by Laura Crum
I was about twenty five years old when I went to work for a well known reined cowhorse trainer as his assistant. In that barn I rode and saw a much different caliber of horse than what I had known previously. These were the cream of the reined cowhorse world, many of them had won major national events, and the colts in training were being aimed at winning major events—especially the Snaffle Bit Futurity.
Not only were the horses different, the training was different. No relaxed dinking around with a horse went on here. This cowhorse trainer knew every trick in the book. He had won the prestigious Snaffle Bit Futurity several years ago and he had a quiverful of young horses he was training for this year’s event. And he was REAL serious about winning.
Of course, this just makes sense. The trainer was earning his living. Winning big events was the difference between being relatively rich and relatively poor. And he was willing to do whatever it took to be successful.
I saw many things in this barn that I had never seen before in my life. I saw horses so talented they took my breath away, and I saw training methods so cruel they reduced me to speechless outrage. I was young, and I had never before been around a high level training barn, and I really wasn’t sure if I understood what abuse was. Was it abuse if it looked cruel, but taught the horse skills that allowed it to win? To this day I will say that that CAN be a truly difficult question to answer. Especially if you are interested in winning.
So I worked for this trainer for a year and I learned a lot of useful horse training techniques. I also became increasingly upset at the degree of suffering I saw and revolted at the callous attitude toward that suffering. And in the end I quit. But not before I bought a horse—a very expensive horse, at least by my standards.
When I first went to work for the trainer I was given a string of horses to ride each day. They were all three year olds. These were horses the trainer was not much interested in and didn’t want to ride himself. There was Rosie, an unbroken roan mare who was a full sister to a mare that the trainer had trained and shown at the Snaffle Bit the previous year. Rosie’s full sister had bombed out—and the trainer was not interested in investing time and effort into Rosie. But, of course, he did not tell Rosie’s rich owner this. He took the mare in training with a smile…and he never rode her. He just assigned me to ride her.
So I broke Rosie, and I trained a sweet Appie mare the trainer didn’t care for (and she later won the high scoring Appie award at the Snaffle Bit—I was proud), and I rode Lucy, who bucked…etc. And then there was Gunner.
Gunner was a horse the trainer would actually have liked to be riding himself. But no one was paying to have Gunner trained. A wealthy owner was liquidating his horse herd and he had placed the colt in my boss’s barn “to sell.” This wasn’t a deal that just anyone could make, but Gunner’s owner was well known in the business and Gunner had a fancy pedigree…and he was a hugely talented colt. The trainer was willing to keep the horse there and hope that one of his own wealthy clients would buy the colt…and put Gunner officially “in training.” However, in the interim, no one was paying the trainer to ride the horse, so Gunner was put in my string. He was by far the best horse I had.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Gunner. The colt was just turned three years old and had had thirty days of riding when he was two. He was very green. And VERY spooky. But kind and willing and athletic and super trainable and he could move with a cow like you wouldn’t believe. Everyone who saw him agreed that he was a fine prospect for the Snaffle Bit Futurity. And I lived in fear that someone would buy him.
My life working for this trainer was not a happy one. I drove over an hour to get to the job and then I worked for eight hours riding a string of mostly uncooperative horses (remember, the trainer gave me the ones he didn’t like), while my boss screamed at me (this was his preferred method of instruction, and yes, he was not unusual in this respect, based on my experience). The weather was usually cold and foggy (in the winter) or hot as hell (in the summer). Most days I drove the ten minutes to town to eat my brief lunch at the local Taco Bell, just so that I could be alone and cry. I hated the job in many ways; I was not at all fond of my boss, and I was aghast at what I perceived as the cruelty of many of his methods and tricks. I did not love being screamed at. But I wanted to learn, and tough/cruel, whatever you called him, the trainer knew an immense amount about horses. So I persisted. And Gunner was the bright spot in my life during that time.
Various people came to look at Gunner, but he was priced at $6500, which was (in those days) a fairly high price for a green broke colt, even one that WAS a good cowhorse prospect. So for a few months no one bought him and I kept riding him and falling more and more in love with him. But eventually the day came.
A wealthy man was coming to look at Gunner. The man was known to be looking for a Snaffle Bit prospect and Gunner was just the sort of horse he liked. My boss was gleefully contemplating the fat commission he would make and I gave Gunner a bath with tears streaming down my face.
In the end I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t let the horse go. I told the trainer that I would give him the full price in cash (and I was quite aware that the trainer would tell the owner that he had sold the horse for $5000 and that my boss would keep both his commission and the extra $1500—I was no longer naïve about how the business worked). Well, the trainer liked the sound of this, and to be fair, he also really liked the horse. He told me that if I bought Gunner, he would let me keep the colt in his barn and help me train him for free. And if I would pay his entry fees, he would also show the horse in the Snaffle Bit Futurity—and not charge me a penny. By which you can see that the trainer thought a lot of Gunner’s talent.
So I said it was a deal, and the trainer told the wealthy non-pro that the horse was sold and tried to interest him in another colt. And I went home and took out a loan to buy Gunner. Here we are the day after I bought him. Do I look proud and happy or what? But it was not all smooth sailing from then on, sadly enough.