Laurel Denton frowned. Her horse wasn’t stopping as well as he ordinarily did. In the warm-up pen that day, along with other competitors, was the trainer who typically won this working cow horse class. Laurel rode over to him and asked what he thought. He made a suggestion or two, then left for the main arena, where he laid down a reining pattern and fence run that earned cheers from the crowd—and a big score.
“Then it was her turn,” recalls Tom Kirastoulis, owner of Chocolate Chic N Nic, the horse Laurel was riding that day at the Arizona National Quarter Horse Show in Scottsdale. “She was nervous and went in with a ‘Well, we’ll see how it goes’ attitude. Then everything she and the horse did was like a dream, the run of a lifetime, and she came out with this huge smile. She beat that guy, too—plus everyone else in the class. It was incredible. I tell you, that woman can ride with anyone.”
And so she can. Laurel Denton, a modern-day cowgirl who still lives on the sprawling ranch she grew up on, has been competing successfully for 50 years. The life she shares with her husband, farrier and photographer Barry Denton, blends the best of traditional Western ways and contemporary competitive spirit. One of the industry’s most respected horsewomen, Laurel is a multi-carded judge and a longtime volunteer on American Quarter Horse Association committees. Those who know her best, though, speak of the passion she has for what she does, and her kindness to all people and animals, especially horses.
And that’s where our story begins.
‘I Want a Horse With Laurel’
Brinley Thomas grew up on a ranch not far from the famous Bar U Bar owned by Laurel’s parents, Sonny and Sissie Walker, in Yavapai County, Arizona (see “About the Bar U Bar”). Brinley went on to become a school principal, but longed to reconnect with horses in her retirement. A bad back kept her out of the saddle, but as a volunteer with the Arizona Quarter Horse Association’s 10-day Sun Circuit in Scottsdale in January of 2015, she found herself in a motorhome parked next to the warm-up ring.
“I watched a lot of trainers out the window of that motorhome, including Laurel,” she recalls, noting that not everything that happens in a warm-up pen is pleasing to see. “Then one night I had an ‘aha!’ realization: I’d love to have a horse with Laurel. She had all the qualities I was looking for—a lifetime of horse experience, superb riding skills, and unlimited patience and compassion for the horses she was riding. If someone was going to campaign a horse that I owned, I wanted it to be Laurel.”
Today Laurel calls Lenas Last Time, the horse she and Barry found for Brinley, “the greatest I’ve ever ridden. He can run a cow horse pattern and turn around and win a ranch riding class.” A finalist with trainer Corey Cushing in the open division of the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s 2012 Snaffle Bit Futurity, “Smithers” is the latest in a long string of successful show horses under Laurel’s guidance. Though now she specializes in cow horse, reining, and ranch riding events, she grew up doing it all, including halter, Western horsemanship and equitation, hunters, barrel racing, pole bending, you name it.
You might say she had the ideal old-school foundation.
“We called her the White Knight,” says world champion trainer Al Dunning, who as a young man in the 1950s rode with Arizona legend Jim Paul Sr. “Lolli—that’s what everyone called her—came and worked with us, and she was outstanding as a youth in both halter and all different performance events. Which is how you become a real horseman,” he adds.
But…White Knight? “Yes. She wore all white.”
Laurel confirms this. “My first big-time show horse, the gelding Irish Buzz, had roan in his flanks and high white on his legs. Some judges back then didn’t like all that white, so we tried to come up with an equitation suit for me that would complement him. My mother chose white. And I mean everything was white—halter, hat, boots. A shortcut was a can of spray paint instead of leather dye. My mother knew all the tricks.”
Laurel says Jim Paul, who was inducted into the NRCHA’s Hall of Fame in 2007, “opened up a whole new world for me in the foundation of my knowledge.” Other important influences included the iconic John Hoyt, Tony Amaral, and Don Dodge. Still, Laurel says her most important teachers were her parents, “both of whom were horsemen and cattlemen.”
Today, she adds, “my mentor is my husband. He’s my best friend and biggest fan.”
True enough, but it wasn’t always that way.
“We didn’t like each other,” Barry Denton says flatly, recalling the day he and Laurel met. Summoned to the Bar U Bar in 1991 to consult on hoof-crack problems, he found himself rolling his eyes. “Laurel asked what I thought about the horse in question, and I said, ‘You’re supposed to be the most famous horsewoman in Arizona, and you had to call me in?’” Barry fixed the hoof issue and went on to handle others over the next four or five years, “but we still just barely tolerated each other,” he adds, only half joking.
At one point, Laurel’s mom started coming out when he arrived instead of Laurel, and one day she asked why the farriery cost less when she handled it than when Laurel did.
“Because I charge according to attitude, and Laurel aggravates me,” he told her. Finally, he asked Laurel out to dinner just to see what she was really like. And, he adds, “once we got talking seriously, we found it was pretty easy to be around each other.”
Laurel says this is true. “At the end of the dinner, neither of us was done talking, sharing,” she says thoughtfully. “We were both on an emotional high for being able to share so many things we both were passionate about.”
They’ve now been married 20 years, a period Barry calls “our blessed and goofy life.” He appreciates that she’s as hard-working and fun-loving as he is, yet every inch a lady.
“She can be doing ranch chores and covered in mud or manure, but if we have to go somewhere that night, she’ll be the most beautiful girl in the room,” he says, adding she’s also a fantastic cook. “We have our main meal at lunch—chicken or beef or pork, with potatoes, vegetables, a salad, dessert, the works.”
Laurel says she learned how to balance work and “real” cooking by watching her mother, who prepared meals for an entire roundup crew—cowboys, cattle-truck drivers—all while working herself.
“I prep the day before,” Laurel explains, “so when I come in at noon, everything’s ready and I just throw it on the grill.”
The couple vacations each year at the National Finals Rodeo, and even daily life is the stuff of a horse lover’s dream, a combination of real working cattle ranch and a horse-show training operation.
And Laurel is definitely in it to win.
On the Cutting Edge
“She’s constantly learning,” observes Al Dunning. “When I’m around her, she wants to do reined cow horse stuff and learn more about cutting. She’s a sponge, soaking everything up, with such a good attitude. I saw her the other day at a show—her horses are always well-cared-for, and she’s right in there with the men on, say, a down-the-fence challenge.”
Corey Cushing, an NRCHA million-dollar rider, says Laurel pays attention to trends. “She’s smart in noticing how styles change. There are all sorts of ways to go through a pattern or do a maneuver, and she’s always looking for the better way. She really brings out the best in each horse. My hat’s off to her.”
Laurel admits she does work at staying up to date. “Barry’s and my philosophy is that as you get older, you have to stay current and rub elbows with young people, or else you can lose your zest for life. Young people are the future—you must embrace their learning and level of competition. This doesn’t mean I’ll abandon my deep-seated horsemanship values or how I think a horse should be housed and handled and treated. But you have to put yourself out there to learn the latest, otherwise the world will pass you by.”
She’s adept not only at learning but at sharing her knowledge, too.
“She doesn’t just teach or show you,” says Tom Kirastoulis. “She explains the why behind what you’re doing, something a lot of trainers don’t do. She teaches from A to Z—the basics, then the advanced. It’s like a science for her—why you have his head this way, why he steps that way. I could teach someone right now based on what I’ve learned from her over the last dozen years.”
Laurel’s precision extends to her efforts as a judge, as well.
“She wants to do the best possible job in the judge’s box, which is something I also care greatly about,” says world champion trainer Bob Avila. “She’s called me up and grilled me on certain questions. She wants to get it right, and it’s not just about the paycheck.”
The Person She Is
In 2009, Laurel received AQHA’s Merle Wood Humanitarian Award, which recognizes “meritorious kindness and benevolence” in providing opportunities for young people to be involved with the Quarter Horse. The Bar U Bar has hosted a number of young people, who spend a summer learning about a working ranch. The ranch’s first guest was a girl Laurel and Barry met in Scotland 20 years ago; today she’s a veterinarian.
“It’s not about the horses, per se,” Laurel explains. “Being on a ranch teaches a young person how to work, how to be responsible, and how to become self-sufficient—all the things you need to succeed in life. Each of these youngsters leaves a mark on our lives, and we hope the experience leaves a positive mark on them, too.”
Laurel definitely leaves positive marks on her customers, who can’t seem to say enough about her.
“She’s a lovely person, with only kind words for everyone,” affirms Brinley Thomas. “She has respect for her horses, her clients, and herself. She’s poised and confident, but not at all cocky, and you’ll never see a know-it-all attitude.”
Tom Kirastoulis concurs, adding, “She’s as honest as the day is long. She won’t sell you a horse unless you’re right for that horse. And she wouldn’t ever alter tails, drug horses, any of that stuff.”
Even the horses seem to sense this essential core of goodness.
“One time, down at the Sun Circuit, Smithers was surrounded by a bunch of ladies—his fan club—and he was listening to them,” recalls Brinley. “Then Laurel stepped away, and immediately his ears went up and his eyes followed her until she was out of sight, then he was anxious, waiting for her to return. When she did, he whinnied, then finally relaxed again. I’ve seen that sort of bond between her and her other horses, too.”
“She’s self-actualizing,” sums up Al Dunning. “Laurel is the perfect example of someone who, throughout her life, continues to grow as a person, not just a horseperson.”
And, you might say, someone who sets a standard for living the Western horse life in the best possible way.