By instilling ranch skills in off-the-track Thoroughbreds, South Dakota trainer Dale Simanton changes expectations of them and offers new careers for the horses he trains.
Perhaps success isn’t about a garland of roses, a large purse or a trophy filled to the brim with champagne. For the horses that enter Gate to Great, described by its founder as a rehabilitation program for off-the-track Thoroughbreds, dirt and turf tracks are too small to contain their potential.
Dale Simanton is willing to bet on the stragglers. His wagers, however, aren’t on them to win, or even take second or third in a race. Instead, he takes a chance that they will become useable, efficient mounts on the ranch and elsewhere. His training program gives Thoroughbreds fresh starts, not on how to run faster but on how to change their mentality. He takes horses skilled at running in high gear down the backstretch and downshifts their mindset toward purposeful work. The skills his horses learn at spring brandings and fall gatherings form the foundation on which their futures rest.
For Simanton, the trainer behind Gate to Great, creating this program was “a natural transition for just an old cowboy who likes Thoroughbreds.”
Simanton grew up on a ranch in Malta, Montana, about 40 miles south of Canada. His father was a trainer and traded hay for “washed up”, California Thoroughbreds. He says his father gave horses that were too slow in California a shot at winning on the local fair circuit. It wasn’t long before Simanton followed suit, and by the age of 12, he had acquired his first horse.
“I traded two cows and two calves for him, and he wasn’t worth it,” he says. “But I thought he was.”
That was a big year for the young trainer, who found his way to the winner’s circle soon after on the same horse.
“I won my first race when I was 12 years old and 76 pounds,” he says. “My dad headed me in the gate and said, ‘Get two handfuls of mane and hang on.’ I don’t think anybody who’s ever won a race forgot the name [of the horse] they won it on. Little Don was [his] name.”
Eventually, Simanton began day-working and training racehorses on the side. He held training licenses in six different states, and used ranch work to keep his horses physically and mentally fit year-round.
“When I was training racehorses, I also used them for ranch horses because that’s all I had to ride,” he says.
Responding to a newspaper ad for a stakes-winning mare, Simanton met Dorothy Snowden. The Tennessee native had grown up riding Thoroughbreds before taking a job in Colorado to pursue a career training trail service horses for the U.S. Forest Service. In the mid-1990s, she purchased a plot of land in western South Dakota near the Black Hills and began to stand a few Thoroughbred stallions, including Northern Ocean, by Greek Answer, and Double Cash, by Raja Baba. She called her budding breeding program Horse Creek Thoroughbreds.
Snowden sold Simanton the advertised mare, and in the process they realized their similar interest in Thoroughbreds—and in each other—and continued to develop Horse Creek Thoroughbreds. The ranch eventually owned more than 30 broodmares, with Simanton training their get for the track.
When the economy crashed in 2008, Simanton and Snowden found themselves with too many yearlings and in a tough situation.
“I had a bunch of yearlings I couldn’t sell,” Simanton says, “so I got this wild idea: I would watch for horses on TV that were slow, and get ahold of the trainers. I would trade some yearlings with hope for horses without any. And heck if it worked.”
Automobile, or “Auto,” was a rank stallion with $16,000 in earnings when he arrived at Horse Creek Thoroughbreds less than a year ago, “walking on his hind legs and hollering.”
“He wasn’t worth two dead flies,” says Simanton, who now uses revenue from Gate to Great to buy horses. The huge gray, by Two Punch and out of Beautiful Stranger by Foxhound, is a classic example of the horses Simanton works with.
Within 24 hours of Auto’s arrival, he was gelded and in the round pen 20 yards away from the house and barn. Simanton believes that the last thing a retired racehorse needs is to go right back to work, so he turns new arrivals out to pasture first thing to join a band of geldings.
“I found out, and not just with Thoroughbreds but any horse, you can turn them out, and when you bring them in, they’ve got better standing in the pasture,” he says, running his hand over Auto, tied to a hitching post and half asleep. “They’ll learn something and you didn’t even know they learned it. You go turn them out and they absorb [what you worked on]. They learn better if you don’t drill it. I turn [new horses] out anywhere from two to six months.”
Depending on the horse, the rehabilitation program is about two years long, enough time to work a branding and gathering, and learn to rope and ground tie. He stresses that ranch work is a cornerstone for the rest of the horse’s life.
“I think [ranch work is] the best foundation you can put on a horse,” he says. “It’s like sending a kid to high school. You’re supposed to go to high school to learn a new job, and get them ready to go to college. When they’re done here, they’re as good a trail horse as you can find. They walk where you point them. They’re not going to run off because you walked between two trees.”
The 10-year-old gray gelding is now a vital part of Simanton’s string. His large frame and stoic character made him indispensable in cleanup following the 2013 Winter Storm Atlas, which scourged nearby ranchers with unexpected loads of endless snow and killed tens of thousands of head of livestock.
Simanton favors gelding in his program because he thinks they’re easier to sell and manage in large numbers.
“Geldings get pretty ignorant and they’ll start fighting each other [over mares]. It’s just easier if I don’t have any mares around,” he says.
Time spent on the verdant fields gives minds and bodies an opportunity to untrack and mend. It’s not uncommon for retired Thoroughbreds to have sore backs and poor feet, a result of time spent on hard, fast tracks.
“That’s another reason why I turn them out—to let them heal up,” he explains, adding that some of “the worst shoers in the world are getting under the best horses in the world. You have to get their feet back under them, that’s the first thing.”
Simanton tacks up Auto. He keeps a small hook in the barn and uses it to reach under the belly for the cinch on new, skittish horses. Dozing Auto clearly doesn’t mind the reach, or much of anything at the moment.
“The next thing I do when I get these horses is throw away the snaffle bits,” he says as he slips a short-shanked, low-port bit into Auto’s mouth. “They’ve been running with [snaffles] for years, and I don’t want them to do that anymore. I try to change everything I can change.”
Simanton makes many of the bits he uses. The modified curb is designed to give the horse directional cues via its mouth, as most aren’t yet able to neck rein.
Ranch work and grueling hours require horses with substance, which is why he prefers horses around 16 hands tall.
“Most of my riding is helping on local ranches,” he says. “When I hire out, they’re paying me to do a job. I can’t sit there and say, ‘My horse won’t go.’”
He explains that while Gate to Great is a major source of his income, he still relies on day-work, and his horses must be able to do the job at hand in a timely manner.
“If I can get them to just walk, I can go do something on them,” he says, “because they already know how to run.
“I can teach a Thoroughbred cow work a heck of a lot faster than I can teach it to a human. You can put these horses to work for a couple weeks, and they get to be pretty good horses. Then you can keep using them.”
Some Gate to Great graduates go to work on ranches, but many find homes with beginner riders. He jokes he doesn’t want to sell his horses to broke cowboys, but instead to their “rich aunts.”
“My main clientele has been middle-aged women who want to get back into riding and don’t want to get hurt,” he says. “And I don’t want them to get hurt either. Most of them probably rode competitively when they were younger and want to get back into it. They want a horse they can trust.
“The hunter-jumper people like [my horses] because they’re not scared of stuff. The foxhunters love them because these horses are used to working around dogs. To really appreciate it, you have to see what some of these horses act like when they get here.”
With that, the off-the-track cowboy gets on his ex-racehorse, opens and closes a gate, and rides toward his two new coal-black Corriente bulls. The two have work to do, turning the bulls out with the heifers.
Back to the Track
In 2013, Simanton participated in America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest, a two-day competition hosted by the Retired Racehorse Project. It features ex-racehorses performing in their newfound disciplines, matching top jockeys and Olympic-level riders against the likes of a South Dakota cowboy. Simanton was the only cowboy out of 26 trainers to participate, and one of three asked to return in 2014.
“How hard can it be to train a horse that’s already been ridden 1,000 times?” he laughs. “They don’t have to be stupid to run. They don’t have to be ignorant, either.”
Held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, the event is designed to break stereotypes of former racehorses and show their versatility. Spectators vote in person and online for their favorite team, and the winner receives a $10,000 cash prize. Foxhunters, polo teams, and even a woman skilled in mounted police work gave demonstrations, but none were as calm as Simanton’s mounts. He brought five horses the first year; one to show and the others for experience or to sell.
“I was proud of my horses,” he recalls. “There were at most five head of horses that knew how to behave. For the most part, the horses were treated like racehorses, and that’s how they acted.”
This allowed Simanton’s horses to stand out among the rest, as they stood tied, most with a hind leg cocked.
One of the young participants had a difficult time dealing with her jigging, prancing horse. That year Simanton rode Drake’s Dancer, fondly called “Duck,” a gelding by Assembly Dancer, who is a grandson of Secretariat. The two calmly rode up to the young girl and offered assistance.
“We rode through the jumps, in and out of them, and back to the backside,” he says. “By the time we were halfway through the turn on her horse, he was walking just like Duck. I coached her along, ‘Just throw his head away and let him walk.’ I think that was the neatest part of the whole [competition]. I think that little girl learned something. She goes to school with trainers every day, and she’s probably going to be a pretty good hand. But so many people won’t let a horse relax.
“Show these horses something different to do, and they don’t really want to dance and prance around like that. There are a lot of horses that would benefit from [the rider] just throwing their head away.”
In October, Simanton rode in the competition on Rikim, a gelding by Van Nistelrooy and out of a Nureyev mare. The 15.3-hand overo had been in 75 races on 11 different tracks, with 12 wins and finishing in the money about 50 percent of the time. After years of crossing the wire, the 8-year-old gelding was due for a change and moved from Ohio to South Dakota. After five months of Gate to Great’s program, Rikim was back at the same track at which he broke his maiden run.
While the duo didn’t win the cash prize, Rikim got an opportunity to learn another skill, and stayed in Maryland awhile longer. The president of the Retired Racehorse Project, Steuart Pittman, offered to teach Rikim to jump and foxhunt, expanding his riding repertoire.
Back at the Ranch
Gate to Great typically has between 10 to 15 horses in training, and also is home to two retired stallions, Seeking Beauty and Finn McCool. The stallions are the top two Thoroughbred racing sires in South Dakota in 2014, according to bloodhorse.com.
Through their website, social media page and word of mouth, Simanton and Snowden sell horses and do their best to keep in touch with buyers. Each new owner receives a photo album about their horse that includes old racing photos and pictures of the horse’s journey at the ranch.
A recently launched incentive, the Gate to Great Enjoyment Program, encourages owners to get out and enjoy their reformed racehorses, whether at shows and clinics, or on the trail. The program gives points over a six-month period, and then presents prizes, including a “high-point” and “happiest horse” award.
Gate to Great provides reliable, versatile horses to all kinds of riders. Horses who washed out on the track venture out on more-fulfilling careers. The patient cowboy training them has a similar story.
“The things that are wrong with them aren’t their fault,” says Simanton, after he and Auto return from moving cattle.
He slowly unsaddles the gelding, turns him out to pasture, and lets the day’s lesson sink in.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Western Horseman.