Sam Shepard loved learning. It’s perhaps the reason he came to cutting later in life as a cutting horse trainer and was able to enjoy almost $2.5 million worth of success in the show pen. But it wasn’t just his training prowess that made him a name in cutting, it was his decency and love of people that really established his reputation.
Shepard was diagnosed with a rare condition called Amyloidosis. He passed away September 15th this year at his home in Verbena, Alabama at the age of 74.
His son, Austin Shepard, described his dad as a very well rounded person. He was well read, passionate about education, and a talented horse trainer. Shepard traveled the world because of cutting horses and was always interested in people from all walks of life. Austin said his father lived a full life.
Shepard was the eldest of five boys. His father was a Baptist preacher and a postmaster. He graduated from Troy State University and became a vocational teacher. He was the youngest person to ever become the head of vocational teaching in the state of Alabama.
In college, Shepard rode his first cutting horse while working for a man named Gibbs McCormack. After graduating, he showed as a Non Pro for years and started to get competitive, but he couldn’t afford to keep competing at the top level. Friends suggested that he become a trainer so he could show those top horses.
Shepard would get home from work at 7:00 pm and work horses until midnight, wake up at 6:00 am and do it all again. After a while, that demanding routine became too difficult, so Shepard made the decision to quit his job and train horses full time. Shepard had an understanding boss who said he would hold his job for a year if training horses didn’t work out. Needless to say, he never went back.
It was 1987 when Shepard started training full time. Committed to pursuing his dream and possessing a thirst for knowledge, he was undaunted by the challenge of starting a new career as a middle aged man with a young family to support. It didn’t take long for Shepard to find success, making his first Open Futurity final at the age of 41.
His first major victory came in 2001 when he won the NCHA Classic Challenge on Desire Some Freckles in the Will Rogers. Other titles included the Southern Futurity, Augusta Futurity, and many NCHA Eastern National Championships. He finished his career earning more than $2.43 million.
Besides gaining entry into the National Cutting Horse Association Riders Hall of Fame, Shepard was also honored by the industry when he was inducted into the Members Hall of Fame in 2015, which he said was a highlight of his career.
Shepard also gave his time and wisdom to the sport when he served as President of the NCHA in 1992 to 1993. Good friend, trainer Bill Riddle praised Shepard for the way he ran the Association. He said Shepard made sure the Association was on solid financial ground.
“He was fair. And he wanted to do what was right for everybody. He could have a conversation with anyone… He loved horses, and cattle but he loved the people that rode and owned the horses even more. He loved their stories and getting to know them,” said Austin.
While Shepard was the first in his family to be involved with horses, he started his own dynasty in cutting. His son Austin, 43, followed in his footsteps and is currently the fourth highest money earner totaling $8.3 million after winning nearly every major title in the sport including two Futurities.
Shepard’s youngest son Harris, 26, is also a cutting horse trainer in Verbena, Al.
Shepard’s grandson Cade Shepard has also made a name for himself in cutting. At just 18 years of age, Cade has earned more than $877,000 and has a Non-Pro Futurity Championship buckle.
Besides his two sons, Shepard leaves behind his wife Pam, and two daughters Stephanie and Emma.
Shepard and Buster Welch were close friends for much of his life. Buster had a huge influence on Shepard’s training program but they were also great friends outside of horses.
“Buster called [Sam] two weeks before he passed away and they talked for 45 minutes. They never talked about a horse. They talked about what book they were reading and history. That was their relationship,” Austin said.
“He lived every minute of every day unlike anyone I’ve ever known. He was constantly trying to learn, achieve and get better. He was always kind to people. He taught me how to work hard, be honest, how to treat customers, how to be honest with yourself and to respect a horse,” said Austin.
Shepard had been able to travel the world giving clinics and judging shows. He judged the Australian Futurity in the mid 90s before many of the well-known Australian trainers came to America. Austin said he and his dad would watch the finals videos and discuss the Australian trainer’s methods.
Some of Austin’s favorite memories include when Shepard and Austin were co-champions in the Open at the 2017 Eastern Nationals on Twistful Thinking and Deluxe Checks, respectively. After the show, Buster Welch called each of them separately to have them sign a magazine cover they were featured on and send it to him. When the Shepard family finished showing at the Southern last fall, they went to Buster’s ranch to go branding. They saw their signed magazine cover up on the wall.
Shepard also helped his son in the show pen when Austin won his first NCHA Futurity in 2007 aboard High Brow CD.
Bill Riddle said Shepard had a talent for raising cattle. He could take care of sick calves and help them pull through. He could buy cows, he was a tremendous cow man and he could train a horse, Riddle said.
“Anytime I was going on a trip and [would be traveling] on an airplane, I would call Sam and ask him what I needed to read…He was so well educated and intelligent. And yet the things that endear a man to a horseman: the ability to get a horse broke, trained, the ability to understand how a horse thinks, he did all of that too. And he raised a [great] family,” Riddle said.
Austin and his family moved to his ranch to be able to work horses and spend as much time with him as they could. They were able to relive special memories together as a family. More than 70 people came to visit Shepard in the weeks before his death.
“I had two or three friends that were good enough friends to tell me the truth and Sam was one of those guys. I remember I hurt my back years ago. And I started putting my rein hand on the swell of the saddle when I showed. We were at breakfast in Fort Worth and Sam said ‘Bill, why do you have your hand on the front of that saddle?’ and I said ‘I hurt my back and I started putting my hand there and it feels good’. Sam looked at me and said ‘Well, it may feel good but it looks like s…. Why don’t you put your hand back on the horse’s neck and start looking like Bill Riddle again?’”
“You won’t have many people in your life that will tell you, that think enough of you, that will take the chance of making you mad to make you better and that was Sam. That was my friend,” Riddle said.