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Don Crawford

All The Good Horses: An Interview with Iconic

Canadian Horse Trainer Jim MacKay

and left an imprint on the cutting horse and local equestrian industry. Before he was a notable cutting horse

trainer, Jim spent the early years of his life on the road with his bluegrass band, The Night Hawks. Originally from Sault St Marie, Jim played bass and rhythm guitar, which he still plays today. During a tour in southern On- tario, Jim was introduced to Walter Hellyer, who owned a farm and a number of well-bred cutting horses in Waterford, Ontario. Jim, a lifelong horseman himself, raised broodmares and colts back home in the north. When he eventually retired from touring as a musician, Jim called up Walter Hellyer, inquired about a job, and shortly thereafter, started breaking colts. Colt breaking soon progressed to riding cutting horses, and in 1967, his career as a cutting horse trainer began. Through his role as trainer for Walter

By Lexie Reed Jim MacKay is one of those rare people who

seems to always be able to find the best in horses, people, and situations. This attitude has influenced his way of approaching horses, but also life. Over his lifetime of experience, Jim has trained and started countless great horses that went on to achieve success in the cutting pen. Jim, along with his wife Juanita, are Canadian Cutting Horse As- sociation Hall of Fame members. He holds judging cards for both the Canadian and the National Cut- ting Horse Association. He developed great riders

Hellyer, Jim regularly worked down in Texas with cutting horse legends Buster Welch and Shorty Freeman. And while cutting horses re- mained his main focus, Jim was highly col- laborative and interdisciplinary. He spent a considerable amount of time working with Hans Renz, a former coach of the Canadian Three Day Eventing team. Hans Renz taught Jim a wealth of knowledge about dressage and jumping. Jim credits this as one of the most

important things he learned about horsemanship. “Hans helped me a lot with basic horseman-

ship. The dressage that I got from my time with Hans is probably one of the main things that lasted me through all the years. [It was] getting the basic idea of what a horse was capable of. I always went back to his dressage theory. I really found that to be a big opportunity to get better. The horse was the horse. If you wanted to go a lot of different di- rections you could, but it was all based on the basic theory of horsemanship.”

Eric Van Boekel

NCHA Area 21 Director Scott Reed

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nary approach and applied to all horses that ended up in his train- ing program – from high end cut- ting horses to jumping horses. His interest in taking on horses of different disciplines and learning from them speaks volumes of his willingness to find the athleticism and ability in each individual horse. It has also taught him a lot about the common themes of partnership and trust when work- ing with horses. “There’s an independence

that you allow the horse. In cut- ting, you can only take things so far - you can set the cow and the horse up, and then they have to help you out. Same with the jumping horse. You can train to get the horse to a certain spot; but then they have to help you. I al- ways thought that was a parallel [between disciplines]. It’s like when you drop your hand with your cutter – they better be there to help you, they better come through for you. And I think that’s what you train for.” The kind of accountability

and partnership in a horse that Jim talks about is exactly what he had with one particularly great cutting horse, Bonita 4. Bonita 4 was a mare owned by Walter Hellyer, who had numerous note- worthy successes in the cutting pen in Canada and the United States in the 1980s. Most notably, Bonita 4 and Jim MacKay were reserve champions of the Wash- ington International Horse Show in 1981, and Calgary Stampede Champions in 1982. Bonita 4 went on to be inducted into the Canadian Cutting Horse Associ- ation Hall of Fame. “She was an exceptional

horse. She was so strong, so pow- erful.” Whenever Jim talks about Bonita 4, he’s right back in that moment, riding the mare as a two-year-old; he becomes even more soft-spoken and thoughtful than he usually is. “I remember I was in the

pen, working a cow. It was four in the afternoon that day. I re- member looking over the fence. A school bus had just stopped there, and kids were getting off. I will never forget this day. This mare was doing things on a cow automatically – nothing that was trained. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. I finally found one.’ She was just a two-year-old. She did- n’t even really know anything yet. Sometimes a really good one will come along and you’ll just think…wow.” However, what might be

the most remarkable thing about Jim, is not what he can do with an exceptional horse. It’s what he can do with a really difficult horse.

“Some really good horse

aren’t very trainable, and you have to go the long route and go back over the basics time and time again. It makes a big differ- ence. That doesn’t mean that the difficult horse couldn’t be the best horse – they could be. You certainly don’t want to sell out on one too early. They might just get it if you keep quietly going about it.”

Developing an optimistic

approach to working with horses has been an evolution mindset for Jim.

“You think a lot about it. I

picked up a horse of Walter Hellyer’s from Texas that was supposed to be really bad. It bucked somebody off so hard it knocked them unconscious. So I brought him home and he made the nicest horse. A really good minded horse. We got to where we could just through a calf over top of him and he would tote it up from the field. The more horses I saw, the more I saw a lot of good in them. But you need to get on the good side of a horse to get along with them to begin with. You don’t want to be fighting with them.” A perfect example of this

is the story of Copper, a horse Jim once had for training. “He was a big, good looking sorrel horse. Just really handsome and

big. He was getting along nicely in training, and the owner arranged to come down one day and ride him. He hadn’t gotten more than three quarters of the way around the arena before the horse came undone and bucked him off.” Jim recalls being bucked off the horse more than once himself, sometimes as soon as he had gotten on. Otherwise, the horse was a pleasure to ride. Eventually, he figured out that the horse became anxious when it was confined to a stall before being ridden. As long as he was kept in the field, Copper was as good as gold. The horse was sold and passed through different owners, who were all pleased with him until making the mis- take of putting him in a stall. At one point, a rodeo stock contrac- tor had Copper, hoping to make a good bucking horse out of him. However, when they put the flank strap on him, Copper would buck so hard he would slip and fall down. Down the road he went again, until he ended up with a home as a using horse where they kept him outside. Jim, of course, has a way

of seeing the best in a horse. “I liked that horse. He was a great horse.”

Over the last decade, Jim

has gradually spent less time in Continued on page 14

Jim MacKay at an Ontario Cutting Horse Association show, 2015. Photo by Don Crawford.

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