Corporate Cowboys

For high-achieving business executives, cutting horses provide another way to compete—and escape.

Jon Winkelried was an unlikely cowboy. The New Jersey native was climbing the corporate ladder on Wall Street when he bought a ranch in Colorado and began trail riding with his family. Then one year, he hopped on a cutting horse. (For the uninitiated, cutting is a fast-growing equine sport whereby horses and their riders separate a single cow from a herd.) 

“I went in there and cut a cow out and tried to hold on for dear life,” he says. “And it was like, ‘This is really cool.’”

Before long, Winkelried would make his way to Fort Worth to attend events and meet people involved in the sport. He bought a ranch in Aledo in 2005, a year before he was named president and co-chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs. Several times a year, Winkelried would trek to dusty arenas in places like Alvarado or Glen Rose to compete, while colleagues would head off to the Hamptons for the weekend.

“Most of them did not understand it at all,” he says. “They’d say, ‘You do what?’”

If horse racing is the sport of kings, the cutting horse world is filled with corporate cowboys. At the annual Super Stakes competition in April, one of three big shows in Fort Worth each year, more than 1,400 participants took their shot riding into a herd of calves to cut one out, then keep it separated in an artful dance of horse and cow before a panel of judges. 

Among the sport’s enthusiasts are Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who has a horse operation in Millsap; David McDavid, the former car dealer and part-owner of the Dallas Mavericks; Glade Knight, executive chairman of Apple Hospitality, a leading hotel REIT; Tom Bailey, founder of the mutual fund giant Janus; and car dealers Jerry Durant and James Wood.

What attracts them? There’s a love of horses, of course, but there’s more. For high achievers like attorneys, executives, and entrepreneurs who enjoy winning in the business world, cutting horse events provide another way to compete. “It’s the sheer challenge,” says Jim Bret Campbell, executive director of the National Cutting Horse Association in Fort Worth.

Many get into breeding to raise their own winners and establish ranches in the horse country west of Fort Worth. Mac Coalson, a longtime real estate broker, estimates that 300 cutting horse ranches are now located in Parker County, with buyers coming from as far away as Brazil and Venezuela. 

Dan Hansen has one of those ranches. The Idaho native built a successful construction business over 30 years and bought a place in Weatherford in 1997. Now semi-retired at 64, Hansen splits time between his two KD Bar Ranches, one of which is in Idaho. His Weatherford outpost has about 30 horses, and he says the sport provides an opportunity to slip into a different world.

“You put on your boots and cowboy hat and blue jeans … it’s almost a disguise,” says Hansen, whose Hansen-Rice has built about 30 distribution centers for Walmart. 

Winkelried, 55, who retired from Goldman Sachs in 2010, approached his cutting horse hobby like a business. He dived into breeding, building his Marvine Ranch to 100 horses that produced 23 event champions in 10 years. Eventually an injury forced Winkelried’s wife, Abby, to stop riding. The pair recently sold all of their horses in two bunches. 

“There’s a very cerebral aspect to it,” he says. “There’s a lot of decisions to be made … That’s the aspect I actually liked a lot.”

Perhaps no one personifies the businessman-turned-cowboy better than David McDavid.The Weatherford native was fully engaged in the auto business when a friend invited him to a cutting horse show in the early 1990s. He loved it. By 2001, he had sold his 23 dealerships and was competing in horse arenas along with his wife, Stacie, when he saw a horse that would take things to another level.    

At the Futurity in Fort Worth, Hes A Peptospoonful was “head and shoulders above anything else I’d ever seen in the pen.” McDavid paid $1.5 million for the stallion. 

At the time, that price was “outrageous,” McDavid says. But Hes A Peptospoonful would pay off, providing handsome breeding fees hundreds of times and spawning an extended family of champion Spoonfuls before the horse’s untimely death in 2012. 

Last year, the McDavids were inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. And now the man long known as “the car guy” is tickled when someone introduces him as “the horse guy.” Yes, some businessmen just want to be cowboys. Says Stacie McDavid: “It’s definitely not a fantasy. What it is is romantic.”   

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