In the reining world, Shawn Flarida is one of the sport's superstars.
A multimillion-dollar winner, he is living proof that reining has become a big sport with big money.
Flarida, 40, who was in Lexington last week to compete in four events at the Kentucky Horse Park's new $45 million indoor arena, is the National Reining Horse Association's all-time leading money winner.
His cumulative winnings hit $3 million in 2006. Last year, he earned $400,000, a record amount for a reining competitor in one year.
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"I've never had a real job. I've been lucky," Flarida said with a grin. "I work for myself and train horses."
At noon Saturday, Flarida and his wife, Michele, were at the Horse Park eating a picnic lunch spread out on the hood of their pickup truck in front of the barn where Flarida's horses were stabled.
He was waiting to compete in the Clayton Woosley Reining Event later in the afternoon.
Flarida is a four-time winner of the NRHA's open futurity championship and seven-time winner of the All-American Quarter Horse Congress.
To remain a world-class competitor and trainer, he works as tirelessly as he did 18 years ago, when he turned professional.
Flarida travels 30 weekends a year — competing, coaching other riders and looking at horses.
"We've got 40 head of horses in training, so I've got horses and clients all over the world," he said. "It's not unusual for me to jump on a plane and go to Europe to look at a horse." And he might compete while he's there.
Reining is the fastest-growing of the eight disciplines that will be featured in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Horse Park.
The sport celebrates the American West and the cowboy way of life, complete with riders wearing cowboy hats and boots and country music playing in the background.
Reining originated from the moves that cattle-herding horses use and demonstrates the athletic ability of Western horses, mostly quarter horses, in limited space. It's a sport of speed, sliding and stopping on a dime.
Riders must run one of 10 approved patterns divided into maneuvers including small, slow circles and large, fast circles; flying lead changes; 360-degree spins in place; and sliding stops in which the horse lowers its hind quarters and skids to a halt.
Flarida lives on his family's 75-acre farm in Springfield, Ohio, between Dayton and Columbus. He started riding when he was 4 and entered his first reining competition at 8.
Flarida enters top-end horse shows that offer big prize money "so I can make a living," he said. But he attends plenty of small, local shows where the non-professionals he coaches will ride. He occasionally competes in these smaller venues. "It keeps my own skills sharp," he said.
The top-flight rider contributed his considerable skills to the U.S. reining team Tuesday, when it competed and won the Kentucky Cup Reining Team Competition. He rode the veteran champion Smart Spook, an 8-year-old American Quarter Horse stallion, one of the winningest reining horses in history.
Flarida rode in the individual competition on Thursday, placing fourth. On Friday, he won a qualifying event sponsored by the United States Equestrian Federation.
In the Clayton Woosley Reining Event on Saturday, he took top honors, riding Paddy's Irish Cody and chalking up a score of 227, "which was huge," wife Michele said later.
Among the other top riders in Lexington for the competitions were Tom McCutcheon, winner of the Kentucky Cup Reining individual competition on Thursday, and Dell Hendricks, who tied for third place. Like Flarida, both are members of the elite group of million-dollar riders.
The United States has dominated the sport of reining since it was added to the World Equestrian Games as a discipline in 2000. Flarida won the individual gold medal at the 2002 World Games in Jerez, Spain. He was on Team America, which won gold in the team competition.
But international competitors are catching up. "We're not going to dominate for a long period of time," Flarida said. "We got guys in Italy just as talented as us.
"If you don't have the right horse and the right combination of horse and rider, you're going to get beat," he said.
Finding the right reining horse is tough, said Hendricks, a rider from Tioga, Texas. "You scour the country. You look under every rock to find that right horse."
Flarida said, "To put it in a way the public might better understand, it's like looking for a franchise quarterback for an NFL football team. It takes time."
He looks for a horse with "a good mind," he said. "You want a horse that can learn what you teach it and is able to retain it."
Smarty Spook has been that smart, athletic horse for Flarida for several years. But "he's getting toward the end of his career," Flarida said. "He's getting to be a bit tired."
But Flarida said he has a couple of younger horses coming on nicely.
Then there's Wimpys Little Chic, which Flarida has called the best horse he's ever ridden.
The palomino mare is the National Reining Horse Association's all-time top money winner, having won $406,000. "She'll just be 6 next year. She's more the right age" for high-level competition like the 2010 World Equestrian Games, he said.
He hopes to be back in Lexington next September to participate in the Games. To qualify, Flarida must compete against other American riders next spring to win one of four slots on Team America.