A World Finals win here and there is already a big deal, but when a barn has 13 riders earn their place as finalists among the season’s top 15, people sit up and take notice. Such was the case for Mike Wood Performance Horses’ team at the 2018 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) World Finals; they went home with several World championships and World Show titles. While the success of the team was certainly something to celebrate, the group from Scottsdale, Arizona, achieved an even more important goal — they had fun along the way.
Wood, a newly minted Equi-Stat Elite $2 Million Rider, along with his business manager and life partner, Roper Curtiss, has built Mike Wood Performance Horses with the amateur rider in mind. Attention to their customers is key, and having competitive riders is paramount to their success, but just as important to the program is fostering an enjoyable environment.
“We try to take very good care of our clients,” Curtiss said. “We realize that we’re in the service industry, and we are here to make sure they have a fun time and a good time.”
That attitude has helped the business grow leaps and bounds over the last couple years, so much so that the duo mainly relies on word of mouth to market their business. The strategy works, as they receive more prospective clients than they can feasibly accept while still maintaining a quality program.
In addition to keeping their amateurs and non-pros happy, keeping the weekend horses as “fresh and good at the end of the year as they are at the beginning” is equally important. Wood’s goal is to maintain the horses in tip-top shape physically and mentally throughout the show season.
“It’s like managing a professional athlete. They get time off, but that doesn’t mean they go lay on the beach,” Wood said. “They get to enjoy some of the things they do, yet stay physically active, such as turnout or trotting them. My point is to keep them physically fit and to not work them all the time.”
Wood treats each horse like an individual, realizing that some need to be worked more than others, and he believes it’s important to match his riders with horses mentally suited for weekend hauling. Spending lots of time on the road and away from home will tax any animal, no matter how laid-back, and he believes a horse that has previously done well in the cutting pen and loves its job is essential for success.
“Sometimes when you’re showing on the weekend, you have a bad situation — a bad arena, bad cows — and a horse has to figure out or learn to be cow smart and do their job of holding a cow,” Wood said. “It’s interesting to see the aged event horses transition and learn to do their job.”
Wood rarely shows a horse without its amateur owner also showing it, which means that horse could compete twice a day for several days in a row throughout an event. Teaching the horse to treat those outings as a job while still allowing them to enjoy their downtime has become a hallmark of management in Wood’s program.
Wood is the head trainer in Arizona. Curtiss, who was a reining trainer for 10 years before he met Wood, also has his open card and shows for clients. As a cutter, he has gained earnings of $96,542 since 2009. Still, his main function is running the business side of things.
Rolling up to a show with numerous horses between clients, employees and Wood is no simple task, and it takes lots of preparation and planning. Curtiss keeps things running smoothly with tried-and-true methods.
“I have a lot of forms I’ve created on Excel, and everything’s got a system, whether it’s how the horses go in the trailer to go to the shows or how the trailers get loaded for the clients’ belongings or how we’re going to get horses ready at the show.
“Everything’s kind of in a system,” he continued. “Whether it’s my employees or customers or Mike himself, nobody has to wonder what’s going to happen. All you have to do is look, and you’ll be able to figure it out real quick.”
Curtiss’ techniques for maintaining order at shows are an extension of everyday life at Mike Wood Performance Horses. The facility boasts 78 stalls and can support up to 100 head of cattle — all on 10 acres.
“When I say it’s well laid-out, it has to be, otherwise it doesn’t work too well!” Curtiss said with a laugh.
Great employees and attention to detail help make that happen, and the duo’s client base — full of longtime customers — is a testament to the operation running like a well-oiled machine. Wood estimated some of his clients have been with him for as long as 12 years, and even those who have been there for less time seem to be there to stay.
“Long before I came on board to help Mike, he would pride himself on the longevity of his relationships with his clients,” Curtiss said. “There’s some of them that I honestly can’t remember how long they’ve ridden with us or the amount of times they’ve shown with us because they have been here so long and through so much. We have very loyal clients, and we try to remember that and take care of them.”
Taking care of clients involves effort both at home and on the road. During a typical day at a cutting, Wood starts early — hitting the flag or practice pen with his amateur horses before the show starts. Sometimes, that means he might work 20 horses before the first rider of the day walks into the show pen. Then, after a long day of competing, he sticks around to help in the classes at the end of the day, too.
It’s not all just work, though. Part of keeping the “fun” in the competition for his clients is finding other activities to do outside of showing.
“It’s not all about competition and winning,” Wood said. “It’s not about that. It’s about learning, progressing, having fun, and competition comes along with it. You can’t win every time you go in, that’s for sure. You’ve got to learn about the process, and it’s always a process.
“We go to shows that we like to go to and that we have fun going to,” he added. “We’re allowed that luxury. We’re lucky enough to be able to do that, to go to the shows that we want to go to.”
While going home afterward can feel almost like a vacation, a day off after returning to Scottsdale isn’t a typical respite. Wood and Curtiss spend most of that time reorganizing, returning phone calls and getting prepared to go to the next one down the road.
Having a laid-back, yet competitive atmosphere gives new riders and those that have been around a while the confidence to challenge their own skills and improve. One of Wood’s clients, Dr. Gerald Dorros, credited his trainer with all of his success as a cutter.
Dorros, a cardiologist originally from Brooklyn, New York, who now resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has worked with Wood and his crew for around seven years. After dreaming all his life of being a cowboy, Dorros climbed onto his first horse at the age of 60.
His teacher at the time said he was too old to ride, but Dorros begged to learn and eventually found his way into the saddle. Then, they put him in front of a flag one day and told him to hold on. While it wasn’t the most orthodox introduction to cutting, it sparked an interest that blazed a path to Arizona.
After eventually being referred to Wood, Dorros showed up in Scottsdale with three horses. Now 77, he laughs when he recalls Curtiss and Wood’s first impression of him horseback.
“They will tell you that when I got on a horse, they prayed I didn’t fall off,” he said, adding he had no idea what to do. “Mike Wood is a phenomenal teacher and communicator. He doesn’t get angry. He really tries to explain to you in a way that you will understand what you’re doing wrong.
“Mike never raised his voice,” Dorros added of his first training sessions. “He kept saying the same words over and over, and even though I had higher education degrees, I didn’t understand what he was telling me in those simple words! He really made it something I enjoy doing, and now the more I know, the less I know.”
Since that initial meeting, Dorros has earned more than $30,000. He’s been to the NCHA World Finals, and he collected Amateur championships at the 2015 Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Winter Roundup in 2015 with Cyndi Cat and again in 2016 with Cat In White Nikes. In February 2019, Dorros won the Mane Event VI Amateur Blow-Out, beating 50 other competitors.
“Mike has done that,” Dorros said with conviction. “He really has made this fun, and Roper has made it a situation where his clients are all taken care of and he makes sure the barn functions appropriately.”
Client Christine King, who has been in Wood’s barn for five years, happened upon his mentorship by chance. Though she lived in Arizona, she was spending her time cutting in Texas.
“My husband kept saying, ‘Can’t you find a trainer in Arizona?’” King recalled. “Everyone in Texas said Mike Wood was the best, and it turned out he lived 15 minutes from my house. It’s like the best thing that ever happened to me, for many reasons.”
King, now 70, also started her horse habit at a later age. During her working years, she became the first female CEO of a semiconductor company in 2001, and her work schedule didn’t offer any time to ride horses.
Since she started cutting at the age of 60, she has seen herself improve to the tune of almost $300,000 in earnings. She enjoys being able to rely on Wood and Curtiss to have everything prepared, and she chalked up her success in the show ring to their program, along with the many friendships she has made within the “Wood Hood” along the way.
“It’s so great to ride with such a big group of people; he has a lot of clients that it kind of becomes your family,” said King, who has qualified for the NCHA World Finals three times. “It’s not only from a cutting perspective and success in the cutting, but it’s wonderful that it’s the camaraderie and lifelong friendships. That’s one of the best things.
“It’s just so much fun there, and it kind of takes the stress out of it because we all know showing and competing can be stressful,” she added. “[They] just make it so much fun, and it’s just as much fun when your compatriots are winning as when you’re winning.”
This article was originally published in the August 1, 2019 issue of Quarter Horse News.