Close Up: Bad-Boy John Hoyt

The stories about this horseman are legion. Here’s his true tale, first published in the December 1997 issue of Horse&Rider. (The NRHA Hall of Fame member died December 20, 2016.)

John Hoyt was featured as one of H&R’s 50 Great Riders (April 2011). 

The 11-year-old girl and her mother climb out of their car at the Arizona Horse Lover’s Club in Phoenix, not knowing what to expect. On the basis of a magazine article, the mother has taken her daughter to trainer John Hoyt for help with lead changes, driving from their Colorado home during a spring vacation. They know the trainer is good, but they’ve also heard he’s “scary”whatever that means. And now he’s eyeing them intently.

“Are those new spurs?” he asks, referring to the clip-ons the girl is wearing on her black, high-top boots. “Why, yes, Mr. Hoyt, they are,” says the girl, pleased that he’s noticed. Clip-ons are all the rage in 1969, and hers are a recent Christmas gift. “Lemme see ’em,” he says. Off they come with a “ping” and the girl hands them to the trainer. He holds them in both hands, as if they were wishbones, and with one quick, sure motion, snaps them in two.

“Now, go get yourself some spurs,” he says, watching silently as they slip back into their car, stunned, and drive away.

Holly Hover’s introduction to the trainer is a typical “John Hoyt story.” It describes a man who’s unapologetically honest and blunt to the point of rudeness. Still, Hover went on to develop a long-term association with the horseman, and is now a Quarter Horse trainer herself. Today, she speaks with great fondness of “that bad-boy John Hoyt.” Like all who know him well, she realizes that his crusty surface hides a soft core. The growling grizzly, it seems, has the heart of a teddy bear.

“I’ve been called everything from a cupcake to a demon,” acknowledges the 68-year-old horseman, who now resides in Lone Oak, Texas. “Bout anything you write would be the truth.”

Well, not exactly. Still, his is a long and colorful past, one that’s shaped his character and forged the larger-than-life persona that all but obscures the real person.

We’re going to take you behind the stories to find the real John Hoyt—the lifelong horseman, legendary competitor, and ongoing inspiration to countless others. We’ll give you a close look at the trainer who’s qualified for more than 20 American Quarter Horse Association World Shows in a row, produced scores of world and all-around champions, and consistently gotten more out of ordinary horses than many could get out of superstars.

We’ll also examine the inner resources that make him the kind of legend that can ride right out of the history books and beat you, even today.

Along the way, of course, we’ll share a few more tales, because you can’t tell the story of John Hoyt without telling a few John Hoyt stories.

It’s the early ’70s. At the Pomona Quarter Horse Show in Southern California, January rains have turned the show and practice pens into a sea of mud. Riders mill about, trying to decide whether to “go for it” in their reining and Western riding classes. “Are you gonna run?” they ask one another in tentative tones. Then the practice pen gate opens and John Hoyt rides in. With a word to no one, he gallops to the end of the arena and slides, spewing slop like an equine water-skier. Suddenly, everyone is sliding and spinning, turning the arena into a Mixmaster of brown goo.

“John is sure of himself, no doubt about it,” says Grace Hoyt, John’s wife of 20 years and herself an accomplished horsewoman. “He has a rock-solid confidence, an approval that comes from within. It’s his most remarkable quality.”

Trainer Jim Paul, who ran with John in the early days and shared many hard-partying Wild-Westcapades with him, agrees. “John would look you in the eye and say he could do better than you could—in any event,” says Paul. “He was afraid of nothing, and would fight anyone if push came to shove, even in a bar.”

Hoyt is offhand about his derring-do. “If you think you can do something, and then you do, then you know you can do it,” he says simply. Debbie Cooper, who trained with Jim Paul as a youth and has known John for over 30 years, says this chutzpah gives John an ease around others that few people share. “He just doesn’t care who you are, so he’s never uncomfortable or intimidated,” she says. “He could attend the President’s Ball at the White House, and he’d just be John.” And if that meant telling the president a thing or two?

“One thing’s for sure, you don’t want to be around him if you don’t want to hear the truth,” says Quarter Horse trainer Steve Archer. “A lot of people tell you nice things to your face, then talk behind your back. Not him. If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll say so.”

“I’ve never been a politician,” Hoyt admits. “I just do and say what I think is right.”

Reiner Al Dunning, who apprenticed with Hoyt in the early ’70s, appreciates the loyalty that keeps Hoyt from standing by while a friend is badmouthed. “He gets in the face of whoever’s doing the talking,” says Dunning. That brand of forthrightness, along with the older trainer’s equine expertise, is what inspired Dunning to become a horse trainer. “I’d have taken a different vocation if John hadn’t crossed my path,” he says.

A Genuine Hand
As legendary as his bluntness and confidence is Hoyt’s ability to get the most out of any horse he rides. “He’s the John Wayne of the horse-training business, he backs away from nothing,” says bitmaker Greg Darnell, who apprenticed with the trainer and is by all accounts like a son to him. “Today we raise and ride wonderful horses that are specifically bred to do what we want. In his heyday, John rode a lot of horses that no one else would ride, and made them great,” says Darnell, naming as an example All Dun, a plain-looking, average mover whom Hoyt trained and rode to several national championships.

According to Hoyt, there was a practical reason he managed to make ordinary horses shine. “In those days, when someone brought you a horse, they loved that horse, and it might be the only one they had,” he explains. “You had to get something out of it. Nowadays, people just sell the horse and get another one. Another thing: I did a lot of different events, including roping, so it gave me more avenues to take a horse down. Nowadays, people specialize.”

True enough, but there’s something to be said for a trainer so intent on his work that even today, he’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem, and head right out to barn to see if it’ll work.

And, as Dunning notes, “John was ‘whispering’ to horses before that even had a name. He could feel a horse better than anyone, and he knew what it was thinking. Once I asked him what he thought of a 2-year-old I was really proud of. He said, ‘He’d be really good if I was riding him.’ When I asked what he meant, he told me I didn’t have a good feel of the horse’s mouth or sides. ‘You need to know where each leg is without thinking about it,’ he said.

“Years later, when I was training professionally in my own arena, I was riding a Western riding horse and suddenly realized I could finally do what he’d been talking about. So that’s it, I thought, and felt a little chill.”

Mad About Horses
John Hoyt was born April 14, 1929, in Arcadia, California, just north of Los Angeles. His father died when he was 3, and his mother, the cook at a private school, worked hard to provide for John and his five older siblings. The self-professed “black sheep of the family” says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t crazy about horses.

“I’d crawl up on a fence or onto a manger to get up on a horse,” he recalls. “It was such a strong desire in me.” Later, when he was old enough, he’d take off and be gone for days at a time. “Being a strong-minded kid without a father, all I ever did was exactly what I wanted to do?and that was to be with horses,” he says.

In some ways, the horses helped keep him out of trouble. “I had friends who wound up in juvenile hall for stealing gas and tires, while I was out riding. I did steal some rides from horses I’d catch in their pastures,” he admits, adding that he sometimes got thrown off or run over in the process.

By the time Hoyt was 8, racehorse owner Guy Corpe was paying him to do menial chores, raking corals, cleaning up manure, leading horses to water. “He helped me get a Social Security number,” John recalls. Corpe’s son-in-law, Don “Pooch” Lieber, remembers the time well.

“Johnny was a good boy and a good hand. He was honest, and you could always depend on him,” says Lieber. “I taught him how to ride, then got him started in match racing. He was 13 or 14 by then, but didn’t weigh more than 100 pounds.”

In the meantime, his schoolteachers found him difficult. “I grew up too quick, maybe,” Hoyt says now. “I may have been a smartass.” One day during his freshmen year in high school, after he’d spent a long weekend at a race meet in King City, California, his teacher refused to believe he’d been “working.” Young John boasted that he was earning more money than his teacher was, pulling $200 in cash out of his pocket to back up his words. Then he left school and never went back.

When he grew too big to continue as a match-race jockey, he joined his friend Dick Doyle in rodeoing, where he could keep earning good money in the roughstock events, calf roping, and wild cow milking. His forte was still racing, though, and there were various forms of it in rodeo, including chariot races, relay races, and the Roman riding race, where each “jockey” stands on the back of two horses (one foot on each).

Hoyt heard of a job in Dragoon, Arizona, as a racehorse trainer for Rose Fulton, who owned one of the most successful Quarter Horse operations of the time. “I really wanted to stick around in California and practice my calf roping,” he says. “But then I heard it was also a working ranch, and I’d be able to rope all I wanted. Plus, Mrs. Fulton had only one racehorse to train. So I went.”

Friends and Family

The move proved pivotal for the young horseman. At 19, he was possibly the youngest licensed Quarter Horse race trainer in the country, running his one mount, Zantorena, at Tucson’s renowned Rillito Park.

“The best she ever did was second,” Hoyt recalls, but it didn’t matter. He’d impressed the ranch foreman with his riding skills, and the Fulton Ranch was shifting its focus to show horses. Hoyt soon became the outfit’s show-horse trainer.

In 1956, he rode Canyon Tony to the first all-around championship in Arizona, beginning a remarkable string of wins that established his name nationwide as a trainer of performance horses. Also in ’56, he married Jane Williams; the couple’s daughter, Betsy, was born the following year. In 1958, the new family moved to Phoenix, where John leased a boarding stable, the Arizona Horse Lover’s Club, and began training for the public.

Over the next two decades, as Hoyt expanded his family (with sons Tim, John Junior, and Frank) and his reputation as a trainer, he lived by what later wife Grace calls “the Code of the West.”

“You may drink and party half the night, but you still get up and go to work the next day,” she explains. The formula took its toll on his personal life, as it did for many of the trainers of the day.

Then, in 1974, Jane was killed in an automobile accident. After a brief and unsuccessful rebound marriage, John met Grace Harris in 1976. “God sent Grace to John, no question of that,” says Hover emphatically. The two married in ’77, and Grace helped her husband through another loss, the suicide of his oldest son, Tim, in the early 1980s.

“There’s nobody living without regrets,” says Hoyt resolutely about his past. “But you have to move on, and just try not to travel down the same roads again.”

The trainer’s resilience in the face of personal tragedy has had an impact on those around him. “He taught me how to struggle through life’s ups and downs,” says reiner Randy Paul, Jim Paul’s son and Tim Hoyt’s good friend. “You just keep going.” And, the elder Hoyt would add, do what you can to help others along the way, especially the young.

A 14-year-old girl is getting a last-minute coaching from her trainer before a stock-seat medal class, and things aren’t going well. Frustrated that his pupil isn’t responding as he’d like, the trainer yells at the girl in the crowded warm-up pen. Embarrassed and unnerved, the girl is close to tears when John Hoyt rides up, tells the trainer to get out of the way, and takes over the prep session. He calms the girl, restores her confidence, and prepares her for her classin which she’ll compete against and beat Hoyt’s own students.

“I’d been petrified of him before that,” says Debbie Cooper today, “but after he helped me, I knew he wasn’t the mean, gruff guy that he seemed on the surface.”

Hoyt’s penchant for helping youngsters began early. As a preteen, “he’d ride my 3-year-old daughter’s pony up to the house and help her learn to ride,” recalls Pooch Lieber.

“You could always count on him for unconditional support, even when you screwed up,” says Hoyt’s former student, Becky Dunning. Randy Paul concurs. “He was the kind of guy you wanted to grow up to be like.” Greg Darnell claims Hoyt “kept me from having to go to a foster home.” Grace praises her husband’s raising of her daughter, Justine, whom the trainer imbued with confidence. By some estimates, most of the youngsters riding in Arizona in the ’60s and ’70s were aided by Hoyt in one way or another.

And it’s the same today. Says Archer, “If our youth kids get wind of a visit, they’ll pester us, ‘Is John coming, is John coming?'”

Looking Ahead
At the barn in Lone Oak that Hoyt leases from his business partner, Robert Caruth, the trainer leads a handsome 3-year-old filly out of her stall and ties her for grooming. He runs a brush over her rich red coat, then attacks her tail with a hairbrush. Tacked up and mounted, the filly carries him out to the arena, stepping obediently though the gates like a trail horse. Hoyt warms her up, then treats his guests to a series of soft, pretty sliding stops, using no rein at all. Afterward he learns over and rubs his horse’s neck.

“I just love this little mare,” he says, voice heavy with emotion. “Her mama was one of the sweetest horses I ever rode, and this mare’s just as sweet.” The filly is Ladys Boomernic, by National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion Boomernic and out of Lady Kiper. She shows evidence of much patient training.

“Most people only see what they think is a rough side of his training,” says Grace of her husband’s methods. “But what has always struck me is his gentle side. No one breaks colts better, or gives them more confidence.”

Holly Hover speaks of a sort of golden rule for horses she learned from Hoyt: “He told me, ‘You work all day, then go home and shower, have dinner, and go to your soft bed. Your horse deserves his comforts, too.'”

Ladys Boomernic is Hoyt’s NRHA futurity hopeful, and he’s excited about her prospects. Then again, he’s always excited about the future. “There are more good horses now, better horsemanship, riding conditions, equipment, everything,” he says. “I don’t think ‘the good old days’ were better. I always think everything I’m going to do will be the best. Besides,” he adds, “there’s nothing worse than a past champion telling you how great he was.”

An American steps into a bar near Frankfurt, Germany. He’s come looking for a friend who got lost and called him from this bar. He walks in on a curious scene. There, in the midst of beer-drinking Germans, sits his friend, John Hoyt, laughing and carrying on. The Germans don’t speak English. Hoyt doesn’t speak German. No one seems to notice.

It wasn’t a European vacation; Hoyt was in Germany training or judging or conducting one of many clinics. He doesn’t take many genuine vacations, but if you ask him about it, he says without thinking that he’s on vacation all the time. Archer swears a dealer in Las Vegas once observed of Hoyt, “Man, this guy looks like he could have fun anywhere.” He can and he does. But he’s also an incredible worker.

“I wish I could go as hard as he does,” says Archer. “He can still drive all night to a show, then ride all day the next day.”

That stamina is inborn, for he’s no health or fitness freak (“That’s my wife,” he says). He did, however, let Grace talk him into quitting smoking and dipping 10 years ago. “He stopped cold turkey, after doing both—often at the same time—for 40 years,” she says.

He doesn’t worry too much about it, though. He doesn’t worry, period. “Life’s too damn short,” he says. In an odd way, notes Grace, losing his father so early may have contributed to his mental toughness. “It didn’t make him bitter; it made him stronger,” she says. “He’s helped me to be stronger, too; to give up the need to know in advance how everything’s going to be.”

And, although the proliferation of John Hoyt stories sometimes exasperates him, he’s philosophical about it. “It’s when they stop talking about you that you have to worry,” he says. “Besides, if I’d done all the things people say I’ve done, I’d have to be 150 years old.”

And, anyway, for every story about “bad-boy John Hoyt,” there are two like this.

It’s July of 1997, and Randy Paul has just ridden Outa My Way Jose to win the NRHA Derby. John Hoyt enters the arena to congratulate him. “You looked just like Jim Paul on that last stop,” he says. “I’m so proud of you.” Then, teasing, he adds, “Don’t you wish your dad was here to see you?” Randy looks at him meaningfully. “Yeah. But you’ll do.”

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