Getting Candid with Chris Dawson

2013 was the year that put Chris Dawson on the map. He won four major NRCHA shows the dynamic stud Travelin Jonez. Three short years later, Dawson is the number two ranked open rider in the country. His success in the cow horse business has been 16 years in the making, but his connection to horses started long before that.

Getting His Start

Dawson grew up in the Whitesboro, Texas area, famous for being a horse training hotspot. Throughout is childhood, Dawson showed at AQHA sanctioned shows.

“We did the all around stuff,” he explains. “My mom, she’s still training appaloosas for the all around. We did all of the events on everything we had and roped too.”

Though he was born into a family of horse trainers, Dawson didn’t discover the cow horse sport until he watched his first competition in 1999.

Dawson recalls, “I was at the World’s Greatest Horseman in 1999, the first year they had it there at the Lazy E. I went up there to watch and was like man, this is home. This is where I belong right here.”

Dawson was hooked. 

“Once I graduated high school, I went to work for Todd Crawford,” he recalls.  “That was the first of 2000. I had showed in the cow horse maybe four or five times before that.”

Dawson worked for the legendary cow horse trainer for four years before moving to the famed quarter horse breeder, Carol Rose. Along the way, he met some influential trainers in the industry that helped shape his career.

Dawson says, “When I was at Carol’s I got to be around some really cool guys—Jim Paul, Don Murphy, Ron Ralls. It’s one of those deals, when you start making lists about who you’ve been around and who you want to thank, man we could sit here all day, just go through.” Crawford goes on to talk about a decorated trainer, “Harold Farren, I was around him a lot when I worked for Crawford in Santa Ynez. Shoot I think he was 78 years old when I met him and he taught me so dag gum much about them horses.”

Still, Dawson dubs Crawford as the biggest influence to his career.

Dawson says, “Kids ask me how to go about progressing from an assistant trainer. I was told, too, to go work for a lot of different people, but what worked best for me is I went and worked at Todd’s place for a long time and learned what he did.”

When asked why he decided to pursue horse training, Dawson jokes, “I’m a third generation. I didn’t have an option. I wasn’t good at anything else.” On a more serious note he says, “I just kind of grew up on the back of them, so it was pretty natural.”

Though training came natural to him, there were not romantic delusions about being a cowboy.

Dawson explains, “My parents didn’t want me to (become a trainer) because they had and they knew how hard it was, but there was not much delusion for me. I grew up eating popcorn for dinner. Right now, my wife and I are living in a little metal building that we bought, slid off a truck, and put on this place that we’re leasing. We don’t even have a stove or a microwave in our house right now.”

But, there is not much better than being a cowboy.

“My generation,” Dawson says, “we always had a good time. We worked hard, played hard, and we all wanted to be cowboys-- living, loving, drinking, fighting, John Wayne cowboy stuff!” 

In the Show Pen

With a solid foundation from his years at Todd Crawford’s and Carol Rose’s, Dawson set the cow horse world on fire with a dynamic stud named Travelin Jonez. In 2013, he won all four NRCHA premier limited aged events. Currently, Dawson is the #2 open rider in the NRCHA.

With so many big wins under his belt, it’s surprising that one of the most meaningful for Dawson did not happen in 2013. With much thought, Dawson says it’s a tie between his derby wins in Paso Robles in 2013 and 2015. 

“Travelin Jonez kind of put me on the map,” Dawson explains. “At the same time it was kind of like, okay, he can do well on that one, but you could have strapped a monkey to his back. Being able to come back in 2015 and do that again on one of Carol’s horses just shows that it wasn’t a fluke, there’s some consistency there.” 

The 2013 win at the Derby in Paso Robles, California did tie Dawson’s 2015 win as most memorable. But, 2013 came with more growth for him as a trainer.

Dawson says, “2013 was such a big year for me because since 2000 all I wanted to do was win. I wanted to win. What do I have to do to win? Well, without getting too over the top, it was like God said, ‘Well if you want to win so bad, here, win. How do you like it?’ It was highly overrated. At the end of that year, I was like, you know what, I need to get my act together and, if nothing else I need to be a better person.”

With a little over two months to go before the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, Dawson runs through his show line up and how he plans to prepare for the biggest event of the year.

“I’ve got five, Sarah’s got three, and they’re all really good horses,” Dawson says. “We’re very excited about them all. We’ve got the first crop of Travelin Jonez’s going out there; we’re excited about that. I’d like to do just a little polishing on them over the summer and not have to be cramming on them. I’d like to know what I have right now and then smooth off all of the rough edges.” 

At the Training Barn

Chris and his wife Sarah recently gave Dawson Performance Horses a new home. They are currently training out of the 460 Ranch in Aubrey, Texas. Dawson applies a lot of the principles he learned as an assistant to his current training program. 

He says, “Probably the best thing that I learned from Crawford is he is constantly adapting and trying to stay current. I went to work for him in 2000, and the difference in the cow horses 16 years ago and now is night and day.” 

For Dawson, it is all about fine-tuning each event to improve overall performance.

“We show a little bit of cutting, trying to broaden that part of the business a little,” he explains. “The biggest part is just to stay current. I want to be the most comfortable walking out of that herd at these shows.”

Dawson also has a training mentality that he applies to all of his horses. 

He says, “I keep it very simple. Horses are smart, but you can only communicate with them in so many ways. You have to make sure that whatever you’re doing make sense to them. I try to make sure that my horses can always find the release. The big thing we say at clinics is steer, stop, and rate. Really, that’s the only three things they have to do. If they steer, stop, and they rate a cow, the rest of your life is pretty simple.”

Moving outside of the arena and outside of the discipline is another training belief Dawson employs.

“I try to take them out as much as I can,” Dawson says. “That’s probably the thing I miss the most about Oklahoma, we spent a ton of time pasture riding. We’d go brand, gather, just anything that’s job related.”

Looking ahead, there are a few goals left that Dawson is set on achieving.

He says, “Everybody has their dreams to win the Snaffle Bit. I was second there and that was pretty darn cool. It’d be great to win it, but I’m pretty sure life will go on if I don’t. I’d like to train some more bridle horses. I’d really like to have a horse that I can do well on as a three year old, a derby horse, and then go on World’s Greatest.”

Dawson has been part of the Kimes Ranch Family for a year. His favorite jeans are the Chucks.

“The Chucks are made out of a little lighter material and they’re awesome especially in the summertime.”

Overall, Dawson says the jeans, “They’re real durable. Shoot, you wear them every day and they hold up; a lot better than any other jeans I’ve had.”

Lainey Smith