The phone call left me reeling.
It was May of 2012, in the morning. My husband reached me on my cell, at work—I direct the equestrian center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. In a quiet voice, Matt told me that our son, Zinn, had been in a car accident on his way to school.
Somehow, the potential seriousness of the collision never entered my brain.
“Did you call the insurance company?” I asked.
A silence. And then, “He didn’t make it.”
At that moment, my world tipped, and I knew my life would never be the same. Those who’ve lost loved ones unexpectedly, especially parents who’ve lost children, will know what I mean.
Zinn had just turned 18 and was about to graduate from Aspermont High School, with plans for college. Three days before, he’d won the Ranch Horse Association of America’s junior world championship in Abilene, Texas, on Judys Ten—“Reno”—our then-6-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. In January of the same year, Zinn and Reno had won the non-pro division of the American Quarter Horse Association’s inaugural Ranching Heritage Challenge, held at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.
Zinn enjoyed those ranch horse contests, and he was good at them. (They involve a reining pattern, boxing a cow, working it both ways on the fence, then roping it.) My son and I shared that love of horses and competing. With his dad, Zinn loved to hunt and fish and work on the cattle and hunting ranch we managed. He was with either one or the other of us seemingly all the time.
I remember once thinking, when he was in grade school, You know, I don’t like this. The teachers get to spend more time with them than we do. Nothing meant more to my husband and me than that boy.
As a young adult, Zinn was tall and handsome, with dark hair and blue eyes. He was quiet, a yes, ma’am, no, ma’am sort of kid. A really good kid. He’d been our whole life, and now he was gone.
It was hard.
'Just Keep Going'
I went back to work the first of the following month. Being around all the Texas Tech kids was bittersweet, but it kept me busy, and busy was good. As time went on, I began thinking about what to do with Reno. He was too talented to let stand around.
My friend Kris Wilson and I had partnered on him in the beginning. We’d gone to the Caprock Ranchers’ Sale at Clarendon, Texas, in July of 2008. We missed the sale-horse demonstration, so we didn’t know Reno had pitched a little fit in the arena. When we first spotted him, he was tied to the fence—a big, stout 2-year-old, pretty and fat.
I told Kris, “That’s the kind that’ll make you famous, right there.” By Ten O Sea (Doc Bar and Doc O’Lena blood) and out of Crows Judy (Joe Hancock, Hollywood Gold), the gelding was a product of Bill and Dana Smith’s breeding program, which we knew and liked. When the time came, Kris started bidding on the handsome buckskin. The price kept going up and I kept saying yes. I just had it in my mind that this was going to be a good one. (His barn name, in fact, is testament to the fact that we figured he could hold his own among colts vying for the “big one”—the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, Nevada.)
We got him bought, then because Kris had other business for a while, we brought Reno home to the ranch with us. Ordinarily Kris would take the colts we buy and get them going, then the three of us—Kris, Zinn, and I—would take turns showing them.
Zinn, then 14, was the first to ride Reno after we brought him home. They worked a cow. In one direction Reno stopped the cow nicely, but in the other he ran off a little. Zinn started to get frustrated, but I told him, “No, don’t make it a big deal. Just keep going.” Reno was a green-broke 2-year-old, after all.
A short time later, Kris took the gelding for training, working him through that issue and getting him solid. He brought Reno back to show in the Caprock cow horse futurity in July—blowing everyone away in both rounds.
Kris went on to win a bunch on the gelding, including the Stock Horse of Texas Futurity in November. That’s a four-event contest involving cow work, reining, ranch trail, and ranch pleasure. Kris kept Reno until the gelding’s 4-year-old year in 2010. That May, we bought out Kris’ share in Reno and took him home. He became Zinn’s show horse.
Reno is what you’d call laid back. He thinks a lot about stopping. That means I rode him when we worked around the ranch, because Zinn didn’t like to have to keep pedaling. In the show pen, however, the two of them quickly clicked. Matt and I were so proud of the horseman Zinn was becoming—and of the character he was developing.
I remember the 2011 state 4-H competition in particular. In the reining, one judge gave Zinn and Reno a score, but the other marked them zero, saying the difference in the size of their circles wasn’t “enough.”
I asked my then-17-year-old son if he wanted to protest the no-score. He’d already won the state 4-H all-around championship three years in a row; all he had to do now was get any score in the reining to win it again.
“Is Quincy set to win the all-around?” he asked in response.
“Yes,” I told him. His friend Quincy was sitting second and would win if Zinn didn’t.
“Then let it go.”
By spring 2012, Zinn and Reno were blowing them away just about everywhere they went. The Western Heritage Classic’s Ranch Horse of America finals, that weekend before Zinn died, is the big deal for all the ranch cowboys in our area. After winning the junior horse division, Zinn and Reno were fixing to win the senior horse, too, when they just ran out of gas.
In their final run in the roping, Zinn missed both his loops. Man, I couldn’t believe that! Zinn lived to rope. We had a metal roping dummy at home, and he’d be out there with the porch light on, every single night, practicing as I made dinner. So these misses at such an important event caught me way off guard. Ordinarily I’d have been a little upset with him, but I thought, He’s only 18. He doesn’t need to win two championships in one day. He’s got his whole life.
But of course he didn’t.
Zinn would never win with Reno again, but I figured maybe I could. Maybe I could celebrate my son’s legacy that way, and in the process get closer to the horse that had won so much for my boy.
‘Yes, You Can!’
Competing on Reno, however, turned out to be trickier than I’d thought it would be. I always enjoyed riding Reno around the ranch, but I found preparing to show him a whole different deal. I had trouble with his stops and trouble with his lead changes. Zinn had made it look so easy. And I had taught Zinn to ride! Why couldn’t I ride his horse?
Trainer Don Murphy, a good friend and member of the NRCHA Hall of Fame, helped me. For starters, he explained that Reno is a little short-strided, which means he sort of throws himself at the ground in his rundowns to stops. I was making it worse by putting my hand forward and leaning forward a little, which just let him drop his head, slow down more, and get even rougher.
Don encouraged me to sit back, instead, and really ride Reno out in front of me all the way to the stop. That lengthened the gelding’s strides, which in turn noticeably improved the quality of his stops.
In our lead changes, Don explained how to keep Reno straight through the change, rather than letting him duck early onto the next circle. I’d square him up as we approached the change, then push his hip over a little (if we were changing to the left lead, that would mean nudging his hips to the left), and he started changing for me without dragging a lead behind.
In our work on a cow down the fence, Don coached me to keep Reno straight in his stops before turning, so he wouldn’t drop a shoulder. This in turn gave Reno and me a better shot at keeping the cow from bouncing off the fence after the turn.
In the end, it was a lot of small details, but the most important thing Don did was boost my confidence. I kept getting frustrated with myself, saying, “I can’t ride him the way Zinn could.” And Don would shoot back, “Yes, you can!”
‘Grit Up and Go’
Eventually, it all came together. At the Fort Worth Stock Show in January of last year, Reno and I qualified to compete in working cow horse at the AQHA’s 2013 Select World Show—the championship for amateur riders age 50 and over. Later, we also qualified in ranch pleasure at a Stock Horse of Texas show.
My friend Baru Spiller had gone to the Select World the year before and raved about how much fun it was, urging me to go as well. As it happened, Baru’s horse got injured in 2013, so my friend wasn’t able to go. But by then, determined, I went anyway, taking my mom, Norma Belcher, with me instead.
At the show, I worked to stay focused on the task at hand. My goal was to be clean in the preliminaries, with no mistakes in the reining, such as under- or over-spinning. Nelle Murphy, Don’s daughter and a talented horsewoman in her own right, was there and we talked about the cattle. She helped keep my confidence up, staying at the boxing end of the arena to help coach me on when to go down the fence. Reno is so cowy, and he tries his heart out for you every time—I just wanted to stay out of his way.
Don’t make it hard, I kept telling myself. Just make it to the top 15. It’s what I used to tell Zinn, and it’s exactly what Reno and I did when our turn came.
Then, in the finals round, we were the last to go. This is it, I told myself. Just grit up, and go do it.
I prayed to God to let Zinn ride with me, and that’s exactly how it felt. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. It was as if I didn’t have to think…I knew my reining pattern, and in the cow work I drew a Charolais and it didn’t even matter. It’s funny how things work when they work well—nothing seems hard. It was a thrilling run and probably the best I’ve put together so far.
Winning that championship was incredible, but then we came “this close” to winning the ranch pleasure championship, too. Reno and I tied with a dear family friend, Thomas Hicks, on his good gelding Greyt Socks. We both had to ride the pattern again—crossing logs, sidepassing one, changing pace within gaits, executing a lead change.
After we’d finished, they delayed announcing the winner, making it more dramatic. Thomas and I held hands on horseback and loped up together to receive our prizes, and it didn’t bother me a bit when he won.
Reno and I aren’t done yet. This month we’re showing at the NRCHA World Show in Fort Worth. Next month we’re headed to the AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships in Houston, where the contest includes five components: rail work, trail, cutting, working cow horse, and conformation.
Showing Reno is a tonic for me. It celebrates my son’s legacy, and keeps all my favorite memories of him close at hand. Winning is great fun, too, but I’d give it all up in a heartbeat to have my son back.
That’s not how things work, however. So I’m doing what I can to go on with my life—knowing Zinn is always there, riding with me.