Riding into North Texas Horse Country
For a place destined to surpass Los Angeles in size and sprawl, a tract just northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex keeps a tight rein on its country ways. Every mile or so along the blue highways of Denton County, the pickup banging along ahead of you pulls off into another horse farm.
Down long driveways they go — and visitors to North Texas armed with the right maps and guides can follow along behind.
What lies out of view behind miles of fences and inside cavernous barns is one of the country’s most concentrated horse-breeding areas, a place where an ancient pursuit of perfection is tackled before the second cup of coffee.
Take Dave Rhea’s morning rounds at Mandolynn Hill Farm, an operation in Pilot Point devoted to the breeding and care of Arabian horses. When he walks the main barn at Mandolynn Hill, Rhea looks for signs that any of his athletes need help.
Here, the horses do the whispering — and Rhea listens.
The farm manager looks in on the Arabians in their stalls — some of them fabled champions of the track.
“They talk to me,” he said. They speak, he means, through a body language that only the veteran breeder understands. “My first goal of the day is the well-being of the horses — that they’re happy and healthy. We’ve had a couple of snotty noses, but that’s common this time of year.”
Visitors to Denton Country can watch Rhea and dozens of breeders and trainers like him tend to some of the most beautiful horses to be found in Texas — or anywhere else. A Horse Country Trail Guide provided by area tourism bureaus and Chambers of Commerce lays out an easy day trip into a 912-square-mile area that contains some 300 horse farms and ranches.
Unlike some destinations promoted by tour guides, the Denton County horse country is a genuine place. The journey lets you stand next to million-dollar sires and watch trainers work to keep these expensive animals healthy and in demand.
While the region is most famous for the Quarter Horse, breeders on Denton County horse farms care for Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Paints and Andalusian horses. Their operations grew dramatically over the last 30 years, attracting a slew of supporting businesses and making horses the most important agricultural pursuit in the region.
At stores along backroads here, you can buy everything equine — including every potion ever invented to get a reluctant horse to stop chewing at itself (my no-nonsense favorites: No Chew, Chew Stop and the appetizing McNasty).
The Sonic restaurants and mini-malls are pushing in, though, and, given the number of for-sale signs on country roads, this way of life is under assault. Some of the ongoing housing development is all about horses. Places like Butterfield Junction and Saddlebrook Estates cater to horse fanciers.
The horse people came for the soil — loamy earth that drains well because of its nature and the cant to the land. It is considered ideal for running horses. “They can run on that soil and how it feels on their hooves doesn’t ever change,” says Kim Phillips, vice president of the Denton
Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The Horse Country Trail guide lists 19 farms and ranches. On a swing through with two friends, we called ahead for permission and prowled through a few of them.
Breeding season is just now under way in February, sending the farms into high gear.
They’re called cutting horses in some places, but here they’re called reining horses.
Ranch employees were getting ready to host the Legacy Reining Breeders Sale, a yearly showcase hosted by the farm in October. If your trip timing is right, the sale is a good time to stop by Green Valley Ranch.
The 300-acre ranch was preparing to ship eight brood mares the day we visited, at an average price of $15,000.
“We have agents here for people all over the world. The reining industry is a worldwide industry,” said Jeannie Bolton, a ranch worker. Reining horses are prized for their ability to maneuver quickly, sliding to stops and turning abruptly.
Like a lot of the high-end ranches here catering to wealthy clients, Green Valley spared no expense on buildings and furnishings. Wallis and Jane Winegar bought the operation from Ed Pickett in 2004 and started making plans to take an already well-appointed ranch to the next level.
Horses are shipped in from all over the country for breeding at the ranch. When at the ranch, the visiting mares wear collars color-coded to a particular stallion. In “live cover” breeding, the stallion
itself inseminates the mare.
The alternative, artificial breeding, is safer for the animals but not always what breeders and buyers want. The breeding season at Green Valley ends in July.
There are ranches in Denton County making big money on semen sales from stallions that died years ago.
Valor Farm, owned by the Scharbauer family, is all about Thoroughbreds, the breed with which they won the Kentucky Derby in 1987, with Alysheba. The family bought the 393-acre ranch property in 1991 and set out over two years to recreate the look of a Kentucky horse ranch in North Texas.
And install 18 miles of fencing in the process, naturally.
The farm is reached up a long, arching driveway in Pilot Point and could be mistaken for a country club. Visitors come in through a lobby that gives way around a corner into a well-appointed living-room like area for clients, with a vaulted ceiling and high windows that look out into a corridor where prize stallions are stabled. Mementos of the Scharbauer family’s successes with horse
breeding decorate the space.
The high-stakes breeding season is just now under way at Valor Farm and runs into July. Five stallions at the ranch include some of the racing world’s best-known Thoroughbreds, including Wimbledon, Gold Regent, Magic Cat, Hadif and Gold Legend.
Breeding is by live cover only here, attended by five or six employees. The handsome wooden structure used for breeding is reached down a short brick walkway from the ranch’s main building. It has a high ceiling and lush wood-grained walls.
Though the place looks fit for a banquet, the ranch work is deadly serious. “A mare can easily kill a stallion if she kicks him in the right place,” farm staffer Shanna Sjogren said. “It’s happened.”
On a recent visit, Dave Rhea was tending to a client’s horse showing signs of colic. It’s a malady that kills horses more often than anything else, so Rhea, who’s been raising Arabians for nearly 40
years, is quick to treat it.
After calling in a veterinarian to listen to the animal’s digestive tract, they pumped in a little mineral oil, put a tube down the horse’s throat and pumped it out. “I do not play games with it,” Rhea said of colic.
Mandolynn Hill is an unpretentious place where the well-being of horses comes first. There were 115 purebred Arabians on the farm the day we visited. The farm is owned by Mickey and Michelle Morgan.
After making sure they are all healthy, Rhea fixes his sights on producing new generations of Arabians that can race. The farm’s Arabians are broken to ride and then put on the track to run. “Part of my goal is to teach them to go fast when they’re asked to.”
He looks at a stallion, Sudden Mischief, who was a national champion in 2004 and went undefeated in nine races in California in 2005.
Like others of his breed, the competitiveness of Sudden Mischief can be deceptive. “In the saddling paddock, this guy’s almost asleep,” Rhea said. The horse tends to walk to the starting point with a loose rein.”Go into the gate and he could fly. He’s a good boy.”
Arabians are smaller in stature than other horses here in Denton County, standing around 15 hands high, compared to 17 for the thoroughbred My Golden Song at Valor Farm.
“These horses are hot by nature, which means they have a lot of life,” Rhea said. “All a racehorse is is an athlete. A four-legged athlete.”
Across the dozens of farms and ranches of Denton County, they are athletes that don’t at all mind the attention. For a horse-lover, a day trip through Denton is a peek into heaven.
If you feel like going with a guide, the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau runs a monthly group tour through horse country. The four-hour trips start at 9 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month all this year from the Denton Historic Park, 317 W. Mulberry. The cost is $25; call ahead for a reservation to (940) 382-7895.
Also, on May 22, a bit more extensive group trip will take in three farms, plus a stop for lunch. The cost is $59. For more information, visit DiscoverDenton.com.
Larry Parnass, the managing editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts, is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD.
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