Living legend: Instructor takes reins of American Pharaoh’s sidekick

UF’s Clark Bradley has celeb status in the equine world

By Brittany Sega

For the Pulse

What happens when you combine a UF instructor and American Pharaoh? A ride to remember at one of the equine industry’s top events from this past year.

Clark Bradley, an instructor for the Western Equestrian program, was recently honored at the 2015 National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity. Bradley was an instrumental player in the formation of the association back in 1966 and was asked to come to Oklahoma City to ride in the association’s 50th anniversary this past December.

The NRHA futurity is a horse competition that showcases the skills of three-year-old reining horse prospects. Riders ride these horses through a specific pattern where they get judged on different maneuvers. Nonprofessional (Non-Pros) and Professional (Open) riders from around the world come together to compete at this prestigious event once a year. At the first NRHA futurity, because the association was just formed, they didn’t have the patterns printed on paper. Bradley was asked to ride the pattern layout for the exhibitors before the competition begin so they could write down the pattern for themselves. 50 years later NRHA invited Bradley back to do it again.

This time he rode The Whiz Shines, better known as Smokey, who is most well-known for his day job of being American Pharaoh’s pony horse. Smokey ponied American Pharaoh to and from the track during his Triple Crown campaign and when equine lovers heard that Smokey had been a reining horse in his previous life, they fell even more in love with the colorful buckskin.

Smokey himself was no stranger to the arena in Oklahoma City as he himself had competed in the 2012 NRHA futurity. Bradley arrived a few days before he would ride Smokey in front of hundreds of equine enthusiasts. Smokey was not Bradley’s original pick. In fact it wasn’t until about a month before the event that a member of the NRHA board called him to ask if he would ride him.

“NRHA called me like a month ahead of time and wanted to know if I would ride Smokey,” stated Bradley, “…so I said that I’d go ahead and show him cause it was a big deal for the fans. And I think it meant a lot more than if I’d just shown another horse.”

Bradley rode the pattern before the Non-Pro and Open finals. NRHA asked him to ride in the saddle that he had won during the 1968 futurity but after the stirrup leather broke

while getting Smokey ready for the big event he ended up riding in the saddle he won at the 1974 futurity.

“The crowd loved that horse. The horse had a stall right there by the arena and certain hours of every day you could come have your picture taken and there were people lined up,” Bradley expressed.

Smokey and Bradley were at great matchup at the futurity according to UF senior Emily Schafer. Schafer, a public relations major and a past equestrian major, was an intern with NRHA during futurity and got to watch her long-time instructor be honored at this prestigious event.

“Having him be there and being like yeah he teaches at my school. I kind of felt that was a big deal,” Schafer exclaimed.

Schafer said that when she told people she knew Clark Bradley on a first-name-basis that people were in awe. Bradley is quite the celebrity in the equine world.

During the futurity, NRHA had a banquet honoring all futurity winners from the past 50 years. Bradley and Schafer were in attendance at the red carpet ceremony and the celebration. Futurity winners were gifted a pair of spurs each time they had won the futurity and got to walk down the red carpet.

“The celebration itself was really neat…all the past futurity winners were invited to come free with their families,” Bradley reminisces, “They introduced each futurity winner and gave us all a set of spurs with the year we won and the horse.”

Bradley states that the best thing about this event was getting to see how much the association has grown in 50 years. From winning only $2,500 at the first futurity in 1966, which Bradley states was big money at that time, to 2015 when the futurity winner won a whopping $150,000, you can tell just how much the association has grown in the past 50 years.

“I know when I won the futurity in 74 I won like $7,500 and that was a lot. It was big money. I thought I was rich,” Bradley laughs.

Money is not the only way the association has grown over the years. The horses and trainers have only gotten better over the past 50 years, Bradley says. Back then you never bred a horse for reining, you just bred them as a general all-around horse and if they could stop and turn a bit you’d make them a reiner. Nowadays a lot of thought goes into genetics and potential.

Bradley, who grew up riding horses with his father, has been a legend in all aspects of the horse industry for years. He graduated with a degree in ranch management from Texas Christian University and began training horses out of college working for prominent players in the industry at the time. Eventually Bradley ended up working for Dale Wilkinson, the creator of the equestrian program at The University of Findlay.

Wilkinson himself was another strong influence during the creation of NRHA. He was the first person to win the futurity in 1966 and the first person to be inducted into the NRHA Hall of Fame in 1986. Known as the father of reining too many, Wilkinson started the program at Findlay in 1976.

He convinced Bradley to come help him in 1977 where he stayed until 1985. Bradley then moved to Indiana to become a full-time horse trainer again. He returned back to the University in 1996 and hasn’t left since. He has helped coach the well-known Interscholastic Horse Show Association (IHSA) team to numerous national championships, awarded the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Professional Horseman of the year in 2001, inducted into both the NRHA and AQHA Hall of Fames respectively and has held numerous positions in both NRHA, AQHA and their affiliations.

When asked, Schafer stated what an amazing opportunity she has had during her time working with such an accomplished instructor.

“Being in college and learning at a school that has an equestrian program is a privilege…especially with Clark being a part of the program,” Schafer explains.

Seeing all that he’s accomplished and then learning from him has made an impact on Schafer and hundreds of other students who have had the opportunity to work with him at Findlay.

“I think that’s something we are blessed to have here at The University of Findlay. I am blessed to have worked with him,” Schafer said.

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