Before Boyd Rice became the hottest trainer in the performance-horse world, he was a hardworking horseman in the Texas Panhandle.
Before Boyd Rice became the hottest trainer in the performance-horse world, he was a hardworking horseman in the Texas Panhandle.
The squeak of tennis shoes, the thump of a basketball and a referee’s shrill whistle echo through a small gymnasium in Spearman, a little town in the upper reaches of the Texas Panhandle. On this cold January evening, the bleacher crowd is sprinkled with cowboy hats—ranchers and farmers sitting with their wives, watching their sons and grandsons play basketball.
Wearing a heavy black coat and dusty hat, Boyd Rice sits with his in-laws and watches his nephew run up and down the court. When the game ends, most of the folks stick around to talk about cattle prices and the much-needed moisture they got the day before. Boyd listens to an old-timer tell him a story and then ask how the cutting horses are getting along.
Most of these folks have known Boyd for 20 years, and they’ve known his wife, Halee, and her family all their lives. Other than Boyd and Halee’s two boys having moved out of the house and their daughter growing like a weed, people haven’t seen much change in the Rices during their recent run of show-ring success.
Three months later, Boyd and Halee are in a much larger arena, this one in Fort Worth. The crowd comes to life as Boyd and his horse Third Cutting work their first cow in the open finals of the National Cutting Horse Association Super Stakes, held last April. Third Cutting coils and slithers through the dirt, matching every darting attempt the cow makes at returning to the herd.
The team has already marked big scores through the go-rounds, but it’s obvious the horse and rider are going all-out tonight. Like other Rice family members who also show cutters, Boyd isn’t content with second place.
He cuts two more ideal cows—ones he had selected while studying the herd earlier—then lets the judges see how quick, cowy and deep his horse works under pressure. Third Cutting moves left and right in sync with the cow, stopping with his hocks in the dirt and holding the cow in the middle of the arena. The buzzer rings and the scoreboard flashes 230 points, one of the highest scores ever posted at the event.
It’s Boyd’s first Super Stakes win and his second cutting title in Will Rogers Coliseum in nine months. During that span he also won American Quarter Horse Association world championships in both senior and junior cutting, and qualified two horses to the NCHA Futurity open finals. Last year, horses he showed in NCHA and National Reined Cow Horse Association competition earned more than $540,000. He won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2007, was reserve in the same event in 2005 and won an NCHA world title that year.
Without a doubt, Boyd is the hottest trainer and showman in the Western performance-horse industry.
The 44-year-old has been showing cutting horses since he was 7. His father, uncle and cousin are NCHA Hall of Fame riders. But Boyd never made big headlines until 2005. He attributes his success to the horses, his help, customers, family, Halee and plenty of luck.
“It finally took off,” he laughs. “It sure took awhile.”
Despite Boyd’s efforts to downplay his own role, his friends and family point to his unrelenting work ethic—those grueling days riding and chasing cows in his round pen south of Spearman.
SPEARMAN LIES 93 MILES north of Amarillo, among small cattle ranches and irrigated fields of cotton and maize. The agricultural town has less than 3,000 residents, a number that has been steadily declining since the 1980s.
The Texas Panhandle might not record the most snowfall or the lowest temperatures, but many swear it’s one of the coldest regions in the United States. Cold fronts regularly blast off the Rocky Mountains and cut across the flat, treeless High Plains. Ranchers spend winters breaking ice in stock tanks and checking calving heifers in snowstorms that hit with little warning. In the summer, dust clouds and heat refractions float atop a flat, unimpressive landscape. The wind never stops blowing, either driving people away to better climates or beating a resilient character into those who remain.
“It ain’t the rosiest place in the world,” says Hadley Reed, Halee’s brother, who makes his living running cattle, shoeing horses and building chaps on the side. “But I’d rather work here digging ditches and making two dollars a day than be making $400,000 a year living in one of them cities. I like the country atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody will help you.
“A guy up here says that anybody that would stay here must be pretty easy to get along with because they already put up with the weather and all the other adversities.”
It’s no surprise Halee had to venture outside of Spearman for a boy from Central Texas to find her. She was in Douglas, Wyoming, watching Hadley compete in saddle-bronc riding at the National High School Rodeo Association finals. Boyd was there competing in boys cutting.
“It was the end of July, before Boyd was a senior,” Halee recalls. “I’d already been to college. We started talking on the phone. By Christmas we had decided to get married. And we got married June 6.
“All I can say is we’ve been really lucky because we never had a date. We just talked on the phone. We went to the movies one time before we got married, but his mom went with us, so I don’t call that a date. We’ve never had any trouble. I like to be with him. We don’t do very good when we’re not together.”
After they married, the two moved into a trailer home and Boyd began training horses for his dad, Sonny Rice, in Corsicana, Texas. At the time, Sonny was a top cutting horse trainer and later won an NCHA World Championship on Jazzote. Sonny certainly passed along his drive to win to his two sons, Matlock and Boyd.
“It was first place or nothing for me,” Sonny says. “All of the Rices have been real aggressive, sometimes too aggressive.
“Both of my boys were hard workers. That’s all they knew. And when they marked a 74, I’d tell them that they did good, but I’d concentrate more on telling them what they did wrong. I probably didn’t brag on them as much as I should have, but I think it helped them. If somebody ain’t telling you what you’re doing wrong, you ain’t going to learn.”
After working for his dad for a year and a half, Boyd was ready to try training horses on his own. Spearman, of all places, was where he wanted to go, and for reasons beyond letting Halee be closer to her family.
“Boyd liked the people up here, and I think he liked the fact that there weren’t so many people,” Hadley says.
The Rices moved to Spearman in January 1985, buying the house they still live in today. Their first son, Tatum, was born the same year. Many thought Boyd would never ride a good horse again as long as he lived so far outside of cutting horse country. And for many years, they were right.
“He broke a bunch of colts for people around here, a lot of horses that never had any aspirations of being in the cutting pen,” Hadley says. “He wasn’t getting many horses to train. Me and Boyd used to go shoe horses at a feedlot, and he wasn’t doing it because he liked to shoe horses. And he ran some yearlings of his own. Me, him and Daddy used to partner on some calves.
“Boyd had to do a lot of things other than train horses to make it up here.”
Boyd and Halee also bought yearling cutting horses at NCHA sales in Fort Worth, started them on cattle, then resold them the following year.
“Boyd always had enough horses to ride that we got by,” Halee says. “It wasn’t ever terrible hard times. Selling the 2-year-olds helped us make a living.
“And when we took those horses to the NCHA sales [during major aged events], we’d also go sit in the practice pen and Boyd would watch people work. He always said he could learn something from anybody, whether it was something you wanted to do or something you didn’t want to do.
“He’d sit there for hours and watch. And he’s also always been quick to call people and ask them questions. Even now he still does that.”
During this time, Boyd and Halee raised three children—sons Tatum, 24, and Tarin, 20, and daughter Trea, 11. Both boys have moved out and also show cutting horses. Tatum competes in non-pro events. Tarin recently got married and trains professionally, working out of Boyd’s facility.
In 1998, Boyd’s rider earnings jumped from $2,353 to $22,744, thanks in part to a mare named Can You Handle It, owned by Woody Bartlett. She and Boyd qualified for the 1998 NCHA Futurity semifinals and won the Memphis Futurity in 1999.
During 1999, Boyd’s horses won $112,225. By then, the Four Sixes Ranch was sending him horses to train, including Ginnin Attraction, who won more than $28,000 under Boyd. In 2000 and 2002, Boyd won the NCHA Gelding Stakes on Wild Doc Hickock and Brinks Banker, respectively.
He advanced to the NCHA Futurity finals for the first time in 2002 on Meradas Rockalena. He made the finals again the following year on Mighty Joe Merada.
Ever since, Boyd has been getting better horses from his customers. He says that makes a huge difference.
“It’s hard to win on those lesser horses,” Boyd says. “After awhile you kinda wonder, ‘Am I ever going to train one to win?’ And training 30-something horses every day is a lot different than working only two or three. Your timing gets better. Everything gets better.”
JUST WHEN HIS CUTTING CAREER was gaining traction, Boyd wanted to learn about reined cow horses. It started with entering the World’s Greatest Horseman competition in 2001. The cutting and roping events were familiar territory, but reining and turning a cow down the fence were entirely different for the lifelong cutter. Still, he missed qualifying for the final round by only a few points.
The following year, Boyd purchased a young Paint Horse named Deltas Color and entered the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity. They finished sixth in the open and third in the limited open.
“He’s one of the most natural individuals on a horse I’ve ever seen,” says Lloyd Cox, a cutting horse trainer and close friend. “When he started doing the snaffle bit, I knew he could do it. He can do anything horseback and make a horse do anything he wants it to do. He’s just got that ability.”
Boyd kept working at his new discipline, studying videos and learning from top cow horse trainers Robbie Boyce, Todd Crawford and Don Murphy. In 2005, he rode Playin Attraction, a Four Sixes horse, to the reserve title at the Snaffle Bit Futurity. At a premier show that has been dominated by West Coast trainers, many were surprised to see a cutting trainer from Texas place so high and come so close to winning the whole thing.
“He’s a cowboy,” Murphy says. “He’s not scared to go down that fence wide-open, knowing there might be a wreck at the other end. That bothers a lot of people. They don’t have that little bit of suicide in their mind.”
It was a breakout year for Boyd, whose rider earnings totaled more than $676,000 in 2005. He and his family spent more time on the road hauling to smaller weekend cutting events, campaigning Bobs Hickory Rio for the NCHA world championship. Boyd brought along his 3-year-old futurity prospects, working them in practice pens at shows across the country. They wrapped up the world championship in February 2006, a special victory because James Kenney, the horse’s owner and a friend of the Rices, had died a few days before.
In 2007, Boyd made his sixth trip to the Snaffle Bit Futurity. Riding Oh Cay N Short in the finals, he scored a 217 in the herd work, 213.5 in the reining, and a thrilling 222.5 going down the fence, enough to claim the Snaffle Bit Futurity Championship and $101,500. His undaunted performance in the fence work sealed the victory. While most cows run down the arena wall, Boyd’s cow broke down the center, forcing a turn with a much higher degree of difficulty.
“He made a mistake and let that cow get in the middle of the arena,” Murphy says. “But that’s where the cowboy came in. He hurried and turned that cow before it got to the end of the fence. He was riding for everything he had and made a good turn. If he didn’t cowboy up there, he’d have never won.”
Boyd believes his education in reined cow horse competition has made him a better cutter. His horses are now more supple and collected, and stop harder.
Last July, Boyd won the NCHA Derby on Peptos Stylish Sue, his first major title in Will Rogers Coliseum. At the same event, he finished third on Sails Lil Solano and reserve on ARC Cat Her Please in the 5/6-year-old division. At the AQHA world championships, he won the junior cutting on ARC Cat Her Please and the senior on Sophisticated Catt.
Qualifying two horses to the NCHA Futurity finals last December pushed his rider earnings for 2008 to $540,920.
WITH A THRONG OF REPORTERS pointing their recorders in his face, Boyd takes an uncomfortable step backward. Shortly after his phenomenal 230 score in the Super Stakes finals, Will Rogers Coliseum is abuzz, and writers and photographers try to capture every expression and word the champion utters.
“My horse has been good all week and I haven’t had to do much with him,” he tells them, taking another step back. “Halee warmed him up a little bit longer this time because he’s been a little wild. We got the cattle we wanted and everything came together. We just got lucky.”
In many ways, he’s correct. At every show, talented riders and horses run into sorry cows, or health issues, or suspect judging, or simply an off day. Boyd has had his fair share of tough breaks and near misses that kept him from big wins. He’s also walked into the herd plenty of times when he didn’t have a chance of winning. Whether it was bad luck, bad showmanship or not enough horsepower, he’s learned to simply head back to his round pen in Spearman and keep working at it.
“I just try to be consistent,” he says. “If I have a bad show, I go home and go right back at it. When you win, you win. When you don’t, you don’t. If you’ve got good horses and you get them trained, you’re usually going to win some money. And if your horses aren’t good enough, there ain’t anything you can do about it.”
After the Super Stakes, Boyd, Halee and their family spent most of the day driving home to Spearman. The next morning, Boyd was back on his horses.
Now, instead of working in his old round pen, good fortune has moved him into a newly constructed indoor arena. A couple of years before that was built, Boyd and Halee considered moving to Jacksboro, about 70 miles from Fort Worth. But that never materialized.
“We never found the right place,” Boyd says. “They wanted too much money down there. One of the reasons we thought about moving was so we’d be home more, so we could be with Trea more. But it just didn’t work out.”
Hadley was glad his sister and brother-in-law stayed.
“I told Halee that one of these days her kids are all going to be gone, and my kids are going to be gone,” Hadley says. “Right now Boyd’s the hot deal, and I hope he has success for years to come. But Father Time is going to get ahold of him. One of these days, me and [my wife] Sonia and Halee and Boyd is all we’re going to have.”
Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected].