Vanessa Gravatt

Vanessa Gravatt went through the school of hard knocks.

As a native of Portland, Oregon, Gravatt moved to Boise, Idaho, where she developed her love of horses. Her passion for horses and working with them became her life goal. She wanted to be a horse trainer.

At the age of 13 years old, Gravatt moved to South Dakota to help her grandma on her farm in Mitchell. It was also at this time she started showing horses through 4-H horse events and open class competitions. Horse training came naturally to her and she started working with horses after school, entering them in competitions.Gravatt’s early years in 4-H really cemented her love for horses.

“I was the kind of kid who would work on something and work on something until I had it perfected,” Gravatt said. “I wasn’t the kind of kid who wanted to go on trail rides; I wanted to dedicate my time in the arena, teaching the horse, going through the process of making the horse better and putting myself and my work to the test which is, of course, showing.”

After a short stint back in Idaho, she moved back to South Dakota where the work with horses on her grandma’s farm led her to purchase property near Woonsocket. There she built her first riding arena and her reputation.

“Normally, people who want to be trainers try to get an internship or work as an assistant to a trainer and work their way into the business,” Gravatt said. “But I had a baby boy at an early age which made it difficult for me to get into the training business that route. I went through the school of hard knocks and learned the hard way what to do and what not to do.”

The challenges did not hold Gravatt back. She trained horses for clientele and showed horses, working her way up in the training world. Learning on her own has been a positive influence in her training methods and reputation. She also takes advantage of training videos to help polish her skills.

Eventually Gravatt’s family, husband Shawn and 14-year-old son Skylar, decided they wanted to live near a bigger town and made the move to Yankton. Today she trains horses for owners out of a local barn and has grown a clientele of ten horses, looking for a couple more to fill her schedule.

“I’ve been very fortunate to know some good people and good customers and have done very well,” Gravatt said. Her reputation speaks volumes and her only advertisement is by word of mouth.

Gravatt trains horses to show in horse events in Idaho, Nebraska, Minnesota and Oklahoma. She usually travels at least twice a month to reining shows which are sanctioned by the National Reining Horse Association in Oklahoma. The crown jewel for horse trainers and Gravatt’s goal is the Oklahoma-based NRHA Futurity for three-year olds and the NHRA Derby for older horses.

“I also hope to be in an event in Texas at some point – the sky is the limit,” Gravatt said.

According to the NHRA website, the NHRA is a nonprofit association which monitors the sport of reining through events and judging for horse lovers of all ages. The reining events display the athletic ability of ranch horses in a show arena. The competition is designed with 13 patterns, one of which contestants must perform for judging. The patterns include small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, roll backs over the hocks, 360-degree spins done in place and sliding stops. The more in tune the trainer and horse are makes for exciting performances of horsemanship.

After 20-plus years in the horse training business, that is what Gravatt considers herself – a horseman.

“I want the horse to want to work for me out of trust,” Gravatt said. “I want them to try to please because they want to please and not because they’re forced to do it. I want them to enjoy what they’re doing and when I call on them, they’re there for me.”

Along with training the horses for shows, Gravatt also makes sure her animals have the best care she is able to give them.

“It’s not all about the training and performance,” Gravatt said. “It’s about the horse, too. I want to make sure they get the best care, the best food and nutrition because if you don’t have a sound minded and bodied horse, you have nothing.”

Gravatt admits it takes a very special horse to be able to make it to a Texas event.

“I want to keep trying to improve the horses, my skill set,” Gravatt said. “I feel you can never quit learning as far as I’m concerned and with the right horse I can do it, show in Texas.”

Finding that special horse is about a feeling a trainer gets when working with a horse. Gravatt said a trainer knows when he or she has a good horse, when they show that horse something, the next day and the day after, they can do it and every time the trainer asks, the horse is ready to do it and do more. A trainer knows they have something special.

Gravatt said she has been fortunate to have trained a horse like that and once a trainer experiences a special horse, it makes the trainer feel invincible.

Many of Gravatt’s clients have multiple horses to train and are trailered from places as far away as California, Texas, Kansas and as close as North Dakota and South Dakota. They are stabled at the barn and she trains with them five days a week. Horses learn through repetition and a trainer must be consistent with what they ask and how they ask.

Training for reining events takes a lot of stamina and muscle development so conditioning is an important aspect of training. A poorly conditioned horse is more susceptible to injuries and Gravatt follows a strict program with stepping blocks, teaching the horse block A before she moves on to block B. Training and conditioning a reining horse takes a long time – at least one to two years and some horses even more.

Some of Gravatt’s clients ride their horses in shows and some have Gravatt show them especially if they are interested in selling their horse for performance at a higher level. Her clients are generally a fair distance away. Only one client lives close – maybe an hour away.

Gravatt’s clients are not necessarily ranchers but horse owners who are interested in taking a chance and seeing their horses succeed. It is an investment for them and the caliber of horses is not that of a pasture horse. These reining horses have been bred, born and raised for this competitive discipline.

The owners understand it is a long process and takes a substantial monetary investment to be rewarded with a horse who has a winner’s caliber. Participating in shows takes entrance fees but there are also payoffs so sometimes it is worth the owner’s while. Purses for three-year olds are usually higher than older horses Gravatt said, and she usually trains younger horses.

Horses traditionally begin their reining competition career as a three-year old when they are physically and mentally strong, and if they continue to be of sound mind and body, they can compete until they are seven-years old. An owner and trainer determine if the horse is ready and it would be detrimental to the horse’s future if it was entered prematurely. Some horses take more time.

Reaching the NHRA Futurity requires a series of payments in the amount of $2,800 and Gravatt has showed there but always has the desire to return again and again – it might be because the purse and prizes awarded total $2.3 million. There are often 3,000 entries and reining horse sales with over 125,000 spectators from 20 countries around the world.

Gravatt has garnered several pewters and plaques as well as monetary purses which seems to be one of the niches which draws horse owners and lovers to the arena.

“I want to say I’m not where I want to be – yet,” Gravatt said with a laugh. “But I’m on my way and I will get there.”

Now at age 35, Gravatt has become more picky about horses she will work with.

“I’m not as agile as when I was younger so if someone brings me a renegade horse or one who likes to buck, I may pass on them,” Gravatt said.

Working in the horse industry like with all livestock, has unpredictability. Her husband and son are not horse lovers but do support Gravatt in her endeavor. Things come up, like an injured horse recently who had to be put down eventually, and she said her family is very understanding.

“You don’t get rich, it’s hard work and long hours,” Gravatt said. “But I wouldn’t be doing anything else.”