nelle let little-brother Brent ride Hank around the show grounds once—not even in a class—and Nelle laughs, “I thought she was going to have a heart attack!”
With their show-pen success, it’s not surprising that Baily doesn’t want to share Hank. First of all, she’s just starting to realize that her horse is famous. When people first recognized Hank at competitions, she didn’t quite know what to think of it. But now it’s sinking in. What little girl doesn’t want to ride a famous horse?
In their first show in April, the pair won the Little Big Shots class both days and qualified for the boxing class for the 2016 AQHYA World Show, taking place next month in Oklahoma City. Baily was on cloud nine.
But how do you prepare a 9-year-old girl to show a horse that’s a already a world champion? Or to compete against riders who are up to twice her age?
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on her,” Nelle says. “For now, we’re focusing on the fun little shows and making clean runs at those. If she can make clean runs in the reined work, Hank will take care of the rest. And the more aggressive she gets on a cow, the better he gets. So as she gains confidence and gets used to kicking him to the cow, she gets better.”
CJ’s focus lies in helping Baily learn to show her horse.
“We spent last year just riding the pattern,” he says. “She’s really learning how to show now, because the horse knows how to do that. That’s the biggest thing at the AQHA Youth World: Those kids know how to show. So she’s getting lots of practice at smaller shows and building her confidence along the way.”
Not to mention, she’s on her way to earning her first buckle from a local series of shows.
The prospect of this horse of a lifetime being a world champion at all levels of competition—open, amateur, and possibly youth—isn’t lost on Nelle.
“It’d be awesome for a horse that’s 22 years old and has been shown that many times to possibly win another world championship,” she says. “People have commented that he’s been shown a lot and is still winning against some tough youth horses. It’s a testimony to my dad’s training program that a horse with Hank’s record (see “Dossier” on page 70) can still show and win.”
There’s no doubt that Baily has a chance to win a world champion trophy with Hank. She has the horsepower to do it. But Nelle’s goal for the year is smaller.
“I just want her to have fun and make clean runs,” Nelle shares. “And I’d really like her to win her first buckle with Hank.”