(NOTE: The text of this profile originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Horse&Rider. Named to the NRCHA Hall of Fame in 2008, Guitron died December 18, 2016.)
It’s the late 1950s. The highlight of the Southern California horse show season is the big open event at Indio, where top horsemen of all disciplines gather to strut their stuff. A young boy sits on a tack trunk in the barn aisle, wide-eyed. Riding toward him is a cowboy of a different stripe, more workmanlike than the typical So-Cal horse trainer. Wearing a Wrangler denim jacket and carrying a nylon rope instead of a leather riata, he looks all business. He nods a quick hello to the boy.
“Mister,” the boy calls out, “can your horse spin?”
The cowboy shifts his weight imperceptibly, barely lifts his hackamore reins, and the horse spins flawlessly, first one way, then the other. The cowboy tips his hat and rides on.
“From that moment,” recalls Benny Guitron, “he was my role model.” The cowboy was Tony Amaral Sr., the late, legendary horseman of the California vaquero tradition. His Old World style shaped not only young Guitron’s horsemanship, but also his outlook on life. As a result, Guitron is one of the most well-liked and respected horsemen in the country. And, as fellow trainer and cow horse futurity ace Ted Robinson puts it, “Benny’s one of the most interesting people in the world to sit and talk horses with.”
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Fire in the Belly
Born 50 years ago in Glendale, California, Guitron was the fifth of six children, youngest of the three boys. His father, Felix Guitron Sr., had emigrated from Mexico, working and saving his money until he could afford to buy land of his own in the then-rural community of Indio.
“He made his living farming, but he was a horse enthusiast at heart, “ Guitron recalls. “He was into match racing, and he bought Lot #1 at the very first recognized Quarter Horse sale, sometime in the ’40s.” The senior Guitron also designed bits and spurs as a hobby, which gave him an excuse to go to horse shows. Benny and his late brother, Felix Jr., began showing on the open Western circuit, where they had plenty of opportunity to see the top trainers of the day, many of whom, including Amaral, knew their dad personally.
“Benny grew up around some awful good horsemen,” observes performance horse trainer and three-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity champion Bobby Ingersoll. Guitron trained out of Ingersoll’s Pleasant Grove, California, facility for a while in the ’60s. “Jimmy Williams, Harold Farren, Red Neal, Don Dodge, Tony Amaral. Benny always liked their image, and he decided that when he was old enough, he was going to do it their way.”
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Guitron wasted no time getting started, either. “My dad used to dread the Indio show,” he reveals, “because every year right afterwards I’d come home and ruin a horse trying to do the things I saw those guys do.”
His desire was almost a palpable thing, then and later. “I met Benny when he was just a teenager,” says Les Vogt, a world champion in both reining and working cow horse. “He was an earnest, anxious kid with dreams in his eyes. He’d tell you all about the horse he had at home, and you weren’t really sure how much was real and how much was dreaming.”
When Guitron’s father passed away in 1968, his desire to become a professional horseman crystallized. He called his idol, Amaral, and asked for a job. “I wanted to be like Tony and the other horsemen in Northern California, where the emphasis was on ranching and cattle work,” Guitron says. “I wanted to be a cowboy.” And a well-rounded cowboy at that, the kind who knows a horse inside and out, and understands every aspect of the horse business. Though he may not have fully understood it at the time, young Benny wanted to become not just a showman, but a horseman.
In the year or so he spent with Amaral, first in Moraga, California, and later at the horseman’s own ranch in nearby Byron, Guitron learned all about the traditional Spanish vaquero method of starting a horse. That time-honored program starts with a snaffle bit, proceeds through a hackamore and a shank-bit-and-bosal combination, finally graduating years later to a full spade bit. Guitron was an apt pupil of this method, especially when it came to using the bitless equipment.
“He’s really good with a hackamore, which is becoming a lost art,” observes top all-around trainer Bob Avila, who showed on the open circuit with Guitron and worked at Amaral’s at about the same time Guitron did. Today, more than three dozen well-used hackamores and bosals hang on a circular rack in the tack room of Guitron’s Merced, California, training facility.
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From the Old School
A true horseman knows bloodlines, and Guitron absorbed a fascination with pedigrees and heritage from Amaral and his own father. “Benny’s a walking encyclopedia on Quarter Horse history,” says Vogt. “It’s a passion with him.”
“It’s like the stock market,” Guitron explains. “If you’re advising someone to invest their money in a young prospect or a stud fee, you need to be able to tell them which lines perform well in which areas.”
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Other values Guitron learned from his dad and from Amaral include honesty, trustworthiness, and loyalty. “Your handshake is your bond,” he says simply, and those who know him are quick to confirm that in Guitron’s case, it’s true.
“When you do business with him, it’s always a straight-up deal,” says performance horse trainer Tommy Sondgroth, the best man at Guitron’s 1974 wedding. “He’s not afraid to tell you the negatives of something as well as the positives. And he genuinely cares about people. He’s been a really good friend to me.”
Indeed, friendships are something Guitron regards almost as sacred. “I cherish them,” he says. “You can have all the money in the world, but when you die, if there aren’t a couple of guys sharing a drink and reminiscing about how you were good to have around….”
By the same token, a broken friendship is something Guitron finds difficult to set aside. “Nothing makes me madder than when someone I classify as a real friend betrays me,” he says. Friends confirm this trait, as well.
“It’s hard for him to understand when people don’t have the same high standards he does,” explains Vogt. And, adds trainer Rod Wiemers, who also apprenticed under Amaral, “if you cross him, you’ve pretty much crossed him for life. He’s going to remember it.”
Hard work, self-motivation, and stick-to-itiveness are Guitron’s other identifying marks. “He’s dedicated,” observes Robinson, himself no stranger to the grindstone. “A lot of guys get tired at his age. Ben is still building.” And he doesn’t let anything hold him back.
“If a door cracks open, I’m kicking it down,” says Guitron. “Can’t doesn’t exist in the English language, as far as I’m concerned.”
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Off and Running
Someone who noticed that determination early on was Margaret Reese, Guitron’s first client.
“She had enough faith in my ability to send me my first horse to train for pay,” he recalls. That was Bar Etch; the pair missed the finals of the 1971 Snaffle Bit Futurity by just 1½ points. “The horse went on to win a lot, even beating the best-known cow horse of the era, Royal Cutter, one year at the California State Fair. That eventually led to my getting Kit’s Smoke, and that’s when the ball really started rolling.”
And how. With the gutsy Mr. Gun Smoke daughter, the fledgling trainer took the 1976 Snaffle Bit Futurity by an impressive 4½ points—the largest winning margin recorded in the event at the time. “You could see the look in his eye that year—he was gonna win it,” recalls Vogt, who had run into Guitron at a hamburger joint on the way to the event’s Reno, Nevada, venue. “It’s the most intense I’ve ever seen him.”
Guitron remembers the encounter as well. “Les said, ‘Whaddya think, cowboy?’ I told him I thought I had a shot at making the finals. I said my mare was probably the best horse I’d ever ridden, and if I got any buckle at all, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.”
He was happy, all right, with the champion’s buckle and a host of other prizes. He continued showing on the active NRCHA circuit, where his skill as a reinsman and all-around cowboy earned him the respect of a hard-riding group. Fondly nicknamed “Burrito” by Johnny Brazil, Guitron was widely known for his affability as well as his riding and training skills.
In 1979, at a Quarter Horse show in Clovis, California, Guitron met an individual who was to change the course of his personal and professional lives. At the time, he was the divorced father of two sons. Paula Diuri was a petite, highly motivated trainer on the circuit; she and Guitron hit it off immediately. Under Diuri’s influence, Guitron returned to Quarter Horse competition in a big way.
“She encouraged me, and she has a tremendous amount of drive,” he says. “She’s also been my toughest critic, and although criticism is hard for me to take, it does cause me to think—and to try to do better on down the road. I owe a lot of my success in the Quarter Horse world to Paula.”
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Traditional Ways, Modern Results
They’ve been together ever since. Today Diuri designs and markets top-of-the-line show apparel from their 11-acre Guitron Ranch, where her life partner stays busy working with horses in training—35 to 45 at any given time. Guitron also buys and sells or brokers a number of horses each year, and stands two stallions, Doctor’s Kit (by Dry Doc and out of Kit’s Smoke) and A Little Shady Jack (by Hollywood Jac 86).
Guitron’s horses compete in the open, amateur, and youth divisions of disciplines ranging from reining and pleasure to cattle events and roping. “Bring him a horse, and he’ll make something out of it,” quips Robinson. “He’s one of the most versatile trainers I know these days.” Pleasure horse trainer Vicki Cooper concurs. “He has more depth in training methods than most people will have in a lifetime,” she says. “When I have a problem with a horse, he’s the first person I call—and he won’t have just one idea on how to deal with it. He’ll have 10.”
Though Guitron stays current with the latest training approaches, he doesn’t rely on newfangled techniques. “He uses traditional methods to get modern-day results,” observes Vogt. A foundation of those methods is to go slowly.
“He can discipline a horse if that’s what’s needed,” says Jan Hoskin, who apprenticed under Guitron for six years and now works for trainer Steve Metcalf, “but he also gives a horse the time and space necessary to absorb what he’s teaching.”
“I treat every horse as an individual,” explains the trainer. “Each horse has his own personality, just like people. You have to allow for that.”
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Though Guitron is a big man, he has a poise in the saddle that belies his size. “Any mount seems to belong under him,” says Hoskin. “He once showed a light-boned, 14.1-hand son of Doc O’Lena, and the horse moved beautifully. Benny’s at home on a horse, with immaculately light hands and perfect balance.”
Robinson recalls one time in particular when that balance was put to the acid test. Guitron was showing at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Maturity in Reno, and his girth billet broke in the reined work. “He just went on as if nothing had happened, and spun both ways,” Robinson says, wonderingly. “It was incredible.”
Guitron’s skill as a rider is even more impressive in light of the fact that he has, according to Hoskin, “no other athletic abilities to speak of—running or sports or the like. On the other hand,” she adds, “he can really dance. He has so much rhythm, and can keep time to any kind of music.” Those who witnessed his John Belushi imitation in a Blues Brothers skit with Steve Metcalf at the Sun Circuit in Arizona a few years ago can vouch for that rhythm—and for his love of a good time.
All the Fine Points
A true horseman has an eye for a horse, and in this regard Guitron is unsurpassed. “He can tell immediately if a horse will be good, regardless of its physical conditioning or previous training,” asserts Wiemers. “Who would you give $50,000 to invest in horses for you? Benny.”
“He certainly has the personality to buy and sell horses,” adds Avila. “He’s like the Energizer Bunny—always thinking, always selling.” This is true at least in part because he enjoys it so much.
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“You want to make Benny high?” says Diuri bluntly. “Trade horses with him.”
Once Guitron acquires a new mount for himself or a client, he determines where its greatest potential lies, then sets about developing that potential—from every angle.
“Benny can look at a horse on a longe line,” claims Hoskin, “and tell exactly how that horse should be shod to improve his movement—to take the excessive knee action out of a pleasure horse, say, or to straighten the slide of a reiner. It’s an intuitive thing.”
Moreover, Guitron knows success in the horse world depends partly on factors that don’t relate directly to horses. “You’ve gotta be a shrink for the owners, and a best friend to the kids,” he observes. “You also have to remember that you’re selling entertainment, too, so it’s got to be fun.”
Fun is an operative word at the Guitron Ranch, as his helpers will attest. “He likes things done his way and he expects you to be punctual and hard-working,” notes Hoskin, “but he makes it easy to be there, too. He’s got a smiley face, and he’s not afraid to pull a prank now and then.”
He’s also a great mentor. “He gave me every opportunity—good horses to ride, enough space to learn,” says Hoskin. “You couldn’t ask for someone better to work for.”
Which is not to say Guitron has no irritating quirks. “He’s pretty one-sided—he’s what you’d call a horseaholic,” reveals Diuri when pressed. “His idea of an outside hobby is collecting bits, and on a ‘day off’ he’ll go roping.
“He’s also hardheaded and set in his ways,” she adds. “It’s easy for him to say, ‘I am not doing this.’”
Regarding that bullheadedness, Avila recalls a certain Hawaiian vacation.
“Doug [Carpenter] and I and our wives had been going to Maui for several years, and we’d been bugging Benny to come with us,” he says. “Finally he did, but then he refused to go to the beach. ‘By God, I am not putting on shorts!’ he yelled at us. ‘You go. I’ll wait at the hotel.’ That lasted a day, then he gave in and asked Paula to go buy him some shorts. After that, he had a great time.”
Which is actually what the trainer has most of the time. “I enjoy what I do,” he says simply. “My dad taught all his kids there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work hard, and we’ve all done well. I’ve been blessed with a lot of great horses, and clients who’ve believed in me. Now I’m raising babies and seeing them win with other trainers—it’s like being a proud dad.”
He gets pleasure out of his real kids, too. “He’s been a good dad to his two sons, both of whom are in college now,” says Sondgroth. “He’s supported them all the way, and that counts for a lot in my book.”
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With few regrets, Guitron sees the world through an optimist’s rosy lens. “Everything happens for a reason,” he says. “If you learn, it’s not really a mistake. It’s a learning brick.”
Though business now couldn’t be better, like most trainers, he’s lived through some lean years. Still, he’s never questioned his choice of life’s work.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he says thoughtfully. “I’m in it for the love of the horse, and for the respect of my fellow horsemen. At one time, back when the Grand National at [San Francisco’s] Cow Palace was the event on the West Coast, I had only one goal. I wanted people to think, when they heard my spurs jingling down a corridor at Cow Palace, ‘There goes a darn good cowboy.’”
Benny, it’s a done deal.
Guitron said a key goal was to have other horsemen regard him as “a darn good cowboy.” He more than achieved that goal; in 2008, he was inducted into the NRCHA Hall of Fame.