By Lauren Levy
It might be hard to believe that a young boy who grew up in Lone Oak, Texas with parents who were not involved in the professional horse industry at all could go on to become one of today’s top riders and trainers on the Appaloosa circuit. However, if you take one look at the story of Dale Sullens, you will see that not only is it possible, but it is being done on a large scale, by this standout professional horseman.
“My parents would tell you that my first word was ‘horses,’” Dale told me when I asked him how he first got involved in the equine industry. He continued, “I have just always been horse crazy.”
Dale was born in Lone Oak, Texas, about an hour east of Dallas, and is the second of three boys. According to Dale, he is the only one of his siblings to have a horse addiction. When I asked if his brothers were involved with horses at all, Dale laughed and told me, “Neither of them has any interest in the horses at all. It is very strange.” His older brother grew up to be a manager in a factory, and his younger brother is a welder. I learned then that neither of Dale’s parents worked in the horse industry either. His mother was a server, and his father worked as a truck driver. However, when he was very young, his mother and uncle, who was an amateur horse rider, invested in an Arabian mare together. Throughout their partnership, his uncle rode, showed, and bred the mare consistently. Luckily for Dale, his uncle only lived a couple of hours away in College Station, Texas, and in the third grade, Dale began taking riding lessons from him. He recounted, “I started out only riding the horses he would allow me to ride, and he would help me. It just sort of went from there.”
When Dale was about fifteen years old, he was introduced to Nancy Magnussen, a woman who owned and showed Appaloosas, by a mutual friend. Dale did not know it at the time, but Nancy would end up playing a long-lasting role in his personal and professional life. He told me Nancy “allowed me to ride and work with her Appaloosas, and I started showing them.” As he got older, Dale branched off and started working for big name horse trainers like Mark Shaffer, Buzz Wetherald, and Nancy Sue Ryan. When he was just nineteen years old, he went out on his own to start a professional career in the equine industry. As he put it, “The rest is history.”
He started out in the hunter under saddle and working hunter events, working exclusively for Nancy Magnussen. Today Nancy owns two highly accomplished and well-known Appaloosa Stallions: All Hands on Zip, a leading sire and his offspring, Hands of a Hero. Hands of a Hero is a multiple World, National, and NSBA champion. Now, eleven years later, Dale is 30 years old, and runs his business out of Pilot Point, Texas, where he says he maintains eight to ten consistent customers, many of whom he has coached to become World and National Champions. Also, since going out on his own, he has expanded his resume to include the western all-around events. I asked Dale which is his favorite class to show in, and he told me, “It’s a toss-up between the working hunter and trail. They are both very similar as far as finding the correct path, not ticking a log in the trail, or rubbing a fence in the hunters.”
Even though he has expanded his list of competitive events to teach and show, one thing remains the same for him professionally. “I do still show and ride some occasionally for Nancy Magnussen,” Dale told me. “I have been fortunate enough to ride Hands of a Hero to many of his world titles in recent years, and sometimes she will bring me a couple of her babies, or leave her horse for me to work with.”
Dale’s accomplishments, however, are not limited to this single stallion. I asked him which moments in his career he is most proud of, and his response speaks to the high level of success he has actually reached. “There are a couple of moments in my career for myself, personally, that I am very proud of,” he told me. “The first that comes to mind is being the High Point Open Exhibitor at the 2011 Appaloosa World Show. That was pretty amazing. It was exciting and I am very honored to win a title with that prestige.” After some contemplation, Dale continued, “And the following year in the Nationals, I showed three horses in the senior western riding, and I actually finished first, second, and third with my horses. That was very exciting. It was kind of hard for me to imagine that was possible.” Besides these prestigious titles, Dale also holds dozens of other World Championship, National Championship, and NSBA Championship titles.
Dale continued on with an enduring final response telling me, “And each and every time I have a customer that comes into the barn and works so hard and they go to the world show and they win their first world championship or national championship or even their first top 10, all of those moments are very exciting for me, because growing up showing, I didn’t get to ride the best horses. I only got to ride the horses that were available to me. I’ll never forget my first top ten prize and how important it was to me, and I really get a kick out of watching people the first time they get to win a prize whether it is first or tenth or even just making the finals. When my customers set goals for themselves and achieve them, that is very exciting for me.”
I asked Dale to what he attributed his massive success in the horse industry over the years, and he boiled it down to one simple philosophy: playing to your horses’ strengths and weaknesses, and keeping an open mind. He told me, “In my program, I really focus on training for what the horse’s capabilities are, rather than training the horse for what I might want. I think there are a lot of horses out there that may be bred amazingly for western pleasure but for some reason they are 16.3 hands tall and have enormous strides. Even though they are bred to be a wonderful pleasure horse, maybe the western riding or the working hunter or the hunter under saddle is more suited for them. I think it is important that we recognize horses’ strengths and weaknesses and try to train them and help them out. I like to allow my horses to tell me when they are ready and what they are ready for. I think it is very important to stay open minded.” In addition he told me that his luck has also contributed to his great success saying, “I have also been very, very fortunate to ride several really nice horses, and I have had the opportunity to coach some really talented youth and non-pro riders throughout the years.”
Besides that, Dale told me that the advice and skills he has learned from others have helped him in his success in the equine industry. When I asked Dale who had influenced him the most throughout his horse training career, he responded, “A lot of people have influenced me. Nancy Sue was a big influence to me, both in my training career and just in my life in general. She really instilled in me the importance of horse care, and just how important it is to make sure that these athletes that we ask to do so much for us are well cared for.” He continued, “I learned a lot from Mark Shaffer about how to really understand these horses and how to make your program fit the horse rather than trying to make the horse fit the program. Also, I worked for an Arabian trainer, Kathy Williams, from Carroll, Texas, and I learned a lot from her about how to really listen to people and help them achieve their goals and how important it is to really hear them.”
Dale was not finished there. He also recounted to me the numerous “phenomenal animals,” as he called them, who he claims helped put him on the map. He told me, “Rock My World was a real standout. He is a double registered Paint and Quarter Horse. He was the first horse that got me interested in the all-around events and showing in western riding and trail. He fit every class on the show bill and was capable of being up there in the ribbons in every class at the world show level.” Handy Principles is another horse he named, telling me, “Handy Principles is an Appaloosa gelding that I have been fortunate enough to spend some time with, and he is just another amazing individual that I am so very blessed to show and ride.” He also named the three horses he placed first, second, and third on at the Nationals in Senior Western Riding as being influential in his career: A Celebri Te, the winner that year, Hot Zippin Romeo, who came in second, and One Hot Zip, the third place finisher.
Dale went on to praise One Hot Zip in particular, telling me, “He has gone on to do great things, and I am very lucky to be able to say that I got to show him. He was the High Point Western Horse at the 2013 Nationals. He won the Senior Trail and Senior Western Riding. In 2012, he was World Champion 14-18 in Western Riding, World Champion Non-Pro in Western Riding, and World Champion Senior Horse in the Western Riding.” Dale told me that he won the same titles again this year in the 14-18 age division and Senior division. In addition, he was the Reserve National Champion in the Non-Pro Western Riding. “He’s a very, very nice horse,” Dale continued. And finally, he told me more about Hands of a Hero, Nancy Magnussen’s stallion, saying, “He’s a wonderful animal, very talented and athletic. So far he has been a very successful producer as well. His first crop is now two years old, and the ones I have seen, I am very impressed with them.”
So what does a world class trainer like Dale like to do in his free time? “This is it,” he told me with a laugh, “This is all I like to do. I like to spend a little time on the water, but really this is my passion, this is my joy. I’d rather be in the barn than anywhere else.” When I asked Dale what his favorite part was about waking up and getting to work in the equine industry every day, he told me matter-of-factly, “The horses.” He said the people he gets to work with are great also, “But the horses,” he continued, “I just think are amazing creatures, and I feel very blessed to get to go to work every day and smile and have a good time because of them. They just have so much personality, and I think I learn something new from them every day.”
Dale is lucky to be so passionate about the horse industry because he manages to keep himself busy within it. Besides training horses and coaching customers, Dale is also a new member of the Appaloosa Association’s Show Advisory Committee, whose job is to help make decisions for the association by serving as a forum to discuss the concerns and opinions of its members. Dale told me about working on the committee, “I am very new, and got to be in on a few conference calls, and I really enjoy it. I think it’s great that we have a lot of people in our industry who are open to new ideas, really accepting of brainstorming, and supportive of working to help promote our breed and to help promote our horse shows.” In addition, he is also starting to apply for his APHA and Appaloosa Horse Club judges’ cards, which he says is both exciting and educational. Speaking about the benefits of the judge’s clinics he is required to attend as part of the application process he told me, “It is very helpful and makes it easier for me to coach and show when I really understand what the people in the middle of the arena are looking for.”
As I closed out my talk with Dale, I asked him what his hopes for the future were, and as he had done throughout our entire conversation, he remained humble and down to earth telling me, “I just hope that I will be fortunate enough to maintain the business and success that I have and the health of myself, my horses and my customers.” In addition, Dale told me that he also would not mind finding a qualified assistant to help him with his work saying, “I am currently a one man band, and I am in the market for an assistant.” So, if Dale’s past years in the industry foreshadow what the future has in store for him, it seems likely that his hopes are sure to become reality. Also, if all goes well, perhaps Dale will find a good assistant soon to help him carry the weight of all of that success as he continues to reign over the Appaloosa circuit in years to come.
For more information about Dale, or his training program, please visit his website at www.dalesullensshowhorses.com.
Click here to read the complete article from the Equine Chronicle November/December 2013 Issue, Vol. 16 Number 7.