EDITOR’S NOTE: Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism wrote about people and places around Denton County as part of their spring course work. This story and upcoming stories feature their work, which also will be showcased in Discovering Denton County — a special publication due out Sunday.
Dave Rhea sits atop a white Andalusian horse, its coat tinged with specks and spots of black and gray. His slick brown leather boots rest in a set of silver metal stirrups and are smudged with caked-on dirt. With a back straight as a board, Rhea guides the massive creature around a small circular arena enclosed by wooden walls. Sunlight falls from two pairs of windows overhead, illuminating small patches of the soft dirt floor littered with bits of hay and grass.
The muscles in the horse’s hindquarters ripple as he circles the ring, kicking up clouds of dust in his wake. The soft and steady thump of the horse’s hooves and the animal’s occasional snort are the only sounds that break the silence between the pair as the horse seamlessly breaks out into various gaits — from a walk to a trot and then a canter.
Although he grips the smooth, black leather reigns in his hands, Rhea guides the horse with cues such as small shifts in his seating position or variations of pressure from his legs. The horse has learned each of these pressures and cues over the course of several weeks under Rhea’s instruction.
He is one of more than a hundred horse trainers in and around Aubrey — a city with more horses per capita than anywhere else in the state, Rhea said. The sandy loam soil found around Aubrey and Pilot Point is perfect for a horse’s hooves and make the region an ideal area for raising and working horses year-round, said Dana Lodge, director of sales for the Denton Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Rhea, a native of Dallas and University of North Texas alumnus, has worked in Denton County for about 40 years and has seen the growth of the horse industry firsthand. He is what those in the industry call an “old horseman” — a term used to describe the last of a generation of trainers with a deep connection to and understanding of horses.
“A lot of people these days don’t understand the mind of a horse and that kind of thing,” Rhea said. “I think it comes over time. It comes with the patience to learn and just observe horses in their natural habitat and using what they do with each other to our advantage.”
However, this industry, which brings in an estimated $75 million to Denton County every year, and this old horseman’s way of life are under siege from modern-day operations in surrounding states.
Video Lottery Terminals, also known as VLTs, are in operation at horse tracks in various states, and the money earned through these machines helps provide incentives for horse owners to breed horses and operate farms outside Texas. Purses for winning racehorses have also swelled at tracks that allow VLTs. For example, race purses at Delta Downs in Louisiana increased from $45,000 per day to $240,000 per day after the addition of video gaming machines, according to a focus report issued by the Texas House of Representatives.
However, purses at tracks in Texas, where gambling is illegal, remain much smaller, said Val Clark, executive director of Texas HORSE, a nonprofit group composed of major horse organizations across the state.
Currently about 400 ranches in the North Texas region are home to an estimated 40,000 horses, Lodge said. However, in the past 10 years or so since states such as Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico began allowing gambling at racetracks, horses have been leaving Texas every day, Rhea said. He said that until the legislature allows Texas to do the same, the state’s horse industry would continue to suffer.
“If you stop and think about horses relative to the state economy, could Texas survive without horses? Probably,” he said. “But why would you want to. What would happen to the Texas image if there were no horses in Texas to speak of?”
Rhea discovered his passion for horses at age 5, when he got his first horse. He said that, since then, he has chosen to make his “avocation his vocation.”
“There’s an old adage that goes something like, ‘the outside of the horse is good for the inside of a human,’” he said. “I get to do what I enjoy and like to do, and I get paid for it.”
Rhea exudes the quiet confidence of a man who knows his craft. Whether it’s an Arabian horse, with its chiseled bone structure and arched neck, a quarter horse, with its broad chest and powerful hindquarters, or an Andalusian, with its compact body and thick mane, Rhea has worked with them all. He has trained show horses, racehorses and pleasure horses.
UNT student Jordan Palmer had ridden horses for about 15 years. She has worked for Rhea for the past two years and has seen his skills firsthand.
“I worked for him at the previous farm where he was and when he left, I sort of followed him,” Palmer said. “I have learned more working under him in two years than I learned from all the other trainers I’ve worked with over the years combined.”
Rhea’s accounts of national championship show horses are numerous and are declarations of fact rather than attempts at boasting. In fact, the only trophy Rhea owns sits on a shelf in his home office. Owners, rather than trainers, receive the ribbons and trophies given out at competitions. The trophy Rhea has is from 1978, the only year in which trainers were given trophies at the national competition.
Horses have served the human race for thousands of years. They were used in agriculture, hunting and transportation. They were companions, comrades and even warriors.
For Texas, horses represent a way of life and a history full of cowboys, American Indians and wars for independence and freedom.
Despite the threats that face the industry and animals he loves, Rhea says will continue to share his knowledge.
“I have no desire to retire, not fully retire,” he said. “I still think I have information to pass along to people that’s worthwhile.”