November 15, 2011

Take The Reins
Todd Bergen is one of the most successful, most versatile professionals in the business.
by Katie Tims

So where does one begin with a guy like Todd Bergen?

You think you know him, but you probably don’t. He makes riding world class look easy, but it definitely isn’t. His is a self-made story of hard work, risk and perseverance, but it’s so much more than that.

Bergen, 42, lives in Eagle Point, Ore., and he’s recognized as one of the industry’s most talented, most versatile horsemen – though he’d be the last one to admit to such. Coming into November, he’d earned $225,650 for the 2011 season, putting his lifetime record at $3.4 million. This month, he’s competing on multiple horses at the American Quarter Horse Association World Show and the National Reining Horse Association Futurity. Last month, he won the National Reined Cow Horse Association Futurity aboard Shiners Dun Juan, and then a few weeks later competed at the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Futurity. The month before that, in September, Bergen made the finals on This Kittys Smart in the Futurity Open division at the El Rancho Cutting, plus he finished second in the Futurity Open on Love Em N Leavem at the High Roller Futurity and Derby reining in Las Vegas. Also this year, Todd won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Stakes Championship on Smart Luck, plus the National Stock Horse Association Classic on Billys Cool Cat. Add in several trips to the finals along with top-six finishes at the National Reining Breeders Classic, NRHA Derby and NSHA Futurity, and voila, you have a show season in the life of Todd Bergen.

A choice made

Bergen grew up in the country, in a suburban sort of way. His dad and mom, Dick and Karla, grew up in Montana. He was raised on a farm and Karla’s dad worked in a sawmill. They married and moved to Oregon to look for work. Dick found a job at a Volkswagen dealership in Salem.

“He started off as a mechanic and ended up being the head manager,” Bergen said. “That’s just kind of how he has done everything. My dad barely graduated high school, but he has always owned his own businesses or ran businesses.”

Dick and Karla owned a string of Dunkin Donuts shops, a patio/awning store, then he finished out his career as the CEO of a large company that manufactured wood processing machines. “That is just kind of how he did things,” Bergen said about his dad. “He’s very much a leader and very much a go-getter.”

Eventually, the Bergen family moved out of town and onto a place near Salem with three or four acres. Immediately, the elementary school- age Todd and his sister, Lisa, knew exactly what was required to make life complete. “Of course, my sister wanted a horse and I wanted a motorcycle,” Todd recalled with a laugh. “I got a motorcycle for Christmas. We built a little barn and bought a horse out of the paper.”

One horse led to two, and then two led to three.

“We would buy them out of the paper or from a guy down the road,” Todd recalled. “We had horrible horses – they were just terrible horses. They would run off with my sister, and she got bucked off a few times and run off with. Pretty soon, she didn’t want to ride anymore.”

Dick wasn’t the kind of man to stand back and let his investment go to waste, so he got on one of the horses and told Todd to come along on one of the others. Pretty soon, Todd figured out that horses were not only an ideal form of transportation along the roads for a young man too young for a driver’s license, but they were also a great entree into the neighborhood social circles. Many of his friends participated in 4-H and competed at local shows and gymkhanas.

At that point, it was all fun and games.

“I was too little to put a saddle on, so I just rode bareback. We just went and rode,” Todd said. “There was a big field down across the road and it had a fire trail all the way around it. We used to just run those horses around the fire trail. We had a little corral – I don’t even know how big it was – and we would ride in there. You always had to ride down the road and then up a gravel road over to your friend’s house or something. We just rode.”

Pretty soon, Todd was showing in 4-H events and open shows. By the time he was 12, Todd was competing strictly on the Quarter Horse circuit. Local trainer Vic Surrat had a thriving program with youth and amateur riders, and that’s where Todd got his start.

“We leased a lot of horses because we just couldn’t afford to buy horses,” Todd said. “We’d keep the horses out there at [Surrat’s] facilities. My parents really couldn’t afford to keep a horse in training, so I would go out after school to work off my board and I would ride my horse and then help them around the barn, which eventually led to riding horses and learning how to train them and doing all that kind of stuff from the time I was 13 on. I never ever had a horse in training with a trainer. I always did all the riding myself.”

Along with horses, Todd also played a lot of baseball. Dual sports were fine – to a point.

“You play baseball all week and you have little league games on Friday nights. My parents would be sitting there with the truck and trailer, waiting for me to get done with my game so we could go off to a horse show. It was just too much, going too many places. I just didn’t have time to do it all.”

Did it take him long to decide between baseball and horses?

“No, not really,” Todd answered. “I just kind of always was trying to learn how a horse thinks and how it does things. It was just something that always intrigued me and I always thought about it.”

Dick remembers one night when his son was 13 or 14. “I walked into his room. It was late, but the light was on. I asked him what he was doing. He had just read in one of the training manuals, I think it was written by Al Dunning, that each horse has its own character. It was a fact that he knew it to be true, in that every horse cannot be trained the same way, cannot be handled the same way. From that point on, I think Todd really started relating to the fact that horses are individuals – that you have to get to know them, you have to know their strengths and weaknesses.”


"I think Todd really started relating to the fact that horses are individuals –
that you have to get to know them, you have to know their strengths and weaknesses."

- Dick Bergen


Todd made the choice, and he never looked back.

Introduction to reining

Todd was a good student in high school but his passion wasn’t particularly for reading, writing and arithmetic. His primary focus was on the course of learning to train a horse.

“As soon as I could get on work release in high school, I had it,” Todd said. “I did what I had to do to graduate. I only took four periods a day from my sophomore year on. Then I was off to the barn riding and working.”

Surrat relocated to another barn and so Todd started riding with Don Avila, Bob Avila’s father. Todd, who was 15 at the time, tasted his first real experience at a comprehensive horse operation – breeding, roping, Western pleasure, cow horse, reining, roping, training, breaking colts. Todd did all the above, plus he showed in English, trail riding and even did a little bit of barrel racing.

Looking back, Todd is grateful for that wide educational berth.

“I think learning how to train horses for all those different events is invaluable. You learn so much about how a horse thinks.

“I can still go back today and think about things that I learned from a different discipline that still help today. I can guarantee you that if you go and ask anybody that has done several different disciplines, as opposed to just one, they will tell you the same thing. Because you just learn so much more about a horse and how they function and how they think, just from doing those different disciplines. I think it makes you a better horseman.”

At Avila’s, Todd was introduced to Tom St. Hilaire, who worked for Bob Avila for a number of years. Todd still characterizes St. Hilaire as a “really, really good hand.” For the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Todd moved to where St. Hilaire was leasing stalls at a facility in Yamhill, Ore., and rode there full time. St. Hilaire officially introduced his young charge to the sport of reining. That summer, in 1986, Todd qualified for the AQHA Youth World Finals, showing Docs Decision in reining, cow horse, Western pleasure, Western riding and horsemanship.

Take the Reins

Dick Bergen, to this day, recalls the seriousness with which his son approached horses. All Todd thought about was training and winning. All Dick thought about was how his son would be best equipped for a future on his own. When Todd returned from St. Hilaire’s, Dick insisted his son get a different after-school job. Imagine Todd Bergen bagging groceries ...

“I hated it!” Todd admitted. “It was easy compared to what I’d been doing – in that job you had hours, you got a lunch break and then you were off at a certain time. They wanted you to leave, even if your work wasn’t done. I didn’t like that. In the horse business, you work until your work is done. That might mean 12 hours a day, that might mean eight hours a day – it depends on the day.

“Looking back, it was a very good experience for me and I am glad my dad made me do it.”

Todd finished high school with one year of Youth eligibility left. So, the day after graduation, Todd moved out of his parents’ house and went straight to work for St. Hilaire. He learned, trained horses, gained experience and then went to the AQHyA World Finals the following summer. At that point, Dick implored his son to try college – just for a year. He wanted Todd to look at all the options, to explore other avenues outside of the horse industry.

Todd’s best friend was attending Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Ore., so that seemed like a perfect school to try. Todd packed up his truck and headed to school. The college was about three hours away from home, but only minutes away from Mount Bachelor – Oregon’s biggest ski resorts. Naturally, Todd partook of the area’s natural resources.

“I got a job at the ski resort basically so I could get a free season pass,” Todd recalled. “I scheduled my classes before noon so I could ski on the weekdays. I worked Saturdays and Sundays at the mountain running chair lifts, and basically skied a lot and went to school basically very little.”

The young man who’d always been so serious and down-to-business was finally realizing a different side of life. “Basically, it was my year to screw around, grow up, be on my own and do whatever I wanted to do. My grades were less than stellar and not real good. My dad was pretty disappointed about that. But I became a very good snow skier, I can tell you that!”

Todd fell in love with the mountains, so much that he briefly considered trading horse training for a job in the skiing industry. He got to know the instructors and directors at Bachelor, and saw how they worked and lived. The ski season was fun, busy and profitable – the off-season, not so much so. It didn’t take long for the newness to wear off.

“I didn’t even put a pair of boots on or throw a leg over a horse from August until March,” Todd recalled. “I realized that I was missing training horses very badly and really wanted to get back into doing it.”

Todd called St. Hilaire, but he didn’t need help. But Mike Edwards, who used to work for Bob Avila, had just gone out on his own in Washington state and he needed an assistant.

“My parents were in Canada on a fishing trip and there were no cell phones back then,” Todd recalled. “So I just made the decision not to sign-up for my spring term. I packed all my stuff up and moved to Washington and went to work.”

Eventually, Dick and Karla got back to town. What the heck was going on?

“That was a pretty tough phone call to make,” Todd said about how he broke the news to his parents.

“At first, I thought, this [training horses] is just a tough life,” Dick recalled about his reaction. “We’d been around enough trainers to know that it was not easy. But we also knew that if that’s what Todd decided to do, he could do it."

“I told him, ‘Go for it! We’ll help you in every way we can. We’re behind you 100 percent.’ He just took the reins and went.”

Learning to win

When it came to world class training and showing of Quarter Horses in Oregon, no barn or individual could hold a candle to Bob Avila, who was living in Yamhill at the time. From regional shows to the World Show, Avila’s horses and clients were on the big main stage.

At Edwards’ place in Washington, Bergen was training and showing horses in all-around events. But his passion tended strongest toward reining and cow horse. Avila was heading his program in the same direction, and so when Todd was presented with the opportunity to work for Avila, he accepted. This was his chance to learn from the best. Plus, over the years Todd had observed several young trainers who came out of Avila’s program as seasoned professionals who could train a horse to win.

Avila definitely had the reputation of being a serious businessman and a true perfectionist. Did the thought of meeting those demands intimidate Bergen at the time?

“Well, my dad is the exact same way, so it was nothing new to me,” he answered. “It bothers a lot of other guys because they just have never had to worry about any of that stuff. I was always around it. I was always someone that if we are going to leave at 6 o’clock in the morning, you better be ready at quarter-to-6. That’s just how it was.”

It was 1991 and the Quarter Horse industry was just starting to evolve into a more specialized endeavor. Todd was starting to come into his own during that period, one when Avila’s program honed down from the all-around events to a version that concentrated on reining and reined cow horses.

Within a year of arriving at Avila’s, Todd was enjoying the opportunity to show clients’ good horses at major shows in the Northwest. Those events were fine and dandy, but it was a show further east that counted most in Todd’s mind.

“You know, the [AQHA] World Show was always my big thing growing up,” Todd said. “Winning an AQHA World Championship, that was always my dream.”

In 1993, he got his first chance. Riding RC Command (Fritz Command x Troubles Tryst x Eternal Trouble), Todd finished ninth in the Reining at the AQHA World Show. Also that year, he showed two horses to the money at the National Reining Horse Association Futurity. Todd finished ninth in the Open on Platinum Major (Major Bonanza x Jack’s Favorite x Parma’s Dan). And on Hollywood Boulevard (Doc O’Lena x Holly B Gold x Hollywood Bill), he placed 13th in the Open and sixth in the Limited Open.

There’s a time in every working person’s life when the proverbial seas part, when all the hard work, risk, dedication and perseverance finally deliver. For Todd, the fall of 1994 was that time. At the AQHA World Show, he showed Tuckerette Command to the Senior Reining Championship at the AQHA World Show.

“It had been my dream since I was 13 and first knew anything about Quarter Horses,” Todd said about that first AQHA World Championship. “Then to finally win it, yeah it was the highlight of my life at that point.”

It was only the first of many, many more successes to come. A month later, Todd rode Good Draw (Doc O’Lena x Candis Chex Too x Bueno Chex Too) to the Limited Open win at the NRHA Futurity. Bergen had learned how to train a horse, and he’d learned how to win.

“Winning – that was one thing that I really learned at Bob’s,” Todd said. “He definitely taught you how to train horses. He taught you how to run a business and take care of things at home. But when you rode a horse for Bob, he expected you to win.

“If you didn’t, he wasn’t mad at you, he wasn’t upset. But he would say, ‘OK, this is what you need to do to win that class.’ Second was not good enough, that was just Bob’s philosophy, his way of thinking, and his way of doing things. And that is why he became so successful. Bob taught me how to be a winner – how to push those horses and push yourself to the point that you expect to be a winner.”

Business of winning

Print out Todd Bergen’s Equi-Stat report and there are 108 pages. A chart in this article lists his major event Championships and Reserves, but those only skim the surface of his phenomenal success that includes dozens of top-five finishes at big shows, wins at regional events and all of the other accolades that go into building a $3.4 million earnings record.

In 1995, Todd rode Todaysmyluckyday to win the NRHA Futurity, plus on Lean With Me he won the NRHA Derby and Senior Reining Championship at the AQHA World Show. Dick and Karla were on hand to see their son win his first NRHA Futurity.

“It was probably one of the most exciting nights we’ve spent,” Dick recalled. “Not only the drama of winning the Futurity, but also being able to see him win, knowing the hard work that he’d put in. Not only were we excited, but we were also extremely proud.”

Dick understood, the way only a parent can, the sacrifices and dedication.

“Even when he was young, if Todd had a horse that he knew had the ability to do something he would stick with it. There were times I remember going out, it would be dark and you could hardly see, and he’d be out there trying to accomplish something on a horse. I’d say, ‘Todd, maybe you should let it go.’ He’d say, ‘No, not until he gets it right.’ The horse would get it right and Todd would put it away and come back in the house.”

With one NRHA Futurity win, two AQHA World Championships and an NRHA Derby title to his credit, it was time for the 27-year-old assistant trainer to go out on his own.

John Slack, a talented young trainer with whom Todd had worked at Avila’s, was in Arizona training horses at Brett Stone’s place. He offered Todd a job. The opportunity was ideal in that the horses, the client, the equipment and overhead were all handled; all Todd had to do was show up and ride.

So, that’s what he did – but he wasn’t alone.

While at Avila’s, Todd was often sent to the farm co-op store to get feed. It just so happened there was this pretty, dark-haired college girl who worked there as a cashier during her summer breaks.

“You know, you are this 20-year-old guy and every cute girl you see, you’ve got to meet them,” Todd said with a laugh. “So whenever we would buy stuff, we would always have her check us out. I had talked to her a few times while paying for supplies.”

Missy Sheldon was majoring in psychology, and she wasn’t about to be swayed by the charms of a horse trainer in the making.

“I thought he was really cute!” Missy admitted about her reaction the first time she saw Todd. “Some friends of mine wanted to set us up together. But I thought, ‘Oh it’s a show boy. He’ll be boring.’ ”

While Missy’s sister showed horses, Missy was the barrel racer in the family. She preferred the excitement of a stopwatch over the more sedate endeavor of putting a horse through the maneuvers. All that changed, however, when Missy, her sister and a group of friends went out after a horse show. Todd recognized her as the “cute girl from the co-op,” and it went from there. The two dated for a few years and they married in 1994.

So, with his new wife, Todd set out the next year for his new job in Arizona. It must have been a little daunting to quit a job, move three states away and start afresh.

“Yeah, yeah, but when you are young and naïve, you just go for things,” Todd said. “At that point in your career, when you are a horse trainer, there are just basically two things that you think about: winning and making money. You are just so focused on winning because you know that winning is going to hopefully bring you more opportunities.

“I think you can ask anybody who gets into the horse business: ‘What gets you into it?’ It’s obviously not the money and the glamour because there is not a lot of that until later on when you start becoming successful.”

Todd viewed the move to Arizona as a steppingstone, which was a good thing considering that within a short time he and Slack found themselves without a job. So they went out on their own and trained horses together for a couple of years, to much success.

Fondly, Todd recalls his time with the late John Slack. “John and I were really successful. We won two Reining [NRHA] Futurities and [AQHA] World Shows and [NRHA] Derbies during our time together. We trained some Non-Pro Futurity Champions. Just in those three years, we produced a lot of really good horses and did really well.”

In 1999, the Bergens decided to return home. They loved the Northwest, they missed their families, they were ready to start their own business. The couple purchased a place in Eagle Point, not far from Medford, and embarked on the process of building Todd Bergen Performance Horses into the successful business it is today. The Bergens each play an important role in their business. Todd concentrates on the horses and the clients, while Missy handles all the finances and paperwork.

Todd and Missy now have two children: son Gavin, who will be 8 in December; and daughter Halle, 5. Todd explained that having kids changed his outlook about showing horses. “I would say nowadays I am still very driven to win and do good, but it doesn’t crush me like it used to if I don’t do good. I know there’s another horse show; I know there is another horse.

“When you walk around that corner and your kids are there and they’re more worried about what game they are going to play that night – they could really care less if you did good or bad. You are still their dad. That really changes your outlook.”

Today, Todd Bergen Performance Horses is the launching pad for Champions – in reined cow horse, reining and even cutting. Todd admits that he loves to work cattle, and that one day he’d like to show a horse at the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity in Fort Worth. Todd is one of the most versatile trainers in the business and is one of very few who have won major Futurities in dual disciplines. Many times, he has ridden the same horse to big finishes at the NRCHA Futurity in October and NRHA Futurity in November. In 1998, he rode Chic Please to Reserve at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity and first at the NRHA Futurity.

Todd Bergen Performance Horses is the launching pad for Champions.

Although he’s had tremendous success with reiners ($1.8 million in earnings), Todd confesses to having the strongest passion for the reined cow horses and cutters. He won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity the first time in 2001 on Boonlight Dancer. That win catapulted Todd’s career in a new direction and whetted his appetite even more. Ten years later, he came back and won the 2011 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity again on Shiners Dun Juan.

“Winning in ’01 just really pushed me and it made me want to do the cow horse more,” Todd said. “It definitely gave me the bug to keep doing it and learning more about it.

Todd currently has $1.6 million in reined cow horse earnings. But that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s got the game down pat.

“To this day, I still feel like I have a lot of weaknesses in the cow horse. I know a lot of guys that would laugh at that. Just to me, my personal feeling is that I feel like there is a ton of stuff that I need to learn and I need to do better. I love doing the cow horse, it’s a lot of work and it’s just the hardest thing you will ever do.” ★