Darren Miller and Lil Remedy Pep win $28,000 in the Open and Intermediate Open Finals
Darren Miller and Bet Hesa Cool Cat owned by Tom Monckton
Rhoda Rein & Dig My Peppy Steps, 3rd
AQHA Performance Horse Journal (Jan 2017) tells our story
Story by Sara Gugelmeyer
Photos by Betsy Lynch
Whether you believe in fate or not, there’s no denying that a series of unforeseen events has influenced Darren Miller, Rhoda Rein and the couple's horse breeding and training operation near Watkins, Colorado.
It's funny the way things work. Darren got into the horse business after losing a bet in college. He and Rhoda met when they happened to be at the same barn in 1988. Then, the horse of a lifetime landed in their lap at exactly the right time. When they recognized the inborn traits of their young stallion they threw themselves into growing the sport in the Rocky Mountain West. In the process, they created a proving ground for his get and carved out a niche for themselves in the performance horse world.
Change of Luck
Darren was raised in the legendary cowboy town of Dodge City, Kansas, but when he graduated from high school, he was an athlete, not a horseman. He went to Garden City (Kansas) Community College on a baseball scholarship, but ended up in the arena rather than on a baseball diamond because of a lost wager.
“A friend and I made extra money by playing pool while we were in college,” Darren explains. “It so happened one night we weren’t as lucky as we had been in the past. I didn’t have the money to pay off the bet, so I went to work for these guys who were reining trainers. I ended up working for them for a couple of years.”
After college, Darren trained cutting and reining horses for Susan Koger at her place in remote southwest Kansas. But the lonely life on the prairie wasn’t much fun for his new wife and child, so they headed west to Colorado. In Colorado City, Darren made a living working in his in-laws' hardware store and riding a few horses on the side. But the marriage ended and Darren was at a crossroads.
“At that point in my life there was only a couple things I knew how to do – play baseball and ride horses,” Darren reminisces.
Knowing that playing professional baseball was unlikely, Darren started renting stalls for customer horses at the Norris-Penrose Events Center in Colorado Springs.
Fresh out of the agricultural journalism program at Kansas State University and interning for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association, Rhoda Rein was living in Colorado Springs and boarding her college barrel racing horse at the Penrose arena.
Butch Morgan managed the facility and introduced the two. They hit it off right away and soon leased their own horse facility between Denver and the Springs. That’s where Diggers Rest came looking for a home in the spring of 1989.
The sorrel stallion by Peppy San Badger and out of Colonels Glow Cat had been sold by is breeder, L.A. Waters, through the King Ranch Sale, according to Rhoda. His new owner, Ken Wahl, had brought him to Colorado and trainer Dwayne Hoelscher had started him.
Ken happened to live down the road from Rhoda and Darren, and one day, he stopped by, looking for a place to board the young stallion while he was out of town. Ken also mentioned to Darren that the horse was for sale.
"In those days, you could make some money if you had a nice stallion," says Darren. "It wasn't like it is now where horses have to be trained by March of their 3-year-old year."
"I rode him around a little bit; he was really green,” recalls Darren. But "Digger" was eye-catching for sure. They decided to take a chance on the three-year-old stallion, and Rhoda sold her barrel horse to fund the investment.
"We piddled with him and showed him as a reiner in the beginning,” says Darren.
Little did he and Rhoda know that Diggers Rest would influence their careers and their lives for decades.
Finding a Niche
In the early 1990s, the Colorado State Fair held a cow horse snaffle bit futurity. The sport was still new to the High Plains and Intermountain states, and Darren’s interest was piqued. When he saw what it required, he knew he wanted to give it a try.
“Once I decided this was something I wanted to do, I didn’t really have anywhere to go to get information,” Darren recalls. “I got my hands on a video of the past year’s cow horse futurity at Gillette, Wyoming. I just watched it over and over and tried to figure out what I needed to do. It was a whole different time back then.”
Darren and Digger had racked up a reputation for winning in reining, but Darren wanted to tackle the cow horse event as well.
“Cow horse was so infantile back in those days,” Darren explains. “I drove to Gillette to show Digger in the open bridle and on the way up there, I was reading the rule book and I realized I didn’t have a legal bit to show him in. So I ran over to the feed store and they had a little half-breed thing in there that was legal. I bought it and showed him in it.”
Once Darren got a taste for the cowhorse class he was hooked.
“It’s not just one thing; there’s a lot more to it. I like that for myself. I like that for my horses. You end up doing a lot of different things during the week,” Darren says. “You get the opportunity to expand. I like teaching it. It fit me pretty well.”
Because the cow horse class appealed so much to them, in 1996 Rhoda and Darren got involved in organizing a new association, the Colorado Reined Cowhorse Association. The group started by partnering with the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association to offer a few cow horse classes during the shows.
“We were able to offer year-end awards as a club, but we did not have to put on horse shows,” Rhoda explains. “RMQHA was really generous to us. We would arrange to get the cattle there and use the facility and judges they already had.”
The CRCA has grown to be one of the largest National Reined Cow Horse Association affiliates and has helped bring countless exhibitors to the sport.
“Looking back now, getting the CRCA up and running and having it be so successful was a big help to our breeding program,” Rhoda says.
Digger earned a reputation in the show pen, winning more than $17,000. Paybacks were small then, and the stallion's earnings record represents a lot of good runs.
“If I got him in today’s world, I think he would have been a lot better,” Darren confirms. "He was a really nice horse. There is so much more opportunity now. There wasn’t a lot of money around to win then."
Digger’s first foal was born in 1990, and when that filly was ready to show, so was Rhoda.
“That first foal turned out to be really good,” Rhoda says. "She was very successful. That really helped us get started."
By 1998, Diggers Rest was 20th on the reined cow horse leading sires list.
"Two things that I got a reputation for – being able to make one stop and being good down the fence – in reality, a lot of that success came from Digger and his babies," Darren credits.
"I was trying to figure out the fence work by riding a bunch of his colts," he adds. "They've all been really natural down the fence. They were by far better than I was. He and his colts were so natural, they just put me in the right spot and I didn’t even realize it.”
Digger has sired 253 foals, and although he died in October, he will continue to sire foals using frozen semen. Digger had been retired for years, but he still liked to flirt with the mares and oversee activities from his vantage point in the first stall in the training barn. He has sired 82 performers earning $228,000. He has also left his mark on the cow horse industry as a broodmare sire.
“He’s well above average as a sire of show horses,” Darren says. “But I think his greatest achievement and biggest success has been as a broodmare sire. I think that will continue.”
In 2011, Digger was 14th on the reined cow horse leading maternal grandsire list. As a maternal grandsire, his grandget have earned more than $550,000. Among his best- known grandget is Shining Lil Nic, by Smart Shiner and out of Dig A Lil Nic. Shining Lil Nic is an NRCHA world champion with more than $160,000 in earnings. He has been a great sire of reined cow horses himself.
Darren has about $241,000 in NRCHA earnings, $50,000 in National Reining Horse Association, and $3,000 in National Cutting Horse Association earnings. Plus, he’s amassed numerous world titles.
In addition to managing their horse breeding operation, Rhoda has started a horse show management business, Horse Show Pros, in partnership with Jennifer Bishop. They teamed up to help coordinate the Rocky Mountain Summer Slide this year, and the Mountain States fall affiliate show, among others.
Rhoda also competes avidly as an amateur. In fact, she has found success in AQHA’s new Ranching Heritage Challenges. Rhoda explains that she found out about the program from a fellow competitor. Initially, she was surprised to find that she and
Darren's small ranching operation meets the requirements. They make the most of their 40 acres outside Watkins, east of Denver, as the suburbs continue to expand toward the open plains.
“We’ve raised reining, cutting, and cow-bred horses for 27 years, yet we live near a metro area,” Rhoda says. “We don’t have a large acreage, but that’s not a requirement. It’s a program that accommodates people like us, and it’s also gotten the big ranches involved.”
Rhoda has excelled on Dig My Peppy Steps (Diggers Rest x Pep In My Step by Hickory Chic Olena) and Lil Remedy Pep (Very Smart Remedy x Kaimana Wana Wiggle by Diggers Rest).
She points out that the Ranching Heritage Breeders program is unique because it’s mare-based, meaning they can breed their Digger daughters to someone else’s stallion, and the resulting foal is still eligible.
Although Darren and Rhoda weren’t involved in the formation of the Ranching Heritage Breeders program, they know how important programs like that are to the industry and have been instrumental in keeping organizations thriving.
“We’ve been involved a lot in trying to develop programs to promote the horses in Colorado,” Rhoda says.
Both Darren and Rhoda have served on the board of directors for the CRCA, RMQHA, RMRHA and NRCHA. Darren is also a respected AQHA, NRCHA and National Stock Horse Association judge, and Darren also helped start the sire and dam program for the Rocky Mountain Reining Horse Association, Rhoda confirms. Darren and Diggers Rest were also inaugural inductees into the Colorado Reined Cowhorse Hall of Fame in January 2016.
Adding Blue Blood
While Digger established the foundation of their breeding program, more recently Darren Miller Stables has added a new stallion to its roster with SDP Blue Blood. Owned in partnership with Matt and Brianna Koch, this young stallion is just starting to make his mark on the industry. They call their 15.2 hand red roan "Reno" because that's where Matt Koch bought him as a yearling at the NRCHA SBF sale. His sire is 2003 NCHA Horse of the Year Laredo Blue (NCHA $301,000) and his dam is a full sister to TR Dual Rey ($353,000) with her own earnings record of $65,000.
Trained and shown by Matt, “Reno” has won AQHA world championships in both junior and senior working cowhorse and has a long list of other accomplishments.
"An interesting note regarding SDP Blue Blood's AQHA record is that he was the 2012 junior cow horse as a 4-year-old, and it was the first time ever for he and Matt at the AQHA Word (Show)," says Rhoda. "They earned the last spot back to the finals - they just barely made it back - and then won it by 8 1/2 points.
"In 2015, same thing. It was only their second trip to the AQHA World; they qualified for the finals of the senior working cow horse in the last spot, and came back to win the finals by 12 1/2 points.
"I think only two other horses and riders have done that," Rhoda observes. "I pulled that record from AQHA last year."
It's been a great partnership. Brianna worked for Darren Miller Stables right out of college and says Darren and Rhoda are like family to her and Matt.
“I really didn’t know much about reined cow horse when I started my internship with Darren,” Brianna says. “Even with my lack of knowledge about the industry, he and Rhoda welcomed me. Darren was patient with me learning the ins and outs of cattle, and pushed me to learn something new every day. His ability to adapt to each person and horse and their individual style of learning is something that spoke greatly to me. I learned that nothing is meant to fit into a ‘mold,’ but that horses should all have the opportunity to become the best at what they can be.
"When the time came to leave, I knew I had the knowledge to take the next step and the support from them if ever needed,” Brianna confirms. Matt, too, is grateful for Darren's help.
Whether it was fate, luck, or divine intervention that brought Darren, Rhoda and Diggers Rest together, we’ll never know. But together they’ve left an impression on the cow horse sport, the industry and, most importantly, all those who know them.
NRHA Reiner magazine (July 2016)
by Wendy Lind
In Real Life
A Visit With A Fellow Non Pro
NRHA Reiner: When did horses first become a part of your life?
Rhoda: "I grew up in Wichita, Kansas and was the only one in my family that had any interest in horses. I went to horse camp and read every horse book, I just couldn't get enough of them. There was a polo farm down the road from our house and I would walk down there and feed the mares and babies grass from the other side of the fence. When I turned 12, my parents bought me a horse and I showed in all-around events, Dressage, and jumping."
NRHA Reiner: When did you first learn about Reining?
Rhoda: "I graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in Agricultural Journalism. I begged the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association in Colorado Springs for a job, and they finally let me in! At that time I boarded my barrel racing horse in Penrose, where I met Darren Miller, a (NRHA Professional) reining trainer We've been together for 28 years now. Before Darren, I had never heard of Reining. From the very beginning, I really appreciated that reiners gave each other a lot of encouragement, and the fact that it's scored. It's just you getting evaluated on how you're doing that day, and you can look back on your score sheet and think, "Oh yeah, I did trot!" (laughing). I ended up loving Reining and bought my stallion, Diggers Rest, in 1989."
NRHA Reiner: Diggers Rest has played a big part in your and Darren's life.
Rhoda: "Yes, it's hard to believe that he's 30 years old! I never had any formal education about breeding, and I was just kind of thrown into that with Digger - he has bred outside mares every year for 27 years. Both Darren and I showed Digger off and on in the Reining and the cow horse for 17 years, which included the NRHA, NRCHA and Quarter Horse shows. He made about a million runs!"
NRHA Reiner: You started showing Reining and then also crossed over into the cow horse. Tell us about that experience.
Rhoda: "Yes, and I'm glad I got my start in Reining. It gave me a great base. In a way, Reining is harder because it's all on you as a rider. The mental preparation is a big part of it, and you have to have a lot of trust in your horse Even though I'm most experienced in the Reining, it's still the aspect of the cow horse that I get most nervous in. It's hard, and when you have nerves in the reining, it gets in your way. When you are working a cow, who knows what's going to happen! You're just so focused on the cow; it's more reactionary."
NRHA Reiner: You recently started a show management company, Horse Show Pros, with business partner, Jennifer Bishop. How is that working out?
Rhoda: "Yes, and I've had a lot of show management experience over the years, including in college as president of the KSU Horseman's Association and manager of the KSU Rodeo. I've always enjoyed managing shows, and for seven years a group of us ran a show management company called Blue Sky Management, to get the cow horse shows going in Colorado. Jennifer and I are longtime friends, and it's been a great time for us to start Horse Show Pros because many of the established show managers are retiring, including Sandy Proctor, she managed shows for 43 years. All of these shows we've taken over were her shows and we bought her database. Some are big shows, like the Rocky Mountain Reining Horse Association Summer Slide and the NRHA Affiliate Regional Championships. There's been a quick learning curve, but we're getting a lot of great feedback."
NRHA Reiner: What are the major aspects of managing a reining show?
Rhoda: "It's all about working with the reining affiliates to make everything happen, including the fun side events and working with the volunteers. We make sure everything is ready before the show - from checking on security to making sure the facility has new teeth on their drags. It's vital that the show bill has all the information on it and the ground has to be good, It's important to remember that people are spending discretionary money at the show, and show management has a large aspect of entertainment rolled into it. We want people to come and have fun and look back on the experience as enjoyable."
NRHA Reiner: When you are managing a show, do you get a chance to watch and appreciate runs?
Rhoda: "Yes and what's amazing to me is the impressive quality of horses, and that Colorado has such great non pro coaches. We're seeing longevity with these horses because of those great coaches."
Quarter Horse News magazine (Dec 2016) by A. Lynch
After making his mark on the Western performance world through 27 breeding seasons, 30-year-old Diggers Rest died on Oct. 25. The stallion was the cornerstone of owners Darren Miller and Rhoda Rein's breeding operation in Watkins, Colorado, and his influence will continue to live on in his offspring.
Diggers Rest, bred by Louis Waters, earned $14,308 in reining and reined cow horse during his career, but his biggest impact was made in the breeding shed.
The stallion is by 1977 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity Open Champion Peppy San Badger (Mr. San Peppy x Sugar Badger x Grey Badger III), who went on to sire earners of more than $25 million. Diggers Rest is the only performer out of Colonels Glow Cat, who is by 1976 NCHA Futurity Open Champion Colonel Freckles. Colonel Freckles (Jewel's Leo Bars x Christy Jay x Rey Jay) has performing offspring with records of more than $4.9 million.
Diggers Rest sired 84 money-earners with total records of $232,546, according to Equi-Stat. Dig My Peppy Steps (out of Pep In My Step x Hickory Chic Olena) is Diggers Rest's highest money-earner with an Equi-Stat record of $40,854. Next on the stallion's get record is Heza Nuther Digger (out of Hotroddin Suzy x Colonel Hotrodder), a 16-year-old gelding with a record of $33,638.
Like Colonel Freckles, Diggers Rest shined as a maternal grandsire, with his daughters producing earners of nearly $375,000. His top grandson is 2006 National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity Open finalist, Shining Lil Nic (Smart Shiner x Dig A Lil Nic), who boasts and impressive Equi-Stat record of $156,974.
Due to his influence on the reined cow horse industry, Diggers Rest was inducted into the Colorado Reined Cow Horse Hall of Fame this year. He is ranked 42nd on the Equi-Stat Lifetime Reined Cow Horse Statistics maternal grandsires chart and 86th on the sires chart.
"We lost our great stallion and lifetime friend Diggers Rest today," Miller said on his public Facebook page following the stallion's passing. "We met him in May 1989, and he has been our main business partner. He helped construct and direct our career, business, success and lives. (He is) a noble and strong soul, living on in our hearts and in his descendants."
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