Cutting, reining, roping, racing, training and, of course, working reined cow horses. All things that Doug Williamson has mastered in his lifelong career beside the horse. At 81, he hasn’t let anything stand between him and his passion. He’s survived throat cancer twice in a span of 35 years and is still training horses despite this last bout leaving him fighting to remain in the game. Initially diagnosed in October of 2022, he faces more challenges in the aftermath of this second battle. “I can’t swallow water or eat anymore,” he says. “I have a feeding tube, so it’s taking me awhile to get physically fit again because it’s hard to get enough calories in me to get stronger.” Unfortunately, even though the recent tumor is now undetectable, and Williamson is ecstatic to be cancer-free once again, his throat won’t recover from the trauma, leaving his speech impaired, making it impossible for him to eat solid food and even occasionally robbing him of his breath. “That’s kind of scary, but other than that I’m just fine,” he says almost downplaying his battle with cancer. In true cowboy fashion, he’s chock full of true grit and will accept no apologies for his condition. “It’s better than the alternative; I’m alive!” he says firmly. Like every challenge he’s overcome, he stared death in the face and didn’t back down. His long list of accolades inside the arena affirm his status as a living legend, exemplary horseman and the consummate champion. He’s a pillar in the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA), supporting the industry since its humble beginnings, and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2006. He became a Million Dollar Rider at age 70 and has won almost every major cow horse event in the country including multiple Snaffle Bit Futurity® championships, the Western Derby championship, the Open Bridle Spectacular title, consecutive victories in the Open Hackamore Classic and many more. The man is a force, continuing to train horses with indisputable positivity and wit despite his age and health setbacks. “I only have three horses in training, but that’s all I need right now,” he says. “I don’t need to make a living, I just want to have a little fun.”
Doug Williamson and his wife Carol live in Scottsdale, Arizona.
PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH HAY PHOTOGRAPHY
The oldest of six children, the future superstar was born to Sylvan and Barbara Williamson in 1942. He grew up the hard way on a working ranch in Vale, Oregon, where his family raised livestock and grew grain. “We had 1,500 mother cows, 100 head of horses, 150 acres of farm ground, and we were running rangeland with the cows that had a radius of a few hundred miles,” he says. By the time he was a teenager, Williamson was racing horses on the track, training colts and competing at rodeos, tying down calves on his great horse Baldy C. “Every rodeo had a racetrack back then, so I got to ride in the race and rope all in the same place,” he recalls. “In those days, I had my spurs on all the time, I just changed hats.” This daredevil son loved to race, developing his passion for horses and a will to win at a young age. “I was a jockey for five years, and I would still be if I hadn’t gotten too big. There’s nothing more fun than coming from behind and then just blowing by those guys as if they were tied to a post,” he chuckles. His world came crashing down in the mid-1950s when he was 14 after his father was severely injured in an accident. “A guy had a horse that he wanted me to train, and my dad said he better try it out first. It flipped over backwards on him, and my dad’s left foot landed in his lap,” he says. “From then on, I had to run the whole ranch because I was the oldest, and we really couldn’t afford to hire anybody.” The teen was responsible for the entire family operation throughout high school. He missed three months of school every year to gather and process cattle. Luckily, a close friend helped tutor him in the classes he missed, so he could keep up with his schoolwork. After graduation, his dad’s mobility improved and Williamson moved away to carve his own path and make a living as a rodeo competitor and horse trainer.
Considered one of the most challenging disciplines in the western world, a reined cow horse must master three events: cutting, reining and cow work. With cutting and reining being popular disciplines in their own right, the cow work brings a unique twist to the competition testing each pair on their speed, agility and control. Horse and rider must first demonstrate how they can hold a cow at the end of the arena. Next, they drive the cow down the fence at full speed before getting ahead, stopping it and turning back the opposite direction. The final stage is to bring the cow to the center of the arena and drive it into a circle each direction. Scoring is based on form, difficulty and control.
Described as the greatest horse he’s ever ridden, Baldy C was a sorrel stallion born in 1945 by the great King Clegg. He was Williamson’s first great horse that helped him win 29 buckles in the tie-down roping as well as spark his passion for the working cow horse. Baldy C came to Williamson’s father, Sylvan, from the storied Burnett Ranch in Texas. “Baldy C was the first horse I ever won on. I mean I won everything in the world in the tie-down roping on him and then my dad started getting me to go down the fence, and when I was 19 years old and he was 16, we won the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) World in the Working Cow Horse.” Two years later, the duo would retake this title after Baldy C’s miraculous recovery from a heart attack. The most phenomenal part about this mighty little equine was when he was young, he lost his right eye. “He only had one eye, but he could see more with one eye than most horses could see with two,” Williamson says. This foundation Quarter Horse would go on to become the patriarch of the Williamson River Ranch in Vail, Oregon, producing many proven broodmares and performance horses, earning Sylvan and Barbara Williamson AQHA’s 50-Year Legacy Breeders Award in 2004. He is the horse that started it all for both Doug Williamson and his family.
In 2007, Williamson won the NRCHA Western Derby on Docs Soula, a 14.3-hand, 2003 sorrel stallion. Prior to the win, the duo had earned reserve titles at the Stallion Stakes and the Hackamore Classic, but they hadn’t won a major event making this a marked victory. Docs Soula was an incredibly-talented stallion by a leading cutting horse sire, Soula Jule Star, and he was also a maternal half-brother to Doc At Night, a horse that carried Williamson to the 2002 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity® Championship. “Docs Soula was a really good horse that anyone could ride,” Williamson recalls. “He was a 75 cutter, a 75 down the fence, and he could score bigger than that in the reining,” he says. “And at the end of the day, you’d put him in his stall, and he would lay down flat and be snoring in about five minutes.” When Williamson was injured in 2008, he asked Bob Avila, another NRCHA Million Dollar Rider, to compete on him at the AQHA World Show. The pair won the Reserve World title that year and Avila decided he needed to buy the horse. “I wasn’t planning on selling him, but Bob told me he would give me a price tag I couldn’t refuse,” he says. Unfortunately, just months after the purchase, the horse sustained a career-ending injury. Nevertheless, the animal remains one of Williamson’s favorite horses to ride.
Known around the barn as Bucky, this 2008 buckskin stallion was sired by the great Chic Please, a winner in both the NRCHA and NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) events. After having success on his full-sister, Williamson decided to buy the colt at the horse sale during the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity® in Reno, Nevada. Fellow trainer and competitor Todd Bergen owned the horse at the time but didn’t care for him, claiming he was too slow footed. Williamson chuckles: “He is as quick footed as a horse can be now.” He goes on to credit his unique ability to partner with a strong-willed stallion. “I think it’s the way I train,” he says. “If you were to spur him around, he would just be an average kind of horse, but I don’t do that. I don’t ride with my feet, so he loved me, and he would do anything for me.” In June of 2019, the team made their most fulfilling victory at the NRCHA Derby Open Bridle Spectacular held in Paso Robles, California, marking an incredible 231 in the fence work. He recalls proudly: “I marked a 77 under every judge in the bridle that year. I won it, and I never touched the bridle reins the whole trip.” An incredible feat for any trainer, but, at the time, Williamson was 77, and he had just bested the competition — most who were at least half his age.
“I wish someone would make a movie about Doug Williamson, he made me. It was incredible the stuff he taught me and just the chance to be around him was unbelievable. ... To this day, he’s one of my mentors.”
— Grant Setnicka, NCHA 4 Million Dollar Rider and Platinum Client since 2014
After leaving the family ranch, Williamson dabbled in several disciplines and positions before settling in as a full-time reined cow horse trainer. Prior to that, he did just about everything from rodeo, reining and cutting to managing a feedlot in Idaho and running the horse division at the Tejon Ranch, one of the largest working ranches in California at 270,000 acres. Back in the 1960s, veteran horse trainers weren’t open about sharing their methods, so young horsemen like Williamson had to learn by observation. “The old-timers wouldn’t tell you much,” he explains. “You didn’t learn from them teaching you, but you learned from watching them. I’ve had a lot of people around me that were really good hands, and so I just developed that feel by trying to do like they did.” He credits much of this to time spent with his father in Oregon. “I started riding colts when I was 8 or 9 years old with my dad,” he recalls. “He got to be a pretty good hand himself, and so he taught me quite a lot. Of course the cattle deal, I just developed right into it. I was around cattle all the time growing up, so I knew how to read a cow.” Training reined cow horses turned out to be the perfect sport for Williamson. He could use his unique horsemanship skills and release some of his racehorse adrenaline “going down the fence,” a term that describes the final exhilarating stage in the reined cow horse competition. The horse and rider demonstrate control by holding their cow at the end of the arena before driving it down the arena wall at full speed to get ahead of the cow, then stopping and turning it back in the opposite direction. When asked what he loves most about the discipline, he responds: “You’ve got your hair on fire, and it’s just fun.” He goes on to explain: “A guy walked up to me as I was coming out of the arena one day and asked if I knew how long I was in the arena. He said it took me 55 seconds from the time I rode through the gate until I was done with my work. I told him that was the most fun 55 seconds that I ever want to have in my life. I won the fence work that day, and I only had to help my horse in a spot or two. That’s what the cow horse is all about.”
“You’ve got your hair on fire, and it’s just fun. A guy walked up to me as I was coming out of the arena one day and asked if I knew how long I was in the arena. He said it took me 55 seconds from the time I rode through the gate until I was done with my work. I told him that was the most fun 55 seconds that I ever want to have in my life. I won the fence work that day, and I only had to help my horse in a spot or two. That’s what the cow horse is all about.”
— Doug Williamson, 2-Time Open Snaffle Bit Futurity® Champion, NRCHA Hall of Fame Inductee, Million Dollar Rider and Platinum Client since the early 2000s
At left, with Doug Williamson at the wheel, the late stallion, Hes Wright On, won over $170,000 including these coveted titles: NRCHA Derby and Stallion Stakes Reserve Champion, NRCHA Open Bridle World Champion and the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman Reserve Champion.
PHOTO BY CAM ESSICK
After over seven decades of training horses, Williamson prefers a certain kind of horse. “It doesn't make any difference about the horses’ breeding so much as their conformation,” he explains. “There’s a muscle in their neck that I’m adamant they must have. It’s in front of their shoulders and if they don’t have it, they can’t do the things that I need for them to do to win.” He also shares in an age-old superstition on how the placement of a horse’s cowlicks determine their trainability. “The cowlicks on their forehead and neck make a lot of difference on how easy they are to train,” he says. “If the cowlicks are not where they’re supposed to be, they’ll still be good horses, but it’ll take you a little longer to get it done.” He smiles: “It could be just a silly superstition, but it has always worked for me.”
Apart from how the horse is built, Williamson is best known for riding stallions. “I’ve had such great horses, and they were all studs,” he says. “I really didn’t deserve that many great ones.” His quiet riding and gentle hands help these dominant male creatures feel like they are part of a team. “I just train them different. I think it’s all about feel and about reading your horse,” he explains. His training philosophy is to develop their heart and train them to want to win versus making it a job that they have to win. The goal is for his horses to love what they do, and he believes once you have established that, they will do anything for you.
“When I walk in the pen, I want my horses to look so pretty that they have to look twice at them, and Platinum just helps them look like that,”
— Doug Williamson
Known for his horses’ standout appearances, it’s no wonder Doug Williamson has been using Platinum products since the early 2000s when his veterinarian, the late Dr. Van Snow, recommended it. “When I walk in the pen, I want my horses to look so pretty that they have to look twice at them, and Platinum just helps them look like that,” he says. “I want the judges to say, ‘Oh I better watch this horse,’ because I need every point I can get with them.” Wise words coming from an 81-year-old superstar. Over the years, he has learned how important a horse’s appearance is to the judges, and he’s thinking about that as he’s feeding and keeping them healthy. He gives Platinum Performance® Equine to all his horses because it supports all aspects of health and performance. “As hard as we work these horses, they need all the nutrients that are in Platinum,” Williamson says. “It’s just a great supplement.”
Williamson has never been one to let anything stand in his way. Even when he was down to weighing 90 pounds and did 40 consecutive days of radiation to beat his first round of cancer in 1986, he was back out in the show pen six months later winning the Reserve Championship and $23,000 at the Biggest Little Cutting in the World riding Montana Lynx. “I just about died, but I got back on my feet,” he recalls. “I was so weak that during my run, I had my knees up in the middle of the saddle and my horse was about to throw me off.” Luckily for him, he stayed in the middle and rode that sorrel stallion to a special victory that day — not only claiming the title but also sending a message that he is truly unstoppable.
After spending 28 years in Bakersfield, California, the NRCHA champion moved east to Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Carol, of nearly 20 years. She is also a rider and competitor, who Williamson keeps mounted on only the best horses. The couple has built a beautiful life and family together with Williamson’s six children and 19 grandchildren. Given his age and the harsh chemotherapy treatment from the latest run-in with cancer, his recovery won’t be easy. However, this tough-asnails cowboy has no plans to stay idle. “You will see me at the horse shows,” he says. “I will be there one way or the other, either rooting my friends on, or I will be in there trying to get a little of it.” His passion for the sport, positive outlook and unwavering humor are an inspiration that is celebrated by the reined cow horse family. On one of his more recent victories at the 2019 NRCHA Western Derby, the announcer asked everyone whose life has been impacted by him to join in the win photo. It was no surprise that the photographer needed to step outside the arena to fit the massive crowd in the image.
Williamson remains an icon in his sport, respected by all who know him. He’s seen as a role model, a man to be looked up to for his bravery, strength and tenacity to fight on. “I’m 81 years old. I don’t need to be going in the show pen anymore, but it might be fun,” he admits. “My friends keep asking how I can be helping them in the cutting pen because I’m supposed to be about dead. I say, ‘Well I’m cancer free now boys, so just stand back and let me roll.’ ”