TALES FROM THE TRAILS
Sam Morton has been to a lot of places, met a lot of people and knows a lot about horses.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up in North Carolina. But his real education occurred in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountain country.
“I worked on a lot of ranches,” he recalled. “Big spreads of 78,000 or 90,000 acres. Lots of Thoroughbreds. People associate Thoroughbreds with Kentucky, but Wyoming has been raising them since the 1890s.”
At 13, he worked summers at dude ranches, helping wrangle horses, mount guests and lead rides. Later, he worked the ranches full-time: a lot harder, and not half as much fun. “I threw hay bales and dug fence post holes,” Sam recalled. “What I really wanted was to start horses.”
Sam was lucky enough to attend a weeklong clinic with Ray Hunt, the first “horse whisperer.” The only criteria you needed was the fee and an unbroken horse. Morton managed both, and learned a lifetime’s worth of horse handling from the master.
“It was an amazing clinic,” he said. “These were unbroken horses, and we rode them on the first day. We learned some great gentling and desensitizing techniques using a rope as a tool to move them. Ray taught us to make the right thing easy for the horse to do, and the wrong thing difficult — how and when to release pressure as a reward.”
After that, he worked starting young Thoroughbreds under saddle.
“I did 40 at one ranch. Their stallion was descended from the great War Admiral. It was one of the most satisfying times of my life,” Sam said. “Starting those horses also helped me in other aspects of my life, like coaching kids in football, basketball and soccer, and teaching people to play polo. There’s a lot of similarities. You need calmness and patience. If you can emotionally weather the storm with kids, things work out eventually.”
So how did Sam end up in Wellington? Back in 1982, he was working cattle at one of those big Wyoming ranches when he met Palm Beach resident Lora Kates, who hired him to train her polo ponies and play polo. He arrived that fall and worked with her string of 22 horses. He realized that wintering in South Florida was a heck of a lot easier than working in blinding Wyoming snowstorms.
“But Wyoming was in my blood, so I went back every summer,” he said. “I trained polo ponies for Bart Evans in Texas one winter, one of the best players around. Somehow, I got a call from Memo Gracida, the top polo player in the world at the time. I worked for him for a while, managing his 12 ponies and acting as groom.”
Sam said that working with Memo, a longtime Wellington resident, was a marvelous experience. He noted that Memo holds the highest record of 16 U.S. Open Championship victories and the most consecutive years as a 10-goal professional polo player. In 1990, Gracida was selected as Player of the Centennial Era. In 1997, he was inducted into the National Polo Hall of Fame, the first time an active player ever was inducted.
“He taught me a different style of riding,” Sam recalled. “One of the most rewarding parts was watching the green horses I started for him end up as seasoned, high-goal mounts. Eventually I became an assistant at Palm Beach Polo.”
But Sam knows a whole lot more than just starting horses and working with problem horses, which he also did for a while in Wellington. He was the cowboy everyone called when they had a horse with issues.
“When you’re on a ranch, in the middle of nowhere, you have to know how to do a little of everything,” Sam explained. “That includes trimming hooves and floating teeth. I enjoyed working on horses’ teeth, knocking off the sharp edges so their mouths don’t hurt when you introduce a bit. I did some of that in Wellington, working with local vets.”
Sam spends summers in Wyoming and winters in Wellington, where he still does horses’ teeth. “They should be checked twice a year,” he recommended. “I’d say 25 to 30 percent of horses have some sort of bite alignment problem and could use assistance. People don’t realize how important that is. If a horse starts bucking or rearing or acting up, one of the first things you should check are his teeth.”
Joe Fink is a polo groom who was on hand when Sam showed up recently to float six horses. “He’s been doing our horses’ teeth forever, at least 15 years,” Joe said. “He does a neat job, very professional. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s excellent with the horses. He makes them feel comfortable.”
Sam has also developed a new product called Wonder Mouth. Available at the Tackeria. It has been used at countless polo matches, racetracks, the Winter Equestrian Festival and in a variety of equestrian activities. There are two formulas. Before the Show combats dry mouth from nervous stress. After the Show relieves minor symptoms of mouth stress caused by bitting and equestrian activity.
“Horses love the taste,” Sam said. “A few ounces of Wonder Mouth in the corners of your horse’s mouth keeps it moist and lubricated to prevent chafing and abrasions.”
And, if that wasn’t enough, Sam also writes. He started doing articles for American Cowboy, Polo Players Edition, Sidelines and Pine Straw magazine, then was asked to interview people about the history of horses in Wyoming. That ended up getting published as Where the Rivers Run North, and he just finished another book, The Winged Spur, the first of a trilogy.
Sam enjoys spending time in Wellington, musing about what it looked like when he first arrived in 1982.
“A lot has changed,” he acknowledged. “This community is unique, the largest conglomerate of performance horses in the history of the world. They should put a gold horse statue out front.”
To contact Sam Morton, call (561) 914-0915 or visit www.facebook.com/sam.morton.186.