Second-Career Star: The LG Legacy Project

Second-Career Star: The LG Legacy Project

Producing the future of our industry, with the help of retired racehorses.

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By Andrea Caudill

There is a crevasse of knowledge between when the starting gate pops for the last time in an American Quarter Horse’s racing career, and the moment when he becomes a “point-and-shoot” arena horse – able to prance into a barrel or roping arena feeling confident in the chances that he’ll come out the other side with a new saddle or a shiny buckle. 

It’s a deep crevasse and it can be tough to negotiate without the proper knowledge and skill. But the people who possess that knowledge and are able to bridge that gap to take a horse from one career to the next, are horse trainers with a rare and desirable skillset. 

AQHA world champion barrel racer Lance Graves is an expert at negotiating this task and has done so countless times in his storied career. The Hartshorne, Oklahoma-based trainer and coach has also noticed a disturbing trend in the industry. 

“Just by the nature of things, as we go through life as young people, and we age and become parents, I think we try to do all we can to help our kids not go through the struggles we had as kids,” he said. “We just put our little people on finished products. It comes from a good place, but in doing that, I think we push our kids past understanding why their horses stop, turnaround, and why he might want to run off or be barn sour. What we’ve ended up with is a generation of ‘competition cowboys.’ And there’s a lot of difference between a competition cowboy and a horse trainer. 

“I see these young, talented kids who have won cool stuff, but they don’t understand why their horse won,” he said. “If we want to keep our sport going, we need new trainers. Those of us who are aging out, we don’t want to take 16 head anymore (to train or on which to compete). By nature of the beast, we need to pass down that knowledge of ‘this is how you do it.’”

And seeing a need, Graves stepped up and developed the LG Legacy Project, which pairs passionate teenage youth with an off-track racehorse, and immerses them into a 10-month training program that teaches them the nitty gritty of horse training. It will culminate with a final event. There, a winner is chosen and scholarships are awarded. Additionally, the youth are given their horse’s registration certificate as their very own. 

“We set them on a course to changing these horses from a just-off-the-track horse to one that is ready to become an arena performer,” Graves said. “The whole challenge in the game is to put a start, a handle, a foundation on a horse after they come off the racetrack so the next person can make a barrel horse or a rope horse or a ’dogging horse or whatever out of. This program’s challenge is not to win a barrel race at the end of the 10 months, it’s for your mentors to get on your horse and say, ‘Yep, I’d show this horse to a client of mine.’”

The non-profit program is led by Graves as the head mentor. Stepping up with him is a group of passionate volunteer mentors. 

The process begins with racehorse owners who donate a horse to the program. The horses might be just days from their last race start or coming out of a long down time, but each horse has the potential for a second career. The owners donate the horse and its registration certificate to the program, and get paperwork for a tax deduction. 

“To be honest, I’m not sure everyone even asks for the paperwork,” Graves said. “The (racehorse owners) do this because they love the program, they believe in the program, and they have horses they want to be able to follow and support. They don’t want those horses to end up who-knows-where doing who-knows-what. And they want to support these kids and cheer them on.”

Graves interviews and chooses youth that come from all walks of life and socioeconomic status. He said what he’s looking for is heart and moral character, and a willingness and desire to learn and advance. The number of youth he selects depends entirely on the non-profit’s available funding. 

Once both horses and humans are selected, they’re paired up and are introduced to their first mentor, Lianna DeWeese, who is a champion barrel racer and professional colt starter. 

She takes each pair into the round pen and begins their education. 

“She gives those kids a lesson,” Graves said. “This is what we’re going to do in the round pen, this is how we’re going to saddle him, this is what we’re going to ask him to do. She gives them their start. Then as they all advance, the other mentors step in.”

In addition to Graves and DeWeese, the other key mentors are Oklahoma State University Rodeo Coach Cody Hollingsworth, world champion barrel racer Mark Bugni and world champion roper Steve Orth.

DeWeese, Hollingsworth, Bugni and Orth also serve as the judges at the end of the competition. 

Over the nearly year-long course, they are joined by a host of other mentors from across the horse industry, including veterinarians, nutritionists and trainers. 

The youth are asked to come to Graves’ ranch several times during the program for intensive clinics, but they also must attend online clinics several times per month to further their education. 

They are taught not only the mechanics of training a horse, but also the mechanics of running your own business, and how to run it with integrity. 

“A love of horses isn’t enough if you’re going to try to make a living,” Graves said. “You need to understand the horse, understand their behavior and understand how to manipulate that behavior to get what you or your client wants. We teach ethics and honesty to these kids. Nobody wants to do business with a shady cowboy. We talk about what kind of character you have to display to get committed, loyal owners. I’m literally trying to teach these young people how to be trainers, how to be self-employed and make a living at it.”

At the 2022 final, the winner was Saylor Smethers of Henryetta, Oklahoma, and Favorite Hot Ko Ko, a 2018 mare donated by Brenda Reiswig of Diamond R Racing, based in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Favorite Hot Ko Ko was bred by AQHA all-time leading racehorse breeder Dr. Ed Allred, and is by red-hot sire Favorite Cartel and out of the Walk Thru Fire mare Hot Looker, a full sister to 2019 world champion He Looks Hot. Favorite Hot Ko Ko was guided in her racing career by AQHA champion trainer Jason L. Olmstead, and after lighting the board in two of her five race attempts, was guided to her new racing career. 

“How would you like to be gifted a horse like that to start your training career?” Lance asks, reflecting on the pedigrees of the horses provided. “I’m proud of the fact that we get to do that. These horses are real racehorses that have been well-handled and well-cared for.”

The LG Legacy Project is celebrating its fourth year of helping develop the next generation of horsemen. Graves hopes to see the program grow and maybe even have its own documentary series on television. 

“My hope is to give everything I ever learned right back to the community,” he said. “Ultimately, I’d like to leave this world with a strong program where good-hearted young people are matched up with a good-quality horse and they’re taught how to train.” 

Second Career Stars is an ongoing series on retired racing American Quarter Horses in new careers. If you know of a horse that should be featured, write to acaudill@aqha.org. AQHA News and information is a service of the American Quarter Horse Association. For more news and information, follow @AQHA Racing on Twitter, "like" Q-Racing on Facebook, and visit www.aqha.com/racing.