16 July 2019, USA ~ Rita Cunningham was born and raised on a 5,000 acre wheat and cattle ranch on the Eastern Montana plains, and grew up loving the country life and everything connected to riding a horse.
She and her brother rode everywhere on horseback, and sometimes to the schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing where all eight grades were in one room under one teacher.
“There was an open range of several thousand acres where I loved to ride, and even chased the pronghorn antelope across the sagebrush on my pony,” said Rita. “I loved to jump the hay bales, and when the neighbor boys could ride over on their horses, we would meet half-way in the pasture and have races through the fields.”
After the family moved to western Montana Rita graduated with honors from the University of Montana with a double BA degree in Fine Art and Secondary education. She was a Powder Puff motocross racing champion, played guitar in several rock bands, and had a small business selling her wildlife oil paintings.
Rita said, “Then, I bought an Arabian horse, a little, spoiled gelding inbred to Raffles. I spent a year training him, trying to get him to keep from rearing up or running away with me, Then I discovered endurance riding.”
The long miles suited both of them and they placed second out of 52 riders in their first 50-mile ride. “I was hooked on Arabians,” she admitted.
“In the 1970s, I sold a house and took the money to buy my first breeding horses, a stallion and several mares of the Abu Farwa and Gulastra lines. I got into showing halter classes and did very well for many years with the horses that my Father helped buy at the Scottsdale sales. The halter horses in the 1970s and 1980s were the big rage, with Scottsdale going full swing. Our stallions were by Ariston and Bandos and we imported the Probat* son Cacko.
“Someone from our local fairgrounds contacted me and said they wanted to hold Arabian races during their Fair race meet. Would I train an Arabian for it? I had no idea how, so he said, just go down to the Fairgrounds and ask the Thoroughbred trainers; one of them will take yours and train it. So that’s what I did. And then I saw that I could do it myself, so I passed my trainers test and went to work on my own horses.
“Skip through about ten years, and there I am in Los Alamitos racing my first Darley nominee, WMA Rachael (Cacko x Cognatta by Cognac).
“When Los Alamitos quit racing in the winter, I went to Texas, because it had year round Arabian racing. In 1996 I sold the farm in Montana and bought a training center in Seguin Texas. I was married as Rita Babbitt then, and had a son named Obie who was my delight and right hand helper. A divorce forced the sale of the training center, so I searched and found the ranch I have now, 160 acres along the San Antonio river. By 2000 I was raising and training Arabian race horses full time.
“The best thing happened to me in 2007 was when my trail riding friend introduced me to Larry Deleon, whom she worked with in an engineering company. I wasn’t interested in a man who worked in an office until she explained that he had a 4-wheel drive pickup and a tractor and spent his spare time helping a friend with his cattle. The good Lord brought us together and we were married in 2008.
“We have made a great team. Larry drives the tractor and makes hay and maintains fences, and I am in charge of the horses, from breeding to racing.
“Currently we are promoting the get of our stallion Sand Tiki Special (Burning Sand x Kon Tiki mare, Burning Star). His race winnings were $136,000 and his first race winner was WMA Special Rose, 2017 California 4-year old filly of the year. Our most recent winner is WMA Fantom (Sand Tiki Special x Fantoma V by Monarch AH) with his 2019 summer race record of 4(2–1-1). Fantom is owned by Abel and Elizabeth Borg, who have done a great job with him. We are predominantly breeders and sell our offspring to others who can win with them. Sand Tiki Special has also produced many successful endurance horses, both in the USA and abroad.”
~ with Pamela BurtonFollow Horsereporter On Facebook