Smart Little Lena was the first horse to win the NCHA Triple Crown. • Photo by Dalco.

From The Archives: Smart Little Lena

An industry icon who needs no introduction, Smart Little Lena was the first horse to capture the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Triple Crown and remains a genetic staple to this day across the Western performance industry. 

He retired with more than $700,000 earned in eight shows and maneuvered his way into the hearts of those close to him with his small stature and giant heart. 

Prepare For Takeoff

For breeder Hanes Chatham, Royal Santana was “it.” Inducted into the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Hall of Fame in 2000, the 1971 gelding by Peppy San and out of Royal Smart (by Royal King) was talented, gritty and winning in the cutting pen. Chatham speculated if he could find a full sister, he would be set.

He found the mare he was looking for, Smart Peppy, in Canada and bought her over the phone for $20,000, a steep price for the 1970s. 

“I was breaking a lot of Doc O’Lena colts working at Shorty Freeman’s,” Chatham told QHN in 2010. “I knew he was the next stallion on the horizon…We bred [Smart Peppy to Doc O’Lena] late but I didn’t mind the late foal; I didn’t want to wait for the following year,” Chatham said.

A legend was born in July of 1979. Small in stature, the stallion known as “Little Lena” never reached 14 hands tall. 

“He was so much brighter than the other colts. He had his ears thrown forward, watching everything. Just really an alert, low-moving, quick gritty colt,” Chatham told QHN.

Broken in July of his 2-year-old year, Little Lena advanced quickly under Chatham’s guidance. He watched the cow naturally, even stopping and drawing “from the beginning.”

“He acted like a broke horse. You could just pull that hackamore left or right and he’d follow his nose – he guided from the start. He acted like a colt that had been ridden 30 days,” Chatham said. 

After 60 days, Chatham offered Bill Freeman half interest in Little Lena. At the time, the stallion was “looking phenomenal,” according to Chatham. 

Olympic-Level Performances

The Smart Little Lena Syndicate was created in 1982 by Chatham with Freeman as co-manager. Shares of $5,000 each were sold prior to Little Lena’s first show – the NCHA Futurity. 

Smart Little Lena did exactly what shareholders had hoped for and brought home the 1982 NCHA Futurity Open Championship with Freeman in the saddle, earning $267,085. 

Smart Little Lena and Bill Freeman. • QHN File Photo.

In 1983, Smart Little Lena won the NCHA Super Stakes and NCHA Derby [Summer Spectacular], securing the NCHA Triple Crown Title with Bill Freeman. 

According to EquiStat, Little Lena finished his performance career with $743,374 on his record from just eight shows.

Etched In Stone 

Smart Little Lena’s progeny have traversed disciples to show their sires’ versatility. Sons Smart Chic Olena and Very Smart Remedy are forces in the cow horse industry — siring more than $3 million and $2 million in that discipline respectively. Smart Chic Olena also is a National Reining Horse Association Seven Million Dollar Sire whose daughters also turned out to be great reining producers, with his daughters foaling the winners of more than $3 million in the sport of reining alone.

Smart Little Lena • Photo by John Brasseaux

His influence in the cutting pen is immense. Grandson High Brow Cat (High Brow Hickory x Smart Little Kitty x Smart Little Lena) is the all-time leading cutting sire and, when all disciplines are examined, is the all-time leading sire in EquiStat with more than $86 million in progeny earnings.

Smart Little Lena’s son, Red White And Boon (out of Royal Blue Boon x Boon Bar) has won more money than any other horse in the EquiStat database, with more than $922,000 on his record. 

“[Red White And Boon] had the stamina, soundness and intelligence,” explained Red White And Boon’s primary rider Mary Jo Milner. “He’s kind of the proof in the pudding. I think ‘Red’ alone is a tribute to Smart Little Lena.”

Little Lena was euthanized in 2010 at 31 years old after suffering a stroke. But thanks to modern technology as well as sons and daughters, Little Lena’s impact is continuing to be felt. 

He is still standing at stud via ICSI with his 2021 fee advertised at $2,000.