“It might not be surprising if, at first, observers assume that the new Whistlejacket Farm, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is the new home to top trainer Wendy Griffith Potts. But that’s way too limited in scope for what the venture is set to become.”
The Front Line: Wendy Griffith Potts
Wendy Potts, who grew up in Southern California and began riding when she was 6, is solid gold in credibility as a professional trainer. She earned her first national championships at age 13 in hunt seat equitation, and in 1986, barely out of her teens, won the U.S. national reserve championship in hunter pleasure.
Since then, she has accounted for more than 150 national championships and reserves, and her riders have collected nearly 500. One of the most successful trainers in the hunter, show hack and side saddle disciplines, as well as a practitioner in western and country pleasure, she has been honored with 11 APAHA Trainer of the Year awards, and in 2012 became only the second Arabian professional to be awarded the prestigious USEF Equestrian of Honor Vaughn Smith Trophy. Not surprisingly, she has attracted a loyal roster of clients, many of whom have been with her more than 20 years and followed her from barn to barn, California to Texas.
With her also have been the horses that have made her famous—incredible names like NDL Pericles, whose 30 national championships made him for years the most decorated purebred in history; the Half-Arabian Berried Treasure (24 national championships); and Smokestak Lightin, a Half-Arabian Potts found languishing in a pipe
corral and schooled to 10 national championships. There are many others, of course, a steady stream through the years. Her horses not only showed well, they also appeared often in a variety of classes, clearly loving their work.
The key to her success? Wendy’s description of WD Noble Ladd, a six time national champion, tells as much about her as it does about him: “He’s not only beautiful,” she smiles, “he’s a kind soul. He’ll be like Peri when he’s older, the kind that you just want to follow you around, he’s so sweet.”
That’s quintessential Wendy Griffith Potts. Better than anything, she likes working hands-on with horses, understanding their feelings, refining their skills, and unlocking their personalities. The reward, she says, is a horse as intuitive and responsive as a dog who spends all day with its owner.
And then there is training the humans, as challenging as developing the horses. “I want people to ride well,” she says, “I love what I do. It doesn’t matter whether I’m giving lessons to beginners or super-great riders; as long as people want to learn, I like teaching them. I don’t care what division you’re in. You acquire expertise by doing it.”
It’s not the money or the win that drives her, she notes—but if so, there is karma in the universe: the work she puts in on horse and human relationships yields an enviable record of titles. “As far as the horses are concerned, I’ve achieved my dreams beyond my wildest imagination,” she reflects now, “and I have the best clients I’ve ever had.”
Her biggest challenge has been her schedule, and that’s one reason that Whistlejacket will be her new home. Trying to combine her passion for training with running her own business and raising her family didn’t fit into 24 hours. “I couldn’t focus on my job, because I had to focus on the business,” she says candidly, and adds with a chuckle, “I love the training, love the horses. If I won the lottery, I’d train horses for free for everyone I love.”
Whistlejacket ticks the boxes of what she needs. On her resume are big farms as well as entrepreneurial efforts, but her most productive situation, she says, was at Ventura Farms, because its corporate-style team allowed her to focus on the horses. A graduate of the University of Southern California in business, she is capable of management; she just knows where her most valuable talents lie.
Enter Ralph Manning, who with his wife Krista and their two daughters, Millison and Mary Kate, have been clients for five years. “There is something to be said for organization and administration,” Ralph offers dryly. In real life, he is the Co-Founder and CEO of Coltala Holdings, a holding company with a broad portfolio of successful businesses. “We can provide that.”
Making It Happen: Ralph Manning and Manning Arabians
An important factor in the success of Whistlejacket Farm is that Ralph Manning’s experience in Arabians goes as far back as Wendy Potts’. Manning Arabians dates to the 1960s, when, records indicate, Ralph’s father, L.M. Manning Jr., and mother, Susan, purchased a 2-year-old chestnut colt named Chum-Igo. Within a few years, the elder Mannings’ equine headcount was climbing past 30, they owned a state of the art facility, and had a resident trainer, Jim Long. Ralph and his sister, Laura, learned horsemanship from their father.
The Manning family’s preferred bloodlines evolved over time, but their standards remained high. One of L.M.’s early favorites was the stallion Nasba, a McCormick-bred *Naborr son acquired through Tom Chauncey. “He was an extraordinary horse,” Ralph recalls, “but he died of colic at the age of 8 or 9. It devastated my dad; it was one of those horses you hope you own during your lifetime. You can’t really replace them.”
Jim Long departed in the mid-1970s, but the Manning family went forward, doing their own work, which added to Ralph and Laura’s skill with horses. By the 1980s, they realized that while they were very successful regionally, they would need professional help to win at the Nationals. That enhanced their association with several well-known
names, among them Blake Krohn, Stanley White Sr., Stanley White Jr., Ray LaCroix, Joel Kiesner, Gordon Potts, Spike Barter, Kat Stephens and Kim Morgan.
Eventually, Ralph went to work with Ray LaCroix (and Joel Kiesner, who was a LaCroix assistant at the time) and even considered becoming a trainer himself. In the end, though, he realized that his real goal was business. Armed with a B.A. from TCU, he added credentials from SMU and began “clawing his way up” in his new field. Later, he would earn an OPM from Harvard Business School.
Still, he maintained a presence in Arabians. In 1997, he and his father traveled to Poland on a buying trip that yielded the Europejczyk son *Ordynek and the filly *Eksedra. Both would be awarded U.S. national top tens, *Ordynek in English Pleasure AAOTR with Ralph, and *Eksedra in Mares with Kim Morgan in open and Ralph in amateur. Then, about five years ago, when his daughters became old enough to ride, Morgan recommended that he and Krista take them to Wendy Potts.
He’s forgotten when it dawned on him that now might be the right time for his dream. “The long and short of it is that I’ve always wanted to do what we’re doing now with Wendy,” he says. “But I never had the right opportunity, the right partner, to do it with.”
So, the stars had aligned. And Wendy’s clients? Most are coming with her. “We’re calling them all ‘founding members’ of Whistlejacket,” Ralph says. “We look forward to making many great memories together over the coming years.”
The immediate plan is for Whistlejacket Farm to continue the experience Wendy and her clients now enjoy as a top-class training and show barn. Both Ralph and Wendy, however, have their eyes on a bigger prize.
“What we’re thinking about is building something resembling an equestrian club,” Ralph says. Their research revealed that the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, a largely affluent area of nine million residents, offers few facilities equipped to introduce the public to personal horsemanship. “You’ve got to make it fun for people. You have to give them the opportunity to spend time with horses, to build the bonds that I did when I was young, and you can’t build a bond in three hours on a weekend. It has to be more.”
In targeting newcomers, they want to expand the paradigm. Usually, people must commit to lessons, then lease or buy a horse. “In the spirit of the club concept, people will buy a membership that entitles them to x-number of lessons a month and unlimited access to the facility,” Ralph says. “I think a lot of people would do that.” With time and exposure, Arabians often work their own magic.
“The facility itself has to be a draw,” he adds, “first class in every way, with a club-like feel—a place that people want to come to spend time. We are building just such a place on a beautiful farm that has been in our family for three generations.”
And there is more. “We want to create a program where, whether you have never ridden a horse or you’re an advanced rider who’s won many championships, you can walk in the barn. We’re still working on how we’ll articulate that, but we want to do everything we do traditionally speaking, as well as create a broader net that will involve more people in the breed at a younger age. The challenge is to get those youngsters involved.”
The goal is to emulate a phenomenon of Wendy’s career: some of her clients have been with her for decades. “They were very young when they began,” Ralph says, “and have grown older in the breed.”
That’s the part that will be good for Whistlejacket and the Arabian breed, but there is yet another aspect of their mission, based on the impact that childhood involvement with horses had on his life. “My mom and dad felt like horses would teach us a strong work ethic, and it worked,” he says. “There’s a lot of satisfaction when you’re young, working hard, and accomplishing something, especially with the competition. I got hooked on that.
“Wendy says it very well,” he continues. “‘You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t build the capabilities as a horseman or horsewoman, you’re not going to get there. If you don’t have the desire to win, you’re not going to do well.’ Working for and with Ray LaCroix really taught me how to work—how all the preparation, all the details, add up to a great performance. I’ve been able to apply that to my business. So, for these young people coming in, it has the potential to inform their life and their life path.
“We’re not doing this on a whim,” he cautions. “The Manning family thinks in decades, not years. I once read a quote by Bill Gates that I have found to be true in my own experience ‘People often overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.’”
At Whistlejacket Farm, for now, it is simply full steam ahead. Ralph Manning is realizing his dream and Wendy Griffith Potts is looking forward to focusing on what she was born to do: build fulfilling relationships between Arabians and their people (and incidentally, fill trophy cabinets).
“Wendy is not just a great teacher and trainer; there is an even greater dimension to her talent and capability,” Ralph observes. “I feel that if we can channel that, her best is still in front of her—and that’s a tremendous thing to say.”