Every breeder, owner and trainer will tell you that there’s one horse that stands out from the rest for them, that once in a lifetime mount that outshines the others and inspires them to become better themselves. Sometimes it’s the greatest performer they ever rode into the show pen, and other times it was the horse with the most try, biggest heart and greatest give. In rare instances, a horse is the total package. For Nancy Crawford-Hall, the owner and breeder behind Holy Cow Performance Horses, that once in a lifetime horse is easy to pinpoint. Her beloved Sheza Shinette — known to those that love her as "Norma Jean" — is the mare whose off-spring have built Holy Cow and stood in the limelight in the reined cow horse, reining and cutting worlds.
“When I realized just how special (Norma Jean) is, I knew that I had the beginnings of an exceptional breeding program that could possibly cover reining, reined cow horse and cutting prospects.”
Nancy Crawford-Hall, Owner and Breeder Behind Holy Cow Performance Horses
At first glance Norma Jean is beautiful, a striking palomino whose kind eyes hold the hearts of those who know her. Beyond her obvious good looks, however, she's a fighter. It's her spirit that is perhaps her best asset, and it’s that spirit that kept her alive in the greatest fight of her life. "Norma Jean was a four-year-old returning from the AQHA World Show in Oklahoma City," says Crawford-Hall. "She had just beaten a group of some of the finest working cow horses in the world." Norma Jean was crowned World Champion Junior Working Cow Horse but more than her journey to a World Championship, it was the ride home that would begin to define her. "When she arrived home in California, it was clear that she had picked up a bug while at the show," remembers Craw-ford-Hall. Norma Jean was taken to her usual veterinarian, but, after a few days, it became clear that she was declining quickly. She was referred to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center and placed under the care of Dr. Doug Herthel and internal medicine specialist Dr. Erin Byrne. The situation was serious and the prognosis was not in Norma Jean's favor, but doctors Herthel and Byrne were not prepared to give up on the mare. "She had a horrendous pulmonary infection and abscessation," says Dr. Herthel. She was having the abscesses drained multiple times a day by ultrasound, she wasn’t eating, her immune system wasn't functioning and she’d lost 150 pounds in a matter of days. Plural pneumonia is tough." It was a desperate situation, with antibiotics and other treatments proving ine!ective. Norma Jean was quickly running out of time. "I looked at Nancy and her trainer, Sandy Collier, and it was obvious we were losing her. They were so distraught, and that just motivated us to keep going, to keep trying," says Dr. Herthel looking back on an emotional night. "I'll never forget that moment," says Crawford-Hall. "She was dying right in front of us, she had lost the light in her eyes. It's remarkable because she was healthy and performing so well in Oklahoma just a week or so before.
Doctors Herthel and Byrne exhausted all options, trying everything they could think of medically to no avail. "We knew that one of her main problems was that she wasn’t eating. She had no nutrition to support herself," says Dr. Herthel. "We started tube feeding her Platinum Performance Enteral Immunonutrition Formula in an effort to get some nutrition into her body and get her immune system working." Tubing her every 2-3 hours, Norma Jean received 30-35 scoops of the formula daily. "With-in days, she started to turn around," remembers Dr. Herthel. "She got some energy back and the infection started to clear up, the drainages started to decrease and she became anabolic rather than catabolic. She was getting the nutrition she needed to fight off the infection and sustain her body." It was a monumental victory that was shared by owner, trainer and veterinarians. For the first time in weeks, Norma Jean had a shot at survival. "When you look at a horse that was cachectic and getting worse by the minute, then you can turn them around to be anabolic and get their immune system working just by feeding them, it’s incredible," says Dr. Herthel. "Enteral nutrition is a nice tool for medicine to have."
1998 Palomino Quarter Horse Mare
Shining Spark x Chicks And Chex x Smart Chic Olena
LTE $54,400, producer of over $558,000 in earnings
AQHA World Champion Jr. Working Cow Horse
NRCHA Superior Award
NRCHA Certificate of Ability
AQHA Leading Dam at 2010 NRCHA Year End
Shown by Sandy Collier
2007 Sorrel Mare
Diamond J Star x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2005 Bay Mare
Gallo Del Cielo x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2004 Buckskin Stallion
Von Reminic x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2006 Palomino Stallion
Kodo x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2011 Sorrel Stallion
Nabisco Roan x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2007 Palomino Stallion
CD Olena x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
2004 Palomino Mare
West Coast Whiz x Sheza Shinette x Shining Spark
Slowly, and over the ensuing three months, Norma Jean improved to the point where Crawford-Hall entered her in a small local reined cow horse show with Dr. Herthel's blessing. It wasn’t so much a test of the mare’s recovery but rather an effort to return her slowly to the job she loved. "When the day of the show came, Norma Jean was ready," says Crawford-Hall. "Sandy didn’t push her, but Norma Jean wanted to show everyone that she was back," she says smiling at the memory. "Almost all of the vets from Alamo Pintado were in attendance, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including mine." Following Norma Jean’s recovery, Crawford-Hall wasn’t willing to risk the mare’s health by furthering her showing career and sending her back on the circuit. Instead, she made the decision to make Norma Jean the foundation of her dream, Holy Cow Performance Horses. Together, Crawford-Hall and her beloved mare have since built a program amongst the very best. "She is the backbone of my breeding program and the reason Holy Cow exists," says Crawford-Hall. "When I realized just how special she is, I knew that I had the beginnings of an exceptional breeding program that could possibly cover reining, reined cow horse and cutting prospects. And in fact, we have done just that. Norma Jean’s sons and daughters have excelled in all three disciplines. I have two of her sons now standing at stud: Once A Von A Time and Heza Shiney Kodo. Her daughters are now producing foals, some of whom have already become champions themselves." Behind her words is an incredible sense of pride in the palomino mare that beat nearly insurmountable odds to produce generations of celebrated athletes.
With Norma Jean as their foundation, Holy Cow Performance Horses has risen through the ranks to its place amongst the top performers in the industry. With five trainers, the horses are sent to hone their abilities as either reiners, cutters or cow horses. "These trainers have a great rapport with each other, and it is not uncommon for them to move my horses around from one to another until they get the best fit for the horse. It is truly a great group of individuals, and I have to give a lot of credit to all of them for what they do for Holy Cow," says Crawford-Hall appreciatively. Million Dollar Rider, Todd Bergen, takes the helm for Holy Cow’s reining horses. Gavin Jordan, Morgan Cromer and Grant Setnicka are the cutting greats that ride under the Holy Cow banner. Lastly, and to much acclaim in recent years, Jake Telford is the man behind Holy Cow’s incredible roster of reined cow horse victories.
PHOTO BY KATE BRADLEY
PROVIDED BY RIOS OF MERCEDES
"When I met Nancy, I had been showing for a few years and had just begun to have a little bit of success," says Telford. "I won the pre-futurity one year when it was in Fresno, and it was shortly after that when Nancy contacted me and asked me if I had room for some horses. Of course being a starving horse trainer I did," he says with a laugh. "I had no idea at the time the caliber of horses that she had. She sent me CD Survivor, and he was way better than I was. He was a phenomenal athlete. That horse taught me a lot at that point in my career. He raised my standards and opened my eyes to good horses." Telford’s relationship with Holy Cow grew from there, proving to be not only a successful match in the show ring but a relationship based on mutual trust, admiration and respect for the horses. "Nancy is as good as they get," says Telford. "She’s so committed, and she loves those horses to the extent that I do."
That commitment went down in the record books in September 2015 as Jake and Starlight Kisses rode home with the famed NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship. For cow horses, it’s the pinnacle. "We had great success winning the Snaffle Bit Futurity on a home-raised horse," says Craw-ford-Hall. "There’s nothing better than that. It was a long time coming, but I know that it is just about the most exciting thing to experience," she says. It’s a select group of wildly talented horses and riders that have come away with the title, and more than that, it’s a dream of Jake Telford’s that he was finally able to realize with the help of Holy Cow’s incredible mare, Starlight Kisses. "I feel extremely proud that I won the futurity on one that I got to start here, train and show. I trained and showed her mother (Kiss My Shiny Lips) and her father (Shady Lil Starlight). It’s pretty meaningful to me," he says with admiration for the family of horses he knows so well.
For Jake, Starlight Kisses is a walking reminder of her mother. He has a soft spot for both mares, who have each proven difficult to start but a shining example of determination and try. "She’s got some personality to her, but she tries so hard," he says of Starlight Kisses. "She gives you 110% all the time, and that’s what won the Snaffle Bit. The cattle were really tough that day and a lot of horses were really tired and running out of gas," he remembers. "She had her heart in it though."
“(Starlight Kisses) gives you 110% all the time, and that’s what won the Snaffle Bit. The cattle were really tough that day and a lot of horses were really tired and running out of gas. She had her heart in it though.”
— Jake Telford, 2015 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Champion
To Jake, it’s times like the Snaffle Bit that affirm his commitment to good nutrition. "I can’t say enough about a quality nutrition program. It’s absolutely essential," he states plainly. "These cow horses are basically triathletes. It’s rigorous. You cannot compete on a horse that’s not physically fit and healthy." Every one of Holy Cow’s horses is on Platinum Performance® Equine or Platinum Performance® CJ, a program that Jake assures is part of their recipe for success. "We start our horses on Platinum from the time that they're able to eat it. They stay with it for the duration. It's so important to help those horses grow and develop. They have to be physically strong when you enter that show pen. It’s so tough anymore that without a good feed program you will not compete. It just doesn’t happen." Jake believes that it’s the preparation that moves these horses ahead of the pack. The training comes together with the right conditioning, care and nutrition to build a more durable athlete. "You’re there in Reno for the Snaffle Bit Futurity for two weeks," he says of the marathon schedule. "They’ve been in that show pen so many times, and just the stress of being there gets to them. There’s an announcer all day long, there’s commotion, there are new sites, sounds and a lot of people. It's a lot of stress to put these horses through. Without having them healthy, well supported and in good physical condition, they just don't have the stamina to last that long.
Coming off their victory at the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity, Telford again stepped onto a Holy Cow horse to compete for the 2016 World’s Greatest Horseman at the NRCHA Celebration of Champions in Texas. Together, Hes Shinettes CD (CD Olena X Sheza Shinette) and Telford came in fifth amongst the top riders and mounts in the sport. "We left Texas with two world championships and Hes Shinettes CD making the World’s Greatest Horseman finals. I’ve said it all along, I think he’s as good as any horse out there. In that contest there are 20-some horses that enter and any one of them is good enough. He’s fully capable, and we’ll go back and try World’s Greatest again, but coming home fifth in that group of horses is something to be proud of."
After claiming the crown jewel of the NRCHA with his Snaffle Bit win, Telford plans to press on with everything he has. He and Crawford-Hall have big plans together. Even with his plans for the future, he relishes the experiences from the past year. "You can’t explain it when you achieve something you’ve wanted and worked that long and hard for," he says of his Snaffle Bit win. "I’m just fortunate to have the horses and owner that I have." That owner stands behind him with everything she has, anxious to see what this season brings and to meet the next generation of superstars to represent the Holy Cow bloodlines. "We’re in the middle of foaling season now," says Crawford-Hall, "awaiting all of the foals, but especially Norma Jean’s," she says of the mare that started it all. "It looks to be another exciting year for Holy Cow."
by Jessie Bengoa,