Don Dodge? No doubt it’s a name that conjures a different image in every horse person’s mind. For some, it’s an image of an exceptional showman, of unmerited reining horses, or the rider of award-winning cutting horses, or perhaps the trainer of race horse champion after race horse champion. Maybe it’s one of a compelling teacher, or perhaps a contemptuous character or even a condescending competitor. It could be a neatness fanatic or a giant of a man whose vocabulary included a list of regularly used obscenities just as tall as he.
Each image would definitely fit Dodge, but so would others. He can’t be described as tactful. Blunt would be better, although he can be tactful if he desires. He can be quite a charmer, but then he is also quite a devil, depending on the day, the horse, the person. The bottom line, though, is that
Don Dodge is definitely a horseman, a title no one could dare dispute. In honor of that horsemanship the incredible Don Dodge of Skull Valley, Arizona was inducted into the National Reined Cow Horse Hall of Fame September 24, 1998.
It was his 5th major honor having already been inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame, the National Cutting Horse Association Member Hall of Fame, the National Cutting Horse Association Rider Hall of Fame, and elected as the Stock Horseman of the Year in 1984 by his reined cow horse friends. Dodge earns the title of distinction with overwhelming acclaim having heavily influenced the reined cow horse industry as he has influenced almost every other performance industry.
INTRODUCTION TO REINED COW HORSE
Dodge saw his first reined cow horse when, as head cattle buyer for Armour and Company in California he was invited to judge a load of feeder steers at the first stock show and rodeo held at the San Francisco Cow Palace.
“At that time, I didn’t know anything about showing horses,” reminisced Dodge, “and this was my introduction to the Cow Palace, a memorable one I might add.”
Armour then also agreed to furnish the cattle for the Calvacade of Americas at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco, requiring Dodge to be a continual visitor to check the cattle. Again, he saw the bridle horses perform. The following excerpt is from his new book, Don Dodge: The Way It Was. Prior to seeing the reined cow horse in his finest regalia, Dodge had only known the animal as a means to an end, a way to travel from one place to another, and later a way to move cattle. For a guy from the Midwest who had been reared in a business that bought and paired mules, who as a youngster had climbed on the backs of horses called incorrigible and condemned, and whose tack had received no more thought than the choice of socks for the day, the splendor and beauty of the reined cow horse revealed to him a combination of art and western tradition, a bringing together of two strong forces in his life together. Dodge was completely smitten at the first sight of the reined cow horse. This culture possessed a whole different idea about a horse viewing the horses and tack with pride, as objects de’ art as well as a working tool. After seeing the horses perform for the first time, he spent hours studying the art of training and then showing the reined cow horse.
“I’d never seen anything like these horses or the bits that they rode with,” commented Dodge. “They certainly weren’t the kind that we’d had in Iowa. These horses were shown in the half breed and spade bits; snaffle bits today are descendants of the bridle bit and the tack they used. The bits by Abby Hunt, Garcia, and the reins by Ortega are collectors items today. These people were so proud of their bridles that they carried them on the their arm for others to admire the beautiful head stalls and bits.
“All I’d ever used was a grazer bit, and grazers were unknown in California. In fact, they’d rather let a rattlesnake bite their horse than put a grazer bit in its mouth.”
This introduction culminated with the training of some of the most outstanding horses to grace the performance arena. He rode 6 horses to the Cow Horse Hall of Fame – Mona Lisa, Right Now, Git N Go, Fizzabar, Poco Tivio and Poco Lena. His skill also influence the induction of two other Hall of Fame horses, Doc Bar and Teresa Tivio.
In addition, he won every major reined cow horse competition up and down the west coast in the 50’s and 60’s – winning Salinas 6 times, then Gilroy, the San Francisco Cow Palace and on and on. In fact, Dodge is one of the few competitors who has won every division to be won at the Cow Palace – the open jumper stake, the open cow horse stakes, and the cutting contest.
THE TOOLS WITH WHICH TO TRAIN
Not only did Dodge know how to train a horse, he knew when he needed a better tack with which to train, and therefore his expertise overflowed from trainer and teacher to master of tools. Rather than discard a horse or force him to respond to the tack of the day, he developed bits that fit the horse, thus affirming that his horsemanship excelled beyond trainer of horseflesh to the mechanics that helped him communicate with them. The mare Mona Lisa inspired his first bit.
“Mona Lisa was a pretty raunchy mare when I got her,” began Don Dodge and that’s why I invented the Mona Lisa bit. I wanted to get a bridle that she would work good in, but I couldn’t find one to buy. She didn’t seem to want to take any of the bits I tried on her. I always started my horses in a half breed to save the mouth as long as possible. When the horse got a little heavy with that bit, I’d switch to an Abby Hunt spade that touched them in a different place in their mouth, and therefore, gave me a response.
“I wasn’t getting the response I wanted with Mona Lisa, and there wasn’t a bit that I really liked, so I had Garcia make me one and named it the Mona Lisa after her. The original one has my name stamped in it. It has a solid steel roller, or cricket, that doesn’t get thin on the sides and cut the tongue. The cricket also rolls in a covered housing and it has a louder sounding cricket – which has nothing to do with making it a better bit, but is pleasing to the ear of a bridle man because it makes his horse sing.”
In addition to the Mona Lisa bit, the Don Dodge snaffle bit was named for him.
“We ran a dude string and bought a lot of old cheap army equipment when Barbara and I were married. Her father, Jim Worth, took care of these dude horses. One day I took a hack saw and cut the long ends off of a snaffle bit, just to get them out of the way for Jim. Later, when I pulled the horse around with it, I really got hold of him and the light dawned on me.
I took it to an old guy who hammered out bits in Bakersfield, California, showed it to him and asked him to make me a snaffle, but with the sides a little longer. I was one of the first to use a snaffle bit, and I took it into Texas. I broke my horses in a snaffle bit to save their nose because we showed them in the hackamore for a couple of years. Greg Darnall now builds the snaffle I like and has named it the Don Dodge. He has been very generous to me over the years with the bits.” Don Dodge: The Way It Was
THE MAKING OF A HORSEMAN
Dodge’s talent is one that is not easily targeted. While horse shows evolved from the desire to show off the training and cattle competency of horses, few riders had the opportunity to develop an eye for cattle that Dodge received through his years of working for Armour. In addition, Dodge was reared in an era when horses dominated a day’s activities, and he learned at an early age how to ride horses that even the United States government discarded as incorrigible. He utilized this back-ground, wrapping his horsemanship and his cattle discernment together and tying them with an innate common sense and superior intelligence. The package developed one of the most outstanding horsemen of the century.
Dodge accumulated champion-ship after championship in every field in which he tested the waters. He also rode horses to the NCHA Top Ten Rider 12 times, won 6 PCCHA championships and trained numerous race horse champions. A man of opposites, he was strong-willed, yet self-conscious, and by his own admission embarrassed when praised by someone. The passion for excellence, the diverse personality, the perception for horseflesh transformed a Skunk River bottom kid into a man highly deserving of the 1998 NCRHA Hall of Fame induction.
Still, the package came with several imperfections. Short on patience, with a volatile temper and a hair-singeing vocabulary, Dodge’s personality had a love/hate relationship with so much of the equine industry. Simply, you either loved him or you hated him; and even those who loved him found themselves wondering how – or why – at times. Chubby Turner, who sat Dodge high on a pedestal, found that out first hand when he nervously found the opportunity to introduce himself to his mentor.
“I met him at Odessa Texas; he was having dinner with Matlock Rose and I knew Matlock, so I walked up to speak to him and at the same time introduce myself to Don Dodge, I said, `Mr. Dodge, I’m Chubby Turner.’ All he said is `that’s good.’ It burst my bubble.”
In honor of his induction the National Reined Cow Horse Association commissioned artist Joe Milazzo to draw a unique pen and ink portrait of Dodge with Right Now and Poco Lena in the background. Milazzo is also producing a limited edition of the drawing which will accompany a special limited edition of the book on Dodge’s life story titled Don Dodge: The Way It Was.