‘Crazy horse dreams’: Moffat County native Mary Penner ends 2018 as cutting horse world champ
CRAIG — After the biggest moment of her life put her in the spotlight, Moffat County native Mary Penner hasn’t forgotten her home in Northwest Colorado.
“You can do anything you set your heart on,” Penner said. “Craig, Colorado, is my home. It made me who I am — a world champion. So never be afraid to spread your wings and chase even the craziest of dreams. You never know where you’ll land. Trust God, pray often, call your parents, and believe in the underdog.”
Penner recently earned the title of 2018 National Cutting Horse Association World Finals Champion Rider in the $2,000 Limit category.
Penner graduated from Moffat County High School in 2011, then continued to Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she earned a degree in equine training and management in their colt starting program.
From there, she moved to Houston, Texas, and began riding and reining horses for a trainer. That job led her to work for Marcy Ver Meer, in Cave Creek, Arizona.
After Ver Meer retired, Penner began running a yearling cattle allotment for the Ox Ranch in Newman Park, Arizona. After cattle shipped to market in fall 2016, she received a call from Mike Wood of Mike Wood Performance Horses.
“He told me they were looking for some help, and I took that job,” she said. “I literally knew nothing about a cutting horse when I went to work for Mike Wood other than what cutting — using a horse to separate cattle from a herd — meant and where it originated — cowboys. So it was a huge learning experience.”
She worked that job for a year, “riding 2-year-olds and hauling trailers to shows,” she said. Then, at the end of 2017, she was given her big break when Wood asked if she’d like to try to make the top 15 in 2018. She was one of three world champions out of the Woods barn in 2018.
Penner, who currently lives in Arizona, hasn’t forgotten where she’s from and spoke to the Craig Press about her experiences.
Craig Press: How did you get your start in competitive riding?
Mary Penner: I honestly can’t remember my first ride. Must have been when I was a little bitty kid. What I can remember is that as a kid, I always begged my childhood best friend to tag along to her 4-H meetings. Terra Rieser and I were wild horse crazy little kids, and her mom Marylin and friend Janet Pearcy ran the 4-H club in town. I’d stay the weekends at Terra’s and usually got to tag along to 4-H. I’d like to say that’s where this world championship all started was right here in Moffat County 4-H. So I showed in the open and 4-H shows as a kid and usually borrowed a horse, because I didn’t actually own my own until I was 13.
What does it mean to “haul”? What are your responsibilities?
Everything from saddling, dragging arenas, doctoring cattle, halter-breaking foals, getting horses ready to show for non-pros and my boss, riding 2-year-olds, hauling horses to shows, the general care of the horses, and so on. It’s not a “canned”-type job description. If it needs done, I do it. There’s obviously not just me; it’s a whole team that jumps in wherever somebody needs help.
What is a typical day in the life of an assistant horse trainer like?
A typical day at home is a little different than at a show. At home, we get the arenas drug and watered, then bring the cattle up to the holding pens and start warming horses up for the boss. Then, he gets to work, and we just keep rolling through them. There’s generally 75 to 100 head of horses — 2-year-olds through the aged amateur horses— on the place at a time. We ride them all, so busy days for us.
Then, at shows, we start early and get all the horses worked before the cattle come in for the first class of the day. Typically, we take 20 to 35 head to a show, which requires about 10 to 12 employees. Then, we show all day until it’s done. I’ve been at shows where my class was the last one of the day, and I haven’t walked into the herd until 5 in the morning. It can be long and tiring, but it’s pretty fun.
Tell us about the horses you show.
As horse trainers, we ride other people’s horses. If we only rode our own, we’d be out of money! So, between my boss and myself, we show the non-pro and amateur horses first. That way, the horses are tuned in and ready to rock and roll for the clients. That’s the whole point of having a trainer is to make sure those horses are ready to win you a check. The more money you win, the higher in the standings you get. And once you’re in the top 15, you try like heck to stay there to make world finals.
What were your greatest achievements this year?
We hauled over 50,000 miles. I walked into the herd over a hundred times. I won almost 85 percent of the times I walked in the herd, almost $18,000 dollars in NCHA earnings. I won the Arizona Cutting Horse Association champion, the New Mexico Cutting Horse Association champion, the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association champion, and I won the NCHA World Champion title in the $2,000 Limit Rider.
Tell me about the horses you road for the win.
This year, I showed a horse named Bless Chu Mate. She’s an 11-year-old horse by a stud named Smart Mate out of a Chula Dual mare. We call her Chu Chu. She’s owned by Dr. Gerald Dorros, from Wilson, Wyoming. Doc, as we call him, has been generous to haul four past assistant trainers in the Mike Wood barn to win the world in the $2,000 Limit Rider. He’s an awesome guy. Then, at the world finals, I showed another one of his mares named Cyndi Cat out of WR This Cats Smart. She’s also a total powerhouse. I really enjoy her.
What sets cutting horses competition apart from other rodeo-style events?
Riding a cutting horse is the most adrenaline I’ve ever felt. I ran barrels at the Steamboat rodeo while I was in college and let me tell you, for me, it doesn’t hold a candle to cutters. They are so strong and so trained it’s like handing your life to a horse, because once you’ve cut your cow and put your hand down, it’s all up to them to make the rest happen. Both the mares I showed this year gave me their life. Every time I walked into the herd, they gave me everything they had. That’s an amazing feeling knowing an animal is capable of doing that for you.
What challenges did you face this year?
The majority of setbacks for any person competing at any level are usually mental. For me, I fought myself all the time just trying way too hard. I was overriding my horse or trying too hard to control every move, and it turned out that, if I would have just let my horse work, I wouldn’t have dealt with all that. I think for any type of athlete, it’s all about keeping a positive attitude. I always have to remind myself of that: Stay positive.
It’s been surreal. The next step is in God’s hands. As far as I’m concerned, after what I’ve been blessed with, He is in control.
What else would you like readers to know?
Big thanks to my boss, Mike Wood, and Roper Curtiss for the opportunity and to Doc Dorros for believing in me.
More than anything, I’d really like to put a huge thank you out to my parents, Thom and Debby Penner, of Craig. They have been supporting my crazy horse dreams since I was a little kid, and without them, I couldn’t have done this. Especially to my dad, for always answering the phone and talking me through the darkest days. He’s my hero through and through. My mom is my biggest fan, and she deserves a medal for that. She’s a saint.
My boyfriend, Cody Harris, for putting up with me this year. He stuck with me when I didn’t deserve it. Also, to Marylin and Terra Rieser. They ignited this passion for horses in me as a kid, and it all began right in their backyard. I wish I could fit all the thank yous in here, but that would take up the whole article.
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.