Up the Ranks
Climbing the ranks since her youth and rookie days, Abby Lengel’s open mindset and genuine appreciation for opportunities are a model for other aspiring trainers.
If there ever was a case study for successful transition from non pro to elite open rider, NRHA Professional Abby Lengel would be it. Originally starting her reining career in youth 14-18 and rookie competition in 2007, the Colorado native successfully showed her way up through the various non pro levels before going to work for one of the best in the reining industry, two-time NRHA Open Futurity Champion and NRHA Million Dollar Rider, Casey Deary. Climbing the ranks since then, her open mindset and genuine appreciation for opportunities thrown her way are a model for other aspiring trainers.
After getting her first horse when she was nine years old, Lengel grew up riding in 4-H programs and competing in gymkhana events. However, a chance lesson on a reining horse with Colorado NRHA Professional Drake Johnson, kindled what would become a lifelong passion.
“I was completely hooked after riding that reining horse,” she recalled. “As I got more into reining, I did most of my own training, but I hauled over to Johnson’s once or twice a week and he helped me all along the way and taught me everything until I began working for Deary.”
First starting out in the NRHA Apprentice Program, Lengel began working for Deary in January 2014. “I was pretty sure I wanted to be a professional trainer, but when I heard about the apprentice program, I thought it was a great option because I could try it for a year and go back to being a non pro afterwards if I decided it wasn’t for me. It was a win-win situation,” she said.
Her initial plan wasn’t necessarily to work for Casey the entire year, but things fell into place quickly. “I really liked the program and felt like I fit in,” she recalled. In fact, after being at Deary’s for just a few weeks, she had a very special prospect added into her string, a 2-year-old filly sired by NRHA Million Dollar Sire Walla Walla Whiz and out of NRHA’s All Time Leading money earner and Hall of Fame inductee, Wimpys Little Chic. That filly, named Shesouttayourleague, has since carried Deary to the 2015 NRHA Open Level (L) 4 Futurity Championship and the 2017 NRHA Open (L) 4 Derby Championship, in addition to several other major championships and over $245,000 in earnings.
“When I got that mare in my string it was a lot of pressure, but so much fun. And it gave me a lot of confidence because I figured Casey must believe in my ability because she was special from the very beginning,” Lengel said. “I got to ride her during her entire 2-year-old year, and I think I was as emotional as Casey when they won the Futurity that night.”
To back up a step, Lengel’s road to becoming a professional trainer was well thought out and hard-earned long before she ever landed a job with Deary. After finishing up her last semester at college—earning a degree in Equine Industry and Business at West Texas A&M—Lengel made a video of horses she had trained and shown, put together a resume, and sent it to Deary. As luck would have it, Lengel was going to be showing at the 2013 High Roller Reining Classic, which gave the Dearys a chance to watch her in action. Lengel won the Non Pro Futurity L3 and 4, marking a 218.5 on a mare she had trained herself— Tackie Dreams—while showing in a hackamore.
“Casey told me afterwards that he figured I must have some feel if I was able to win the futurity in a hackamore,” she laughed. Needless to say, an enviable assistant trainer position at Deary Performance Horses was hers, and she began on January 6, 2014.
“Casey and Nicole had everything set up for me and the plan was for me to work for them on an initial trial period and see if it was a good fit. I just had to basically bring clothes,” Lengel recalls. It didn’t take long, however, for all sides to agree it was a good fit. “Casey’s style of training really meshed with what Drake Johnson had taught me; it’s about being soft handed and using a lot of leg more than hands to apply pressure. Casey trains off the release of pressure, and that was what I was used to. So, it really was a good fit because there were so many similarities to what I had grown up with and what I appreciated.”
Not All Roses and Ribbons
Regardless of the profession, an attribute valued by any employer is an employee’s receptiveness to criticism and coaching. With her background as a non pro, Lengel was well suited for that challenge.
“Honestly, I really appreciate it when Casey gives me instructions. My goal was to come here and learn as much as possible. If he never told me to do things differently, I probably would have gone to another place to work,” she said. “There were definitely things that I needed to change to fit into his program, and I really struggled some days, even though I love it so much.” Day to day challenges, Lengel explained, were especially prominent when she was at ground zero in terms of learning Deary’s program and understanding what it meant to be a professional trainer.
“It was hard sometimes trying new things that I was learning from Casey, but I didn’t really have a hang of them yet. It’s a struggle on some of these horses, and I wasn’t always sure when I was doing the right thing, and when I wasn’t,” she noted. “Sometimes things just don’t work, and that can really hurt your confidence when you feel like your horse isn’t riding like it should.”
When Lengel felt like she was particularly deep in the weeds, she would ask Deary to step on the horse she was training and provide input on what she needed to do different, or better. Though she often felt better after his input, that didn’t always equate to smooth sailing.
“Whenever Casey or another trainer gets on my horse and tells me what they think and makes suggestions, it’s so helpful. Sometimes a new perspective is all it takes to get back on the right track,” she said. “There are times—especially when you’re learning a new program— that it’s just a lot to take in, and it’s only through time and experience that we as trainers overcome that. But I think there’s always going to be those days that don’t go well, no matter how many hundreds of horses we train because they’re all individuals.”
Showing as a Pro
Though Lengel was more than adept showing as a non pro, she initially found the pressure of showing a client’s horse—risking considerable amounts of entry fees during a very short four minutes in the show pen—to be mentally challenging. Compounding matters, her non pro earnings bumped her out of the L1 Open division.
“I had to go right into the L2 Open, which is hard because at that level you have to have a pretty good horse. Casey was great about making sure I had something to show and keeping me in the show pen,” she explained. “Those horses weren’t necessarily what I could compete at a higher level on, but it got me in the show pen and gave me more experience as an open rider. That’s just how it was the first couple years, and it really prepared me for when I did get a horse to show that could mark a big score. I was even more confident in my abilities at that point and had enough experience to not let my nerves overtake me. That let me take full advantage of the opportunity when it came along.”
That opportunity came knocking in the form of a catch ride on a mare named Who Dat Hot Chic (Wimpys Little Step x Smart Chic Aloha) owned by Neiberger Performance Horses LLC. Casey had shown her at the Tulsa Reining Classic, and en route to the High Roller Reining Classic he informed Lengel that it was her turn at the reins.
“I said, ‘but I’ve never ridden her before,’” she laughed. “So, I only rode her a few times before I showed her, and she was such a nice horse. She was the first one I got to show that really had the ability to mark a big score.”
When it was all said and done, Lengel piloted the mare to a 221, placing third in the L2 Open Derby and ninth in the L3 Open Derby at one of the industry’s toughest shows.
The Big League
Fast forward a year, and Lengel has jettisoned to yet another level of success, especially on Jody Puno’s horse, ARC Gunna Mark Ya (Gunnatrashya x Shiney Miss Marker). Initially shown by Deary to the HRRC Open Stakes championship, ARC Gunna Mark Ya was then shown successfully by another of Deary’s assistants, Trent Harvey. The now 5-year-old mare has especially excelled in 2017 with Lengel at the helm, winning the NRBC Open L2 Derby Championship, the NRBC Open L2 and L1, and the High Roller Reining Classic Lucas Oil L2 Open Derby Championship.
“She’s an amazingly talented mare,” said Lengel, who had trained the mare part of her two-year-old year. “When I got a chance to show her I did lots of schooling and just focused on getting her to trust me and wait for me to tell her what to do. I spent a lot of time riding her out in the pasture, just trying to get her mind off her job and keeping her happy. It has definitely paid off. I feel very, very blessed to have gotten the opportunity to show her; she’s just such a cool mare. I thank God that I have so many people behind me and supporting me along my journey.”
No Task Too Low
As we all know, when it comes to general horse care, there’s a long to-do list before you ever swing a leg over the saddle. This is especially true when it comes to a professional training business; from cleaning stalls, doctoring horses, and maintaining tack and facilities, to brushing, saddling and washing each horse. And it’s not uncommon for apprentices and newly-minted assistant trainers to be responsible for a good portion of the grunt work.
“When I first started working for Casey, my list of horses to ride was only about six, so I would help him the first few hours each morning, saddling his horses before I started riding the horses on my list,” Lengel said, explaining that a few weeks after starting the job, Deary increased the number of horses for her to ride, and the related tasks. “We saddle our own horses, and then after we ride we bathe them and put them on the Theraplate every day. We help grain in the morning and help do chores. Sometimes we’ll clean stalls, and we do all the medications … we’re not just riding.”
After working for Deary for several years, Lengel now has around 11 horses in her string to ride and care for. The future plan, she said, was for another assistant to be hired for saddling so she and the other assistants currently working for Deary can ride a couple more each day.
“We generally ride each horse five days a week and if there are horses that are behind, or need a little more time, we ride them on Saturday as well,” Lengel explained. “And, we have quite a few non pros that ride with us, so Saturdays are usually packed full of lessons. The non pros are spread around between the assistant trainers, depending on which of us fits best for each. Right now, I have four non pros that I’m coaching.”
Initially unsure about coaching, Lengel has come to really enjoy that aspect of her job. “I’m kind of a quiet person and keep to myself, so I wasn’t sure how good I was going to be at lessons, but I really enjoy it,” she said. “Also, I think having been a non pro and coached a lot myself makes me a better coach.”
Expectations and Gratitude
Between her appreciation for any opportunity and her willingness to work hard—not to mention her skills training and showing—Lengel continues to evolve on an upward professional trajectory.
“I think the most important aspect of being an assistant is to be open-minded when you go work for somebody. Don’t be set in your ways,” she said. “I think it is easy to have a mindset of coming into a trainer’s program and saying, ‘Okay, what can you do for me?’ when what they really need to focus on is ‘what can I do to make this operation better?’ Trainers will be more apt to help you and give you opportunities if you have a helpful mindset.”
Noting that she doesn’t consider any task beneath her, Lengel strives to implement that helpful mindset daily. “There’s a lot more that goes into being an assistant trainer than just riding horses. I think it’s important to recognize that and do what needs to be done for the operation if you want to succeed in this business,” she said. “I think it’s that constant struggle to become better that keeps me going. I’m excited to get up every day and go out there and do my job, and that’s why I keep doing it. I love this sport, I love the challenge and I just genuinely love horses; if there weren’t horses, I don’t know what I would do.”