Riding Tips

Letter to My Rookie Self: Matt Mills Reining

matt mills reining spin
Written by Matt Mills Reining

Equestrian Advice: This is part of our Letter to My Rookie Self series, an open letter equestrian reflection project. Submit your own story here, or check out other ways to get involved with our Braided diversity initiative.

*All images by Impulse Photography

Video Interview with Matt Mills

We hope you enjoy this Horse Rookie edition of “Hanging with Matt,” in which NRHA Million Dollar Rider Matt Mills chats with his wife Karen about lessons he’s learned along the way and his advice for fellow equestrians.

Special thanks to mare Maggie for her amusing antics!

Revisit the Conversation

[Karen] Since you’re standing here, would it bother you if I asked you some questions from HorseRookie.com?

[Matt] …HorseRookie.com, oh yeah…

[Karen] …she’s really kind of focusing on the diverse group of equestrians and horse riders, and she wanted to know if you would answer some of these questions

[Matt] Yeah, sure. I looked it up a little bit. So, it’s like for beginning riders and stuff and then they had this section on minorities

[Karen] …so she was like, he doesn’t really have time to write a big column-type thing, but would he be willing to do these?

[Matt] Sure, ask them, what’re the questions?

[Karen] What are some tough lessons you needed to learn, in your youth, to become the rider, coach, competitor, you are today?

[Matt] Tough lessons I needed to learn? You know I’m in a competitive world, training horses, and even just forget about just when you go, and actually go to a judge to an event and you get a score or whatever and you’re first, second, third, or whatever.

Every day’s a competition, really, when I’m working with these horses on whether I get something done, or I don’t.

I learned pretty early if you don’t put the time in you’re not going to get anywhere. Most everybody talks about it, but to BE about it’s a different thing.

And I learned that early. I played sports as a kid, and then also with the riding, you go to the first couple of horse shows and get your butt kicked, and you either can sit and complain you know or you can get up and and you can go do something about it—do what needs to be done. That applies to everything.

[Karen] That’s one thing that I’m always super impressed about with you. We’ll go to those horse shows—and I try really hard not to be barn-blind ‘cuz I think I can be your toughest critic—and there are times that like I feel like, oh my gosh, you really did do so well, but didn’t get marked the way that you should have. You never give up on that.

[Matt] I know what you’re talking about. The thing with that, the way I look at it—and a lot of this like I think my dad kind of taught me a long time ago, now that I’m thinking about back on it 30 years later—nobody is going to control how I feel about the job I did, you know, as far as my performance…

[Matt] …and the way I see it as a competitor, no matter what the reason is, no matter why the judge scored you whatever they scored you…

…if I constantly am trying to improve myself, I’m always going to be in a good place. And if I feel like I’m improving, I’ve won.

I know, I’m my harshest critic, so I know if I’ve done well— if I got the most out of my horse. And it used to bother me, you know, to score what I think should have been a 72…

[Karen] …if it was bothering you though, or if it does bother you, you don’t even let me even know…

[Matt] …I just put it into let’s work harder and get better.

Be so good, that it’s just undeniable.

And then for me personally, of course, I want to win. I want to fill up that lounge with trophies as much as I can. But you know, I’ve had some runs where I’ve won—and I’ve still walked out and thought, man, that is not what I prepared for… and that is what drives me to come out the next day and keep working.

[Karen] I know, I’m just telling you that I’m impressed how you are able to do that.

[Matt] Well, thank you. Man, they’re asking tough questions!

[Karen] If you could give your Rookie Self three pieces of advice, what would they be? 

[Matt] I would say…

[Karen] …you partially kind of answered it in the last question… 

[Matt] …say your wife—just agree that she’s right, even if you don’t think she is, ‘cuz it’s a lot easier and smoother… 

[Karen] …but, your wife always is 🙂

[Matt] #1) I think for sure, number one, is be patient. You know, I’d say, look, be patient, stay the course, keep working hard. No matter how bad you think you can do something to alter your course, some things just take time. And people told me that early on and I didn’t really believe it, but that’s really, it really is the case.

[Karen] And I think too…you do have to be super patient. And you even talked about that with yourself.

You would get so impatient ‘cuz you thought, “I just want this now, now, now, now, now.” 

[Matt] #2) Enjoy the journey. That’s another one. You know, enjoy the process. Which I’m way better now about that. Riding everyday, working with these horses…

With what I do, I mean, I don’t really ‘work’—it’s a lot of hours, but I love doing this.

[Matt] #3) And then the biggest thing, you know, which I did: find something you have a passion for and work your butt off

[Karen] What’s one thing you wish you would have known before choosing a professional riding career?

[Matt] That I wasn’t gonna get rich! 

[Karen] I think you knew that…

[Matt] I’m just joking. 

[Karen] I don’t know that there is anything, ‘cuz you love this so much.

[Matt] Wish somebody would have told me? That’s a tough one. I knew so early what I wanted to do—because I was 12 or 13 years old. You know I, honestly, I think everything’s gone exactly the way it’s supposed to.

You know, there’s going to be ups and downs with everything, but I can’t say enough, I enjoy what I do.

[Karen] I think that no matter what somebody did tell you, you were going to do this anyway. So it wouldn’t have mattered if there was something that somebody told you. I don’t know that your mom and dad—maybe not so much your mom—but your dad was probably not so keen on you doing this since he wanted you to go to college. 

[Matt] He had no clue what this whole world was like. He’s just thinking, it’s the local riding stable and I’m going to be there giving pony rides to people for minimum wage for the rest of my life. You know, he didn’t know. I didn’t know.

I didn’t know how many cool things I was going to get to do. 

[Karen] Are there any words of wisdom that you would have given your ‘Rookie Self’ about becoming a role model for other riders of color?

[Matt] I think the biggest thing, like with you know, being a role-model is, it’s two things. The biggest one is lead by action.

I’m a big believer in ‘what are you doing,’ not so much ‘what are you saying.’

What are you doing—the way you carry yourself. Nobody is perfect. Nobody expects you to be. But, the way you handle yourself and how you carry yourself is big.

And the other thing is just being available. If somebody has a question, we try hard to really try to be available for others. You got a question you want to ask? I’ll try to help you. 

The big thing, though… is I’ve had guys come out here that I’ve given opportunities to come out and, you know, it’s like there’s a sense of entitlement. They feel like somebody owes them something. I’m here to tell you, they don’t. Like for me, my dad’s black, my mom’s white. So really, it’s like 50/50 for me. I’m like right in the middle. 

[Karen] But you’re always considered, in our world, that you are black. 

[Matt] Yeah. Which that’s fine, too. It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever. I grew up with everything. But what I’m saying is, I see that and get that vibe from a lot of guys that are like, “Man you’re lucky, you’re lucky. You are so lucky that someone gave you a break.” Listen, there’s no luck in that.

You got to work your butt off. You’ve got to set yourself up for opportunities.

And that attitude, right out of the gate, is why a lot of guys and girls aren’t getting to where they want to go.

[Karen] If you were to do it all over again, what’s the one thing you’d choose to repeat and the one thing you’d choose to change? 

[Matt] If I could do it all over again, I would repeat marrying Karen Mills. 

[Karen] Oh my God, I was thinking the same exact thing! I was just going to say that.

[Matt] That’s true. And what I would change? Man, I don’t know.

I don’t like to live looking over my shoulder. I don’t think I’d change anything.

[Matt] You know, I’d say maybe some of those horses that I would try so hard to have them turn out, that maybe I would give up a little sooner… but you know, I’m not going to do it. Just ‘cuz it’s not in me. I want to try to get them all as good as I can. If I think that they’ve got it, I’m going to try hard to get it out of them—figure out a way.

So I don’t think I would change anything!

Parting Thoughts

Huge thanks to Karen and Matt for sharing their thoughts and advice with all our Horse Rookies. If you want to follow Matt’s career and continue learning from his experience, subscribe to his educational video library.

There’s a 7-day free trial so you can decide if it’s for you—but we’re sure it will be! He breaks down his favorite exercises, shares training sessions, and provides members-only advice to help you execute plus-one maneuvers in your next reining pattern.

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About the author


Matt Mills Reining

Matt Mills trains and shows futurity and derby horses in Scottsdale, AZ, as well as coaches successful non-pro and youth riders. He is an NRHA Million Dollar Rider, USEF Open Reining Champion, and former member of Team USA that proudly brought home the gold medal from the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in 2006. His wife Karen and children Ryan, Alec and Emma are his pride and joy, and Karen is a beloved guest on Matt's vlog.