Being Brave

We often hear about the greatest horse a rider has had the opportunity to ride, but we don’t always hear about the bravest horse they’ve swung their leg over. We talk with five riders who tell us about the brave horses that changed their lives.

What’s not to say that the greatest horses become outstanding because they all share a common quality—bravery? Bravery is the act or willingness to do something despite being scared. Confronting fear as a human can be hard. Now imagine being a horse—a prey animal that’s occasionally afraid of his own shadow. There are select horses that are born with unwavering confidence; meanwhile, others learn to be courageous with the help of their human counterpart. Whether it’s having physical bravery to withstand the roar of a crowded stadium or mental bravery to give more effort when it doesn’t seem possible, valiancy can come in all shapes and sizes.

Here’s how five horses conquered fear and in turn helped their riders become confident trainers.

Crystal McNutt

Discipline: Reining.

Bio: McNutt has been riding Arabians since she was 4 years old. She now trains Arabians and Half-Arabians for reining competition out of her barn in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Bravest Horse: Custom Gale, also known as “Custom,” is a 12-year-old gelding by reining champion Custom Crome and out of an Arabian mare that competed in cutting. Custom won a large futurity in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a 5-year-old and has won the U.S. Half-Arabian Nationals three times. You can also find Custom Gale and McNutt of the cover of the December 2018 issue of Horse&Rider.

The Obstacle: “Custom was wild and afraid of everything. He would get worried over the oddest things and was always standing at the back of his stall because he didn’t like when people would walk by. Now he stands with his head over the stall door asking for cookies. He went from a horse that would try to buck you off in the middle of your fast circles, to being one of the most fun horses to circle. You don’t have to worry when you’re riding him; he just does, and he loves it.”


Proving Moxie: “Last year at Nationals, I didn’t show him hard in the prelims; we just kind of went through the pattern. I was sitting in fourth after that run, and they do a composite in the finals. The day of the finals, I pressed on him and he was like something I’ve never felt. Custom just said ‘OK’ and kept giving more. Everything I asked, he’d just go one step above. He’s really special that way. It was amazing to be sitting in fourth and then end up winning by six points.”

Advice: “Be patient with a horse because you can see glimpses of really cool things if you’re patient. As a horse’s confidence builds, his ability is there, and if you wait, he’ll get better.”

Julie Goodnight

Discipline: Clinician.

Bio: Goodnight is a lifelong equestrian and student of the horse. She focuses on classical horsemanship and developing the horse and rider’s relationship.

Bravest Horse: Victory’s Pep-Sea was a Morgan mare by Saddleback Sea King and out of a daughter of Funquest Shazam. “Pepsea,” as Goodnight fondly called her, came into Goodnight’s life as a 5-year-old and passed away on Goodnight’s Salina, Colorado, ranch at the age of 29. Goodnight guided many trails on the back of Pepsea while ponying foals and difficult horses.

The Obstacle: “Pepsea was bucking riders off deliberately. She’d go so far with each rider based on his or her riding ability. Through poor handling she was taught bad habits, which didn’t work for a horse like her that was hot-as-a-pistol and highly sensitive.”


Proving Moxie: “I remember riding out from my ranch with a few friends. Pepsea was out front, not because she had to be out front, but rather because few horses could keep up with her. All of a sudden Pepsea stopped, picked her head up, and snorted. I pressed her forward, and we went on a little way until she stopped and snorted again. Pepsea wasn’t a young horse; she had a lot of miles under her belt. I kicked her forward again and we rode to the top of the ridge where she stopped again and saw a herd of bull elk. There were more than 100 of them, and they were running through where we were heading on the trail. Horse and bull elk encounters aren’t good, and she was trying to keep us out of the situation. None of the horses spooked or bolted, so nothing came of it, and everything was fine, but she proved she would do whatever I asked her to do. Even when it was wrong.”

Advice: “I’ve known many brave horses in my career, and they aren’t always easy horses. Ninety-eight percent of the time it’s great that they aren’t afraid of anything, but there are times when I wish that they might be a little more afraid of me, perhaps. They get into trouble easily and are strong willed. Being brave comes with other qualities that aren’t always the best.”

Ted Robinson

Discipline: Reined cow horse.

Bio: Robinson found his interests in the reined cow horse events as a teenager. He worked construction during the day and rode horses at night until 1982, when he transitioned to full-time trainer.

Bravest Horse: Colonel Smoke was a Paint son of Colonel Freckles, out of a daughter of Mr. Gun Smoke. Ralph and Mickey Gragg purchased him as a 2-year-old, and Robinson was the only trainer ever to show him. As a team, Robinson and Colonel Smoke won more than 65 buckles, 17 saddles, and three trailers.

The Obstacle: “Colonel Smoke didn’t have an obstacle to overcome to display his bravery. He was a brave horse from the start. When I got him in trouble, he got me out. He could get out of any situation I put him in. He always helped me; he never quit helping me.”


Proving Moxie: “He was in the 1985 Snaffle Bit Futurity, which was my first really big win. Colonel Smoke won the gelding award and was fourth overall. This horse came to the party when we entered the finals, when I was probably scared to death. He kept showing like he was supposed to, all while I was accidentally asking him to go off course. He took charge of me. After that, he built my confidence—he made me brave. It takes a lot of confidence to win, and you have to win to gain confidence. He boosted my confidence early in my career, so I have to give him credit for his ability to bring me up and make me who I am today.”

Advice: “You can’t treat every horse the same. You have to train them in different ways. Your end result may be the same, but you have to approach each horse as an individual. We also don’t tend to recognize the bravery in a horse until it’s too late. These horses are gifts. I think the best thing I can tell anyone is to slow down and think about what you really have.”

Lynn Palm

Discipline: Western dressage.

Bio: Palm grew up riding dressage horses, and her current goal with horses is to promote riding well and with simplicity.

Bravest Horse: Owned by Carol Harris, Rugged Lark, sired by Thoroughbred stallion Really Rugged and out of a Quarter Horse mare by Leolark, was foaled in 1981. He competed in various all-around events until he was 6 years old. After he retired from competition, Rugged Lark and Palm went on to present exhibition rides at major events for 10 more years. Rugged Lark also won the AQHA World Show Superhorse title in both 1985 and 1987.

The Obstacle: “One thing that was really funny about Rugged Lark was that he would never go over the grates or metal caps in asphalt. He hated them! Typically, though, if you showed him something once, he was OK with it—he trusted the people who rode him.”


Proving Moxie: “We were invited to the very first opening ceremonies for the FEI World Cup in Tampa, Florida, to perform the classical dressage freestyle we’d choreographed. They had us do our musical freestyle on the Tampa football field. The 50-yard line marked the middle of my routine. After I did my one song with the bridle, my routine was dismounting, taking the bridle off, and walking over to hand it to Carol, who was on the sideline. Then I’d walk back to Rugged Lark, remount, and continue the exhibition without the bridle. Rugged Lark stood right on the 50-yard line square, with his ears forward, all by himself with a full stadium, while I walked away from him. He was brave with it all and just happy to be there.”

Advice: “Always respect that a horse is a prey animal; he’s always aware that he needs to protect himself. You have to understand that, because there may be things that arise because of his nature. You need to have patience and be able to spend time on a situation where a horse is insecure. If you do spend the time to let him get confident, then he’ll become braver as he gets more mature.”

Sherry Cervi

Discipline: Barrel racing.

Bio: Cervi was born and raised in a rodeo family, where she developed her love for horses and barrel racing. She has qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo 19 times and is still competing.

Bravest Horse: MP Meter My Hay, better known as “Stingray,” is an 18-year-old mare sired by PC Frenchman’s Hayday, who’s owned by Cervi’s father, Mel Potter. Stingray has won two WPRA barrel racing world championships and two NFR barrel racing average championships, both of which helped Cervi reach career earnings of more than $3 million.

The Obstacle: “Stingray is a really confident mare. I think her confidence is what makes her brave and why she excelled so much. It didn’t matter what I asked her to do, she was really confident in the execution of it. Her confidence gave me confidence as a rider to let her do her job.


Proving Moxie: “In 2013, I won the WPRA barrel racing world championship on her. In the 10th round of the NFR, I was going into it with a chance to win the average, a championship gold buckle, and the Ram truck Top Gun Award (most money won in a single event at the NFR). I had placed in all nine previous rounds. I sat in the alleyway and had a moment with Stingray that’s hard to describe. There was a lot of pressure going into that final round, and she handled that pressure unbelievably. I think that’s the one thing that defines a brave horse—when you put the pressure on them, they can handle it. I ended up placing in the round, winning the average, and taking home a truck and a championship gold buckle. She just finished what had already been a great year. Whenever I put Stingray in those high-pressure situations, she never failed me.”

Advice: “Appreciate these horses. Let them excel in whatever they do. That’s what helps create a brave horse. As a rider, you should feed off of your horse’s confidence and bravery.” 

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