Steve Heathcott: Catching the Stars

By Linda White

Hey Hallelujah as a baby
Hey Hallelujah as a baby
Steve Heathcott has two gifts. Both have put a unique spin on his career. Neither gift can be taught, learned or copied, making Heathcott’s achievements as an Arabian halter trainer and showman providential, somehow. His success is the result of his application of those gifts, plus his passion for Arabian horses, his innate talent, and more than 30 years’ experience. The horse- and football-loving kid from Taft, California continues to dazzle ‘em in a dozen countries, on five of this Earth’s seven continents.

The first gift is his ability to catch-show horses to national halter championships. Easily 30 of the 100 or more horses he has shown to national titles have been horses he had never met, or had only a few days to work with. Note that those are national championships and reserves. Steve takes the leadshank, makes eye contact with the horse … and what happens next is downright uncanny.

“It’s like they’re fascinated by him,” says photographer Stuart Vesty, who has known Heathcott for 30 years. “They become curious, and eager to please, and do the right things - without knowing why.”

Bessey Arabians was one of Heathcott’s very first customers. “Steve has always had a natural, God-given gift with horses,” Brandon Bessey marvels. “They just respond to him. I recall a video interview from the 1980's, when the interviewer asked Steve about his ability to connect instantly with a horse. Steve responded modestly, ‘I don't know. I guess the horses just think I look goofy or something, so they look at me.’

“Steve’s approach invites the halter horse to be curious and happy,” Bessey continues. “He can get a horse to show ‘out of its socks’, without trembling in fear. Instead of being intimidated, the horse enjoys the process. At the end of a training session, there is often a look of, ‘I have accomplished something!’ in the horse's eyes.

Noted Oklahoma breeder June Yahola agrees. “Steve is such a ‘natural’”, Yahola says. “He is an incredibly talented person: so intuitive! I admire him so much. In 2008, Steve came to the ranch to look at yearlings. He looked at several, unmoved … until Tribute Time SA bounced out and trotted off. Steve said, ‘Oh, June!’ never taking his eyes off the colt. We shipped the colt to Steve, who sold him for us. By August 2011, Tribute Thyme SA belonged to Jason Tackett, who had bought him that June from Richard Hensley, our original buyer. When we went to Canadian Nationals in 2011, I knew Pyro Thyme SA, whom I also had bred, would be there with Andrew Sellman, but I didn’t know Tribute Thyme SA, who was only four, was coming to Canada.”

Heathcott picks up the story. “I had seen the colt at June’s as a yearling, and sold him for her, but I had worked with him very little. Tribute Thyme SA’s new owner, Jason Tackett, asked me to show Tribute at Canada, so when everybody got there, I worked with him for a few days. When I mentioned something about showing him in the class for 3- and 4-year-olds, though, Jason corrected me. We were going in open stallions!

“There were six entries in the class: two million-dollar stallions, one of whom was undefeated at halter, and Pyro Thyme SA, who had already been 2003 US National Champion Futurity Colt, and would win three more US National Championships, and Reserve National Championships in the US and Canada. I thought, Oh, great. I’m taking this colt, who barely knows me, into some of the toughest competition in the world. He showed for me like he had known me forever. When they called out Pyro Thyme SA, with Andy Sellman, for the reserve national championship, I thought, well, that’s that …. Then they said, ‘Our 2011 Canadian National Champion is … Tribute Thyme SA!’ I nearly fell over.”

Keepsake V (Huckleberry Bey x Khemadera) was another star Steve catch-showed, this time for Sheila Varian and Tom Bason, who bred her. “I showed her at Scottsdale with a loose, draped leadshank –maybe the first person on the national halter scene to do that,” Heathcott remembers. “Showing with a taut lead had been the style, until people saw how much more relaxed and responsive my horses were. Keepsake V went on to be 1986 US National Reserve Champion Futurity Filly, and 1988 Canadian National Champion Mare. After that, she was very successful in country English pleasure and western pleasure.”

Which brings us to Heathcott’s other, equally rare gift. “Tc,” says Brian Bessey. “They can go into performance training, minus any bad habits that would keep them from reaching their full potential. The rigid halter pose is the exact opposite of a desirable performance frame. The head high in the air, back hollow, and the stance that makes the croup appear level, instead of well-rounded, make the horse unable to engage its hind end, unable to get propulsion from the rear. Halter horses who have been intimidated are fearful when performance trainers ask them to do things they’ve been punished for in the past.”

“I think I’m the performance trainers’ answer,” Heathcott laughs. “I’ve catch-shown horses for Vicki Humphrey, Don De Longpre, Shawn and Carmelle Rooker, Brian Murch…. I guess thy ask me because they know they’ll get back the same horse, mentally and physically, that they sent.” He shrugs with typical understatement. Yet Steve’s walk-on role in the life of performance legend Hey Hallelujah (Huckleberry Bey x Hallelujah Bask) has been a source of great pride for him. Brandon Bessey tells that tale.

“Steve advised us that it was time to ‘start playing with the big boys’ (his words) and use our Huckleberry Bey Syndicate share on the perfect English type mare. Steve and our performance trainers, Brian Murch and Jim Lowe, began the search. Enter, Hallelujah Bask! We found her and bought her from David Brown, and took her to Varian Arabians. Everybody tried and tried to get her in foal, but she hadn’t produced a foal in years, and around that time, Huck developed a pituitary tumor.

“In December 1992, Huck was in remission, so we bred Hallelujah Bask to him, one last time. Huckleberry Bey died a couple of weeks later, but miraculously, Hallelujah Bask was in foal! That was the longest 11 months ever, but on November 10, 1993, Hey Hallelujah was born at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, in Los Olivos, California. Brian Murch was out of town, but sometime after midnight, Melanie Murch and I got the call, and we rushed down to see the new baby. Steve happened to be driving south from Northern California in the wee hours of the night. He knew that Hallelujah Bask was at Alamo Pintado, close to foaling, so he swung by – and got to see the new baby. When I returned at 7:00 a.m., Steve had left a handwritten note on the stall door. It read ‘I'll take him. He'll need to be at my farm no later than July 1st, 1996 if we are to be in Louisville in time for the futurity.’

The note Steve Heathcott left for Besseys<br>
on the stall door at Alamo Pintado,<br>
the day the colt was born.
The note Steve Heathcott left for Besseys
on the stall door at Alamo Pintado,
the day the colt was born.
“Because Hey Hallelujah was born in November, and was really only a 2-year-old in October 1996, when US National Futurity rolled around, he and Steve didn’t make it to Louisville. But Steve eventually did show Hey in all of his halter classes, and they won big.”

The lyrics to an old song invite us to catch a falling star and put it in our pocket; never let it get away. The equine stars whose lead shanks Heathcott has been catching for more than 30 years are ascendant: on their way up, not down. Still, guiding more than 100 Arabians and Half-Arabians to national halter titles suggests that Steve may have a pocketful of starlight, after all.