Oklahoma City has the ghost-town feel of hard times and early winter: parched grass, brown-leaved trees; strip malls and empty parking lots; rusted oil-drilling equipment and chain link fence; a dormant road construction project blocking several lanes. A billboard advertises WeBuyUglyHouses.com. Another shows Albert Einstein, with the caption, “As a student, he was no Einstein,” plus then, in bold, “Confidence. #PassItOn.”
I’m here for a horse show: the National Reining Horse Association Futurity, the crown jewel of the season for three-year-old horses. The show takes place in the State Fair Park, a sprawling complex of arenas and stabling halls, wherein the dank-concrete, stagnant-air conditions—combined with late-night riding (as in, like, midnight or 2 a.m.), long days of showing and waiting around, notorious stress levels, frigid weather, and then all this continuing for ten days—leave pretty much everyone sick and coughing and frog-voiced, longing for chicken soup or tropical beaches or just five hours of sleep strung together.
The winner gets $150,000, plus career-making type fame. NRHA Open Futurity Champion: that’s what everyone dreams of, the trainers and owners. The winning pair become reining-industry household names. The horse’s value obvs goes sharply up; if it’s a mare, her future offspring (which can be born via embryo transfer, while she continues to show) will be in way-high demand; if it’s a stallion, he gets a rare shot to join the elite group of sires that rake in stud fees and define the future of the sport.
(Reining crash course: this is basically show-off versions of cattle-herding maneuvers, sans cows—spins, sliding stops, galloping circles; all on a loose rein, one-handed, in full cowboy gear. The only western sport in the World Equestrian Games; popular now in Europe and South America. Judged on a point system per maneuver, with all contestants running the same pattern, or series of moves. To do it really well takes an incredibly well-trained horse and ultra finesse and timing from the rider; especially tough to do on a young horse with not much experience, which is the point of the Futurity—all these horses are in their first season of showing.)
The qualifying rounds began Thanksgiving day. Four-hundred and fifty-three horses have been winnowed down to thirty for the finals on Saturday evening. Our own Sunglasses At Nite is among them—a handsome white-faced palomino sired by our stallion, Gunners Special Nite, whose offspring have just begun their show careers. So it’s not only about this one horse; it’s about our stallion establishing himself as a sire.
I arrived last night after a saga of flight-cancellation plus new last-minute ticket on a different airline (booked online, via iPhone, which involved also abandoning my checked suitcase, dashing back out through security, re-checking in, re-clearing security in new terminal, waiting on hold with Airline 1 regarding ticket refund and suitcase logistics, watching phone battery fade, thinking I’d maybe have to navigate to my hotel the old-fashioned way, with an actual map; hoping rental car agencies still have maps).
But things could’ve been way worse. I had an extra pair of contact lenses in my handbag. The woman next to me on flight 2 gave me her phone charger. (Gave, as in, like, to keep.) At the layover I bought a travel-size toiletry kit and an Atlanta tee shirt to sleep in. And I made it to the hotel just in time to order a late-night room-service BLT: crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, lots of mayo, and that extra thick, meaty gourmet bacon; plus a cone of peppery fries that were lukewarm but still, after everything, delicious. I took a hot shower and read a mediocre book for a while, and after 1:00 a.m. my husband, Philip, arrived, off of his own delayed flight from a different city of origin.
So now Philip’s at the hotel working, and my first order of the day is tracking down my suitcase, which is supposed to have arrived on a flight this morning. In yesterday’s clothes, I drive the 20 minutes back to the airport. The sun is blazing, and it’s not all that cold. At the airline baggage office, my suitcase is waiting for me. It feels actually miraculous. Straightaway I change into my fleece-lined high-top sneakers.
The rental car is a Chevy micro-SUV, cherry-red, with squeaking brakes and a trunk that just barely accommodates my one suitcase. Basically it’s like driving a golf cart with an aluminum shell. Later on, Philip decides it has manual airbags, and starts maniacally, deliriously, punching the buttons that release various trapdoor compartments all over the dash. Which compartments, actually, do seem to be placed in suspiciously airbag-typical locations.
I drive straight from airport to horse show, past the concrete wasteland of fast-food restaurants and weary chain hotels with barren front lawns. Then also there’s Cowboys OKC, the bar in which actual bull riding goes on, with real, non-mechanical bulls. I went in there once, many years ago, with an off-duty cop who bought me a margarita at Chili’s across the street, where I’d been eating alone at the bar after a late riding session, my boots and spurs still on. And I had to see it first-hand to understand that “bull-riding,” in this case, meant live animals inside the bar. Driving past, you can see the pen where they unload them, right there by the road.
In the State Fair parking lot, I climb over to the passenger seat and change into fresh clothes, plus also apply my own deodorant in place of Philip’s man-smelling green stuff I smeared on this morning. (In the horse-show life, you get comfortable changing your clothes almost anywhere.) In front of the stabling hall, a magnificent row of tricked-out chrome horse trailers gleams in the sun. The strip of grass beside them is a minefield of dog shit.
I pass through the doors into the barns, and finally!—that earthy, horsey smell. Always the same: hay and oats and horse-warmth. It reminds me why I’m here. Two little girls run by in crystal-encrusted jeans. A palomino stands in the wash rack, dripping soapsuds. In the Tom McCutcheon Reining Horses aisle, my own palomino is there in his stall, eating placidly from his hay bag, with his tousled blonde forelock and dark eyes. As a foal, he was a poster boy for our stallion, because of his looks and also to show off his mother’s impressive stats (her association with our stallion therefore being a very good thing; she was an Open finalist here, too). Our boy—we call him “Corey”—has one more day to get ready for prime time.
Tom (who rides/trains Corey) and Mandy (Tom’s wife) and their son, Cade, are all riding when I arrive. These guys are great friends of mine and the reason I’ve gotten so into the sport. I meet them in the main arena, which is open for practice. Tom’s finishing up with one of Mandy’s horses, working on spins. The mare pivots on her hind legs, low-headed, stepping rhythmically around with her front feet. Her eye concentrates with effort. Tom sits still, head canted toward the spin, feeling the mare’s mouth through the reins. He’s shifting her balance toward her haunches, for style and speed.
I climb into an empty judge’s chair next to Cade, whose horse is being tuned by Mandy’s dad, Tim McQuay (legend of the sport, two-time Open champion here). This is a family of serious reining prestige. Tom and Mandy are both million-dollar riders; Cade’s the youngest-ever winner of the NRHA Non-Pro Derby. Cade and Mandy are getting ready for the Non-Pro finals tomorrow afternoon. Everyone seems in good spirits but of course just super tired.
Other riders walk their horses, letting them catch their breath. The McCutcheon horses are recognizable by their signature purple polo wraps. All the horses wear knee boots reinforced with duct tape to protect their front legs as they spin. The ones practicing sliding stops get skid boots—leather cups that Velcro onto the hind fetlocks (the ankles, basically), which can scrape the ground when the horses slide. The horses are paints and sorrels and palominos, with long manes and shiny coats, stout and muscular as bulldogs.
Mandy’s on her palomino mare, practicing her run-in stop: lope through the gate into the arena, build speed, perform a sliding stop just beyond center ice. It’s the opening maneuver for the finals. Horses often find it sudden and disorienting, especially if they’ve never done it before—which most of these three-year-olds haven’t, not in the show arena. Mandy gallops down centerline; slides; repeats. After a few tries, the mare’s in the groove. This one can slide a country mile, as they say: haunches low, back hooves carving parallel tracks, front feet stepping, dirt flying.
* * *
Mostly today it’s people shopping for horses and horse-related stuff. The array of what you can buy here is extraordinary: hand-tooled saddles with silver conchos; colorful woven saddle pads; exotic-skin boots; wildly bedazzled belts; leather headstalls and reins; polished wooden stirrups; jeans and starched shirts for men; crystal-embellished shirts for women; fringed chaps; custom cowboy hats made of blended-fur felts; rowel spurs with hand-crafted silver. In this industry, old-school craftsmanship thrives. The best of all these things are made and decorated by hand, and it shows in quality and price. The high-end saddles, eg., can cost as much as a yearling colt.
Right before the Futurity in this same venue was the Quarter Horse World Show, another serious spectacle. (Some reining there, too, but also all the other Quarter Horse stuff, like pleasure, cutting, barrels, roping, pole bending, showmanship, team penning, trail, working cow horse, and even jumping.) The Quarter Horse people being even glitzier than the reiners, they build these elaborate old-west-storefront type things at their stalls—and set up couches and bar tables and giant TVs running promo videos and/or live feeds from the show arena. So what the reiners do is find out who occupies their stalls during the World Show, then ask them to leave all that setup for a rental fee.
The McCutcheon stall front towers above the center aisle, with giant photos of our stallion and two others that stand at Tom and Mandy’s ranch, plus two tables, two cushy couches, and two TVs. On one, a promo reel runs on repeat, showing footage of the ranch, and, among other action, Tom and Gunners Special Nite winning World Equestrian Games individual gold. (Tom, who’s normally non-showy and reserved, throws his cowboy hat in the air at the end of the run. It was the run of a lifetime, and it launched our stallion’s breeding career.)
In the back room, we have a stash of stallion logo apparel with the GSN brand. People come by who’ve booked breedings to him for next year, or recently bought his colts. We hand out baseball caps, sweatshirts, tote bags, jackets. The tees and all but the XXL sweatshirts are already gone. I spot several people wearing the winter jackets we give our best customers. And many of these people I don’t even know, which means usually that they’ve booked breedings from a distance, had cooled or frozen semen shipped to them, and received their jackets by mail.
We’ve bred a lot of mares and sold a lot of horses these last few years. Walking around here, I’m taking the pulse of the industry, with regard to our stallion. Several people tell me how much they like their Gunners Special Nite offspring, or how nice they’ve looked in the show arena. Five GSN offspring have qualified for the Non Pro finals; four for the Open. A handful of others had serious finals-level skills but unlucky penalty points. Still, people noticed those ones, too. The talk is good.
* * *
In the evening, Lyle Lovett plays a concert to benefit the Reining Horse Sports Foundation. Lyle’s a reining-world fixture. He rides and owns horses with Mandy’s parents, including the ludicrously pretty, long-maned palomino stallion Smart And Shiney.
In the 6:00 dusk, Philip and I drive back to the State Fair Park, past industrial tool & supply stores, taquerias and lumber yards, a Goodwill the size of a Walmart. In front of one warehouse, a row of bare trees is festooned with yellow Christmas lights. A few darkly hooded guys cross the vacant lots, hunkered down against the cold.
Inside the concert hall, it’s cold, too. Along with the McCutcheons and another of their clients, we’ve sprung for a VIP table near the stage, where we’re served a Texas-type dinner that includes a sizeable steak. This being the 50th NRHA Futurity, there’s a big show of parading past winners down the red carpet, plus a special 50th Anniversary video that includes interviews and footage of decades-ago champions careening around the arena in rough-and-ready style that seems almost implausibly comical to the modern-reining eye.
Then the stage illuminates, and there’s Lyle and his Quasi Cowboy Band, in dark suits and cowboy hats, behind a fringe of Christmas lights. The spotlight strikes the fiddle player, who launches a virtuosic riff. Something about Lyle: he finds totally extraordinary musicians to play with him, and he’ll often step aside to let them take the lead. He’s at center stage, grinning in semi-darkness, while the fiddle player carves the air with that fast, ascending country groove.
They roll through “Farmer Brown” and “Give Back My Heart,” twangy and cool; the bluesy “Here I Am,” the classically-cowboy “Nothing But A Good Ride,” the vocal-powerhouse “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Lyle’s distinctive voice is richly country, though he’s a musician of eclectic style. On the mike beside him is the sublime Arnold McCuller, whose voice rises into the hall with gospel-grade power. The guitars, cello, drums, piano, fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel all get solos. The whole front row of musicians steps to their mikes to sing backup. I’ve seen Lyle in concert four times now, and this is always true: he just plays the best damn show.
I’m carried along on the music, thinking how I miss music in my life, as in miss playing it. Or the thought comes in garbled form: something like I should’ve spent more time learning to play music for real. Maybe it’s not too late. That feeling when a song fills you with energy that verges on actual joy—all your cells aligned in this exact moment; how you’re lifted away from distractions and brought fully into your body. Like meditation, but a lot more fun.
The crowd here is awfully well-mannered—we’re at dinner, not a beer garden, and people are zombie-grade exhausted and still getting ready to show—but Lyle banters between songs and gives shout-outs, and people catcall and cheer. He saves “If I Had A Boat” for the finale (you know: “If I had a boat / I’d go out on the ocean /And if I had a pony / I’d ride him on my boat,” etc., with that crowd-pleasing line about Tonto finally telling the Lone Ranger to kiss his ass.). Then the band brings down the house with a blazing “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” with McCuller on that final, soaring vocal, and everyone goes home happy.
Philip and I make one last stop in the main arena, where riding/training for tomorrow is in full swing. We sit in the stands with Mandy and some friends. Two guys in our peanut-gallery group, both trainers who moved from Germany to be here in Reining-central, USA, start chatting to each other in German, and Philip joins in.
Down in the arena, it’s fencing time: the riders line up their horses at the short ends and take turns galloping across, sliding almost right into the wall. This is how you train. In order to get a good slide, the horse needs to be loose and relaxed on the rundown; he needs to think he’s running to the end—otherwise he’ll set up and think about the stop and tighten up. You want him at an open, rhythmic gallop, so you when you say “whoa” and push on your stirrups and pitch loose the reins, he’ll hit the deck in one smooth move and slide twenty or thirty feet. Power and effortlessness together: the holy grail of sport.
When one of our crew hits a good one, Mandy whistles approval. In the stands, we pass our phones back and forth, showing pictures and videos. We’re all ribbing Arno, one of the Germans, about Joe’s impersonation of him, caught on camera by Tom’s Virtual Horse Help website team. (Joe trains out of the McCutcheons’ ranch and generally keeps everyone entertained.) With all the foreigners in the sport—Germans, Italians, French, Brazilians, eg.—there’s a lot of bantering about people’s accents, etc.
The reining world’s pretty family-ish and small. Everyone knows everyone, and is generally friendly and ready to have a good time, even at midnight in the cold in Oklahoma City, in the midst of the most high-pressure show of the year.
A taste of the scene here from VirtualHorseHelp.com:
Kinda more of the same, but skip ahead to 4:00 to see Joe impersonating Arno…
Continue to Part II…