At the Top of Their Game

The 2019 NRHA Professionals of the Year represent all corners of the reining industry.

By Jennifer Paulson

It takes a diverse group of people to make a strong community, including the group of NRHA Professionals who show our horses, coach our non pros and youth, and represent our sport center-stage. That diversity in terms of backgrounds and professional paths is well represented in the 2019 NRHA Professionals of the Year.

Each year, NRHA affiliates nominate NRHA Professionals for recognition. Eligible nominees are then voted on by the pros. Each recognized professional will receive a pair of custom spurs from NRHA Corporate Partner Montana Silversmiths.

Becky Hanson Horsewoman of the Year: Abby Mixon
Hometown: Marietta, Oklahoma
NRHA LTE: $391,480

Abby Mixon, Becky Hanson Horsewoman of the Year (Photo by Kaycie Timm)

When the call came from NRHA Professionals Committee Chairman Patrick Flaherty to share the good news about Abby Mixon’s recognition, Mixon was in Ohio at her grandmother’s funeral.

“The call came at a perfect time,” Mixon said. “I was very close to my grandma, and I know she’d be super-proud of me. She wasn’t a horsewoman, but she was supportive of me.”

Also proud are Mixon’s parents—her dad is NRHA Professional Don Boyd. While Mixon’s family lived in Italy when Boyd was training horses there, Mixon met the award’s namesake, former NRHA Professional and Board member Becky Hanson. Mixon said that gives the award an extra-special feel.

A horsewoman has to be able to dust off her jeans and get back in the saddle after a setback, and that’s key advice Mixon shares with her customers of all phases in their reining endeavors.

“Don’t worry about failing,” she advised. “It’s OK to make a mistake or for your horse to make a mistake. We all want to be good all the time, but this is something I’ve had to learn, too. I had to learn to be brave enough to be bad and learn from my failures and mistakes. The key is in correcting them and moving forward.

“We [professionals] all work really hard,” Mixon continued. “We do it because we love it, so that makes it special to be recognized for the hard work we put in. It’s all the little things you do that get you nominated and chosen as a recipient. It’s about hard work and dedication rather than lifetime earnings. Receiving recognition for a job done well feels great.”

Horseman of the Year: Craig Schmersal
Hometown: Scottsdale, Arizona
NRHA LTE: $4,322,047

Craig Schmersal, 2019 NRHA Horseman of the Year
Craig Schmersal, Horseman of the Year (Photo courtesy of Craig Schmersal)

“Growing up, I had one goal: to be a top NRHA Professional,” Craig Schmersal shared. “Nothing else interested me along the way—it was pretty much this or nothing for me. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and we’ve worked hard—my wife, family, team, and myself—to get here and stay here.”

Schmersal has achieved his childhood goal and has too many horseback accolades to list. He’s made the NRHA Futurity Open finals every year since 1997 and last year capped off a starring role as a #TrophyHusband on The Last Cowboy by winning a real trophy and taking home the co-championship from the Million Dollar Invitational at the Run for a Million.

“In our industry, the biggest compliment you can receive is to be called a horseman,” Schmersal asserted. “That’s what I’ve been working for my whole career. I want to win, but I want to be a horseman who puts the horse first.”

He draws from many pieces of wisdom shared with him throughout his career, but Schmersal always comes back to a piece of advice given to him by NRHA Professional Mike Flarida: Eliminate confusion. He follows this both in training horses and coaching riders.

“Keep things black and white, and eliminate confusion,” the NRHA Four Million Dollar Rider advised. “Also, don’t be too greedy. I see too many young trainers make the mistake of being greedy, and it causes a lot of long-term issues.”

Schmersal noted he enjoys the cyclical nature of the aged-event industry.

“The 3-year-olds are full of potential—we never know how they’ll shake out,” he shared. “It gives you an opportunity to cultivate talent. The interesting part is when the ones who show promise don’t deliver, and the ones you might’ve counted out show you what they really have. Over the years, I’ve learned they can change so much. It’s made me much slower to count one out.”

Non Pro Coach of the Year: Jared Leclair
Hometown: Tioga, Texas
NRHA LTE: $798,807

Jared Leclair, Non Pro Coach of the Year (NRHA File Photo)

Coaching isn’t something that came naturally to Jared Leclair. But once he found himself in the position to coach some of Tim McQuay’s top non pros when he worked for the NRHA Hall-of-Famer, he embraced the opportunity and ran with it. His success is reflected in this award.

“At first, I was super-quiet,” Leclair revealed. “I had to learn to be different if I wanted to be good at it. I ride with a lot of feel, so I had to learn how to explain what I feel when I ride. My wife and customers have helped me learn to do that and become a better coach.”

Leclair coaches non pros of all levels and enjoys the process. 

“Bringing my clients along to reach their goals is a fun journey and process,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, putting yourself out there, and it’s worth it when they reach a goal. I tell my customers it’s all about the journey. You’re only in the show pen for a few minutes, so as a group, we focus on the journey. We have a very tight-knit group.”

Instilling confidence in his riders is job No. 1 in Leclair’s program. He related it to starting a young horse: without confidence, it’s hard to teach them. Similarly, he identifies what type of personality they have and how they respond to pressure and adjusts his program accordingly. It’s that adaptability that makes him stand out.

“I like to find out how a person absorbs things; how they learn best,” he shared. “They all learn differently, so they all need to be coached differently. There are a lot of variables—experience, mindset, personality—but I try to find what’s best for my customers.”

Youth Coach of the Year: Mark Guynn
Hometown: Berthoud, Colorado
NRHA LTE: $6,401

Mark Guynn, Youth Coach of the Year
Mark Guynn, Youth Coach of the Year (Photo courtesy of Mark Guynn)

Mark Guynn calls his approach to training horses and coaching riders “cooperative.” This mindset led him to successfully coach not only NRHA youth and non pro riders and prepare their horses for competition, but also all-around riders and their horses and those who participate on the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) teams he leads. Guynn currently mentors 30 IEA riders, nurturing the young riders’ passion for horses and riding and giving the kids and their parents opportunities to experience the benefits of riding and horses firsthand.

He calls coaching  his niche, so it’s fitting he’d be recognized with the Youth Coach of the Year award for 2019.

“I was pretty surprised when I found out I’d been nominated,” Guynn noted. “When Pat [Flaherty] called me to tell me I’d won the award, I was shocked! It’s quite an honor.”

Accolades recognizing your talents always feel good, but Guynn said these awards are especially gratifying because of who chooses the recipients.

“It’s voted on by our peers; not our customers,” he said. “It means a lot to be nominated, but it’s humbling to be chosen by my peers. It makes me want to go out and work even harder.”

In his years horseback, Guynn has gleaned many lessons. But the one that stands out most involves patience.

“Don’t try to be an overnight superstar,” he said. “You didn’t learn everything you know in kindergarten, so you can’t expect yourself or your horse to learn everything overnight. Take a video of yourself the first time you show a new horse or at the start of the season. Put it away, and take another video a few months later. Then watch them and compare. You’ll see progress. You can’t expect to learn it all immediately.”

Up-and-Coming Professional: Cade McCutcheon
Hometown: Tioga, Texas
NRHA LTE: $1,073,911

Cade McCutcheon, Up-and-Coming Professional of the Year (NRHA File Photo)

In 2019, you couldn’t look at many elite show results and not find Cade McCutcheon’s name at or near the top of the scores. His dominance of the open aged events, from L4 through L2, allowed him to accumulate more than $600,000 to add to his NRHA LTE in his rookie year as a pro. 

Added to his non pro winnings, McCutcheon skyrocketed to NRHA Million Dollar Rider status with his crowning achievement of the year: winning the NRHA Futurity L4 Open title with Super Marioo, owned by Story Book Stables, plus the L3 and L2 titles.

“It was a good year,” McCutcheon said. “This is a good recognition to end it on.”

The best advice that helped McCutcheon achieve lofty milestones at the young age of 19: “Keep your head down and work hard,” he said. “Focus on the little things. Don’t worry about the big things. If you do all the little things right, the big picture falls into place.”

For other up-and-coming trainers, McCutcheon advised riding as many horses as possible. You can be sure that standard is what helped him set his big aspirations for 2020 as he enters his sophomore season as an NRHA Professional.

“I want to try and do the same as last year,” he asserted. “I’d like to win the NRBC. I’m a little nervous going into this year. I don’t want to have one big year and go downhill from there. It’s hard to stay on top, but that’s what I want to do as long as I can. My dad was a L4 only rider for 25 years in a row. I want to follow that. I want to be on top for a long time.”