The Greatest Rope Horse Trainer You've Never Heard Of (YET)
Shawn Grant’s unconventional training methods, paired with Dean Tuftin’s breeding program, are driving the rope horse industry forward.
If you’re not in the middle of the horse-training mecca of Scottsdale, Arizona, the nameShawn Grant might not mean much to you. But if you pay attention to great rope horses, you’ve seen the fruits of his labor through the DT Horse program, championed by owner Dean Tuftin and shown by the likes of legendary horsemen CR Bradley and JD Yates to American Quarter Horse Association world titles and American Rope Horse Futurity success. Grant, the man who spends the early years with those great horses, though, has chosen to spend his time out of the lime light and in the arena. But it’s been his methods and his foundation that have set those great ones up for success, and it’s Grant’s meticulous attention to detail that makes him the perfect fit for Tuftin’s program. In fact, Grant might just be the greatest rope horse trainer you’ve never heard of.
Kari DeCastro Photography
From the Start
Grant, now 45, came to Arizona after a childhood in Alaska, where he grew up in a rodeo family. His dad saw year-round opportunity in the Grand Canyon State, so the family moved south when Shawn was 12.
At 13, Grant started working for eventual hall-of-fame trainers Jimmy Paul and Jim Paul, Sr., Mike Drennan and Steve Payne for a chance to rope and ride good horses.
“I worked for Steve because I got to rope,” Grant said. “I went to the ProRodeos for a few years, and I got to the point where I realized I needed better horses and more money. I was roping with Monty Joe Petska, and he had told me about Jimmy Paul. He said he didn’t live far, and he said I’d ride good horses and learn a lot. So for five or six years, I rode with him. That’s when I got more into training horses. His dad was working there at the same time, and I got to ride really good cow horses. That’s when I realized what I wanted my horses to feel like.”
At the same time, bit with the roping bug, Grant was hanging around guys like the late, great BFI champs Mark Arnold and Rickey Green, and eventual seven-time world champion Jake Barnes.
“Shawn was around here when Clay and I were going a lot,” Barnes said. “He broke into the professional ranks, and he rodeoed and decided it wasn’t his niche. So he got to training rope horses, and he started incorporating his horsemanship into the rope horse industry.”
The DT Factor
At 18, Grant was amateur and circuit rodeoing when he met a Canadian heeler named Dean Tuftin. They roped together at the jackpots, while Tuftin was rodeoing with Speed Williams at the time.
“He was one of the best jackpot headers in the business,” Tuftin remembered of Grant. “He was winning everything.”
Grant circuit rodeoed until 2007 (he’s got just over $63,000 in PRCA earnings), all the while training horses in the Scottsdale area. He worked for Four Peaks Ranch for 15 years, where Tuftin would eventually start sending him four horses a year from his ranch in Oregon.
“I’ve rode horses for Dean for the last eight years,” Grant said. “He’d send me four at a time from Oregon, and I’d ride them from September to May. I’d send back those four and the next year get another four.”
But when Tuftin moved his program to Scottsdale in 2017 to open a large-scale rope and cow horse operation, he coaxed Grant into a full-time role.
The Long Game
Tuftin’s mission with DT Horses is to build equine athletes that are easier to train, sounder and faster, plus cowy and beautiful, by constantly upgrading their stallions and their mares in his 150-horse program. His execution strategy? Cross the best studs on the best mares, rope the best cattle, hire the best horsemen, and take the best care of each animal to create horses that world champions and World Series ropers alike will have to have.
“It’s all on me from there,” Grant said. “I’ve got the best horses, the best facility and the best cattle, so if they don’t turn out, there’s something wrong.”
Stallions Hickory Holly Time, who won the 2018 World’s Greatest Horseman title with Tuftin’s cow horse trainer Kelby Phillips, and Metallic CD, the reigning AQHA World Champion in the Senior Heeling under JD Yates, now headline the breeding program. Plus, Tuftin’s superstar line-up of broodmares includes King Snazzy Sugar, who is one of the AQHA’s top performance producers and dam to multiple world champions, as well as Lil Miss Shiney Chex, the NRCHA’s Open Bridle World Champion.
Jeff Gleason does the ground work on Tuftin's colts before they enter Grant's roping program.
Kari DeCastro Photography
“Several of the mares we’re getting babies out of, I’ve rode,” Grant said. “Almost everything in my barn is related. It gives me a good idea about what to expect. When you’re familiar with how you’ve rode other horses and you know them really well, and you get a sibling, you have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to be.”
Each foal crop offers 20 to 25 horses, with Phillips and Grant working with Tuftin to decide which horses go the rope horse direction and which enter Phillip’s cow horse program.
Tuftin believes in using natural horsemanship methods—inspired by popular Australian clinician Clinton Anderson—to maximize the mental preparedness of each colt for training, so Anderson apprentice Jeff Gleason works with every colt on the ground before Grant rides them as 2-year-olds.
“The 2-year-olds I want to ride for a year before I do anything,” Grant explained. “There’s nothing wrong with tracking the dummy in a ring snaffle, but mainly the 2-year-old year is just getting them broke. These colts are starting to get rode in the spring. I really want to ride them all the way up to January, and then when I feel like they’re getting more broke, then we’ll start following the lead steer and roping the dummy on them. I like everything at a slow speed. It’s a critical point. You don’t want them leaning, you don’t want them scotching. You want them to read your delivery. Halfway through their 3-year-old year, that’s when I can have the header turn the lead steer for me.”
While most elements of Tuftin and Grant’s program are out of the ordinary just for their exceptionalism, one thing in particular will catch the eye of anyone entering DT Horses’ roping arena.
About a year ago, Grant and crew assembled a line of panels down the far side of the arena, opposite the return alley. The idea—one Grant had been rolling around in his head for the better part of a decade before implementing—is that if a roper can teach his cattle to run the entire way around the arena, from the chute, to the back of the arena and down the track at the other side of the pen and back to the box, the horse can follow along and never be looking for the end of a run, eliminating that panicked, chargy feeling that’s hard to keep out of head horses.
“On a lot of older rope horses, they’re taking you to their job,” Grant said. “I don’t like a horse like that. I want to have to push my horse. I want them waiting on me, saving their energy, but when I say go, that means now. What happens with rope horses, when you come from the box and go to the stripping chute, it’s a chase game. I want my horses to run down in the ground and wait on me until I say go get him. If I’ve got a fresh cow in the arena, and I drop my reins, let’s say that cow is 200 feet from me, I just want to lope to him. They wait on you and they stay relaxed until you want to say go get him because they don’t know when the run is going to end.”
Grant uses the track he’s got set up around the arena to achieve just that. He breaks in his fresh cattle, learning their around-the-arena and down-the-lane pattern, heading to the middle of the arena and looking for the gate once they get tired. Knowing which steers have more try to go more laps around the track, Grant develops each horse’s practice plan based on which steer is in the chute.
“I put one out, and it knows how to go around the track, and it ends up in the middle of the arena, and then I push him around again,” Grant explained. “I just keep following him at a lope. Pretty soon that steer gets tired and starts slowing down. I come back up the lane, and my horse is tired. He’s not chargy and stupid, and that’s when I ask him to run. I just keep chasing him around the track until I catch up. It’s critical that I wait for the opportunity for my cow to slow down to where I know my colt can catch him. If I see that cow slow down, I’m going to run my horse up there and rope him and be done. I want them waiting until I ask, but at the same time I’m teaching them to deal with speed and accept it so it doesn’t scare them.”
NFR header Kolton Schmidt, who has known fellow Canadian Tuftin most of his life, stayed with Grant for a couple months in the winter of 2017, after a frustrating trip to the Finals. He was having trouble with his horse, the then reigning PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year Tuffys Badger Chex, and they both needed a restart.
“He restarted us on everything,” Schmidt said. “We put Badger in a ring snaffle, and Shawn first taught me how to lope in a straight line. You won’t believe how long that took. Now I go back any time I need help.
“I think he’s the best horse trainer in the world. The basics for the horse, and how simple he makes it, and how broke they are means a problem doesn’t ever become a huge problem because it fixes so easily because the horses are so broke.”
Schmidt’s 2016 NFR partner, Colorado-native Shay Carroll, is also a fan of Grant’s and spent a month there this spring. Carroll’s time there resulted in a new gig—he’ll be showing the DT Horses this year at the American Rope Horse Futurity and seasoning DT heel horses on the rodeo road.
“The main thing is the attention to detail at all steps of the process,” Carroll said. “From Dean spending hours figuring out which mares to breed to which studs, which guys come in to work them on the ground, who will ride them as 2-year-olds, and Shawn figuring out how each horse can be successful. Our job is to make great horses for whatever the talent of the horse is.”
What is a broke horse?
“A broke horse is a respectful, confident, gentle horse that anybody can ride. He ought to stay between the reins and follow its head, and when you pick up on them, he needs to come back to you. I rode horses earlier in my career that I thought were broke, but they weren’t. They were more like a trick horse. I feel like if you have a really broke horse, you should be able to do whatever discipline you choose.”
— Shawn Grant
All photography by Kari DeCastro Photography