This profile about Run for a Million competitor Jordan Larson was first published in the February 2012 issue of the NRHA Reiner magazine. In 2015, Larson crossed the threshold to become an NRHA Two Million Dollar Rider.
At 30, Jordan Larson finds himself in the enviable position of being the newest addition to the National Reining Horse Association’s elite Million Dollar Rider club. When you first meet the baby-faced rider or learn the story of how he caught a ride on the 2010 NRHA Futurity winner just days before the event, you might think it all came fast and easy.
But there were no silver spoons (nor silver spurs) for the young rider when he began his rise to the top and his overnight success was decades in the making. What enabled him to achieve so much at such a young age was simple mathematics: his quest began before he even got to grade school.
Jordan spent his early years in Cottonwood, California. As a child, he watched his father shoe horses and trailed his mother to weekend shows, where she exhibited horses at halter. By the time he was three, he was already horseback and riding solo. He’d often go down to the arena to watch a cutting horse trainer schooling young horses and decided that he’d become a trainer too.
“By the time I was four, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be either a roper or a cutting horse trainer,” he said.
Had the Larsons been able to afford cattle and arena practice time, we might be celebrating Jordan’s $1 million achievement in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association or the National Cutting Horse Association. But fate is a fickle thing and economics forced the family to point their son in the direction of Reining.
“I got my first lessons with Hugh Martin when I was 10 years old,” he recalls, smiling. “My parents realized I was hooked on the event, so that Christmas they bought me a book by Bob Loomis and a video of the 1991 NRHA Futurity finals, the one Todd Sommers won on Slide Me To The Bar.”
Not long after, Larson got his own sweet taste of victory. The site was a local county fair and the reining competition. There were a scant three riders in his class, but he pocketed $40 - always a hefty sum in the hands of a child. The amount isn’t toted up in his $1 million NRHA Lifetime Earnings - the event was unsanctioned. But looking back, it was certainly a proud road sign pointing toward his future.
Not long after, though, the Larsons moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and his aspirations sailed into dead air. With harsh winter weather, few indoor training barns and a shortage of reining horse trainers, Cheyenne didn’t provide the nurturing soil for the seeds of Jordan’s youth.
To compensate, Jordan focused on roping and training his own horses. Fortunately, his stay in Wyoming’s capital didn’t last long, as the family soon moved again and took up residence on a Missouri farm that belonged to his grandparents. There, he met NRHA Professional Ken Eppers, where his reining apprenticeship truly began.
“It’s funny because at first, I wasn’t that excited to see him. But once I did, I kind of idolized him. Ken took me from a backyard 4-H horseman to understanding what the sport was really all about,” said Larson of the experience. “He showed me many things that I use to this day.”
Eppers also guided the teen in the training of his first real reining horse, Dazzle The Dudes. The horse came from a mare his parents had owned and carried the rider to a win in the youth 14-18 class at the Rocky Mountain Reining Horse Association Summer Slide, then held in Brighton, Colorado.
After high school, Larson saw no reason to go to college. His career path, he felt, would be best served as an apprentice. He’d attended a clinic with Doug Milholland and thought highly of the veteran NRHA Professional and Hall of Fame inductee, so he packed his bags and moved to Purcell, Oklahoma, in 1998 to further his reining education.
From there he went to Oregon to apprentice under Darren Stancik, well regarded for his work with Chocolate Chic Olena.
“With Doug (Milholland), what I had to grasp was learning the correct timing of maneuvers. Doing them more correctly than I was able to at the time, plus getting exposed to the day-to-day routine of a professional training operation. On the West Coast, I learned a lot more about bridle and body control. That and getting a two-year-old broke,” said Jordan. Riding in the same region as Bob Avila and Million Dollar Rider Todd Bergen was also a bonus, allowing him to study and learn from two of the masters of all-around performance horse training.
Each move put more bricks in Larson’s foundation as a reining horse trainer. But it was his move to reining’s epicenter, Texas, in 2000, that would allow the mortar to set. Just 19, he’d already put in several hard years of apprenticeship when he went to work for NRHA Professional Pete Kyle in Whitesboro. The best thing about that time, he realized, was getting to compete on an almost weekly basis - he estimates that he’d actually only been in the arena about 20 times when he took up residency at the Kyle Ranch.
“With Pete, I got the opportunity to show week-in and week-out, showing young horses and aged horses. The saddle time was extremely valuable,” he recalls. “I didn’t do well for a long time, but Pete was encouraging and he let me keep showing. He taught me to stay positive, to get the most out of what’s happening while showing. I learned as much from him as from anybody.”
Among the horses in the apprentice’s keep was Amber N Oak owned by Lisa Mayberry. The horse had been trained by now Two Million Dollar Rider Craig Schmersal, who was then chipping away at his own $1 million milestone, and the experience of riding the mare helped Larson gain a true appreciation for what a finished reining horse can be. Larson showed “Amber” to the 2001 NRHA Limited Open World Champion title, one of the fledgling trainer’s first big accomplishments.
In February 2002, Larson made the decision to go out on his own, more for financial reasons than any sense that he was truly ready. He felt if he was going to get anywhere, he needed a bigger bank account and that trading horses was a way to get it. Moving just a mile down the road from Kyle’s ranch, he leased stalls from his friend Jeff Petska.
“That first year was pretty brutal,” he said. “But I hooked a customer looking for a young guy; Butch and Jackie Redish, who own a ranch in Whitesboro. Butch was in the construction business, and he was willing to build a training facility. They played a huge part in my success, supporting me and getting other people into our barn.”
Finally, the breakthroughs began. His first big win as a solo artist came at the 2004 Jim Glover Chevrolet Tulsa Reining Futurity on the horse Hesa Slick Nic, owned by the Redishes. The duo won the level 3 and 2 open championship and placed fourth in the level 4 division, earning over $7,000. It was the best he’d ever done up to that point and a major milestone.
“That horse really took me to the open level,” he said.
It also led to a poignant and memorable run at the 2004 NRHA Futurity, when Larson guided the horse to the intermediate open finals. Unbeknownst to the trainer, the horse suffered from Equine protozoa myeloencephalitis, a parasitic disease that attacks the neurological system. After his run in the finals, the horse laid down at the end of the arena from sheer exhaustion. Moved by the sight, the audience gave horse and rider a standing ovation. Later, the horse recovered fully.
In 2006, Larson hit the big time. First, he earned a finals berth in the National Reining Breeders Classic (NRBC) Derby on the four-year-old mare Memorable Affair, the rider’s first, major level 4 open finals. That same year, he also earned a berth in the NRHA Futurity level 4 open finals on the mare.
In 2008, he stepped up to the world stage after being selected as one of the Team USA riders in the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) World Reining Championship, competing in Manerbio, Italy. The horse he rode, Lena Gallo owned by Lapke Quarter Horses, had gotten burned out on competition and turned out to pasture when his career was resurrected for the FEI-sanctioned reining event. Team USA was bummed out after losing the international team competition for the first time, but Larson managed to rally the squad the following day by winning the Individual event.
“Before the individual competition, my wife, Taylor, told me to suck it up, trust my horse and show. And I had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, runs of my life. I marked a 228 and, had we not stepped out of a lead slowing down, we would have been 231. It was the fastest I spun a horse in my life and didn’t earn a penalty shutting off,” he recalls.
By this time, the once-struggling, little-known trainer had climbed into the upper ranks of NRHA competition, routinely ranking as the youngest Top 20 Rider in the sport. The wins were coming frequently, drawing attention to the trainer and gaining him access to more of the elite horses that train for the top-ranked competitors.
Interestingly, it was growing attention from south of the Rio Grande River that would play a big part in the closing chapters of his $1 million success.
Jordan had traveled to Mexico to conduct a clinic in Monterrey, hosted by the Leal family. Coming from the Mexican charreada scene, the Leals had been making rapid advances in the sport of reining during the last decade. During one clinic, a big-stopping mare caught Larson’s attention. He excitedly told his wife, “There’s a horse down there that is probably the biggest stopper I have ever seen!”
Her name, appropriately, was Stop Like A Dream.
Plagued by soundness issues early in her career, the mare had never been shown outside Mexico when Jordan took over her show career in 2010. Jordan piloted the mare at the 2010 NRBC Derby level 4 open finals, losing to Shawn Flarida by a scant half- point margin, yet adding $67,652 to her earnings The seven-year-old mare now has over $101,000 in NRHA Lifetime Earnings. Not long after, Jordan stepped into the biggest win of his career. As the 2010 NRHA Futurity approached, he had four horses prepared. But after a disappointing finish at the All American Quarter Horse Congress Futurity, the owner of the stallion Wimpyneedsacocktail decided to switch to another trainer. This was the horse Larson felt was his best chance for winning the Futurity.
However, just days before the Futurity, he got a call from Michell Ann Kimball, owner of the stallion Spooks Gotta Whiz. The horse had been with West Coast NRHA Professional Tanya Jenkins, but a falling out between owner and rider left Kimball in a quandary about even showing. Larson felt he could show the horse and decided to take the gamble.
“I only had five days to work with him, and felt that our communication wasn’t really on the same page for the first few days. I felt he could do well, but I surely didn’t think he was a Futurity champion. Really, it never crossed my mind that I could win the Futurity on him,” he said. “I was just concerned about getting him shown.”
But as the days progressed, Larson gained more and more confidence in his ability to show the horse. Despite a stumble in the first go-round, the judges marked the duo 221. In the second go-round, they had a much better 225-point showing. People began to notice.
“Each time, the horse grew more focused and easier to ride. After the second go-round, I swear, 100 people came up and told me that I had the chance to win,” he said.
Larson felt he had nothing to lose and his initial low-expectations and the circumstance certainly took some of the pressure off the rider as he eased into the pen on the flashy dual-registered AQHA/APHA stallion. The crowd seemed to immediately get behind the pair as they performed their first large circles at the gallop, and the emotion and enthusiasm continued to build throughout the run. In the end, the judges awarded the duo 227 points - adding a hefty $125,000 to Larson’s Lifetime Earnings and pushing him to just over $800,000.
“It was wonderful to win,” said Jordan of the experience. “The circumstances were not ideal. You dream of training a Futurity winner yourself, but I was honored to ride and show that horse too. To be a part of it.
“It really made me realize just how hard it is to win the Futurity, how hard everyone works who gets to the finals. Many people strive throughout their lives to win the Futurity, but it takes a great horse having a great day,” he said. “He is a special horse and it was his time, his night.”
Though Jordan says he never really thought about reaching $1 million, the momentum he was riding carried him there nonetheless. For the last big push, he once again reached south toward the land of tequila and sombreros.
Riding at the 2011 AQHA World Championship Show, Larson had two rides with ties to Mexico: Stop Like a Dream, owned by Gilberto Leal, and Custom Harley, owned by Rancho El Fortin of Ciudad Acuña in the border state of Coahuila.
Competing aboard the two horses in Senior Reining, Larson guided Custom Harley to victory and sewed-up fourth place on Stop Like A Dream. Combined, the $9,000 and change in earnings took him just beyond $1 million in Lifetime Earnings.
“Jordan is a person who makes you feel comfortable,” said Aldo Ramon of Rancho El Fortin. “As an owner, the only benefit you get is seeing your horses do well. With Jordan, you know exactly where your horse stands, how it is doing. He won’t blow smoke.”
“I felt really pleased to work with the Leals and the Ramons,” said Larson. “They have the same desire to win as I do. Mexico is like Italy 20 years ago, and to get to know the people there has been very good for me,” he said.
Larson says he never thought much about reaching $1 million until the milestone lay directly in his path. Two back-to-back years of outstanding successes made that marker rush up into his dashboard very quickly, but he doesn’t forget that the climb to the top was a product of all the owners who put their trust in him and their good horses in his barn.
“I’d like to thank all the people who invested in horses and paid my entry fees along the way. I am sure it cost more than $1 million for me to win a million, and I have to credit all the people who helped me get here,” he said.