Trainer Matt Mills recently reached a major career milestone when he earned the distinction of becoming the sport of reining’s newest Equi-Stat Elite $1 Million Rider.
The Scottsdale, Arizona, trainer recently passed the earnings mark to have a career tally of $1,011,204. All of that money was earned in reining, a sport Mills became interested in when he was a teenager riding in open horse shows in Southern California.
Hitting the million-dollar mark was the accomplishment of a long-held goal for Mills, who grew up in the city but has found himself right at home on the back of a horse.
“You have your goals that are short-term and then your long-term,” he said. “It was one of those long-term goals that when I first started I set for myself, that I want to become a million-dollar rider.”
It was Mills’s mother, Debbie, who first got him into horses through lessons as a kid. He competed in Western pleasure, equitation and other events — “I did everything but reining” — before the sliding stops and spins caught his eye.
He started taking lessons in reining, and then immersed himself in the sport through an internship with Dell Hendricks, himself an earner of nearly $2 million with whom Mills ended up working for several years.
“First week I was there we went to the NRHA Derby and he ties to win it with Randy Paul with a horse named Hangten Peppy, so my eyes were wide open,” Mills said.
Mills achieved success while working for Hendricks, and then went out on his own.
Several horses made an impact on Mills over the years, including his top earner, Wimpys Cool Breeze. He rode the 2010 buckskin stallion by Wimpys Little Step and out of QHR Jamaica Express (by Zan Parr Express) to $129,529 in earnings.
Their bigger wins included the Level 3 Open at the High Roller Reining Classic Derby, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Derby Level 3 Open Reserve Championship and the High Roller Reining Classic Futurity Level 3 Open Reserve Championship.
He and the Janice Dickson’s stallion frequently placed at or near the top of the Level 3 Open at big reining events over the course of several seasons, often also making the Level 4 Open finals.
The horse “always showed up, always [was] right there in the conversation.”
“He almost mirrors the way I think my career has gone,” Mills said of the Brent Loseke-bred horse. “That horse has won some stuff, but he’s always right there in the mix. He’s lasted for a long time. Matter of fact, he could still compete today if he needed to.”
His other top earners according to Equi-Stat are Easy Otie Whiz ($98,535), Freckles Got Ashiner ($56,638), Wallas Chic Diana ($54,120) and The Sargeant Dunnit ($53,148).
To Mills, the success he’s found so far is a testament to the value of hard work and consistency.
“There’s ups and downs, and if you just continue to stay the course — of course, you’ve got to have the horses and all that good stuff that goes with it — but, if you stay the course and you keep working your butt off, there’s nothing you can’t get to,” he said.
He also credited his success to his family — wife, Karen, and children Alec (25), Emma (22) and Ryan (13). Another big nod went to his owner, many of whom had been with him for decades.
Some on that list include Mark and Janice Dickson, Tim and Mary Beth Ruckman, as well as George and Cam Ranzau and Barb and Ernie Townsend.
In the case of Barb Townsend, Mills figures he has known her since he was 11 or 12 years old and they were riding in the same barn in California.
“We kind of have a unique little group where we’re competitive, but we have a good time,” he said. “We enjoy what we’re doing — we enjoy the horse.”
Future for Matt Mills
Mills is excited about the future, saying he has a great pen of young horses and looks to continue to try to improve himself as a trainer. He also plans to reach for the next earning milestone.
“Supposedly, they say after that first million it’s supposed to get easier,” he said. “So, I want to test that out and see if I can’t climb up that ladder as far as I can.”
There’s no timetable on any future goals, but Mills says he loves horses, loves what he’s doing and is going to focus on the future. In addition to showing, he’s given clinics all over the world and also offers an online subscription service at mattmillsreining.com.
“I’m just going to take it day by day, but I can tell you I don’t have any plans of slowing down as far as the competing part,” he said. “I’m going to keep pushing forward.”