The Wright Way

San Juan family seals its equine legacy at Reno futurity
Walter Wright grew up around horses in San Juan Bautista in the
1930s, but decided to study psychology at San Jose State.
After his first job interview at a mental hospital, he told them
the job should go to somebody else and he came back home to the
ranch.

I put my boots on and told my dad, ‘I’m
San Juan family seals its equine legacy at Reno futurity

Walter Wright grew up around horses in San Juan Bautista in the 1930s, but decided to study psychology at San Jose State.

After his first job interview at a mental hospital, he told them the job should go to somebody else and he came back home to the ranch.

“I put my boots on and told my dad, ‘I’m going to use all my psychology on horses,'” he said.

A lifetime of accomplishments in the world of quarter horses later, he’s still going head to head with horses. The hale 78-year-old with the boyish smile still wears cowboy boots, and he still spends his days training horses on the mountainous trails surrounding his San Juan Canyon Road ranch. He’s bred and trained legendary stallions such as Smokum Oak and Smokums Prize, who won more money in reined cow horse competition than any horse.

In 2000, he and his wife, Sharon, were named Breeders of the Year of reined cow horses. This month Walter Wright, whose philosophy of gentle, effective training has made him a legend in the horse world, was named Stock Horseman of the Year.

The Stock Horseman of the Year honor, which is akin to a lifetime achievement award for members of the National Reined Cow Horse Association, was given to him at the recent World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno.

“I was really surprised because my wife knew it for 30 days and didn’t tell me,” said Wright, that boyish smile flashing across his grandfatherly face.

Now his youngest son Justin, 16, is following in his father’s boot-steps by wowing the reined cow horse world. It’s why when Walter Wright’s children and grandchildren were at the awards banquet dinner, he thought they showed up to support Justin, who was competing for the first time and came home with three belt buckles.

“When I walked in I thought, ‘Boy, they’re supporting Justin real good,'” he said.

When they called out his name as Stock Horseman of the Year he was in the middle of slicing his meat.

“I was really shocked,” said Wright. “I was honored and shocked both. I never thought I’d get it.”

“He had not one clue,” said Justin, chuckling over the memory of his dad frozen and flabbergasted.

But one thing that Walter does have a clue about is breeding and training horses.

Wright’s Quarter Horses is a five-acre spread of buildings, stables, fenced rings and dust at the bottom of San Juan Canyon. With a 1,500-acre spread in Milpitas and 600-acres of land leased from a neighbor, the ranch has plenty of room for a horse breeding and training operation. About 40 horses are born on ranch every year, and of those they keep only the best, which sometimes means only one horse.

“I think we have, well, I know we have some of the best stock in the United States,” said Walter, who stakes his reputation on using the best training on the best horses.

It’s a considerable reputation.

“He’s the best in the western part of the United States,” says Mary Little of Gilroy, who was at the ranch looking to buy a horse Friday. “He’s got a reputation for quality horses, honesty, integrity.”

Her sister Sandy Voechting, who already owns a few Wright horses, was with her.

“If you buy one and it kind of backslides in its training, you bring it over and he’ll fix it, he’ll put it back,” says Voechting. “Maybe you spoiled it a little, and he’ll fix it. I really like that.”

Panoche trainer Don Douglas, who originally moved from Montana to work with Wright, was surprised when he arrived to learn he keeps a low profile locally.

“I thought there would be a sign in San Juan that said ‘Home of Walter Wright,’ – that’s how important he is in the horse world,” Douglas said. “Everybody should know what he has done to improve breeding and training.”

For 15 years Douglas worked with Wright, observing his training methods.

“He really knows horses so well, he can get them to act the way he wants them to act really fast because he gets right into the core of the horse,” Douglas said. “It mainly has to do with getting a horse’s attitude right. Horses have respect for him, and they kind of want to please him on account of that respect. They want to get along with him, and that’s the key to it. He can get that attitude shaped up right. He was influenced by some of the real old-timers, and those old-timers learned from the vaqueros. So a lot of the things he is using he picked up from traditional methods.”

The Wrights’ way with horses must be in the blood. Walter’s son, Justin, is beginning his lifetime of horsemanship with a bang, or rather, a buckle. The sixteen-year-old earned $6,000 and three buckles at the futurity by out-riding most of the 400 horses and trainers at the event.

“It’s a huge, huge accomplishment,” says Mike Brautovich, a wiry leather-skinned horseman from Aromas who’s been competing against Justin for five years. “I’ve been doing it since 1992, I’ve probably shown 25 horses, and I’ve only made the finals one time.”

Rick Drayer, Board Member of NRCHA, says he’s pretty sure it’s the only time a first-timer, who was also the youngest rider, has made it into the finals.

“As young as he was and whupping on everybody, this could be the start of a Tiger Woods,” says Drayer.

All told, Wright took a buckle for being the youngest rider, a buckle for finishing in the top five of the Amateur Division, and a buckle for a third place tie in the Limited Non-Pro Division. He’s already got that piece of silver hitched to a belt.

“I’m excited that I could do that the first year I went out. I’m still in disbelief,” says Justin.

Justin Wright is a skinny kid, unaffected, round faced, and soaked to the bones in horses. When he’s not spinning his sweating buckskin horse, Mr. Hollywood Rooster, he sits in the saddle, slouching and listening. It’s as comfortable as a sofa to him; his favorite place to be. For the last three years he’s been home schooled, so his time in the saddle training horses counts towards his physical education requirements. That suits him fine because, unlike his father, he doesn’t plan to go away for college.

“Everybody asks me where I’m gonna go to college and what I’m gonna do, and I kind of think I’m in college right now,” says Justin Wright.

Drayer says Justin is an excellent pupil of the business, and recalls visits to the Wright ranch to buy horses when Justin seemed to have a better sense of the horse’s bloodlines than his father.

“We’d go out to look at mares and Walter would have to carry this little book with all the information in it,” says Drayer. “But Justin knew it off the top of his head.”

Knowing the lines of ancestry is a major part of reined cow horse competition, where certain lines, such as Doc Bar, are proven by success in competition. The sport itself has a long tradition that dates back to the earliest days of California’s cowboy culture.

The story of the reined cow horse begins in the 18th century, when the Spanish vaqueros were driving cattle around their massive land grant ranches. Over the decades and through informal competition, they perfected certain horsemanship techniques, such as spinning in place, or quickly pulling up to a dusty stop, or elegantly changing lead legs while loping as they honed their skills at herding cattle.

As California’s ranches began to be parceled off or disappear, so too, the legacy of the cow horse began to fade. But in the 1930s California horsemen and women moved to preserve the horsemanship heritage by forming the National Reined Cow Horse Association. An important aspect of that tradition is the snaffle bit, a special mouthpiece attached to the reins with which you gently guide the 2-year-old horses through their training. To give riders an incentive to train with the snaffle bit instead of rushing into the hackamore bridle, the NRCHA developed the competition, or “futurity.” It’s called a futurity because the debuting young horses are the future of the sport.

In 1971, 27 horses competed in the first snaffle bit futurity in Sacramento, this year 400 horses from around the world competed in Reno for a top prize of $100,000.

As with all horse competitions, there are plenty of classes, so everyone has about three chances to compete. Reined horse competition consists of three events: herd work, rein work and cow work. For herd work the rider approaches a herd of 30 steers and by zigging and zagging and darting and ya!-ing he or she pulls out one steer at a time and moves them around the ring. The rider gets three minutes to get as many steers as he or she can, but points are awarded for the quality of control over the animal, with a score of 240 being perfect. At Reno, Justin notched a 216.5 for herd work, second best amongst amateurs.

“That was my strongest event, because my horse likes it a little more,” says Justin.

For the next phase of the contest, rein work, the rider demonstrates the age old vaquero skills by riding in a figure eight while changing the horse’s lead legs, then comes to a sliding stop and spins in place. But as the sport evolves riders are tweaking some of the traditional styles, adding more bends and twists.

Brautovich thinks Justin’s success is owed in part to his willingness to evolve.

“His family is not afraid to let him go out to other trainers and learn the new modern techniques that are going on, to incorporate with his vaquero type of training, because if you don’t stay up, you’re going to fall behind, and pretty soon you’re going to be obsolete,” says Brautovich.

The third part of reined horse competition, cow work, or fence work, pits a single steer against the horse and rider, who must run the steer back and forth along the fence at top speed.

Add the points up and then hand out the cash and buckles.

Like any great competitor Justin isn’t content to rest on his recent accomplishments. He’s already setting his sights on next year. The first thing he did when he came home was to begin eyeing the 2-year-olds, looking for his 2003 horse.

“I’ll be better prepared next year, just knowing what it takes to be there,” says Justin, who thinks he can improve his “finishing,” which refers to the way the horse carries itself in the ring.

Justin is now preparing for the next event on the snaffle bit calendar, the IRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in Caldwell, Idaho next week. He says that plenty of people have come around to congratulate him, but they haven’t begun doling out advice, which is fine with him.

He thinks he can do pretty well if he maintains the same simple psychological approach to his horse that he learned from his father: don’t push him, don’t make him mad.

“I’m keeping it the same, just trying not to screw him up,” says Justin.

And he didn’t have to go to San Jose State to learn it. He just sat at his father’s knee.

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