Oklahoma City’s Love for the Equestrian Life - 405 Magazine

Oklahoma City’s Love for the Equestrian Life

OKC's love affair with horses and the effect it has on our community.

Plen’y of air and plen’y of room. The appeal of the Great Plains is obvious to a person with the right mindset. The type of person who likes to look across a vast horizon and take in deep breaths of fresh air. Even more so to the person who has nature in their bones and longs to experience it with one of Earth’s most majestic animals — the horse.

Indeed, on that fateful Land Run day in 1889, many would-be Oklahoma City residents claimed their homesteads on horseback. Equestrianism is central to the culture of OKC. As perfectly stated by Dr. Kris Hiney, the OSU Extension specialist for horses, “Throughout the state’s history, horses have been closely linked with the livelihood and quality of life of Oklahomans. Those involved with horses have broad ranges of interests and diverse levels of involvement.”

The horse industry in OKC includes recreational activities, breeding, racing, competing and more. Wildly, a 2017 Oklahoma Equine Alliance study found the gross domestic product produced from the Oklahoma horse industry accounts for a combined direct, indirect and induced effect of a $3.9 billion economic impact and 39,000 full-time jobs.

In stating the numbers, what shouldn’t be lost is the heart. Far more than a hobby or occupation, horses are many people’s deepest passion. In this feature, we profile three such Oklahoma City residents whose lives — their childhoods, presents, futures — have been positively influenced by their horses. Their stories are profound and moving … and may just inspire you to sign up for a riding lesson.

A photograph of a horse on the prairie ofOklahoma
A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne

Lifelong Bond 

There have been many Arabian and half-Arabian show horses in Meg Payne’s life, but one stands out. Dutch, a national champion whom she calls her “soul horse,” has been in her life for 21 years.

“Our relationship is so close,” Payne said. “I walk into the barn, I say his name and he whinnies at me. I can go stand out in a huge pasture and yell for him; he comes running to me like a dog.”

He’s stunning — a black beauty towering 6 feet tall (that’s 17 hands, in horse lingo) with white socks. Payne visits Dutch on her 255-acre farm in east Edmond almost every day and often brings her family along to soak up the scene. Though Dutch has retired, Payne continues to show horses, now with her 5-year-old daughter. That’s the age at which she herself began showing horses.

Payne remembers tagging along to her two older sisters’ riding lessons. She would saddle up on a pony, and she absolutely loved riding. Her sisters eventually stopped their lessons, but Payne didn’t. When she was 9, her parents gave Payne her first horse: a gray Arabian.

“I remember I would just go stand in his stall, and I felt better. It was calming to me. It anchored me, and I knew then that I never wanted that to go away,” she said, adding that the same horse helped her through those often-tricky teenage years.

When Payne invested the time, care and practice required to show a horse, she said her relationship with the animal intensified.

“I was riding three days a week, four days a week, every morning or afternoon, taking lessons — just like you do with any sport, you’re working with your horse to hone your craft and skills,” Payne said. “I think what’s amazing about showing horses is this symbiotic relationship that happens. You have this incredibly close relationship, where he knows how you think and you know how he thinks … When it’s just you and your horse — when it’s going right, and you go into the ring and everything goes perfectly — there is not a feeling like it in the world.”

Oklahoma City hosts the Youth & Mid-Summer Nationals every July, but the season begins in February with shows leading up to state and regional competitions. The rider oversees the horse’s diet, exercise and well-being, in addition to practicing for countless hours.

Dutch and Payne won many competitions together. They also experienced loss together: When she was 29, Payne lost her sister suddenly. She turned to Dutch for comfort.

“I was still trying to compete, and I was still going out and working him every day, but there were times when I would drive out there at like 12 o’clock at night. I would just go sit in a stall, because that’s where I felt calmness — that grounding,” Payne recalled. “He was probably one of the biggest things that got me through one of the greatest tragedies of my life.”

Eleven months after Payne’s sister passed away, Payne was competing at nationals with Dutch when he collapsed. Gravely ill, Dutch spent the next 30 days in the ICU at Oak Ridge Equine Hospital, but Payne says he never lost the will to keep fighting. It was as if he wasn’t going to give up on her, and she certainly wasn’t going to give up on him. With the best of care, he survived the illness.

That symbiotic relationship, first initiated through years of training and showing, continues to this day. Payne said she feels it every time they are together — a lifeline for horse and human alike. 

Horse headshot on the prairie ofOklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne
A headshot of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne

Heart Racing

For Amanda Clark, the faster the better.

“From the time I was little, I always wanted to go fast,” Clark recalled about growing up and riding horses on her family’s horse breeding ranch in Duncan. “I wanted to run the horse through the pasture.”

With such need for speed, Clark gravitated toward barrel racing at age 5. She’s never slowed down. Today, she is quick to register for a race, whether it’s held in conjunction with a rodeo or a horse show or as the main event.

“You can find a barrel race any night of the week all year long in Oklahoma, probably within a 60-mile radius,” Clark said. “I think it’s fun to be able to compete — and to have barrel racing as kind of my own thing.”

The Norman resident has always competed on horses from her family’s ranch, and Duncan is still where she gets her riding fix. In fact, proximity to the ranch lured her back to Oklahoma from Austin, after she earned a graduate degree from the University of Texas. At that time, she moved to Norman to establish The Clothing Bar, a boutique store.

“People laugh at me and say that I have split lives because I have my store, which is not western at all, and then I have my horse life,” said Clark, adding that opening the store came naturally since she grew up around retail. In addition to the ranch, her family owns Stockman’s The Cowboy Store in Duncan.

Clark has fond memories racing inside Oklahoma City’s Jim Norick Arena, specifically at the annual Better Barrel Races (BBR) World Finals. She’s noticed how barrel racing has gained popularity since she began competing in the sport 35 years ago, mainly because divisions (similar in concept to golf handicaps) allow various skill levels to compete in the same arena. A professional can enter the same race as a beginner; finish times are calculated and adjusted accordingly. Last spring, about 2,000 barrel racers entered the BBR. Clark, who competes as an amateur, placed in the top 15.

Last year, Clark’s knack for barrel racing was on national display when she starred on “Guts and Glory,” an elimination-style reality show created by Teton Ridge for the cable network INSP. The program centered around 12 athletes who competed to win prize money and the opportunity to advance to the $2 million jackpot American Rodeo.

“I spent about three weeks in the middle of nowhere, Texas, and took three of my horses with me,” Clark said.

Week after week, Clark advanced while others were sent home. Although she didn’t love the show’s dramatic interviews and pressure-cooker environments, the fast-paced competitions were right up her alley. She placed second in the show.

These days, when Clark returns to her home turf, she brings her two daughters and encourages them to savor the same freedom to roam she discovered as a child. 

“I love that my girls get to experience that country life, (where we can) put down the phones and just be outdoors,” she said.

A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma
A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne

Kindred Spirits

Raised on a farm, Paula Love was born into a horse family — her mom showed saddlebreds. “I did not even have a choice to not ride horses,” she said. “They put me on a horse at 2.” This was usually the family’s walking horse, Laura, who lived to the age of 40. “My mom used to say, ‘I’m so glad you like this, because it would have been difficult if you didn’t.’ It was our passion and it really brought us together.”

At age 8, Love started showing horses, competing locally in saddle seat; then at 10, nationally in the Arabian industry. “The horse industry in general, it’s just such a great life lesson for kids because you’re learning not only competition, but as opposed to a sport with multiple players, it’s just you and the horse. The horse is relying on you, and you’re relying on this thousand-pound animal. Some days you have a bad day, and some days the horse has a bad day, but when you’re competing you have to get over that,” Love said. 

As a girl, she received a horse that would change her life. Her family’s saddlebred mare was bred with her trainer’s Arabian stallion. From that pairing, Love got Rebel.

“There’s nothing better than raising your own show horse. I was with him when he hit the ground,” Love said. The family named him Rebel because when he was just a week old, he was violently attacked in the night by four large neighborhood dogs. They were unsure at the time if he would live. After a month of extensive veterinary care, “he fought through it and went on to become a great show horse. It meant everything to me,” Love remembered tearfully. “I’m trying not to cry because I love him so much; he’s my family at this point.”

While Love’s friends were partying and being kids, she awoke at 6 a.m. every day to practice and train. “It was hard as a teenager, but it was so fulfilling.” This continued through high school and college, and at one point she won a national championship with Rebel. After college, she started breeding half-Arabian and half-saddlebred horses. 

Love currently runs a working cattle and horse ranch called The Chase Farm. She retired Rebel (now 25) and nightly rides him on a western saddle as they gallop around the property to check the cattle and fences. “He’s fat and happy on a green pasture. I see him every day. That’s my joy at this point. He’s my hero.”

Passing on the gift that has been given to her, Love now sits on the board at Nexus Equine, a nonprofit that works to connect people and horses through innovative partnerships with other organizations across Oklahoma. It reduces the number of at-risk horses through education, outreach and adoption and foster relationships between horses and the community through youth-focused programming.

From infancy, Paula Love has never known anything other than an equestrian life. Similarly, Rebel has never known anything other than Love’s love, as they ride into the Oklahoma City sunset together the way they have thousands of times.

A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma
A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne

Oklahoma Stables:

Collectively, the 405 houses thousands of horses for racing, working and companionship. The 300-acre Lazy E Ranch in Guthrie is a leading breeder in quarter horses with over 400 foals each year. The Lazy E campus also holds an arena and training center for jockeys to ride and practice. Other Oklahoma stables offer everyday riders a space to nurture and bond with their horses. The family-friendly Stoneridge Acres Stables in Edmond boards horses year-round and holds summer camps for kids to learn how to ride. For work, Yukon’s Express Clydesdales are renowned for their majestic, award-winning draft horses. They’ve made national appearances in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Parade, but you can also find the gentle giants touring Oklahoma or at home at their massive stables dating back to 1936.

Oklahoma Rodeos

Oklahoma is still a land of cowboys, and it shows in the year-round rodeos that wrangle visitors across the country. The 91-year-old Pioneer Days Rodeo in Guymon, as part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, gathers pro riders in early May to start the rodeo season, with barrel racing, tie-down roping, team roping and steer wrestling. Oklahoma’s other PRCA tradition, the Woodward Elks Rodeo, happens in June with specialty bullfighters and a morning parade. Boley holds the country’s oldest African American rodeo, which began in 1905 and continues to be a beloved community celebration and showcase of tough talent in the historically Black town.

A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma
A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne

Famous Oklahoma Horses

With quarter and thoroughbred horse breeding a meaningful part of Oklahoma’s economy, it makes sense a few of those horses made a mark on the sport. Lady’s Secret, an Oklahoma-bred racemare sired by the famed Secretariat, won 25 of 45 races, with eight Grade I wins including the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That same year, she was named American Horse of the Year by the prestigious Eclipse Awards. Clever Trevor, the first winner of the Oklahoma Derby in 1989, also became a star. He competed in the Kentucky Derby the same year, when he placed 13th. After many wins in a 3-year career, Clever Trevor netted over $1 million — the first officially accredited Oklahoma horse to do so. A statue of him now stands outside Remington Park.

Remington Park

When Remington Park opened in 1988 as Oklahoma’s largest pari-mutuel horse racing track, crowds came in droves — the first few seasons averaged 13,000 in attendance. Although its experimental synthetic track only lasted a year, Remington Park quickly established its flagship race, the Oklahoma Derby (then named the Remington Park Derby). This 1-1/8-mile competition for 3-year-old thoroughbreds usually holds a $400,000 purse as a Grade III race. Today, Remington Park also houses a casino with 750 slot machines and live entertainment

A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma
A photograph of a horse on the prairie of Oklahoma | Photo provided by Matt Payne