Lessons learned help prepare for next year
January 28, 2013
Former president of the Wyoming Reigned Cow Horse Association (WRCHA), Cathy Coleman gave ranch hand and fellow horse trainer, Justin Morgan, a piece of advice before her passing in 2010: "You need to do what you enjoy in life." Morgan took this lesson to heart. He proceeded to dive head first into his and Coleman's shared passion of working cow horses and set his sights on the National Reigned Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, NV.
Morgan started toward this goal by gaining as much practice, experience and knowledge as he could get his hands on. He started by making connections with NRCHA competitors and trainers and going to ride with anyone who would let him. He attended events and talked to a variety of people to pick up advice and pointers. Starting as a rookie who "didn't even know how to do a flying lead change," Morgan said, "I was amazed at how open and willing the [NRCHA] Open guys are to help you."
Montana NRCHA competitor and performance horse trainer Tim Unzicker was one of the many top riders who Morgan rode with to pick up tips and advice. Morgan said he learned a lot from Unzicker, specifically regarding herd work. One of the most important lessons Morgan learned from Unzicker was to "do less and expect your horse to do more."
"Your horse has to be willing to work without babysitting," said Morgan about some of the lessons he learned, and then added, "You can't micromanage or you'll be behind the cow."
After attending multiple shows and riding with experienced NRCHA competitors, Morgan also picked up tips about showing. He learned not to over-extend his horse by asking for more than his horse could do, but rather to "show at the horse's ability." Then, he explained, you can try to make something happen in the show pen.
In January of 2011, Morgan turned his thoughts to Snaffle Bit Futurity prospect, Hollywood's Investor, a horse he had raised. He was excited to begin training and riding the two-year-old AQHA grulla mare. He started the mare with dry work (reining) and some kind of cow work every day. Months later, Morgan entered his first NRCHA event on a back-up horse (due to an injury his mare endured) in Spearfish, SD. With a smile, Morgan reports that he placed "last in all three events." As pleased as he would have been with placing in any event at his first performance, Morgan admitted that his goal was to learn – which is exactly what he did.
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"It's a hard game – that's why I like it so much," said Morgan.
After several years of preparation, in February of 2012 Morgan signed up for the 2012 Snaffle Bit Futurity. By mid-September, he was on the road to Reno, NV, with his now three-year-old mare, Hollywood's Investor. Morgan was entered in the Level One Limited Open Professional (due to NRCHA non-professional requirements). The NRCHA rulebook outlines all of the many classes and divisions for competitors: futurities are reserved for three-year-olds and the Level One Limited Open division is open to riders who have not won $7,500 or more in lifetime earnings (for a detailed listing of classes, divisions and rules, visit http://www.nrcha.com).
By the end of the nearly two-week show, Morgan finished in the bottom of his class but achieved a personal best score. Throughout his thus-far short career, Morgan has ranked progressively higher at each show.
He was impressed by the friendliness of the competitors and the family atmosphere surrounding the Snaffle Bit Futurity. "You can go up and talk to any one of those guys. Russel Dilday [2011 World's Greatest Horseman] turned my cow back for me in the herd work. Later, I rode with Todd Crawford [NRCHA World Champion]." Morgan was also awed by the quality of horses.
"Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined making three-year-olds that nice," said Morgan.
The biggest lessons he learned, however, were what to work on for 2013. He plans to enter the 2013 Snaffle Bit Futurity with a new three-year-old. According to Morgan, the first thing he plans to do is buy a cutting flag because it will teach his horse exactly where she needs to be and how to position herself. He feels he should have spent more time on herd work while preparing for the 2012 Snaffle Bit Futurity and that this year, after prepping with a cutting flag, his horse will be more ready for advanced herd work. Even though he is no longer a NRCHA rookie, Morgan still plans to ride with as many people as he can because he feels there is always more to learn – and on top of that, he adds, he just can't get enough!
"It's addicting because it's so hard, and when you have a good show, you've never felt so successful," he said, "When you're in the Open, it's like the Super Bowl!"
Morgan still carries the advice his friend Cathy Coleman gave him years ago and attributes reaching his goal of competing in the Snaffle Bit Futurity to her. Coleman lived the advice she gave and was riding working cow horses until the day she died.