ALIFORNIA COW HORSE TRAINER PHILLIP RALLS REMEMBERS well the 2008 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity Sale. He’d been training professionally for a half- dozen years and he was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of prospects being offered in Fort Worth, Texas, that December.
Phillip and his customer Chris Larson of Park City, Utah, had been discussing the purchase of a yearling to bring along as a show horse. The young horseman had studied the sale offerings and made the rounds through the barns. Phillip was ultimately outbid on his first choice, but less than 10 lots later, a small, unassuming sorrel colt entered the ring.
Phillip had liked the yearling when he initially saw him in the stall, but the colt’s demeanor amidst all the gavel- pounding sale commotion was impressive. Dom Dualuise was well bred, a son of Dual Rey and Smart Little XX (by Smart Little Lena), and ready to start the next chapter of his life.
“I had looked at him earlier and he had a soft eye. He was kind and he was a good mover,” the trainer recalls. “He walked into the sale pen calm, cool, collected – and very relaxed. I just really liked that right off the bat. When the bidding stalled at $4,500, I got in. We bought him for $6,700, not knowing he was going to be the horse that he is. But he had presence and a likeability about him.”
Phillip returned to California with his new purchase, whom they called “Hef” around the barn and, after 30 days of riding, “you could have put anybody on him,” the trainer remembers of his start with Dom Dualuise. “He was so cow smart,” Phillip confirms. The colt imme- diately excelled in cutting. Dom Dualuise was such a savant that his trainer considered changing course from the multi- discipline cow horse events for which he was being prepped to straight cutting.
“As a 3-year-old, he wasn’t physically strong. Although he stopped hard, trying to get that flowing prettiness that you want to see always had a manufactured feeling,” recalls Phillip. “He needed to slowly, methodically learn the reining.” Even as cowy as Dom Dualuise was in the herd, it also took time for him to get comfortable going down the fence in close proximity to a cow. That’s not atypical, according to Phillip, and by the pre-futurity, the little gelding had overcome his hesitation. He showed smoothly throughout the event.
At the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, Hef’s mindset, class and heart began to reveal what the future might hold. Dom Dualuise won the herd work preliminaries and tied for the top spot in the preliminary composite. Following a small hiccup in the finals rein work, Hef and Phillip finished in the middle of the SBF money- winning line-up. Because Dom Dualuise was so good in the herd, his trainer also showed him at the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Futurity and in club cuttings, too. Despite some lingering limitations in the reining and fence works, the lit- tle sorrel was coming along nicely.
“He wasn’t a big-time fence horse as a 3- and 4-year-old, by any means,” admits Phillip. “I still didn’t feel I had the strength and explosiveness or the commitment down the fence on him.” But Phillip’s horsemanship background had taught him the value of patience and consistency. He and his performance part- ner were still laying the foundation for bigger things ahead.
PHILLIP GREW UP RIDING PERFORMANCE HORSES AND LEARNING
from his father, NRCHA Hall of Fame rider Ron Ralls. In 2002, Phillip went to work for Monte and Pat Roberts at Flag Is Up Farm in Solvang, California – the same spot where his dad began his training career 20 years prior. “Monte and Pat gave me my start,” Phillip acknowledges. “They gave me the opportunity to learn and train horses on my own with a little guidance here and there. It was like, here’s a group of horses, go for it. I’ve always appreciated that opportunity.”
It was at Flag Is Up Farm where Phillip met Harold Farren, a well-respected horseman. “Harold’s big deal was, ‘I don’t need to teach you how to train horses, I need to teach you how to think. If I can teach you how to think, you’ll figure out the best way to get there.’ “ Phillip recalls.
The younger trainer took advantage of the elder horseman’s friendship and expertise. Harold had trained horses for many different disciplines during a long, successful career, includ- ing training circus trick horses. “It blows my mind,” Phillip admits, looking back. “The things he’d have me work on were so out of the ballpark that most trainers I’d talk to had never done things Harold’s way. You had to have some blind faith and figure out what he was saying. You had to think for yourself and figure it out.” Dom Dualuise stays fit and happy between major events traversing a nearby riverbed with his trainer, Phillip Ralls, in the saddle.
It took time for Dom Dualuise to mature and gain confidence and fluidity in the reined work, but once he caught on, “Hef” had it down pat. Harold’s idea was that learning the first trick was always the hardest for the horse. However, once the horse learns it’s a trick, he’s found the answer – there’s always a trick and there’s always an answer. The game snowballs as horses begin looking for the right answers, the rewards. “It doesn’t take a horse long to figure that out. Then you can teach him new things all the time,” Phillip says. “I always found that interesting. And it’s the truth.”
That philosophy opened his mind and gave Phillip the ability to consider each horse’s quirks, making it easier for him to provide clues that help his horses solve the puzzles he presents. Harold was constantly reminding Phillip that good repeti- tion builds good habits and a strong foundation. But if that horse doesn’t know what his job is, neither five nor 500 rep- etitions are going to work. Phillip learned that his responsi- bility was to teach his horse its job, make sure it knows what it is responsible for, and then let the horse handle those responsibilities. And so it was with Dom Dualuise. After getting off to a solid career start, Phillip was looking forward to showing the gelding in his derby year, until dryland distemper struck a nearly lethal blow.
Dodging a Bullet
AS A 4-YEAR-OLD, DOM DUALUISE SPENT 2 1/2 MONTHS AT SANTA Lucia Veterinary Hospital with an internal abscess situated a quarter-inch from his heart. A drainage tube was inserted sur- gically, and after nearly five months off, the horse was ulti-mately no worse for wear. The trainer, however, had lost a few years over the incident. Phillip showed Hef in the NRCHA Hackamore Classic – the horse’s first time in that headgear – and finished as the reserve champion. Dom Dualuise was back.
“He was always one of those horses I could make adjust- ments on,” his rider explains. “I put the hackamore on him and he was like, ‘OK, I’m broke to the hackamore.’ He always really wanted to please. He was so good-minded about every- thing and super-honest in the show pen.”
During Dom Dualuise’s 5-year-old year, the trainer began re-evaluating his decision to simultaneously show the horse in cutting and cow horse events. Hef was handling it, but Phillip wondered if doing double duty was holding him back in his fence work. The trainer decided to stick to cow horse events and see how they fared. Once Dom Dualuise figured out he could make that cow do what he wanted it to do down the fence, the cow bully was in overdrive. “He turned into a totally different horse,” Phillip recalls. “When he came into being a bridle horse, he really never missed a beat. He kept getting better, stronger, smarter.”
Primed & Firing
PHILLIP HAS LEARNED WHAT IT TAKES TO PUMP HIS HORSE UP SO he’s at the top of his game at the crucial time. Health is always important, so Phillip employs the best farriers and veterinari- ans available. He keeps Dom Dualuise physically fit, but lets the horse mentally relax between events.
ROCK STARS & SUPER HEROES
Very Smart Smoke started his show career looking and acting wild, but finished as a show-pen warrior.
When speaking of his horses’ winning style and show ring longevity, trainer Phillip Ralls of Paso Robles, California, tends to give his horses the lion’s share of the credit. “Starting with a talented horse makes everything easier,” he insists. That’s true, of course. But there’s no question Phillip’s methods and attention to detail have factored heavily into their success.
Since starting to train on his own in 2002, Phillip has shown some of the cow horse industry’s best bridle horses. And just when he thinks it surely can’t get any better, another good-minded champion steps under his tutelage.
With mentoring from his father, Ron Ralls, and the late Harold Farren, among others, Phillip has developed the ability to train and show horses that last – and last. Dom Dualuise, for instance, has been laying down winning performances in cutting and cow horse competition for nearly a decade. The gelding has accumulated more than $220,000 in earnings.
“My dad and Harold always preached about being consistent and putting on that foundation for the long haul,” Phillip says.“But you also begin to realize how important mindset, personality and heart are – more important than being the biggest athlete with the most potential.”
Phillip feels blessed to have had Dom Dualuise (the gelding he says is his “Superman”) in his barn the past nine years. But before Dom Dualuise, there was Very Smart Smoke (Very Smart Remedy- Lil Brown Freckle by Just Plain Colonel), owned by Phillip’s mother, Billie Jo Ralls. In fact, there’s been a succession of great ones. Very Smart Smoke, Dom Dualuise and Call Me Mitch came along nearly back-to-back.
Very Smart Smoke was the first horse to carry Phillip to an NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity open finals and a fourth-place finish. He also placed third at the Stallion Stakes, won at the Santa Barbara Fiesta more than once and ultimately earned about $140,000.
This incredibly talented horse was one that, according to Phillip, may have been culled from most trainers’ programs. As a 3-year-old, he looked like a Mustang – black, skinny and wild haired. He didn’t fill out until he was nearly 6. He could also be a wild ride, says Phillip. “Oh my God,” he laughs. “When he was a 2-year-old, I didn’t know if I was going to get bucked off or if it would take 10 minutes to get to the arena because somebody moved a trash can. I tied him to my trailer in Texas one day, came back and all the windows were busted out, the saddle is pulled over … just stupid stuff.
“But he was my only futurity horse that year, so I got to spend a lot of time on him. He was talented and super-smart on a cow, a great show horse for me. Once we got through that, we had an understanding. He was like, ‘Well, you’re just going to keep riding me, so we might as well get along.’ He was a great horse.” Unfortunately, Very Smart Smoke was lost to colic.
From the beginning, “Mitch” was super-strong and mentally mature. Phillip says the horse always acted like a 10-year-old. He’s an “old soul,” observes his trainer. “You work him, put him in the stall and he’ll sleep for three- quarters of the day, down, snoring in the stall, sound asleep. “He always took everything you showed him to the next level. He put his own style, strength and fluid movement to the basics of what you were showing him.” The stallion spent his first year showing in the bridle in 2017 and has exceeded $112,000 in earnings. “Very Smart Smoke was a war horse, the harder and tougher things were, the better he liked it. He was a warrior. Then I had Hef, who was loaded with ability, natural fluidness and ease of doing things, the next level up from Very Smart Smoke. And now Mitch steps it up again. “I’m blessed to have horses of that caliber in my life,” Phillip confirms.
Article by Annie Lambert, Performance Horse Journal.