Amateurs Like Us: Gayl Russell Chases Cattle In The Mountains And Ribbons In The Show Ring

Jun 20, 2017 - 8:28 PM

When Gayl Russell isn’t laying down winning rounds in the jumper ring, you might find her driving a truck or out chasing cattle in Montana.

“I own my own semi,” says Russell, who got her first truck in 1991 and now has her third, a 53-foot “cattle pot” livestock hauler. The Chronicle caught up with Russell while she was taking a break at a rest stop, after she battled through a snowstorm while hauling horses to Michigan from her home in Wise River. After a career that’s included driving the ice road in Alaska, hauling a horse trailer across country might seem pretty tame.

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Gayl Russell competes Whitneys Moon Bandit in hunter derbies and the low amateur jumper divisions. Photo by Rough Out Photography.

Russell has balanced life as a truck driver with her life showing her horses in the jumper ring. She got her start riding English in 2005 after watching Olympic show jumping. She was “driving truck” through Delaware and stopped in the Dover Saddlery store there. “I told the gals I wanted to jump, and I had Paint horses back home,” she said. She asked the store clerks what she should buy—something that wasn’t too fancy, but would last.

They fitted her out and also sold her a copy of Anna Jane White-Mullin’s The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing, and Judging: On the Flat and Over Fences, and armed with information, Russell was on her way.

At her first show, “I didn’t even have my equipment on right, but people helped me.”

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Kilkenny Cairo does double duty in the jumper ring and with a stock saddle in the Montana countryside with Gayl Russell. Photo courtesy of Gayl Russell

By 2007, Russell says she was doing the bigger shows from Montana into Oregon, Washington and even California. Sometimes she paid people to coach her and other times people just offered to help. She remembers meeting British Olympic rider Michael Whitaker and not knowing who he was at first, while walking her Paint horses over to the wash rack at a California show. “He said I sat good and quiet when I jumped, gave me some pointers and was so nice to me,” she remembered.

Coming from riding cattle and driving big trucks, “People tease me—I’m from a totally different world!”

Russell soon took the hunter/jumper world by the horns. She’s past-president of the Montana Hunter Jumper Association, and is the USHJA representative to the MHJA. She currently serves on the USHJA Zone 9 Committee and is on the board of directors for the American Paint Horse Association. She was a 2013 winner of the USHJA regional affiliate organization Sportsmanship Award. “Because if you want changes you need to step forward and try to make changes,” Russell said of her work with the various associations.

Russell, 55, grew up in cow camps, riding and breaking colts. She said that while on the surface, riding jumpers might not seem alike, but “it doesn’t matter—dressage, jumping, eventing, western—the horse has to have self-carriage, and you have to be balanced on your horse. The position is different but it’s all the same.”

But she added, the one thing she does notice is “when riding colts, you ride with your feet on the dashboard,” and because she does so much roping off her buckskin, she has a tendency to push her feet forward. Russell’s friend Wanda Rosatti of Full Sail Farm in Montana has had to yell, “Get your feet out of the dashboard!” as Russell canters by.

The buckskin in question is known as Buzzard around the barn and Whitney’s Moon Bandit (Dears Muscels—Thunders Bandit) in the show ring. He is one of Russell’s three current competition horses, which also include a black and white Paint, Artic Moon (Billy—Lacy Anns TJ), and bay Dutch Warmblood mare Kilkenny Cairo (Joram—Mirage of Overlook), who she purchased from Jeff and Shelley Campf, of Oz Inc., in Oregon.

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Gayl Russell (right) with her show jumpers Artic Moon and Whitneys Moon Bandit, held by her niece Sue Russell, at the 2014 APHA World Championship Show. Photo by Larry Williams Photography

Russell raises, trains and even shoes her own horses. “I used to shoe for the Forest Service, now I just do my own horses,” she said, and that includes drilling and tapping for studs when needed.

She came back last year from her stint on the ice road from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Prudhoe Bay after “oil prices went to heck.” The ice road was “500 miles of nothing,” and Russell was one of only five women driving the unpaved and desolate strip with no cell phone service and temperatures that could be as low as 50 degrees below zero.

She kept riding during her time on the ice road—two weeks on the road, three weeks at home. Her horses then and now stay fit on their own. “My horses are not stabled; they are turned out, and go up and down mountains daily. I don’t have to leg them up much,” she said. Sometimes she says the snow in the winter is up to their bellies. The living conditions alone keep them in shape.

Rather than being ridden an hour a day, when Russell is out roping cattle, “an easy day is probably 20 miles up and down hills.”

She uses the same horses for roping and working cattle that she rides in the jumper ring. She remembers a show at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Mont., where she was riding Buzzard in the 1.10-meter jumpers and wind was blowing hard. “I was jumping a gate, and wind blew the bottom of the gate toward him two strides out.” But she said, “Buzzard’s ears were up, and he never even hesitated.” The gate hit the ground, and the dust blew up, and Buzzard jumped the fence anyway and won the class.

“He’s used to jumping creeks and lodgepole pines that will sometimes fall in front of the horses,” she said. And it’s that sort of terrain that’s good for her warmblood, Cairo, who she said was spooky and prone to drop her shoulder and buck when she first got her. Cairo has since learned to do the work Russell’s Paints do, like drag a cow out of ditch. “She’d never had a rope down on her,” Russell said, but soon Cairo learned to lean into the breast collar and pull a 1,400-pound cow out of a ditch “like any stock horse would.”

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Gayl Russell splits her time between riding and driving big rigs. Photo courtesy of Gayl Russell.

Russell says her family, including her father Ron and niece Sue, are who have allowed her to do what she’s done. Sue would feed the horses while Russell was in Alaska and Ron saves her time and money with his medical knowledge. “Without my family, I could not have driven trucks and done what I’ve done and be able to come home and jump on my horses,” she said.

And when Buzzard, the horse Russell raised herself, got a nail in through his coronary band and into his coffin joint, with a prognosis of “pasture sound,” Sue handwalked him. And Russell’s then-11-year-old nephew “rode him all over creation, and I think the rehab is what made the difference.”

It’s a miracle he’s even jumping she says of her little Paint-that-could. Both Russell’s Paints are about 15.2 hands, another anomaly around the bigger warmbloods you see in the jumper ring.

Buzzard is also the horse she was riding “moving cows” only three weeks after having surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2009. Russell was hit in the head by divider in her livestock trailer, breaking her nose and messing up her vision. When the vision problems continued, her father insisted she see a doctor.

The visit revealed that the dizziness she had been experiencing, that she had attributed to not drinking enough water at shows, was from a meningioma that was wrapped around the blood vessel that fed the part of her brain that controls motor skills. Had her freak accident not revealed the tumor, Russell says she might have been paralyzed, possibly permanently, from the waist down. The surgery was in July, and she was back to driving trucks in October of that same year. MRIs since then have shown no regrowth, Russell said.

Buzzard is still jumping, as is 24-year-old Artic Moon, or “Harley,” who Russell picked up in March 2010 when he was 17 at a sale while Buzzard was out of commission. By the end of the year, Russell says she and the gelding, who had been greenbroke and a stallion until he was 15, had won championships in Montana, Washington, Oregon and Texas as well as year-end championship titles in both Montana and Washington.

In 2014, she took both Paints to the American Paint Horse Association World Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, and came home with Harley as champion in amateur jumping and Buzzard in reserve and Buzzard as champion in jumping, and Harley in the reserve spot. As with the other horses Harley is multi-talented and has run barrels.

This year, Harley stands in 15th and Cairo in 17th in the USHJA Zone 9 standings for high adult amateur jumpers. And Russell has high hopes for Cairo, who she got in 2014 and is coming into her own this year. “Like turning a light switch,” she said of the mare. “In a week she went from being ‘Cairo’ to being a horse doing everything right.”

Long-term, Russell would like to move from the adult amateur jumpers to the amateur-owners. “Cairo could jump 1.40-meter if she could just do it right all the time,” she mused.

For now, Russell said, she’ll see how the summer goes and plans to take the mare to regionals. And part of that summer plan, is to go back to her childhood job of riding her horses working in a cow camp.

As for that equipment she bought at Dover, hoping it would last? “Bless their souls,” she laughed thinking of the sales clerks. “I’m still using the stuff they sold me.”

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