The connection 14-year-old Joey Varnadore has with cutting horses is undeniable.
He watches them and can understand them.
It’s a gift that cannot be easily explained.
“I just like horses. I don’t know why,” Varnadore quietly said. “I just like being outside with them.”
At the early age of 11, this quiet cowboy began entering cutting horse competitions shortly after taking up the sport.
To the delight and amazement of his parents, Cathy and Doug Varnadore, he was a natural and placed in the top 15 of youth competitors in his first year entering the sport, according to the National Cutting Horse Association.
Since then, Joey Varnadore has continued to place in the Youth Top 15 for the past three years and had the honor of being named the 2012 Rookie of the Year and the 2013 Junior World Finals Show Champion this past year.
“To see how Joey started out and competing against these kids, he used to say, ‘Oh, so-and-so is here. I’m not going to do anything today,’” said Cathy Varnadore, smiling. “But then that cow gets involved and you never know what will happen. You can do well against better riders.
“But to see Joey change and get better and what a natural he was, it was incredible to watch because it all happened pretty quickly. It was obvious what a natural flow it was for him.”
With excellent guidance and instruction from his trainers Skip Queen and Chris Howell, Joey Varnadore began to learn about cutting horses’ innate “cow sense” and their ability to respond quickly and turn sharply to keep a cow from returning to the herd.
During a cutting horse competition, the horse and rider must select and separate a cow out of a small herd. As the cow naturally tries to return to its herd, the rider loosens the reins on the cutting horse and leaves it entirely up to the horse to keep the cow separated. This is described as the rider or contestant “showing” the horse.
“In the World Finals, during his first show — because they show three different times — the cow shot way up to the judges’ stand and then turned around and came back like a bullet,” said Cathy Varnadore. “Joey’s horse, Reyminate, stayed on it. And for a horse to keep that attention and keep on that cow after it ran way up there, was quite amazing.”
“I was about to throw up,” Cathy Varnadore added, laughing. “Especially when the cow came back because he was flying, but Reyminate stopped him. It was incredible.”
Cathy Varnadore was so impressed by her son’s abilities, it inspired her to also take up the sport.
“I grew up riding horses, but it was hunter jumpers,” Cathy Varnadore said. “But when we began traveling around the Southeast competing a couple of years ago, mom was always the one sitting on the bench. Because it got to where Joey started to want to do everything himself with the horse. He didn’t need me to do anything, so I decided, “I’m going to ride.’ Because I love riding, but I hadn’t competed in forever.”
As Cathy Varnadore has begun competing, she has really learned the depth of her son’s talent with cutting horses.
“We both went to a show in Oklahoma and it was the first really big show I had been in and I was really pleased because I did well, so I ordered our videos,” Cathy Varnadore said. “I got it in the mail and I watched myself on the video and I said, ‘Man, I look good.’ And then Joey’s video came on after that and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s how it is really supposed to look.’”
Both Cathy and Doug Varnadore could not be more proud of their son’s accomplishments over the past three years. In fact, her son’s talent challenges Cathy Varnadore to practice even harder to get better at the sport.
“The joke is, I just want to beat Joey one time,” Cathy Varnadore said, laughing. “That’s my goal. Just beat him one time.”
Joey Varnadore’s natural talent is something even their trainers are shocked by on a regular basis, she said.
“The other day our trainer was telling me what I needed to do to get better because you can’t just let the trainer work the horse and then go out there and show,” she said. “He told me that I have to be out there working the horse a lot, but then he said, ‘Unless you are freakishly talented like Joey.’”
He simply seems to understand exactly what the horse is thinking, Cathy Varnadore said.
“If the trainer tells Joey what is going on, he gets it. He watches and he gets it,” Cathy Varnadore said. “When you are like Joey, you learn how to handle the horse. Some of them are maybe a really good horse and can win, but they are harder to ride. Some are just a lot easier. Joey is good at figuring that stuff out. I’m not there yet.”
Currently, Joey Varnadore rides two cutting horses, Reyminate and Hoover, but he says his favorite to ride is Reyminate.
“They are both really smooth riding and easy to show,” he said.
When the Varnadores purchased Reyminate, they knew he was a strong horse because they got excellent references, Cathy Varnadore said.
“Reyminate is a really sweet, good horse,” she said. “Hoover, on the other hand, he has a lot of weird quirks that we didn’t know about until after we bought him. But they are all good, you just have to figure out what they like and what makes them happy. And a happier horse will do a better job for you.”
The relationship between the horse and the cow also plays a crucial role in competition, Cathy Varnadore said.
“I heard the trainers talk about how they have trained horses that have been awesome and won titles, but they are terrified of a cow,” she said. “They are good because they are not going to take their eye off the cow. Some horses have great abilities but they aren’t going to hook up with that cow or care about the cow.”
The cows play a bigger role than people give them credit for, said Doug Varnadore. “The cows have a lot to do with a good show and a good score,” he said. “When the guys are settling the cows, you have a bunch of guys watching and picking the cows. They are picking what cows seem to be calm. So that’s Joey’s stage now, is to try to learn naming cows and picking cows. You don’t want a crazy cow to go cut. You want a calm cow to go cut.”
Those are the keys to a great show, Cathy Varnadore said.
“And I think one of the reasons that Joey does so well too is because he is calm,” she said. “He does get nervous occasionally, like he was nervous in the World Finals. But, normally, he is calm when he goes in there so he can think clearly and try to find that cow he wants to get and listen to the trainer. He makes his whole body calm which is good and also helps the horse.”
In the three years that he has been competing, Joey Varnadore has earned more than just titles. He has also taken home a total purse of $38,000.
While he is not in the sport for the money, Cathy Varnadore said it was good for her son to see that he could earn extra money to continue competing.
“Sometimes the check he got during the competition would pay for the entire weekend and traveling expenses, so that was good for him to see because it can be expensive,” she said, adding that he has competed mostly throughout the Southeast in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.
Traveling and competing on the weekends is even more fun because of the people he has met along the way, Joey Varnadore said.
“I enjoy seeing my friends on the weekends,” Joey Varnadore said, adding that while he competes with the other riders, he has a good relationship with all of them. “I know a lot of other people out there now. We have fun.”
In fact, the September issue of Cutting Horse Chatter, the official publication of the National Cutting Horse Association, includes several articles talking about the close friendship between Joey Varnadore and his rival and best friend, Colt Moore of Florida.
Moore, who was the 2013 Junior World Champion, speaks highly of the bond he has with Joey Varnadore.
“When we started out, we wanted to be first and second or tied because we are real buds,” Moore is quoted as saying. “You ask what advice I would give to others: don’t let other kids ruin friendships. Just do like me and Joey did. Be friends throughout the year and help each other, even though you are hauling against each other. “
Last year, Joey Varnadore finished just four points behind Moore to earn the title Reserve Junior World Champion.
When asked if he would like to eventually turn professional, Joey Varnadore admits he is not sure yet.
“I just like having fun with it right now,” he shyly said.
Cathy Varnadore said she has also established a great relationship with another local family from Evans whose daughter, Katie Fehrman, competes.
Last year, Katie Fehrman, 14, made the 2013 Junior Youth Top 15 along with Joey Varnadore.
“We’ve met a lot of great people,” Cathy Varnadore said, adding she loves traveling with Katie Fehrman’s family. “It was nice to have another mom who was there to help out with the traveling and raising the kids.”
The Varnadores also have two younger boys — Wesley, 13, and Luke, 6 — who will sometimes travel with their older brother to competitions. Only time will tell if either of them will be interested in the sport down the line, Cathy Varnadore said.
“The middle one is 15 months younger than Joey, so he is 13,” she said. “He tried it, but he didn’t want to do the same thing as brother. But the younger one is 6 years old. I think he will probably get into it. We will have to wait to see if he wants to compete, but he likes the horses and he likes to ride.”
In a little over a week, the 35th Annual Augusta Futurity will begin on Jan. 18 and the Varnadores say they really enjoy competing at home because their friends and family get to see all the hard work they’ve put into the sport.
“It is nice because all the people I tell about what Joey is doing and how well he is doing, they get to come actually see him,” Cathy Varnadore said. “They get to see what he can do for themselves.”
Joey Varnadore said most of his friends are pretty impressed when they watch him compete locally.
“They think it is pretty cool,” he said, smiling. “Most of them don’t ride horses or anything. But it is nice because it is right down the road. You don’t have to go anywhere really. It’s home.”
As Cathy and Doug Varnadore talk about their son’s talents, it is clear they are extremely proud of how much he has matured in the past three years.
“It’s good for him because the kids in this sport learn how to be responsible and take care of things,” Cathy Varnadore said. “It’s not just about making sure that you have everything in your gym bag before you leave the house. It is about taking care of an animal. And that’s not easy. It’s a lot of work, but he loves it.”