With all the hype and money surrounding the reining futurities these days, you may be thinking that showing a three year old is looking like something that you might like to try. This can be especially true if you are a non pro that has been drug around the show pen one too many times by a seasoned reiner with a ‘been there, done that, I know a shortcut’ kind of attitude.
But before you sell the farm and buy your future futurity phenom, make sure you know what you are getting into. To get the low down on showing a non pro futurity horse, we asked seasoned NRHA non pros Sally Broten, Chad Clark, Josh Hattig, Mandy McCutcheon, and up and coming non pro futurity rider Tim Long the secrets behind all of their futurity successes and what makes showing a three year old a whole different deal from showing an older reiner.
The Fun of Futurity Horses
So what’s so great about showing a futurity horse?
When asked what motivated him to get into showing futurity horses, NRHA multiple non pro futurity finalist Marc Wagman said it was the challenge that lead him to start showing 3 year olds.
“To me, it is the ultimate level of competition because it is the toughest. You are riding a three year old, so there are more variables in it. Because of that, it is a greater challenge, and I just wanted to pursue the greatest level in the non pro divisions. And so to me that was at the futurity level,” said Wagman.
NRHA Non Pro Futurity and Non Pro Derby Champion Josh Hattig had similar sentiments. “It was the challenge of it, and about going for more of the ultimate prize I guess. To me, the futurities are the top or the crest of the reining horse industry,” said Hattig.
In contrast, Chad Clark, the 2002 NRHA Non Pro Futurity Champion said he fell into showing the younger stock out of necessity.
“I was kind of a unique situation I guess because I didn’t have a grand enough income to go and buy a finished horse,” said Clark, whose introduction to reining included finishing the first reiner he ever owned. “I had to finish him off, and it wasn’t real fancy or anything,” laughed Chad. “But it kind of forced me into this deal early on. It is a simple matter of you can buy a two year old a lot cheaper than you can buy a finished reiner,” he explained.
Tim Long, a non pro from Colorado, has won several futurities including the SWRHA Intermediate Non Pro Futurity and making the top 15 and the NRHA Limited Non Pro Futurity. He has found that the day to day progression of the younger horses to be very rewarding.
“I thoroughly enjoy starting the young ones and teaching them new things. You see so much more advancement in the younger horses, and I just think that is a lot more enjoyable to teach a new one instead of maintaining an aged horse,” said Long.
A Different Dynamic
For many reasons, showing a three year old can be quite a bit different from showing a horse that has had a season or two of show pen runs under their belt. That different dynamic comes from many different factors, and can be both beneficial and trying at times.
Multiple NRHA Non Pro Futurity Champion and $1 Million rider Mandy McCutcheon has been showing reiners since she was 10, and is the NRHA all time leading non pro rider, thanks in part to her ability to win the big bucks in the top futurities year after year. In her experience, she has found that many riders struggle at first with the transition from older horses to 3 year olds because they are used to being more on the defense than the offense.
“Most people new to the futurity events are coming from showing horses in the regular non pro classes, and they only have experience showing horses that have been shown a thousand times. Those horses know what is going on, and they are kind of showing the riders the ropes a little bit, and sometimes they take advantage of the rider because they get to anticipating,” said McCutcheon.
“But three year olds are pretty much waiting on you, unlike the older horses. You go in there and they wait for you because they don’t know what they are supposed to doing. That is the fun thing about showing a three year old. And if you do it right the first couple times, you can show them a way to show that will make them last a long time,” she explained.
Sally Broten, the 2002 NRHA Non Pro Futurity Co Reserve Champion, also felt that a big bonus to showing futurity horses is that naivety.
“I have loved showing the young horses because they are so trusting of who is on their back, and they don’t really know what is supposed to happen out there. So they just wait on you. It is just a great experience riding a horse at that point in their career. As they get older, it is more about trying to keep them out of trouble, and that is a whole different dynamic,” said Broten.
The Flip Side
The fact that everything is new to the 3 year olds brings a flip side that can make them harder to show, and for those non pros crossing over from showing a well seasoned show horse, it can be a big change to show and prepare a horse that is entering the show pen those first few times.
Marc Wagman has found that even the smallest things can frazzle a 3 year old, and factors that older horses might not even notice can suddenly play upon a futurity run. “Since they are three year olds, and not seasoned, they can get rattled a little by seeing people walking around in the stands, and they might really look at the judges and scribes as you are loping right up to their chair. Things like that make it a little more challenging,” said Marc, who has found getting a futurity horse warmed up at a show can also be difficult at times.
“Schooling in the make up pen, which is usually crowded can be tough on a three year old that hasn’t been away from home a lot. It is great that the warm up times are monitored, with fencing time and circling time, but still they are crowded and make some three year olds tight, and you have to deal with that,” he explained.
Another intricacy of showing futurity horses to their full potential is knowing how to prepare them for the show ring even though they are still a work in progress. “With 3 year olds, you have to keep their attention all the time, and you have to focus on preparing them the right way so they are in the right mental state when they walk in the show pen. Then when they are in that state, it is about keeping them there where they can perform at a high level, yet not overdoing it," said Hattig. "I think that is a little bit harder on the young horses because you don’t really know yet what they are. It can the be hard to know where that threshold is, and when you get to a point where its better not to do anything more and to just get off and put them away."
Dedication and Discipline
Many of the non pros interviewed also felt that showing a 3 year old takes a higher level of dedication and commitment on an everyday basis than showing an older horse does. One of the main reasons is the simple fact that the 3 year olds demand a higher level of riding skills.
“While they may be more naïve and they don’t anticipate things like an older horse, there are some things as a rider that you need to be pretty solid on. You need to be able to stay in the middle of the saddle no matter what. And you have to be in pretty good command of your factories and your limbs- all four of them!” laughed Chad Clark.
Because of that, he feels that whether you are riding your 3 year old yourself on a daily basis, or your trainer is, you need to be on a horse 4 or 5 times a week for about an hour. “The big difference is that you need to help a three year old much more than you would an aged horse. And you need to do that all without making it look like you are helping them. That to me is all the difference,” explained Clark.
And like many of the other riders, Chad felt that commitment to ride on a daily level was vital not only to develop the motor skills to adequately ride a 3 year old, but also to hone the heightened sense of timing that they require.
"You need to move slower, be more forgiving, and give your horse more time to react to cues and have enough confidence to not panic in any spot,” said Chad. To illustrate that point, he gave the example of rolling back a seasoned horse versus a 3 year old. “If you have to run down there, stop and roll back to the left, and you get quick with your hands, a 3 year old will hang up on you. You have to be so, so relaxed and disciplined with a three year old, unlike an aged horse. With an aged horse, they will probably let you get away with boxing them in the chops every once in a while by accident. But a three year old, they probably won’t take that very many times before they just start freezing up,” said Chad.
The Ebb and Flow of a 3 Year Old
Another difference in riding and showing younger stock is the constant ebb and flow they go through compared to a broke horse that is more solid, and therefore more consistent, on a day to day basis. Because of this, words like faith, patience, consistency, and perseverance take on added meaning in the futurity horse equation.
“Three year olds are learning, and it’s just a fact that some days they are going to be off. And some days you are going to be off,” said Marc Wagman, when asked about the day to day process of training and riding a 3 year old. Like the other non pros interviewed, he likes to typically ride his 3 year olds 5 times a week, and counts on the fact that his horses aren’t going to ride as good when he first starts them back on Monday as they will on Thursday.
Josh Hattig uses a similar approach.
“I think in the riding there has to be balance. Like in my program, I will build them up during the week, so they are ready to rock and roll by Thursday. Then the next week, I might not ask for a lot, and I will just lope them around, keep them happy, and let them relax,” said Josh, who feels that a big part to training a successful futurity horse lies in simply putting in the time to get his 3 year olds broke through repetition. But he is always careful not to overdo it.
“Just keeping them happy and getting them broke, and not tearing into them, goes a long way. There are way, way, way too many people who tearing into the three year olds to try and get things done. And that might seem like that works for 6 months, but man, that doesn’t last,” said Josh. “Things fall apart if we keep pounding them. The younger horses are going to go through peaks and valleys, but what I have learned is that if we can control the peaks and valleys, you wont have a horse just completely fall apart on you. They gain confidence on those days that are nice and relaxed, but then you also need those days where you are really pressuring them and they are learning,” he explained.
Chad Clark was adamant as well about the importance of not over doing it. “I have had that happen to me a couple of times, and I kind of learned my lesson there. When I first started showing, I was so frightened of a horse going faster that I wanted them to go, that I felt that things were completely out of control. Even if they were going just one mile an hour faster that I wanted to go, I thought I had lost control and that things were going to go completely horribly,” he remembers. Through time, he learned that having a faith in the positive went a long way.
“You need to be relaxed enough to let them go faster than you want for a little while. Chances are they will check back with you and slow down, but you have to give them a chance to do that as a three year old. An aged horse, if they leave dodge, you know that they aren’t going to come back. Or maybe that they are. But a three year old, you have only shown them a couple times, so you don’t necessarily know what horse is going to show up that day. Have faith, have confidence in them, and trust them like they need to trust you,” explained Clark.
In his day-to-day training routine, Tim Long has found that having a healthy dose of patience can go a long way. “You need to be very patient with the three year olds, and not get too rushed or uptight with them,” explained Tim.
A Word to the Wise
When all five riders were asked what their number one piece of advice would be to non pros getting into showing futurity horses for the first time, they all had one similar directive-work with a trainer. Each has developed a system that balances training and riding their 3 year old on their own while still working with a trainer to help them through the rough spots and to mentor them to bigger and better successes. Mandy McCutcheon was up front about the importance of having the training skills of her dad Tim McQuay, and her husband, Tom McCutcheon, on her side.
“I try to let my Dad and Tom get the horses ready. I will go and lope a little bit and do that kind of stuff to get familiar with the horse. But as far as the hard core stuff, I let those guys do it because that is what they are good at,” said Mandy. She keeps riding and working on maneuvers on her older horses, but feels that allowing her dad and Tom to get the horses ready has been a large part of her success.
“That makes such a difference, because when the horses are ready, it is easier to show them well. If you go school them the night before you show, and you start thinking to yourself, ‘things aren’t feeling very good, and I have got them doing this a little funny or that a little funny,’ then you're going to be worrying about things. But if you have your trainer riding them you're not going to walk in the gate and wondering if this is ready or that is ready. And if you trainer says they are ready, you just have to believe them,” she explained. “When you trainer says you horse is broke enough for you to ride, I would go ride and get to know the horse for a couple days. If you screw things up, give the horse back and say ‘Ok, it’s your turn to fix them now.’ Then hopefully by the time you get to the futurity, you have done that enough times that you and the trainer will be able to get the horse schooled and shown well,” said McCutcheon.
Even those non pros that do their own training are looking to get better by working with the pros. Marc Wagman, who pretty much trains his horses by himself at this point, is always hauling out to ride with other trainers. “I am a non pro and I do the training on my horses, but every chance I get I go down to the Loomis Ranch, or I will call Brent Wright, and pick his brain. I am still striving to learn more, and the great thing about our industry is that most of these talented professionals are so generous in giving you help and passing on their knowledge. They genuinely want you to do well,” enthused Marc. The one thing that he doesn’t do any more is put the first couple rides on his colts.
“I used to do the entire deal myself, from start to finish, until 3 years ago. This one horse we nicknamed the ‘455 Rocket’ hurt me so hard when she bucked me off. I have two wings in my vertebrae and so my wife has pretty much forbidden me from climbing on the colts anymore. So I send them out just long enough to get roughed out,” said Wagman.
Chad Clark and Sally Broten also ride with a pro, and both work closely with NRHA trainer Kim Dierks, who is about 3 hours away. “I work really closely with Kim, and each individual horse will determine how much she needs them, or how much I can have them at home and ride them," said Broten.
“You need a trainer. When I first started into this, I rode every night with Jeff and Larry Kaasten. And that was the way I had to do it because I couldn’t afford to send a horse out for training,” said Chad. Looking back, he realizes that being a non pro new to reining, and also trying to teach a young horse the maneuvers is not the ideal situation. “Optimally, I would say that people that want to start showing three year olds, they need to send them to a trainer so the horse knows the parts. Trainers have trained hundreds of horses. I have trained a handful in my lifetime. So they know a lot more just by default,” he explained.
Like many of the other non pros, Chad feels that by training his own horse he has an advantage because he does know them so well. But he acknowledges that the process has taken a lifetime commitment on his part, and that a little luck is always helpful. “I have gone to great efforts to learn and be open minded to others peoples suggestions," he said. "I expected it to be a 15 year track, where if I got the right horse I might be competent enough to place high in the NRHA futurity. And I got lucky and it only took 10 years before I won the big futurity. But still 10 years. When you get down to finals night, working hard only goes so far. You have to get somewhat lucky and the horse has got to want to play that day, that hour, that run,” said Chad.
But luck not withstanding, all of these non pros are doing well because they have made a dedicated effort to setting up their life in a way that allows them to be successful, and they have put in the time and hard work to make it happen. And while we have all heard the gripe that doing well in the futurity events requires a disposable income or a lifestyle that is other than everyday, Chad Clark is quick to point out that really isn’t true.
“It is not just a hobby, it is a lifestyle. If you want to do this you have got to be willing to put in the time. That’s really what it is about. Just like every other cliché you have heard in your life, it is true. You can do what ever you set your mind to.”