The late Sam Shepard won more than $2.6 million during a distinguished cutting career, but while his friends immediately note he was a great horseman, the things they admired most about him had nothing to do with horses.
Shepard, one of the sport’s most respected supporters and a former president of the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA), died Sept. 15 at his home in Verbena, Alabama, after a battle with the chronic condition amyloidosis. He was 74.
“He was the very best, a real gentlemen and a real man,” NCHA Member Hall of Fame inductee Buster Welch said of his longtime friend.
Shepard’s memorial service is planned for 10 a.m., Friday, Sept. 25, at Bethsalem Baptist Church in Billingsley, Alabama.
A native Alabaman, Shepard was born to Barney Shepard and Emma “Betty” Shepard.
The first in his immediate family to be interested horses, let alone train them professionally, Shepard’s interest in cutting went on to become what the family is now known for throughout the horse industry.
His oldest son, Austin, is one of the sport’s all-time leading money-earners with more than $8.5 million in winnings. Youngest son, Harris, is also training cutting horses professionally after a successful Youth and Non-Pro career. Grandchildren Cade, 18, and Caylee, 14, also are making their mark in the cutting pen.
Shepard started cutting as a non-pro in college at what was then Troy State University, now called Troy University, and then turned professional while working as a vocational training teacher for the State of Alabama. When a full-time job during the day and training cutting horses after hours became too much, he took a leave of absence from the state and trained horses full time, Austin said.
“He just never was afraid to try anything different,” Austin said. “He went from having a good, steady job with the state of Alabama — he’s got a young family [with] me and my sister, my mother — and my mother was a school teacher and had a steady paycheck, insurance, all that kind of stuff that we all needed. Then, he just fell in love with training cutting horses, so he jumped off to that, and he went on and did well in that.”
One of the things that served Shepard well was his love of knowledge and learning. Austin, who trained with and later alongside his father for about a decade after high school, said his father continually encouraged him to seek out the trainers who were winning.
Go talk to them, he’d say.
“He never was afraid to go to a different school to try to learn how to get better,” he said. “And I think that was just his, I don’t know, his thirst for education. He always wanted to get better, he always wanted to get smarter, he always wanted to learn about different cultures [and] different things that wouldn’t have anything to do with a horse trainer from South Alabama.”
It’s fitting that he met Welch at one of the famed cutter’s early clinics. Welch recalled that the former vocational instructor, who returned to many clinics later, seemed to have a knack for knowing what people understood, and how to translate Welch’s lessons into things they could easily comprehend.
“He had the best way of explaining something I told a student,” Welch recalled. “If the student couldn’t understand what I was telling him, Sam could just kind of quietly … you know, if the guy was the right kind of guy, Sam would just explain it to him.”
During his travels on the cutting horse circuit, Shepard made friends from all walks of life. He was interested in people’s stories, Austin said, and liked to learn about new things.
Known for his interest in reading, Shepard discussed literature and trade books with friends in the industry. That included Welch, a well-known book hound, as well as cutting horse enthusiast and American novelist Tom McGuane.
McGuane, a member of the NCHA Member Hall of Fame, became one of Shepard’s longtime friends. When they’d see each other at horse shows, they’d chat about cutting horses and branch off into pretty much anything else they could think of during the downtime at the events.
“Sam was as well-read as anybody I’ve ever known,” McGuane said. “‘He was a passionate cowboy and horseman, but he was really interested in the world, he was interested in literature, he was interested in film. He was interested in everything.”
Shepard had a particular love of Southern fiction.
“But, above all, Sam was just really a great human being, just a thoroughly decent, reliable friend,” he said. “I don’t know of a better human being than Sam Shepard.”
Austin said that while his father was proud of his achievements in the show pen — he loved to win any cutting, though his NCHA Open World Champion Gelding title with Playin Witha Cat and the 5/6-Year-Old Open Championship with Desire Some Freckles in the 2001 NCHA Summer Spectacular were particularly proud moments — Shepard would like to be remembered for his love of the people in the cutting horse world and his efforts to make the sport better.
“I think he’d like to be remembered as being a fair person, no matter if it benefited him or us,” Austin said. “He wanted it to be a healthy sport, and he didn’t care if it was in his benefit or not.
“He just wanted it to be in the benefit of the association and of the cutting horse.”
Shepard’s involvement in the sport went beyond the show pen; he was a major advocate for the sport. A member of the NCHA Member and Rider Halls of Fame, he supported many shows throughout his career.
That included lending his talents to the Augusta Futurity as a member of its board of directors and a judge for its first edition in 1980.
Augusta Futurity Show Chairman William S. “Billy” Morris III said Shepard’s help to the Georgia show was “incredible.” In addition to helping with the event, Shepard was the first of three generations of his family to win a championship at the show, as Austin, Harris and Cade have all won titles over the years. Other family members have also participated.
“Sam Shepard was a major positive influence in the cutting horse sport. His leadership in all levels was most important and very helpful,” Morris said. “I have had the privilege of knowing him for almost 50 years.”
Shepard also had much success over the years at the NCHA Eastern National Championships. He won multiple titles in the Open and Novice Horse Open over the years, most recently tying his son, Austin, for the Open Championship in 2017. Shepard rode Twistful Thinking that year, and Austin rode eventual NCHA Open World Champion Deluxe Checks.
Being together as a family at major horse shows was special, but Twistful Thinking was a particularly meaningful horse to the family, as Cade rode the mare — at the time owned and trained by Shepard — to several major Non-Pro titles.
Grandfather and grandson spent a lot of quality time together preparing the mare, including during NCHA Triple Crown events in Fort Worth, Austin said.
“It was such a neat experience, because that was Dad’s horse. So, they would get up in the morning, they’d go work that horse together and they’d go to Montgomery Street Cafe and they’d eat breakfast together,” he said. “And, they’d pretty well spend all morning together.”
Enjoyment and pride wasn’t tied to the wins.
“He was just as proud of one of us for something small that he thought was important or better for character than it was for your ego,” Austin said.
Character is a word that comes up a lot when Welch describes his friend. He and McGuane were among the many friends who reached out to Sam or visited him when his the rare disease he first fought off about two years ago returned earlier this year.
“He had a world of character,” Welch said of Shepard. “That’s what kept him so popular with so many people, just that character he had.
“Just wasn’t anything phony about him.”