John Tolbert, 64, died Tuesday morning in his sleep at home in Greenville, Texas, friends of the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Hall of Famer confirmed.
Before induction into the NCHA Rider Hall of Fame in 1994, the Goliad, Texas, native, who began training professionally in 1981, reached the pinnacle of his sport atop Bobs Smokin Joe (Bob Acre Doc x Taris Smokin Maria x Smokin Jose) as NCHA Futurity Open champions in 1993.
An Equi-Stat Elite $2 Million Rider, Tolbert also gained notoriety as the NCHA Futurity Open Reserve Champion in 1984 and 1991 on Boons Sierra and Mr Peponita Flo.
At the NCHA Super Stakes in 1985, Tolbert and Boons Sierra returned to Will Rogers Coliseum to tie for the Open championship title.
“He was probably no more talented than a lot of guys out there, but he put twice as much time into a horse — sometimes too much,” said Kenny Emigh, a good friend of Tolbert’s. “The two things I remember most about horses that John trained was that they had a big, pretty swoop across a cow, and they just moved around with their noses next to the ground.”
Emigh, of Cleburne, Texas, said the way Tolbert trained and showed horses was “electrifying.”
Tolbert rodeoed as a youth as well as while a student at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. After one year of college, Tolbert decided to quit and seek what he really wanted in life — to be a cowboy.
Tolbert cowboyed and broke horses in West Texas until he got what he considered his first big break. In 1980, Gene Mays, whom Tolbert rented stalls from, let Tolbert show Mays-owned Hot Lynx (Doc’s Lynx x Lucilles Doll x Sundown Pow Wow) in the Futurity. The pair did well, missing the semifinals by a half-point.
Of his success, Tolbert, the father of three sons, Travis, Jake and Clayton, told the Quarter Horse Newsin 1985: “I didn’t do it myself. I’ve watched all the greats and they’ve helped me. [Larry] Reeder was the biggest influence on me when I was learning.”
Tolbert went on to mention Mays, who Tolbert said gave him his start; Billy Cogdell, who, Tolbert said, was a major influence on his training methods, as well as Buster Welch and Tom Lyons.
“I learned everything I could from everybody and still do,” Tolbert said then. “That’s the thing about the horse business: You learn something every day. It’s always a battle. If you ever quit learning, you won’t be successful because the competition is so fierce.”
Emigh said he’d never seen anybody that was as consumed with training a horse as Tolbert.
“Actually, that was probably his downfall — he would get so consumed with it that sometimes, he would overtrain.”
When working his horses at home, Tolbert would “let” a horse get in the wrong position any time he wanted, Emigh said.
“He’d let them mess up at home, he’d encourage them to mess up at home,” Emigh explained. “Then instead of jerking on them and making them get to where they needed to be, he would just show them how much easier it was, if they got in the right position all on their own.”
Mike Combs, a longtime friend who serves as the president of the American Cutting Horse Association, said Tolbert had as much natural talent as any horseman “that I’ve ever known.”
“He was a really good hand with a horse,” said Combs, a resident of Tolar, Texas. “He just had a knack for getting horses to do things that he wanted them to do. He just had that feel with a horse and always did ever since I’ve known him. He dang sure was good at it.
“John was a good man and he loved them boys of his!”
Another of Talbot’s friends, Billy Bob Moore of Kingsville, Texas, who has known Talbot for about 10 years, said he and Talbot always enjoyed sharing stories about cowboying and rodeoing.
“I’d always wondered who came up with the idea of making the double-stitched bridle reins that most all of the cutters use nowadays,” Moore said. “I’d heard through the ‘grapevine’ that it might have been Tolbert. So I asked him one day.
“John told me, ‘Well, I’m going to tell you the true story about that.’”
The reins that saddle maker R.D. Mork, who did all of Tolbert’s leatherwork and things in the mid-1980s, had changed. To Tolbert, they just didn’t have the same feel or weight. There was a problem with a kind of oil, or something, that the tanning company wasn’t allowed to use anymore, Mork advised.
“Tolbert asked Mork why he couldn’t just sew two of the reins together, so they’d feel better — and that’s how the double-stitched reins came into place,” Moore said.
“John was probably the most naturally talented hand that’s ever been a horseback in the cutting pen. And, I’ve heard this from other trainers that I thought were pretty special, too. He had a way that was different and you couldn’t really tell what he was doing sometimes. But I’ll tell you what, the finished product was a pretty awesome thing to watch.”
Proud and happy that his good friend had found Christ in recent years, Emigh said, “I probably heard his testimony four or five times, and it would choke me up every time I heard it.
“He’s in a wonderful place right now.”