Women Professionals: Dirt Arenas, Not Glass Ceilings

Women are showing they belong at the top of the professional ranks in the Western performance horse industry, even if they’re a minority.

Four decades ago, a young woman named Lyn Anderson competed in a reined cow horse event at the Salinas Rodeo. The open finals had come down to just five riders: Anderson and four men. With only one rider left to go, the three big-name trainers came up and started congratulating her for the win—because the last rider was having a lot of problems with his cow.

Sarah Dawson, one of a rising number of female trainers making a name for themselves in open performance horse events, is shown competing in NRCHA’s Hackamore Classic.
PrImo Morales, Courtesy of NRCHA

“We all knew our scores, ” she says, “so they figured I’d won. Well…I ended up second.”

Back at the trailer, one of the trainers sought her out to ask, “Doesn’t it make you mad?”

Her answer: “‘I’m used to it.’ And at that point in time, I was.”

Anderson’s outlook, though, was one of moving on. She understood that while building her business, she couldn’t say to her customers “I should have won…” while blaming her gender.

Even today, it’s no secret that if you compare the number of open/professional riders in the Western performance horse industry to the number of non-pros, you’ll see a disproportion in the number of women versus men—that is, there are more male professional riders than female and more female non-pros than male. Still, things are changing, and even though female pro trainers remain in the minority, you’re starting to see them taking on the men in some of the largest Western disciplines.

The Start of a Movement

“Things are a whole lot different now than they were 35 years ago,” confirms Anderson, a National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Fame inductee based in California. Anderson’s climb to the top was unconventional at the time—not only because she was a woman, but also because she grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and not on a ranch.

Lyn Anderson, a member of NRCHA’s Hall of Fame, says when standardized scoring of maneuvers was introduced in the 1980s, “that certainly improved things.”
PrImo Morales, Courtesy of NRCHA

While a student in college, she attended her first NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in 1976, watching every preliminary run for both the non-pro and open divisions. From where she sat, it seemed the judges were marking the women at least two points lower than would be marked for a comparable run for a man—in both divisions.

And she wasn’t the only one to notice. “I heard people around me commenting on the exact same issue I’d seen,” she says. “So, [gender bias] was pretty prevalent back then.”

On the other hand, when she finally attended the same event to compete aboard her own horse, Cheeta Vanbar, she agreed with her score, citing how green she and her mare were.

“I was marked what I should’ve been, not a problem,” she says.

Fellow NRCHA Hall of Fame inductee Sandy Collier, also from California, started her training business at about the same time as Anderson, and she, too, saw things leaning a little more one way than another.

“It was difficult to get marked fairly. It felt as if I had to be a couple points better just to tie,” Collier says.

Sandy Collier, also an NRCHA Hall of Famer, says that in her early years of competition, “it felt as if I had to be a couple points better just to tie.” Her response? Work harder.
Courtesy of Sandy Collier

But Collier took the state of affairs as a challenge, saying, “Those guys were just really good, and they were riding good horses. I simply had to stay home and work doubly hard until I could come and be competitive with them.”

When Anderson hit the weekend show circuit, she discovered she was an outsider because of more than just her gender.

In 1993, Collier smashed one glass ceiling by becoming the first—and so far the only—woman to win the open division of the highly competitive NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity.
Courtesy of Sandy Collier

“A lot of the guys at the shows knew each other from the time they were kids, and I didn’t have that upbringing—I had a suburbs-of-San-Diego upbringing—so that darn sure didn’t make things any easier for me,” she recalls.

One older gentleman in particular became the focus of Anderson’s wit for that entire year. She could never get the trainer to talk to her, so every time she saw him, she made sure she greeted him with a smile.

“It became a game to me,” she laughs. “I didn’t care if he said anything or not, but I kept trying every time just to see if he would give it up. He pretty much never did.”

Anderson can’t recall the name of that rather shy, quiet man, which proves that her tenacity to stick with the industry paid off in the end. “I’m still here and he’s long gone,” she says.

In 1985, the National Reining Horse Association initiated a new judging system based on scoring the individual maneuvers of the pattern, rather than simply assessing the overall
run. To make this change possible, judges’ cards were starting to be used, and it wasn’t long before NRCHA followed suit.

“When we got standardized judging, that certainly improved things,” says Anderson. “Having the judges fill out a card and justify their scores has really helped everybody.”

Collier agrees with Anderson. “Our judging system back then wasn’t as delineated as it is now,” she says. “It was never unfair, but some scoring just happened because the guys were all friends and buddies. Now, it’s just so fair that everyone has a good shot, no matter who they are and what they ride in on.”

Other Arenas

Robin Gollehon is an American Quarter Horse Association Professional Horseman with judge’s cards for multiple organizations. With over 250 world and national titles from various breed and sport organizations, she’s currently in the top 2 percent of AQHA’s winningest ranch riders in the nation.

Multiple world champion all-around trainer Robin Gollehon says she worked hard to earn other trainers’ respect back in the day. Today she advises young female trainers to be honest, have integrity, and learn how to deal with customers.
Courtesy of Robin Gollehon

“Yes, it always kind of felt like a man’s world,” she says of the Western horse world of the 1990s. “When I showed up on the scene as a professional trainer—and I remember this so well—I was flirted with and ‘hit on’ more than I was respected. But I wanted to be respected, so I knew I’d have to work harder and be better in order to be on the same plane as the men.”

Like Anderson, Gollehon hadn’t grown up in horse country, but rather in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The weather made training seasons short, but she excelled in the open events she entered as a youth, in everything from Western and English classes to poles and barrels. Then, from her successful youth years, she went straight into professional training.

“I noticed that the better horsemen got the better horses, so I started buying diamonds in the rough and turning them into champions,” she reveals. Later she bred her own stock, with even greater success.

“Eventually, I achieved my goal—a whole trailer filled with horses I’d bred that were winning multiple world and national championships” in events ranging from halter and longe line to Western pleasure, trail, pleasure driving, and more.

Gollehon agrees that the scoring of maneuvers has helped women as they strive for parity with men. “The ranch disciplines of today have scoring of maneuvers, and although the open ranks still have more men, the women are coming on and excelling. The scoring has really helped to make that possible.”

The New Generation

The women of today’s show arena look up to the earlier pioneers. They also realize whatever they want to accomplish is going to take hard work, whether they’re a professional or amateur rider. It’s never been about thinking their gender was a weakness.

“I was raised that you just did it—you didn’t care if it was acceptable, you just kept working at it,” says reining trainer Crystal McNutt. “You had to have the mindset that there was no failing, just keep going and keep learning.”

Crystal McNutt, a successful reining trainer of Arabians as well as Quarter Horses, says women today must prove they’re not a one-hit wonder and that they’re “going to stick around and be somebody.” But, she adds, “That’s just competition, whether you’re a guy or a woman.”
Jennifer Paulson

The Arizona-based McNutt finds herself in an even smaller niche than just a female reining trainer, as she also shows Arabians. “I’m as far left field as you can be,” she laughs.

While McNutt says she’s never heard a male counterpart say a woman can’t do the same as a man, she believes perhaps women have to work a little harder and hustle a little more.

“No one has ever said I couldn’t [train reiners], but I also wouldn’t allow that,” she says. “I’d just think, ‘too bad—I’m going to figure out how to make this work.’”

And for a woman to be successful in the grittiest events—such as reined cow horse, reining, and cutting—it takes a passionate desire simply to be competitive amongst all peers.

“I think the competitive nature you must have in this industry is what drives you into wanting more and keeps you hooked,” says Erin Taormino, a reined cow horse trainer based in Texas. “Do I feel as if cards are stacked against me? I don’t think so. I actually wanted to be a minority, and then to be successful in my industry anyway. It’s almost more rewarding, especially being a mom.”

Taormino gave birth to a baby boy, Westley Anthony, mid-February 2018, and even though she was the reserve open champion at the 2016 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, she claims the most rewarding title she’s earned so far is “Mom.”

“The only time I’ve felt at a disadvantage in my career has been when I was recovering from having my son,” she admits. “Having a baby takes a lot out of you, and I felt I was in pretty good physical shape before and during my pregnancy—I rode up until two or three days before having Westley. I thought I’d take six weeks off and be good, but then I had a caesarian section, and it was more exhausting physically and mentally.”

Erin Taormino, reserve champion in the open division of the 2016 NRCHA Futurity, says she enjoys being a minority “and being successful anyway. It’s almost more rewarding—especially being a mom.” The trainer gave birth to a baby boy in February of this year.
Courtesy of Erin Taormino

It’s All in the Attitude

Taormino feels her stubborn streak has also helped drive her success. She and her husband, Anthony, went out on their own as trainers after working for Todd Bergen in 2016. She sees her hard work and tenacity as key requirements for more than success in her business and family life.

“When you work hard and do your job—that’s how you earn respect from guys in the industry,” she says.

Last year, Sarah Dawson won the Hackamore Classic open championship at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity and the AQHA’s junior working cow horse championship (with a record-setting score). The up-and-comer believes success is all in your attitude and your work ethic.

“I don’t feel I have any less of an opportunity being a woman, to be honest with you,” says the Texas-based trainer. “If anything, I might put more pressure on myself because I feel that, as a woman, I need to do well every time I show. But the pressure is more self-inflicted and not from the outside.”

Dawson agrees with the other women that having the standardized judging system in the Western performance disciplines has definitely made scoring more reliable and fairer for all exhibitors, male or female.

“It takes a lot of personal opinion and preference out of the judging,” she says.

Getting Great Horses

These leading ladies of cow horse and reining agree with Gollehon that the limited availability of great stock to train can disadvantage riders of either sex. Landing the opportunity to ride some of the best reining or reined cow horses in the industry often comes only with time, sweat, and championships.

“You don’t get those horses until you win,” says Dawson. “Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to go win on one you’ve gotten yourself, then people will send you better horses.”

Dawson is grateful to a mare she purchased when starting out as a trainer that helped boost her stature in the industry. Dawson and Shine Smarter finished fifth in the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2015, plus earned reserve champion honors in the intermediate open and champion honors in the limited open. The pair has also made the finals in about every derby entered.

“No one sent her to me, but I went out and found her, bought her, trained her, and took her to the snaffle bit—and everything worked out kind of like a fairytale,” reflects Dawson. “That’s what you have to do. You can’t count on someone to send you that great horse because if you haven’t gone out and won, they probably aren’t going to. They’re going to send their horses to someone who’s winning.”

No question, it can be difficult for anyone to break into the professional ranks in the horse training world. Riders must pay their dues in the saddle, perhaps starting as a groom to a colt breaker, then advancing to assistant trainer and even co-head trainer before hanging out their own shingle.

“You come as someone new, and you have to prove you’re not a one-hit wonder and that you’re going to stick around and be somebody—that’s when everyone is cool with you,” says McNutt. “I don’t think that’s ever going to change because that’s just competition, whether you’re a guy or a woman.”

The notion of a glass ceiling in the Western performance horse industry can be debated back and forth, but Taormino believes the perception of a ceiling is most likely due at least in part to the fact that there are fewer women in the professional ranks—
because of their own personal choice.

McNutt admits that although it can be hard to be the only woman in the warm-up pen at a futurity, it does create a need for her to have that something different…that something special.

“You’ve got to be OK with yourself, and you’ve got to dig deep,” she advises. “Women are a tough breed—we have to manage a lot of stuff that men sometimes don’t think about. And there’s something in our chemistry—we just don’t have a thick skin. Sure, we’d like to think we do, but we don’t.”

Advice for the Next Generation

Collier and Anderson both agree that a thick skin and a headstrong attitude are what helped propel them through the starting point and push them on to their status as Hall-of-Famers.

“Just keep pressing on and keep learning, keep going out and asking advice,” says Collier. “It’s a lot different now these days, too, because information is so available. Back then, there really weren’t clinics and DVDs. What helped me the most was that I’m a student of the horse—I studied at the horse shows. I’d sit at the practice pen and watch guys I thought were great plus guys I thought weren’t so great, trying to figure out what it was I didn’t like about what they were doing.”

Even if you didn’t grow up on a ranch or necessarily on the back of a horse, you can still become a successful trainer, says Anderson. “But you have to be driven to do this—as I was,” she continues. “I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but from the first time I saw the Snaffle Bit Futurity, that’s what I was going to do. If you’re driven to do it, do it. But know there’s a whole lot of work that goes into it.”

Gollehon concurs, plus urges young women trainers to be honest, have integrity, and learn how to deal with their customers. “It’s not just about horses,” she explains. “You’ve got to be able to work with people, too.”

She also believes it’s important to model yourself after the top horsemen. “Don’t train under someone just because they’re nearby,” she says. “Go and learn from the best.” ↔

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