Trainer Spotlight: Craig Thompson
Author: Lauren Middleton
When we think of the Cutting Horse Industry first thing that comes to mind is competition, and a hard one at that! It is challenging and humbling while being one of the best feelings that anyone can experience. We sat down to talk one of our top Cutting Horse Trainers and two-time NCHA Futurity Champion, Craig Thompson, only to find out that he, like many of the greats, grows and learns from every aspect of the sport including the humbling moments.
Craig began his journey with horses as a kid with his grandfather, breaking, starting, and selling them, which they did largely with a man named Cletus Hulling. It was pretty special because they did it together. An experience that also meant a great deal to Craig was when he spent time learning a lot from Cletus Jr. and later from, now NCHA Hall Of Fame Rider, Matt Gaines. Matt was beginning his career working in Mississippi on Charles Spence’s place making it only fitting for Craig to go there being from Mississippi as well.
Craig did try out a different career path first though. He worked for Tyson Foods, the giant chicken company anyone from Mississippi recognizes as one of its top employers. Of course, it turns out it was not the right employer for Craig. He made his decision to work toward his passion of training cutting horses while he was chasing a rooster around. Talk about an ah-hah moment!
Craig and his wife Sasha photo by Darrell Dodds
In 1996, Craig started the pursuit of his dream in full force and made his way to Texas working for Kenny Pugh, Jr. at Nine Bar Ranch in Brenham. Kenny was hauling for the world at the time leaving Craig with quite a few horses to ride at home, which allowed him to gain a lot of experience in a short amount of time!
He later found his way back into Matt Gaines’ program when Matt had moved to Weatherford, TX, and put himself into the ideal situation for learning the ins and outs of the sport. Craig continued to learn from greats like Matt, Paul Hansma, Winston Hansma, and worked alongside Clint Allen who is now a Hall of Fame Rider as well. He was certainly surrounded with good company who helped shape him into what he is today. Craig looks back on the experience thinking about how valuable each day was being able to watch these men help change the face of the industry. He went on to work under Shannon Hall, which introduced another style and further helped Craig form his own personal take on training these amazing animals. It was all a journey full of hard work, but, as Craig made sure to mention, that is what it takes to be the best!
Craig’s words of advice as with others before are that you have to put the time in and do not be afraid of hard work. He also made a point of mentioning words of wisdom from the legend, Buster Welch, which stood out to him. When asked what advice that Buster would give to young people coming up in the industry, he said “Well first thing I would get saved,” something that hit it out of the park for Craig. It made him focus on the big picture and has kept him centered when the going gets tough. This sport is not easy and that faith keeps him going strong on days that might not be as rewarding as others. Craig is a person who strives to find the good or a lesson in any situation, something that we can all admire.
The cutting horse industry is a big family who makes some of the hard times a little easier. When asked about a moment that stands out to Craig from his years of involvement, you would expect to hear about one of his Futurity Championships or any of his countless accomplishments. While these moments are special to him, they were not what stood out the most. He recently lost his dad. When Craig received the call that his dad was not doing well, he was unloading horses at the 2018 Breeder’s Invitational in Tulsa, OK. His friends came to his aid without hesitation to work and show his horses. It allowed him to spend the last two weeks with his father giving him memories he can cherish forever. The generosity of the people in this sport is seen time and time again which he mentioned is a very unique aspect.
Along with this generosity, Craig also brought up the special opportunity we have in this industry to be surrounded by exceptionally talented people all the time. It takes so many different people to make the whole thing work. Some are better at training horses but not showing, some are better at showing and not training, some are weekend cutters, and some are best at the aged event level. There is a place for everyone who truly puts in the time and loves cutting. This lead us to ask what part of the sport he likes the most, and he told us training a three-year-old. He enjoys the process, and, even though you are doing the same thing from year to year, it is never the same!
If Craig was not a cutting horse trainer, he said he would probably enjoy being a coach, which when speaking to him would totally make sense. You get that instant feeling of motivation and inspiration! Even when he was speaking of one of his most embarrassing shows one year at the Music City Futurity you wanted to get out there and get going! It was easy for him to laugh at a series of events including being completely out of the saddle on one horse, literally working off the side wall on another, and, to top it off, another horse falling while he showed it! He was certainly ready to go home at that point, but you can tell he took something positive from the experience either way.
Craig’s last bit of advice to anyone is “Never let sleep get in the way of success.” It is something he tells himself everyday, and the results of his determination speak for themselves. One of his nicknames is Champ, and it is easy to see why, as a cutting is never over until this guy walks to the herd!