South Dakota trainer sees success with reining horses
Dallas Cunningham regularly drives down the interstate with about a million dollars in his horse trailer. But he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about that.
“I focus on the horse, what it needs, and how to get it to the next level. That’s the only thing on my mind all the time. If you just keep getting them to the next level, you’ll win. They’ll be worth as much as they can be.”
For some of the horses this South Dakota horse trainer rides, there aren’t many more levels they can attain. In September he rode RFR Voodoos Fuego to a first place finish in the High Roller Reining Classic LV2 Open Futurity in Las Vegas with a score of 218. The horse is owned by Peter and Maria Smith, but they’re allowing Cunningham to achieve his dreams with their horse.
“What I want to do for people is to help them pick out a horse and show it for them. If it’s built the way I want it and bred the way I want it and I train it the way I want it, hopefully it will work out for them.”
A lot of Cunningham’s clients got in the horse business for an investment. “I don’t tell them to get into this for investment purposes, but they do. It’s a gamble, but it’s fun to watch. You spend $10-20,000 on a yearling, or you raise it. I always tell people you’re going to have $20-30,000 in training. Before you hit the show you’re going to have $40,000 in this pretty easy. It’s crazy, but they bring that. If it’s a good horse you can get quite a bit more than that. If it’s a great horse you’ll make a ton of money.”
But if the horse isn’t likely to be a good–or great–horse, Cunningham advises cutting their losses, changing the goals early, and selling the horse for a purpose he’ll be more suited to. “I try to talk people into jumping ship just to stop the bleeding. That’s the risky part. I haven’t had that happen, but it is risky.”
Growing up on a ranch near Wausa, Nebraska, Cunningham’s dad showed him how to start colts. They snubbed the colts up on his dad’s horse and he’d pony Dallas around for a while, then turn him loose. “Things have changed a lot. That’s almost completely opposite of the way I do it now. But he showed me how a horse works, and that’s what got me started.”
Cunningham started ponies as a kid, then from junior high through college, started outside colts for people.
But it was one of his own that got him hooked on reining. “I bought one, Typical Mare, and rode her for a while, and people told me to show her in the reining. I took her to the stock show and showed her there. That’s what got me hooked on training reining horses.”
He slowly built a reputation from someone who could start colts, to someone who could finish them. “I went from riding colts to riding one good horse and 15 colts, then two good horses and 12 colts, then pretty soon you’ve got 15 reiners sitting in the barn. It’s taken a long time to do that.”
Cunningham also used to give lessons, and help non-pros, people who compete in reining, but not at the same level as Cunningham and his horses. “I still help non-pros. I love helping people, but the open horses (that he trains and shows himself) is where I want to go.”
Cunningham says he’s never had a “real” job. “I’d start 8- to 10-year-old horses that hadn’t been halter broke. I’d do anything. It’s not that I didn’t want to work, but this is what my brain is trained to do. I’d highly recommend people not do it the way I do it. Go to work for somebody. Find a program you really like and admire and go learn from that guy. It’s way cheaper to learn from somebody else’s mistakes than your own. And it’s a lot faster process.”
Cunningham said it’s easy to get into the industry if you’re willing to work hard and learn. “If you’re wiling to work, we’ll hire you. That’s a hard find. If you want to be good you’d better work harder than anyone else in this deal. That’s the only thing I’ve got going for me.”
It’s not easy work, and it’s long hours, but he’s making a living doing what other people pay to do, so he considers it worth the time and effort. When he goes to a big show he sleeps from three to five hours in four days, less if he’s helping non-pros who are showing too.
At a show, he tries to go to bed when the show gets over, whether that’s 10 p.m. or midnight. He sleeps for an hour or half an hour, then gets up at 1 or 2 a.m. and starts riding whatever horse shows first, then rotates through the rest of the horses, then shows all day and well into the night. When he goes to futurities he usually takes only open horses because he needs to focus on the horses.
The futurity horses have paid off this year. “We have three really nice 3-year-olds. We went to three horse shows and won just a little under $30,000 this fall. We won the level two High Roller Reining Classic in Las Vegas. Another horse won all four levels in Lincoln at the North Central Reining Association Futurity. We had one make the finals at the Friends of Reining Futurity in Memphis.”
Most of Cunningham’s customers are referrals, or people who see him work his horses at shows. The thing that clinches the deal is the program that isn’t obvious in the arena, but makes all the difference outside the ring.
“A lot of people like our program because we ride them outside a lot,” Cunningham says. “We take them out as much as we can. They’re pretty used to everything. We don’t rope on the reiners much, unless there’s something we think might help it. Most reiners are ridden in the arena and that’s it. Our program is different. We go check cows on them, swim them, whatever. It just keeps them fresh and doesn’t burn them out as fast.”
Cunningham’s job keeps him working with the horses in the arena, but he has employees who take them out of the arena when he’s done, and ride through the pasture to remind them that the world doesn’t stop and start at the arena gate.
Cunningham has another full-time job in keeping the horses in his barn trimmed and shod. That’s another skill his dad taught him. “It was nothing fancy, the shoe goes on the bottom, the saddle goes on top. Then we started getting nicer horses. I hired TC Snyder to shoe the nice horses so I didn’t get fired for crippling them. When he was shoeing a horse I’d pull out a colt and shoe the colt right beside him. He showed me what to do here or there. He taught me a lot of the things I needed to know. I’ve tweaked a lot of things since then, but without him I’d probably still be hiring it done.”
Cunningham says that being able to trim his own horses has been a big help in keeping them sound. He can feel what’s wrong while he’s riding, and fix it himself. If he gets over his head, though, he has guys all over the country he can call for advice if something isn’t working.
“When you’re in this deal you want to have the best shoer, the best vet and the best trainer. If you have a bad farrier you just as well quit. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to run barrels or show reiners.”
Cunningham knows something about barrel horses too. He shares his arena with his wife, Chelsie (Riggs) Cunningham, who trains barrel horses. Chelsie grew up near Mitchell, South Dakota, and that’s where they made their permanent home, in spite of the challenges of training reining horses in South Dakota.
“It’s tough to be in South Dakota,” Cunningham says. “There’s nothing easy about it. The weather is not fun. Selling reiners is tough in South Dakota. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to move, but I wouldn’t change it. I like the mentality in South Dakota. I like raising our daughter in South Dakota.”
Their daughter, Saige, is 6 years old. “As long as she’s going fast, she’s happy,” Cunningham says. “She rides better than her mom and her dad. I’m not kidding. She likes jumping horses. She runs barrels. She’s into reining. She breathes it. It’s all she cares about. The only thing she doesn’t like doing with horses is selling them.”
But selling them is part of the job, though in most cases, Cunningham doesn’t have to work too hard to sell the horses he’s tasked with selling. Both he and his wife sell most of their horses privately. “Most of the time, if they’re show horses we sell them at the show. My wife sells a ton of horses online, but that’s a barrel horse deal. That market’s so much bigger, and everywhere. My horses sell at horse shows. That’s what we show for, to sell horses, win money and advertise.”
While the horses he rides for customers are seeing success at the top levels of reining horses, he appreciates that the industry is making reining competitions accessible for people without that much experience, or pockets that deep. “The National Reining Horse Association has done a super good job of making it entry level, of making it accessible and affordable and fun. You show against people who are in the same situation you are. You can buy a $10,000 reiner and show it tomorrow for $40 a class. It’s not out of the question if you don’t have a huge bank account.”
Having worked with all kinds of horses for all kinds of disciplines, Cunningham believes reining is the toughest event there is, but he thinks reined cow horse is the best event there is. “With cutting, barrel horses, cow horses, rope horses, the horse has a job. If there’s a cow to look at, the cow tells it what to do. They know what to do with a barrel. They’re just staring at the ground in reining, waiting for you to tell it what to do. If you breathe wrong, you’re done. Reining horses don’t have a focal point. They listen to you and do what you say. There’s no variable. It’s you and your horse.”
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Thanks in part to the COVID restrictions – which sent their girls home for online college courses, the Plendl family of Kingsley, Iowa, saw many successes in the arena in 2020.