Mitchell, S.D., family specializes in training horses

MITCHELL, S.D. - The Charolais cattle moved nervously up and down the side of the arena as Dallas Cunningham and Catman, a horse trained to work with cattle, directed them.

MITCHELL, S.D. - The Charolais cattle moved nervously up and down the side of the arena as Dallas Cunningham and Catman, a horse trained to work with cattle, directed them.

Catman responded to Dallas Cunningham's every cue with swift, strong movements.

"Catman is more his horse than mine, and he knows it," said Clinton Olinger, the owner of Catman.

Cunningham has been working with Catman since Olinger bought him about a year ago. He was with Olinger in Texas when purchasing Catman.

After a half-hour was up, Cunningham traded one horse for another and was right back to the arena.


Just another day at the office for Dallas Cunningham.

Dallas and Chelsie Cunningham, along with their 2-year-old daughter Sage, are the people behind Dallas Cunningham Performance Horses. The Cunninghams specialize in training horses in different areas, including reining, cow horses, barrel horses and more aged-event horses like futurities, derbies and non-pros.

Dallas has been in the horse business since before high school, but has professionally been training horses since after he graduated college in 2009. In total, he has trained "customer horses" for about 15 years.

"You go to a barrel race and you can't ride 10 feet without seeing a horse we've rode," Dallas Cunningham said. "You could probably easily say I've rode for 100 and some people from South Dakota or both of us put together (have)."

The Cunninghams have about 20 clients who come from Georgia to California and anywhere in between. This client base was started all by word of mouth, and many have stayed with Dallas since he started.

"It's nationwide," Dallas Cunningham said. "And, I have not advertised probably twice in my life."

Dallas Cunningham said he rides 13 or 14 horses a day, and Chelsie sets her limit at 10. Their entire operation could comfortably hold 35 horses, but they try not to overload since it wouldn't allow them to dedicate as much time to each horse.

They have a 60-day minimum stay, Chelsie Cunningham said.


"That helps us put a better product out to the public to keep our reputation," Chelsie Cunningham said.

But, keeping up a reputation requires a degree of perfectionism.

"I'm not the easiest guy to work for," Dallas Cunningham said. "Just 'cause I like everything walking out the door with our name on it perfect. If it ain't perfect, I ain't happy."

Since they don't advertise, Chelsie Cunningham said they need to be perfect so word of mouth travels.

DC Performance Horses was officially started in 2009, and Dallas and Chelsie Cunningham have lived in Mitchell since 2012. The couple owns 25 acres and also raises crops and runs 30 head of cattle.

Getting started

"I don't like pigs," Dallas Cunningham said with a laugh. "Growing up we had cattle, chickens, hogs and quite a few horses ... if you wanted to get out of working hogs, you could ride horses."

As Dallas tells it, it all started with $50 "kill horses."


"You'd have to rope 'em on another horse because you couldn't hold 'em," Dallas Cunningham said. "The first horse I took for a guy, first real customer horse I took, I was probably 14. It had put four or five people in the hospital, and the guy never told me."

After successfully breaking the horse, the guy brought him 10 more.

His career grew from there.

Dallas estimates he's ridden thousands of horses.

"I've broke about 28 bones," Dallas Cunningham said. "I've see some bad ones, starting out."

Riding the bad horses has taught him just as much as riding the good ones, Dallas Cunningham said.

"They teach you ... maybe not the things you want to learn, but the things that are good to know," Dallas Cunningham said.

Back then, Dallas said he would keep riding the bad ones until he made them better because he was stubborn. And, he still hasn't met a horse that is more stubborn than him.


But now, he says he's honest with the customer about whether the horse works well with a specific training program since it can get expensive. Neither Dallas nor Chelsie can afford to get hurt, and they aren't about to waste their customer's money.

"Some customers get upset because it's their baby," Dallas Cunningham said. "Not that I'm always right, but you know, we just try to help people out just 'cause the business can be a little crooked. Trainers just take peoples' money and then kind of get a bad name for it."

Dallas Cunningham said when he first started out, the turnover rate of horses in their training program was high because he wasn't training higher-end show horses. They trained the horses for 30 to 60 days as compared to up to about 2 years now.

"Now it's specializing, we're training 'em and showing 'em," Dallas Cunningham said. "We get better quality of horses all the time. It's unbelievable how we've come in the last three to four years as far as quality of horses."

Chelsie agrees they have come a long way from Dallas riding kill horses and her riding race horses that would run off with her.

"Mine stop now, and yours don't try to kill you," Chelsie Cunningham said.

Moving pieces

For Dallas and Chelsie, there is not a slow time.


"Fall is very crazy because it's one futurity (horse show) after another," Dallas Cunningham said.

This means both Chelsie and Dallas are on the road frequently.

The way the Cunninghams make it through being on the road to different shows all the time is through "good help" because the training doesn't stop when they hit the road.

"It's really tough, when you're on the road a lot. Sometimes we take young horses with us if we have room," Dallas Cunningham said. "So then, the up-and-coming are still getting rode like they need to be."

Back in Mitchell, they have hired help who take care of the horses that weren't able to go on the trip.

Both Dallas and Chelsie offer their show services, where people will pay them to train and show their horse to try and win more money from the show.

"The goal is to make your horse worth a lot of money or ... make their offspring worth more," Dallas Cunningham said.

They also do non-pro training, where the horse's owner is the one showing. The business of training horses is seven days a week, and it's not "9 to 5."


"It's not a job," Dallas Cunningham said. "It's a life."

And because of this, Chelsie and Dallas are frequently in different states.

"He'll be in Oklahoma and I'll be out West somewhere," Chelsie Cunningham said. "He takes one pickup and trailer one way, and I go the other way."

Chelsie said she's usually gone for three days, at the most, but Dallas is gone longer.

For smaller shows, Dallas Cunningham said he's probably gone four or five days.

"The Big shows like Vegas and Oklahoma and Texas, you know, you'll be gone for 10 days, two weeks pretty easy," Dallas Cunningham said. "If you go to the world show in November, then you go to the futurity, I mean you can be gone for a month."

With their busy schedule, they rely on day care, Chelsie's mother and those around the farm to look after their daughter, Sage. But, everyone is more than willing to help out.

"I feel like you have to make an appointment just to see her," Olinger said.

Though showing horses keeps Dallas Cunningham away from home, home is still where his heart is.

"I don't like to be (gone)," Dallas Cunningham said. "I'd rather be home training horses."

Pretty doesn't always cut it

The love of horse training goes hand in hand with a love of competition for Dallas.

"Competition is probably the biggest thing for me," Dallas Cunningham said. "The thrill of always getting better. It just drives you motivates you to get up every morning and work your butt off."

And for Chelsie Cunningham, her reasons for staying in the horse business are similar.

"Not all the time is it an instant reward, but you can just see your work progress," Chelsie Cunningham said. "That's what makes you keep going every day. But the horses are very humbling ... you feel like you're on top of the world, and the next weekend you're six foot under."

The Cunninghams agree a horse might show well one weekend and do poorly the next. So, working with horses requires patience, Chelsie said. They are "just like kids," especially with futurity horses because of their young age.

"One day you might have a kid that's really concentrating and wants to learn, and then, the next day they just want to go outside and play with their friends," Chelsie Cunningham said. "Or, you might have a kid that can concentrate for an hour, and horses are the same way. Some may concentrate for an hour and the others will give you all day."

And sometimes, horses just aren't "cut out" to be trained in certain ways.

"We really take a lot of pride into taking care of our customers, as far as being up front and telling 'em whether the horse will make it or not, because it's a very, very expensive hobby or sport or whatever you want to call it," Dallas Cunningham said. "You can get buried under a horse very fast if you just keep training it, and it's not going to turn out for the reining or cow horse or even the barrels."

But, Chelsie said if they don't make it for reining, sometimes they will be good barrel or roping horses.

"The way we do things, our horses (are) just very, very broke and willing, so they work for a lot of things," Dallas Cunningham said. "To me, the reining and and the cow horse are probably the toughest events you can do, so it takes a pretty special horse. And they're not all going to make it."

Chelsie said that by using the term "broke" they don't mean the horses are broken to go down the road or go trail riding. Instead, the horses know how to move their shoulders and hips and are "soft" while doing so.

Dallas Cunningham said they can tell within 90 days whether a horse has potential with a particular training program.

"The most athletic horse with a bad mind will be hard to make it," Dallas Cunningham said.

There are several things to look for in a show horse, but part of it is if the horse is conformationally correct, Chelsie Cunningham said.

"Pretty doesn't mean they're gonna make it at all," Dallas Cunningham said. "In what I'm doing, pretty is a big deal to start out with, because they sell better, but good-minded is ... the biggest thing."

Breeding has become very specialized, Dallas Cunningham said. But, even then, it's not guaranteed the horse will live up to the standards.

"They can be bred phenomenal," Chelsie Cunningham said. "And they make a good trail horse."

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