Talent, determination, and hard, hard work. It’s a well-known formula for success, but everyone applies it in his or her own way. Here, we share the approaches taken by six young horse trainers on the way up in various disciplines. Learn from their experiences, and find ideas to fuel your own riding or training dreams.
Rising star: Sarah Dawson, Aubrey, Texas. At last year’s National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, Sarah placed sixth in the open finals aboard syndicate-owned mare Wright On Hickory, earning the highest fencework score of the event. Including placings on other horses, her total 2016 futurity earnings topped $100,000. The year before, she jumped into the open-division finals for the first time, placing fifth on Shine Smarter, a mare owned by her parents, Richard and Cheryl Winters. The young trainer’s success is founded on solid basics from her father, a renowned natural horsemanship clinician, plus apprenticeships with some of the top professionals in the industry.
Challenge overcome: “Losing a lot more than I’ve won,” she says with a laugh. “You just have to keep pushing.” Before 2015’s Snaffle Bit Futurity, Shine Smarter wasn’t coming together the way she’d hoped. Discouraged, Sarah considered having her husband, fellow pro Chris Dawson, show the mare. But she kept the ride in the end, winning the event’s limited division and the intermediate reserve championship, earning $75,000 overall. “Competition plays with your mind, but you just have to keep moving forward,” she says.
Success strategies: Hard work is a given; Sarah describes her and her husband’s schedule as “24/7.” They also benefit by regularly riding with other pros. “We’ve got a big arena, and there’s always someone’s trailer in our parking lot. Or we load up our ponies and go to their place. We help each other improve, and it’s more fun than loping circles by yourself.” Related advice, which she says applies to young, would-be trainers in any discipline, is to put in serious time as an apprentice.
“Find the best and work for them, at their barn. Learn their training methods but also their horse and customer management. Don’t do it for a couple of months, but for years. And expect to work for next to nothing—it’ll pay off for you in the future.” Her own apprenticeships included a total of six years with pros like Jon Roeser, Doug Williamson, Carol Rose, Bill Smith, and Sandy Collier.
Key insight: “Treat every horse as an individual,” she says. “Avoid cookie-cutter approaches, because what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Horse training is more an art than a science—there’s no formula to plug in.”
An example of this is Dualin Tom Cat. “His head would come to his chest and he’d run on through the bridle. So I took the snaffle out of his mouth altogether and rode him in a loping hackamore so I could bump his head up if he got overbridled. He went on to win the [2016 Snaffle Bit Futurity] intermediate and about $70,000.”
Watch for: Cumulative wins. Sarah competes in the Road to the Horse colt-starting championship March 23–26 in Lexington, Kentucky, but her sights are set on the long game. “I’m not focused on any particular show but on becoming a million-dollar rider. That means you’ve had tremendous success on multiple horses, trained to the highest level. I’ve got a long way to go, but at least I have a goal!”
Learn more about Sarah at dawsonperformancehorses.com.
Rising star: Trevor Dare, Purcell, Oklahoma. Currently an associate trainer at Xtra Quarter Horses, Trevor won the 2016 American Quarter Horse Association junior reining with Xtra Black Magic, then ended up fourth in the level 4 open division at the 2016 National Reining Horse Association Futurity with Xtra New Pal Voodoo. He’s also brought home more than $336,000 in lifetime earnings. Trevor comes from a family of horse trainers. Both his dad, Rusty Dare, and uncle, Rocky Dare, are successful ranch riding and reining trainers, and as a youth Trevor won several All American Quarter Horse Congress titles in reining and an AQHYA reserve world championship in horsemanship. Before becoming a trainer, Trevor took advantage of NRHA’s apprenticeship program, spending a year riding with Todd Crawford.
Challenge overcome: Ups and downs. “I come from a horse-industry family, so I’ve seen how hard it is to be a trainer. My family actually advised me to finish college and focus on a career outside horses,” he says with a smile. But then Trevor found out about NRHA’s apprenticeship program, which gives non-pro riders the chance to explore becoming a professional without losing their non-pro eligibility. “By the end of my apprenticeship with Todd, I knew that even with all the difficulties that come with being in this industry, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
He adds that coming up short at a large competition is a challenge every trainer faces. “When that happens, I try not to think of it as a setback but rather a chance to go home and work on turning those negatives into positives before my next show. It gives me a concrete goal.”
Success strategies: Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed and who’ll be there for you. “I’ve been fortunate to have a great support team behind me,” he says, adding that riding under established trainers is another proven way to become a better rider. In addition to apprenticing with performance specialist Todd Crawford, Trevor has for the last four years benefited from Xtra head trainer Thiago Boechat’s advice and guidance, plus “the opportunity to ride and show some really great horses.”
Key insight: Never stop. As Trevor was preparing to leave home to begin his apprenticeship in Oklahoma, his dad offered him advice he still applies to this day. “He told me never to stop moving my feet, whether there was something specific to do or not—just keep my feet moving so I keep advancing as a horseman.”
Watch for: Constant improvement. “Like most reining trainers, I’d eventually like to win large events like the NRHA Derby, NRHA Futurity, and the National Reining Breeders Classic,” he admits. “But right now I just want to continue improving every time I step into the show pen. I want to make sure I’m the best horseman and trainer I can be.”
Learn more about Trevor at xtraquarterhorses.com.
Rising star: Madison Shambaugh, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Telluride, Colorado. A lifelong horse lover, Madison found inspiration in the work of Stacy Westfall, Guy McLean, and other clinicians. At 20, she burst onto the contest scene by winning the reserve championship at the 2015 Virginia Extreme Mustang Makeover with her gelding Terk, also snagging the Fan Favorite, Rookie, and Young Guns awards. The video of her crowd-pleasing bridleless freestyle was shared online by freestyle icon Stacy Westfall. Today Madison presents horsemanship demonstrations nationwide, using primarily mustangs to promote the public’s understanding of them.
Challenge overcome: Many. Before what was supposed to be her first mustang makeover, in 2014, a horse slipped in the snow and fell, crushing her leg. Her next attempt had to be scrapped when the mustang she’d selected turned out to have a neurological issue. In early 2015, she decided to try a third time to fulfill her vision—riding a bridleless freestyle to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” wearing a wedding dress. A week before she was to pick up the new mustang, however, her grandfather entered the hospital with a terminal relapse of cancer. After he died, her dad urged her to keep going. Terk, her new mustang, was scrawny but sensitive, and within 30 days was going well without a bridle. When the Virginia Extreme Mustang Makeover rolled around in March, the pair was ready to wow the crowd.
Success strategies: A serious work ethic and superb time-management skills, both learned from her parents. “Starting in fifth grade, I began skipping recess to get my homework done. In high school, I lugged all my books around to save having to go to my locker, freeing up passing periods for homework. Lunchtime, homework.” All this gave her more time at the barn after school.
Key insight: Find your passion and the courage to follow it. Madison started college in Colorado State University’s equine sciences program, with a goal of becoming a trainer. Soon doubting her ability to make a living with horses, she transferred to Purdue to pursue a pre-pharmacy program. “I was good at science and figured it’d be safer to have job security and do horses on the side.” After her Virginia experience, though, she found the courage to commit to her real dream. Changing her major to communications, she took a range of classes—writing, public speaking, television—to learn how best to communicate her horsemanship message to the public.
“Find and follow your passion, accepting the risk that comes with that, and you’ll get good at what you do,” she advises. “You’ll be happy putting in the hours required, and you’ll ultimately find a way to make a living of it.”
Watch for: Innovation. “I want to build educational platforms that use new technology to enable young people, especially, to learn effectively. I want to reach kids and re-inspire them to be involved with horses.” She also wants to push the limits of bridleless training and has started her latest mustang, Amira, using neither a halter nor bridle. “I videoed the whole thing, and after the first week, we were walk-trot-cantering and leg-yielding. It’s on my Facebook page.” Her overarching goal is to bring more awareness to the plight of mustangs—especially those, like Amira, considered “three-strikers” because of failed prior adoptions. “Mustangs are diamonds in the rough,” she says, “and an ultimate test of your skills.”
Ranked Western Rider
Rising star: David Wagner, Cassopolis, Michigan. As a non-pro David competed in all-around events, winning several Appaloosa Horse Club world and national titles in both open and non-pro divisions with One Hot Chip—a horse inducted into ApHC’s Hall of Fame. David recently gave up his job as a teacher to focus solely on training horses alongside his wife, Kimmy, and in the past year they’ve gone on to coach several riders to ApHC national titles. At press time, David was leading the nation in junior Western riding with Gettin Down N Dirty.
Challenge overcome: Time crunches. Before leaving his teaching job, David struggled to get customers and horses to large competitions during the school year. “I could only do a small amount of training—mostly in the summer months—due to my teaching schedule,” he shares, “so I learned to make the best out of the horses I had at the time.”
Starting up a business also takes time. “Once I moved to Michigan and married Kimmy, she and I merged our clients, which enabled me to stop teaching and completely focus on training and showing.”
Success strategy: Be realistic. David accepts only 12 horses in his training program at a time. “I want to be able to dedicate the time needed to enable my customers and their horses to be successful,” he explains. “When I have too many horses in training, I’m not able to do that.”
Another key strategy is finding the right horses for each customer. “All my customers show, so I have to find a horse that matches their personality and skill level and will work for them.”
Key insight: Know how often you should ride. “Some don’t ride enough, while others ride too often and don’t get their horses to peak at the right time,” he explains. “When I was riding with Highpoint Performance Horses, Jason Martin always said that knowing when to ride and when to give horses time off was the key to longevity and success.”
When David spent time riding with Nancy Sue Ryan, he also learned the importance of allowing a horse to do something himself. “A lot of people try to help their horse too much in the show pen. When you show, you can’t help them the way you do in the warm-up pen—at some point they have to be able to do it themselves.”
Watch for: World-show efforts. David’s goals include continuing to build up his and Kimmy’s business by attending large horse shows and turning their hard work into world titles. He’s also intent on helping his customers reach their personal goals and be the best riders they can be.
Learn more about David at facebook.com/dkwagnerperformancehorses.
Quarter Horse All-Arounder
Rising star: Carli Pitts, Newburgh, Indiana. Carli grew up competing in Quarter Horse all-around events under the guidance of her parents, trainers Brad and Vicki Pitts. As a youth she was an AQHYA reserve world champion in horsemanship with Hot Lady Born Lopin; she’s also a multiple Congress champion. Toward the end of her youth career, Carli realized how much she enjoyed training horses and coaching riders, so she made the difficult decision to skip competing as an amateur and go straight into the open division. In her first year of showing as a professional, the 20-year-old placed fifth at the AQHA World Show in level 2 junior trail with Im Sexy And I Knowit.
Challenge overcome: Competing demands on her time. In addition to being a full-time trainer, Carli is also a full-time student at the University of Southern Indiana. “I felt it essential to finish school so I can learn how to properly manage my own business,” she says.
Missing school to be at large competitions with her clients is one of the struggles Carli faces, but she’s been lucky to work with professors who understand her situation and are flexible when she’s on the road. “On days that I’m home and have class, I have to ride my horses in the afternoon and evening, so I’ve learned how to manage my time to get everything done on those days.”
Success strategy: Develop an eye for horseflesh. “My dad taught me how to find a diamond-in-the-rough horse. He looks at horses others have given up on and tries to find an event that better suits their abilities.”
She’s also had the opportunity to ride with other trainers she admires. “I’m still fairly new to trail, so whenever I have free time I try to schedule a day where I can go ride with trainers who can help me with that.” Then, too, if she’s ever having trouble with a horse, she knows her mom is always there to guide her.
Key insight: “Learn how to ride each horse differently,” she shares. “You can’t mold a horse to fit your program. Just like people, they have different personalities and require different approaches.”
Watch for: Branching out. Carli wants to become a breed-show judge in addition to winning a world title in trail or Western riding. For now, though, she’s focusing on her customers. “I want to help them achieve their goals, whether it’s being successful at a small horse show or winning a world title.”
Learn more about Carli at p5equestrian.com.
Ranch Riding Convert
Rising star: Cody Crow, Berthoud, Colorado. Growing up a roper in a ranching/rodeo family, Cody began showing in ranch riding as a way of cross-training his reiners, cow horses, and versatility mounts after going out on his own. The more he got into it, though, the more he liked it. “Now I have horses I train specifically for this event,” says the horseman, who last year won an ApHC ranch rail pleasure world championship on You CD Signs, owned by Ardith Allcorn, and an AQHA reserve world championship in ranch riding with BR Winning Rey, owned by Dona Ramsteck.
“It’s a lot harder than it might seem to get horses to do all the required maneuvers effortlessly and with cadence, while retaining ‘forward,’” he observes. “But it’s so good for their brains, and it doesn’t create the anxiety that sometimes comes from running down hard to a sliding stop over and over again.”
Cody learned from a variety of trainers but especially credits super-coach Don Murphy and local trainers Jim and Jill Cook.
Challenge overcome: A horse wreck. Several years ago a serious riding accident broke Cody’s hip and pelvis and caused internal injuries. Recovery took a couple of years, and his physical strength was limited when he resumed riding. “I had to get better at just asking, as opposed to driving horses to do what I wanted,” he recalls. The experience had an unexpected upside. “It made my non-pro horses better for my clients—especially the women with short legs. Because of how I had to ride, their horses became more responsive to a range of subtle cues.”
Success strategy: Keep your horses quiet and happy. “That’s always been my focus, and the versatility of my training program helps with that. Every horse, regardless of specific goals, will work cattle, do the trail class, compete in ranch riding. They all get ridden outside, as well, on the trail or in the pasture. It’s made a huge difference. None of them get sour. And,” he jokes, “it’s good for my ADD—I don’t have to focus on just one thing.”
Key insight: Keep goals separate from awards. “For myself and my non-pros, I try to keep the focus on the riding and the horse, not on what’s won. If I’m happy with how my horse performed, it doesn’t matter if the judge placed me first or eighth.”
Staying positive is fundamental for this trainer, whose barn name—No Where But Up Performance Horses—was inspired by his first horse-show experience, as a teen. “I thought I was ready, then my horse bucked in a Western pleasure class. I was devastated, but a friend told me, ‘There’s no where but up from here.’ It was true, and I’ve had it as my mantra ever since.”
Watch for: More of the same. “I might show a little less—focusing on bigger shows—and do more training and clinics.” And he’ll definitely stick with the ranch riding. “Another reason I love this event is how it’s rejuvenating the all-around,” he says thoughtfully. “In the past I had clients who did the all-around, but they sold their horses and got out of it. Now they’re coming back, because with the ranch classes it’s more fun and they can show their horses more naturally. Plus you don’t have to have a $5,000 horsemanship outfit!”
Learn more about Cody at codycrowhorsetraining.com.