In eastern Pennsylvania, where English horse sports dominate, reiner Matt Palmer is an anomaly. Equally incongruous in the reining world, he is not only competing from a home base in Pennsylvania rather than Texas or Oklahoma, the center of the reining universe, but he's also the youngest competitor at his level.
And that level is the very top. Matt will be competing July 10 at the Battle in the Saddle competition at State Fair Park in Oklahoma City. The venue will host the USEF National Open Reining Championship and Official United States Equestrian Team Selection Trial for the United States Reining Team. It is the qualifying event that selects the U.S. reining team that will compete at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Matt hopes to be one of the four chosen from a field of 25 riders to represent the US at the first World Equestrian Games to be held in the United States.
At age 28, Matt will be the competition's youngest rider and, riding out of Palmer Performance, Inc. in Elverson, Berks County, PA, one of only two riders from the northeastern US.
Whale of a Whiz
Matt's partner is Whale of a Whiz, a 15 hand chestnut quarter horse gelding. At seven, even his horse is young. The pair took a decisive step toward the team with a win at the 2010 National Reiners Breeding Classic in Katy, TX in mid-April, where they competed in two qualifiers. The duo scored a 224 to earn the Gold Medal in both the CRI2* and USEF classes. Previously they had finished third in the FEI class at the All American Quarter Horse Congress with a score of 222.5. To qualify for the selection trials, USEF long listed riders were required to show at three CRI shows between April 1, 2009 and May 15, 2010. Their points were totaled to create a list of 30 qualifiers.
Whale of a Whiz (aka Montana) was a $15,000 gamble, purchased two years ago at the National Reining Horse Association Merkel Insurance Marketplace Sale.
"People weren't sure if he was going to be sound, he had some issues where he got hurt, he went through the sale and people didn't take a chance on him. He's like that athlete that gets a second chance," Matt said. "I have a great kid (Jason Franks) who takes care of him; I have great sponsors that give me great supplements. Everything just worked and right now we're living the dream. He's won $78,000 and he's about to have a chance at being a superstar.
"This horse, he knows when he's in there and that's what he lives for, I think. That's why we've been so successful. When you have one with a mind and a heart like that they can overcome a lot of things.
"I've had tons of offers but he's caught my heart, we'll never sell him. Look at all the green pastures we have that he can go out and have fun in."
Reining = Precision
In reining, riders guide their horses through a precise pattern of circles, spins, and runs, performed at a lope and a gallop, lead changes and stops. The cues must be imperceptible and the horse 100 percent willing. Patterns vary but all require movements including a fast gallop to a sliding stop – a complete halt where the horse plants his front feet, which continue to walk, while the hind feet slide well under his belly. Horses must also back ten feet, stand stock still between movements and spin on an inside hind leg up to four and a quarter rotations, ending in a precise spot. All that with a loop in the reins and without perceptible movement of the rider's hand.
Matt calls reining 'dressage at a fast pace with a rowdy crowd.'
"The horse has to gallop full out and then stop and collapse his body til his belly is twelve inches off the ground. To get those plusses (from the judges) – you need to do something the next guy can't. So when it says two large fast (circles) to the left, you have to run those circles fast, put your hand down, not even touch the horse and come perfectly through center hitting your mark completely. Then when you sit down and ask him to go slow, they don't want to see you pick your hand up and the horse's mouth open. You just want to put your body weight down and relax and go from 90 miles an hour to five miles an hour without breaking stride. So what you're asking this horse mentally to do with the crowd screaming and everyone going nuts is a lot, and you're not even supposed to move your hand," he explained.
Baseball Career Sidetracked
Matt's dream was to be a major league baseball player, and he was climbing the divisions when a rotator cuff injury brought that dream to a screeching halt.
So he turned to the other thing at which he was a standout – horses. Matt was a World Champion in the 13 and under and 14-18 ranks and a silver medal USET Young Rider in college. When he got hurt, he said, "I knew I was going to start training."
The physicality of reining works for the athlete in Matt. Reining, he says, is not that far removed from professional sports.
"Reining attracts a lot of professional athletes, people you would never think would be into horses," he said, naming football's Brian Westbrook as one example.
"I need to go to the gym daily. I read sports books and I learn from other sports. I like the physical part – If you're stronger and more athletic than the next guy it means you can stop a little harder, you can run your circles faster because your body can take it," he said. "That's a big ball in my court; it's helped me to get to where I'm going.
"Things can fall apart easily. It's not something you can just get on and do. You have to put in your time at home or you're not going to win."
Matt grew up with horses, as did his mom, Joan. Joan's dad bought and sold horses from the family farm in Kennett Square, and Joan started training at age 13. Matt's dad, Guy, preferred riding western, so the family went in that direction, showing quarter horses under both English and western tack, and then transferring to reining about 20 years ago, "just as it became popular," Joan said. The entire family is successful – Guy is one of reining's top non-pros.
The family bought the beautiful hilltop land outside Elverson where Palmer Performance LLC now stands 21 years ago. They purchased 70 acres, and kept just the 25 acres in the center of the parcel. A long driveway winds up the hill to the quiet, peaceful facility surrounded by pastures and hayfields.
Fit and Happy
Matt's training focuses on keeping Whale of a Whiz (and the other 17 horses, the maximum he will accept, in training) fit and happy. "(Montana's) so good at this, a lot of times I'll let mom jog him around. I keep him in good shape physically but I don't overdo it. I do a lot of quiet things, to make sure he's completely soft. Sometimes I'll jog a pattern to slow everything down for him," Matt said.
"A lot of it is keeping him physically fit and mentally happy. He's turned out an hour a day and has a routine so everything is the same every day. I read a lot of sports books and I've learned that you don't press your turbo every day. I want him to be happy with me and he'll perform a lot better.
"My goal is to be able to take this horse's body and do whatever I want to do with it. That's what makes a great horse."
Three Person Operation
Matt, Joan and Jason Franks are the farm's three person team, doing everything from cleaning stalls to giving lessons to training. They have about 14 customers, among whom are a six million dollar breeder in Oklahoma who sent Matt two "phenomenally bred" four year old mares. Matt is showing them in small east coast events this year, getting them broke and ready for the big money shows in 2011. Both won their first competitions with Matt in the saddle.
Five students have attended college on full equestrian scholarships, competing on the universities' NCAA equestrian teams. Another student is Lexie Stovall, daughter of Grand Prix jumper rider Patti Stovall, who, Joan says with delight, won her very first competition.
Palmer Performance, Inc. is expanding its facility to accommodate the growing east coast and European interest in reining, and the growing interest in Matt as a trainer. A 200 foot long arena will allow Matt to show off the sliding stop he's put on his sale horses regardless of the weather or season. Buyers who fly in from Europe will be able to relax in the comfort of a new heated viewing room with wet bar.
At Battle in the Saddle, Matt will have one shot to make it to the World Equestrian Games. Each entry has two rides; the scores are totaled. The top four riders will represent the US in Kentucky in September.
Matt will compete at the selection trials, as he does at every competition, dressed in black. He wore all black in the first competition after his sister, Sherri, died of breast cancer at age 30 in 2007. He won that competition, the Spring Celebration Derby, in tribute to his sister. "She had stopped riding but she was my supporter. I took her articles about me and she loved reading them. I started believing she was always on my side somewhere."
Looking forward to the World Equestrian Games, Matt said, "There are million dollar riders in our industry. There will only be 30 of us and I think we all like competing against the top level guys. This is the highest profile event ever in our sport. I'll be competing against the fathers of our sport, and I understand they want it as bad as I do. I might not be in the right geographic area but I'm coming from the east.
"It's a dream competing against the guys I used to watch when I was a kid. I had their pictures on my wall and now I'm standing next to them on the podium. It's a dream come true for a young guy."
NHRA President Rick Weaver of Fairview, PA, who has been involved in reining for 39 years, is the other northeastern US finalist for the WEG selection trials.