By Canden Scales / JUNE 2022
Matt Mills is someone people have become familiar with all across the horse world from Western to English. He has brought a countless number of people into reining from across the globe because of his far outreach and highly effective online videos.
I am honored that I got to interview Matt after his epic ride on Guns & Dynamite. The two won the $25k Open Shootout at the National Reining Breeders Classic. The following tells of how his passion was ignited for reining, his ideology of coaching and training, and the current meteoric path he is on.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Matt Mills grew up in Long Beach, CA.. His mom quickly realized how much he loved horses after taking him to a local pony ride and immediately signed Matt up to take riding lessons shortly after.
“I guess horses were just always in my blood from the very beginning.” Matt said.
By the time Matt was 14 years old he began to give basic riding lessons. He learned early on that he really enjoyed helping others ride. His main focus growing up was to show horses and be competitive at it. Soon he was giving clinics around the world to teach people about reining horses. Matt stated that its not easy to be a clinician and a competitive horse trainer, because there is a lot of time management needed to do both.
In 2014 a friend mentioned to Matt that he should try to do some online coaching videos. Matt quickly noticed that this approach was even better than the way he had been doing it in the past, because he could reach more people and it was more easily accessible.
“I remember when I was growing up, as a kid, I would try to find every horse book and video out there about training horses… and it was actually hard to find that kind of knowledge because the books didn’t always have the answers to what I wanted to know. So it became a passion of mine to find that information and share it with the rest of the world.” Matt said. “Plus it feels great to be able to give back to this sport that I love.”
THE MOVE TO TEXAS
After living in Arizona for 25 years, where he’s held his business training horses, Matt decided to move to Texas after the 2021 NRHA futurity in December. According to Matt this happened because of a couple different factors. Over the years, long before ‘Yellowstone,’ Matt became really good friends with Taylor Sheridan.
Taylor flirted with Matt over the years about the idea of moving to Arizona, but ultimately he moved to Texas, Matt stated.
“Then one day I get this phone call from Taylor and he says ‘Hey looks like you’re going to be a Texan.’ At the time I had no idea what he was talking about so I just said, okay? Taylor went on to say ‘Yeah I’m with the Ruckmans right now and they’re putting in an offer on a house out here.’ Thats when I realized okay this just got real.” Matt said.
Matts first show since moving to Texas was held in Jacksonville, Florida. Where he was 3rd in the L4 open Derby on Wimpys All In and ended up 6th in the L4 open derby on Americas Gunslinger! Matt also took home the Level 3 win on Wimpys All In, 2nd on Stopping In Jersey and 3rd on Americas
Gunslinger! It was a fantastic start to life in Texas! Unfortunately Cactus Classic wasn’t so good. “I was having some awesome rides on my horses and then had a few slight bobbles that kept me from qualifying for The Run For A Million.” Matt said.
Thats when my next question to Matt became: How do you overcome something like that mentally where you have great runs and then not so great runs and then turn around to mark the highest score of the entire 2022 NRBC?
Matts answer: “If you take those three shows it shows you a perfect example of what its like, mentally, you have to have a short memory. You can’t get too down on yourself or too high on yourself either. You have to go into each day as a new day and focus on what you have at that moment. So having control over your mental game is HUGE! I try to keep myself centered on the ‘now’ moments. Being a horse trainer you have to forget what happened 5 minutes ago, good or bad, and just focus on the horse you are on now and try to do the very best job you can.”
GUNS AND DYNAMITE
“I remember the first time I saw that horse was when we were filming season 4 of Yellowstone. Cade McCutcheon had him there and that horse was just incredible stopping! He was unbelievable because he was so athletic! We all just watched him that day in awe because he was freaky cool! So when Kirstin Booth called me up to ask about another horse I had… I asked her about her stud and she mentioned he was for sale… I thought hmmm… this could be the one.” Matt said
At the time they left the idea alone and waited until NRBC, thats when Matt and the Ruckmans saw Kirstin Booth show Gooder in the non-pro derby. Matt thought ‘wow, this horse is phenomenal’
The Ruckmans said to Matt, “Just try the horse, see if you like him, yeah its only a year but it could be one hell of a year an a half.”
Soon as Matt tried ‘Gooder’ it felt like a perfectly fit glove. “He’s so powerful, but yet laid back. He can handle speed and doesn’t get worried about it. It was an awesome feeling!” Matt said.
Kirstins only stipulation was, “I don’t want you to buy him, unless you 100% believe in this horse, like I do. He deserves to have someone who truly believes in him. If you believe in him, he will do great things for you and he will give you his heart.”
From what Matt felt when he tried the horse he absolutely believed in him and his ability. Matt told me during our interview that he was one of the best horses he has swung a leg over. So it wasn’t to anyones surprise that Matt decided to purchase the horse from Kirstin Booth who had owned Gooder since he was a yearling.
As Matt continued to ride Gooder a couple more times at the show he kept thinking to himself ‘Gosh, I wish I was showing this horse here, at this show, right now!’
Thats when they decided to enter him into the $25k OPEN SHOOTOUT.
The next big hurdle came into play when Matt realized he now had 3 horses entered in the shootout! With only 9 horses entered in the class (where they were expecting at least 15 to 20), he needed help getting the horses prepared!
His first help came from Jason Vanlandingham, who they had previously purchased Stopping In Jersey from last September. Matt asked Jason if he could do him a favor and warm that horse up for him. Jason, without any hesitation, immediately said, “Yes.” Now the challenge was to get Gooder taken care of… naturally Matt decided to ask Shawn Flarida who Gooder was in training with just before they purchased him.
“Hey Shawn, I’m going to show Gooder tomorrow.” Matt said.
Shawn looked at Matt and smiled and said, “Great! I’ll be cheering for you.”
“Well, I probably need you to warm him up for me.” Matt said.
Shawn started laughing and said, “Well, if you asked me to, I would do it.”
At this point Matt looked at Shawn a bit more seriously and said, “Okay, I’m asking you.”
Both Jason and Shawn said yes, even though they were both getting ready to show in the L4 Open Derby Finals. Both of these riders exhibited the utmost sportsmanship and teamwork!
“Just so you know if this goes right, I’ll give you some credit, but if this goes wrong I am 100% blaming you.” Matt said. All three guys laughed about it, being over qualified warm up jockeys (all three of them being Million Dollar + riders). At the end of the day its about having fun and enjoying what you do.
“I remember Jason texted me later and said, ‘Guess I’m fired as your warm up jockey,’ because I didn’t do as well on the horse he warmed up for me. It was pretty funny.” Matt said.
Matt was still leading the $25k Open Shootout on his first horse in the draw RFR Voodoos Fuego (Shiners Voodoo Dr x Show N Tag) also owned by the Ruckmans with a score of 223.
Just moments before Matt goes in to show Gooder…
Cade McCutcheon walks into the pen as draw #8 on Modern Gun (Gunners Special Nite x Taris Modern). At this point it now became a Gunners Special Nite showdown with his two highest money earning offspring (#1 money earner Modern Gun and #2 highest money earner being Guns & Dynamite) competing for the win. They were the last two horses of the class to show. Cade marks a big 227.5 on Modern Gun! The arena is electric! As the two make their way out of the arena, people begin to get up to walk out with them, thinking they just saw the winning ride of the night.
That was until Matt Mills came flying through the gates on Gooder laying down a dynamite run in stop, +1. They have recaptured everyones attention. People begin returning back to their seats and start pulling out their phones. Matt waited patiently in the middle and then quietly asked Gooder to spin, it was lightning fast and his cadence was impeccable, the judges score +1 1/2!
“This was only my 4th time ever riding Gooder.” Matt said “I turned him around just before I went into show and Shawn said to me‘Hey, you’ve got another gear there, if you do this one little thing, trust me he’s gonna fly!’ It was one of those things where you look at your fellow competitor and you think ‘hmmm, I don’t know, but I trusted him because he’s a good guy and he was here to help me. Man did that horse respond!
That was the best run in stop and set of spins I’ve ever done! I know I have scored higher than that one other time in my life, but it was a long time ago and if you compare the runs now, THIS was the better run! It was the most electrifying run I’ve ever had.” Matt said of his run on Gooder.
“I remember sitting there in the middle after the spins and thinking holy $#it that was fast! Honestly at that very moment I am thinking I gotta thank Shawn! Then I think okay I’ve gotta keep myself in check and not try to hard. Thats the great thing about Gooder he is so talented that you don’t really have to ask him for max effort, he’s just giving you so much try. I actually feel like he could spin even faster and stop even bigger than what we did there!” Matt said.
Which is pretty phenomenal to think of since the pair marked a huge 229.
After the run, Matt, his wife Karen and (the new owners) Tim and MaryBeth Ruckman all went to celebrate Gooder at the Elite Equine Spa. Matt finished the 2022 NRBC as being the highest score of the entire show on Guns And Dynamite (Gunners Special Nite x Chic Olena Starbuck). With only the 4th ride ever on Gooder, Matt also made this the highest score the horse has ever marked. It looks like a promising future ahead for these two.
“I just have to thank all of the people who had part of this horses training: Kirstin Booth, Joe Schmidt, Cade McCutcheon and Shawn Flarida, Those people all did a phenomenal job with him. A special thanks to Shawn for warming him up for me. Gooder was ready to rock and roll… But I have to say even then, sometimes you can have an all star team and it still doesn’t work out in the show pen, this is obviously a GREAT horse! Gooder and I just really seem to click!” Matt said.