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Loving their Quarter Horse Lifestyle
By Kristen Spinning
Mike and Joanne Garnett of Lincoln, Nebraska are a powerhouse couple in the AQHA Select Amateur arena, yet they are quick to flash a smile and always ready to cheer on their fellow exhibitors. Horses brought these two together and continue to be the focal point of a successful marriage and a fulfilling lifestyle. Their unfaltering support of each other has been a big factor in their decades of success, but the other important ingredient is plain, old, get-your-hands-dirty, hard work.
The couple met at a horse show in Wichita, Kansas. Mike was in his mid-30s showing Reining horses, and Joanne was in her mid-20s showing Barrel and Pole horses. They both lived in the Lincoln area, but they had to go to another state to find each other. Mike knew and occasionally rode with Bob Loomis, who resided in Lincoln at the time. Joanne was in training with Bob’s wife, Joyce, a notable barrel racer. Their paths crossed at that show, and they have been showing together ever since. “It turns out we had a lot in common and didn’t know it,” quips Mike.
Mike grew up in western Nebraska where riding had been a part of his life since he was six years old. “I showed horses in 4-H as a kid. When I got old enough to move out of 4-H, there really weren’t any open horse shows; there were AQHA shows. It was the next logical step.” In 4-H competition, he did everything, but he always gravitated toward Reining. “I learned quickly that my horse wasn’t competitive at all in AQHA in events like Western Pleasure. It was kind of an eye-opener at first, but it worked out fine because I really wanted to concentrate on Reining.”
Mike worked as a detective sergeant in the Lincoln police department; he was assigned to the narcotics unit. A veteran of 41 years, he worked in the drug unit for about 37 years. At the time, he never thought too much about horses being an antidote to stress, but upon reflection, he sees that they probably were a big part of what helped him stay mellow. “I think we take that benefit for granted when horses are always such a big part of our lives,” he considers. Horses provided a continuous diversion that prevented him from thinking about work all the time. “I would get home, and there were things to do and horses that needed riding. It sure beat going and sitting in a bar,” he chuckles.
Joanne didn’t have a typical 9-5 job either. She started putting hours in at her family’s lumber company while still in junior high. After graduating college, she went right back into the family business, and she continues to work there today. She is grateful that her job is somewhat flexible, which allows her time to show. She is responsible for the books, paying the bills, and managing inventory. The seasonal nature of the business allows her to do more shows in the winter months than in the summer. As a youth rider, Joanne showed in Barrels and Poles and had an all-around horse. Her dad was instrumental in getting her started. While Joanne was already gravitating toward all-around events, her dad was fond of the speed events. “He always made sure we had really good Barrel and Pole horses,” she says. One horse, Keep Fiddling, was good enough to propel her to a Youth World Championship in Poles. Despite all her subsequent accomplishments, she will always have a soft spot for “Foster.” She recalls, “As a 4-year-old, he was the Nebraska Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year. He didn’t like men, and he didn’t get along real well with other people, but he and I had a special bond.” As she looks back, she sees lessons that shaped her life. She recalls, “My dad instilled in us that you had to work hard for anything you wanted. I always spent a lot of time making sure my horses were in good shape. I spent a lot of time working at it and practicing hard.”
Mike has three Reining horses that compete in AQHA and NRHA events. With an exceptional field of horses being shown all around the country in the non-pro division these days, Mike routinely finds himself at the top of the scoreboard. “We had a great year,” he says, “all of them did really well.” That’s a bit of a characteristic understatement. He and Arc Smokin Gun bested the field in Select Reining to take home the World Championship title and the pair also claimed the Non-Pro NRHA Derby Championship title. He finds the com-petition at the Select World to be both challenging and a whole lot of fun. “It’s tough. There’s some awful nice horses there,” he says. “Just because it’s Select, don’t think it’s a pushover class by any means. There are a lot of people who have been showing a long time and really know how to show their horses.” Mike knows a thing or two as well. He is very hands-on with his horses, working them at home in Nebraska for part of the year and sending them to his trainer, Martin Muehlstaetter, in Scottsdale for the rest. Mike is grateful for the guidance Muehlstaetter has provided, adding, “Martin’s got a terrific work ethic, and he surrounds himself with good people working for him.”
Joanne can be seen these days in the ring with one of two mounts. She shows So Much Potential aka “Louis” in Trail and Western Riding, and her all-around horse is A Sudden Illusion. She and Louis were crowned Select World Champions in Trail in 2014. Though she can and has ridden all things Western, her heart and soul are in the Trail pen. She finds it fun and challenging. “You need to have control and togetherness with a horse in Trail. You have to be a team,” she says. She thrives on the nature of it being perpetually new and different with each pattern. She is also unabashedly jazzed by the competition, avowing, “Everybody in it is just so good, and it’s gotten so tough. Anybody can win on any given day.” She rides under the guidance of Leslie Lange and thinks nothing of hopping in the truck and driving over to Greeley, Colorado for a tune-up.
Joanne marvels at the quality and precision of the Select riders and their mounts. “I’ve said for years that I thought the Select World Trail was tougher than the regular Amateur Trail. Those ladies and men in Select Trail bring their A-game every time. They’re good and they’re riding good horses,” she says. She laughs when she recalls that even before being eligible for the Select division she used to say to Mike, “One has to be really ready before they can go play with those ladies.”
The Garnetts are both very competitive by nature, but for them there is more to showing than just winning. Mike says, “First of all, we’ve met so many great people. We’ve made friends all over the country. If we hadn’t been showing at this level, there are many people, who we count as really close friends, who we simply would’ve never met. That’s probably the best part about it.” Mike is internally motivated to work with his horses to achieve the most he can. He also enjoys being in the company of others who are pursuing the same goals. “We all strive to be the best we can be. It certainly is rewarding when that pays off and you’re able to do well,” he says.
Joanne also finds showing to be fulfilling on so many levels: the friendships forged across the country, the camaraderie in and out of the arena, and the personal achievements she has attained. “I’m fairly competitive,” she says. “I like the challenge.” However, at the heart of it all, it’s simple: she loves to ride. “You go to work all day, and you might have a bad day. It’s nice to come home and be able to ride. It just makes you feel better,” she says with a smile.
She shares that riding, for her, used to be about winning and striving for that World Championship. However, time and life have a way of changing priorities. “You have some things happen that change your perspective, like people getting sick, or losing people in your life,” she says with a knowing edge of pain. She explains that a shift happens and, “it becomes about doing your best and simply enjoying it.”
This past summer, the Garnett’s’ life was turned upside down and inside out – quite literally – when their property was hit by a tornado. They were both at home as the tornado approached, but it all happened so fast that there was nothing they could do. From the time the tornado warning was announced to the time it hit was about five minutes. They had to take shelter in the basement of their home. “That was hard. I was totally a mess,” confesses Joanne. It was their first direct tornado hit, though they had seen plenty over the years while living in Nebraska. They certainly knew what could be happening above them. All they could do is wait.
“The thought of going down there, and that the horses might be… gone…,” her voice trails off at the recollection of that terrifying night. When it was safe to come up, they could see that the stall barn was standing. Mike headed down to survey the damage. First, he noticed a bunch of fencing was missing and then realized the entire indoor arena had been ripped away from the stall barn. It was completely demolished and scattered across the fields. Miraculously, the stalls were intact, and although the horses were a bit frazzled, no one was hurt. The integrity of the remaining struc-ture was unknown that night, but they couldn’t get the horses out due to debris being everywhere. It continued to storm all night long. Dawn reveals the extent of the damage. “The debris field was two miles long,” Joanne said. “It’s a feeling of disbelief. You just can’t imagine it.” The roof of the hay barn and the stall barn were also damaged, fencing was obliterated, and numerous old trees were ripped from the ground. It was a mess indeed, but they’re keenly aware that it could have been much worse.
That event was life-altering. Joanne sums it up, “From that point on, it didn’t matter. My horses don’t owe me anything. I’m just so grateful everyone is alive, to have the horses, and to have the opportunity to show them. The other stuff isn’t so important anymore.”
What took five minutes to destroy has taken six months to rebuild, and things still aren’t back to 100%. It certainly hasn’t been a smooth process either. Rebuilding came with its own set of challenges. When the new arena was under construction and only half the roof was on, they experienced heavy rain, which flooded the surviving barn with the stalls. “We had a vet room that was completely destroyed by water, along with a storage room,” Mike says. “Our tack room got a bunch of water in it, too. It wasn’t destroyed, but it was a mess.” Despite these tough times, Mike has a ‘just roll with it’ attitude that keeps him going. The new indoor arena was eventually completed, and the other damage fixed, allowing the Garnetts to get back to riding indoors by the time the weather turned cold.
One might assume that such a terrifying experience would have a lasting effect on all the horses. Fortunately, they too have remarkable resilience. “The only one who had a problem was my old Trail horse, Louis,” Joanne says. “From that point on, noises would drive him crazy. I didn’t know if I would ever get him shown again.” He startled at all kinds of things at the first couple shows where she took him. Yet, by the time the Select World rolled around, “He was acting like life was okay.” They finished in the Top 10 in Trail.
While each is a serious competitor in their respective disciplines, these two are just as dedicated to each other’s aspirations as they are to their own. Between them, hardly a month that goes by where one or both are not off to some show somewhere, and that can involve a good deal of juggling. They try to be there for each other, even if one can only fly in for a couple days. It was especially difficult when Mike was still on the force. Now, he enjoys the freedom of being able to go when and where he wants, cheerfully adding, “I can pretty much get to all of her events now.” However, there are still times the couple is headed in opposite directions with Joanne’s show schedule pointing her to the big AQHA shows and Mike’s schedule taking him to the major NRHA shows. Both agree that one of their favorite destinations is the Sun Circuit in Scottsdale. Mike adds, “Honestly, one of my next favorite ones is the Arizona Fall Championship. I just really like going to Scottsdale. I like the city, the shows are well-run and fun, and the show grounds are as good as you can find anywhere.” They also enjoy it because it’s one of the few places where they both can show. “Reining is so huge at Sun Circuit,” Mike says, “That’s were I can get my World Show horses qualified.” The pair also enjoys going to Las Vegas for the Silver Dollar Circuit, and Mike finds more good fortune at the High Roller Reining Classic in Vegas.
The Garnetts undeniably spend a great deal of their time with horses, but they have other interests as well. Though you might think criss-crossing the country with horses is enough excitement and time on the road, the Garnetts find great pleasure in travel – sans horses. Now that Mike is retired, they plan on doing a lot more of it. They took their first cruise to Alaska and are now hooked. “When we got married, Mike promised me that after 15 years we would go on a cruise. Well, it took us 25 years, but we finally did it. It was abso-lutely the time of my life. We had so much fun.” They have Norway in their sights as their next cruise destination. Whether on the high seas or enjoying Disneyland, they have two rules when they travel: they can’t talk about work and and they can’t talk about horses.
Looking ahead, the couple envisions another busy year in the show pen. Joanne will continue in all-around and Trail. She has recently started Western Riding on A Sudden Illusion and hopes to have him show-ready for 2016. “He’s been a little difficult in Western Riding. I think he needed time to grow up, and now we’re trying to get him finished,” she says. The next event she wants to tackle is Western Pleasure, which means the hunt is on for a new horse. They will certainly tackle this latest endeavor with the same verve they bring to everything they do and undoubtedly find joy and success along the way.