Breaking horses, the Cowboy way

Trainer Manuel “Cowboy” Chapman leans against a barn stall in Castleton, looking over at Nessie’s Wager, a one-year-old filly and – with his training – future racehorse.
Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News
Trainer Manuel “Cowboy” Chapman leans against a barn stall in Castleton, looking over at Nessie’s Wager, a one-year-old filly and – with his training – future racehorse.

Manuel Chapman, aka Cowboy, is three-quarters Cherokee Indian – and some may tell you he’s one-quarter horse.

“These horses, man,” Chapman says, as a two-year-old thoroughbred racehorse named My Sweet Jack nuzzles him from a barn stall. “Once it’s in your blood, it stays there.”

It was actually My Sweet Jack who led Cowboy to Rappahannock County. Maggi Morris, a horse and pony trainer who moved to Castleton in 1982, was referred to a horse breaker last year said to have a way with young horses. Without meeting him first, she hauled Jack to Chapman in Middleburg last October.

Cowboy took to Jack, she said – and, over the month-long course of breaking the horse, he and Maggi also hit it off. The three have made her Green Ginger Farm their home. Every morning and evening, 52-year-old Chapman feeds Jack – and the farm’s 12 other horses.

In life, when you get thrown off the pony, you’ve got to get back on – and, when he was 8 years old, Chapman recalls that it took six or eight times of climbing back on the finicky barn pony at Orchard Hill Stables in Unison, Va., before Starling stopped bucking him off.

It was the start of a life of . . . getting back up.

Sometimes you’ve just got to “Cowboy Up,” Chapman says, pointing to the big decal on his Dodge 3500 work truck, which advertises his Cowboy Up horse training business.

Given 30 days with an animal, he’s been known to work miracles.

“He’s got a connection with them, whether they’re kinda roguish, whether they’re sweet – one way or another, there’s some kind of connection,” Morris says, noting that growing up she’d heard stories about Chapman’s gift with horses back at Orchard Hill (when she was training ponies just down the road in Purcellville). “He doesn’t just jump in that stall and jump on any old thing. He waits for that connection – and sometimes it takes a few days of him lookin’ that horse in the eye. And it’s just . . . the horse is seeing him, and he is seeing the horse. I know that’s a little cryptic and some people won’t get that. But when he sees the horse, by lookin’ in his eye, he knows he’s okay to start doing stuff, to get on ’im.”

Breaking a horse, Chapman says, it’s all about going slow – making the horse comfortable, letting him get familiar with you. When a horse comes to him, Cowboy takes a week doing nothing but feeding and visiting. “Don’t force anything. Let the horse learn, and let him make the decision to do good. It’s about getting the horse to like you, to the point that the horse wants to make you proud.”

When the horse is ready to ride, Chapman says, he’ll tell you.

Chapman also enjoys a challenge.

“Bad horses that people don’t get along with, I like them – because I know I can turn ’em around, if the people want ’em to be turned around and give me the time to do it,”  Chapman said, adding that it usually takes about a month to break a green horse, sometimes longer. “And that’s what I’ve experienced most of my life with the racehorse business; I’ve always got the runaways, or the tough ones, or the broncky ones that nobody else wants to fool with – and that’s what made me good.”

In watching Cowboy break three of his young horses this year, breeder Keith Early, owner of Rockwood Farm in Hamilton, said he found that patience was Manuel’s best quality.

“Something that I’ve learned in this business, is you just can’t push a horse; they sort of have their own timing,” Early said, noting that he met Cowboy through Morris, after longtime trainer Mark Deane of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association retired from the horse-breaking trade. “Some of them just don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. And so when they’re young, you’ve really gotta make ’em want to do it.”

Cowboy recalls riding 300 different horses during weekend sales at the Marshall Livestock Exchange. He travelled the rodeo circuit for four years, rode broncs and bulls. He galloped Seattle Slew before he was a teenager. And at 13, Chapman left home and moved into the Kratz Motel near Charles Town Races in West Virginia to work with racehorses, and has been doing it all on his own ever since. He spent 16 years in Charles Town, and for more than 20 years bought and sold horses for the late Hal Burnop of Maryland. He’s galloped racehorses for the likes of Danny Dillow, Jim Starkey and Ed Householder.

“Once I got these horses in my blood, that’s all I wanted to do.”

The name Cowboy emerged about five years ago, Chapman says, after he was paid $80 to get on a horse that its owner said couldn’t be ridden.

“When I got on him, and the horse went to buckin’ – well instead of fightin’ the horse and jerkin’ him around, I just dropped his head and took ahold and said, ‘Let’s ride,’” Chapman says. “And he gave me the name Cowboy, and everybody’s been callin’ me Cowboy since.”

Early said that breaking horses is a dangerous business, a job that sometimes isn’t completed without serious penalties to the body. Chapman will tell you that he’s been lucky: Aside from a few broken ribs, some falls and kicks, he’s never been seriously injured by a horse.

“These guys are brave, very brave,” Early said. “And when you meet a unique personality like Cowboy, you want to give ’em the business.”

Chapman trains thoroughbreds and takes on other horses, regular riding horses and quarterhorses. Cowboy breaks and gallops horses for a lot of high-powered people, he says, naming BB&T president John Hannah; Jimmy Keaton, who owns 27 racehorses in Catlett; and breeder Early. (In fact, two of the three racehorses Morris and Chapman own were Early’s: My Sweet Jack and Dylan My Villain. The latter just raced six-and-a-half furlongs at Charles Town Races April 27.)

Chapman’s mother picked his name from the Bible, and Cowboy describes his connection with animals as his gift from God. Chapman was raised by his aunt, uncle and grandparents, who were full-blooded Cherokee Indian. He says he grew up “the old way,” and recalls fetching water from a well, digging up greens from fields for food, and living by candlelight when there wasn’t enough money to pay for electricity. And though his grandmother Nellie has passed away, he says that her simple, down-to-earth sayings prove evermore true with each passing year.

“Man, I’ll be 53 years old, come June,” Chapman says. “And I tell you what, I’m standin’ here talking to you, and with Maggi, and I feel like I’m 30. And I’ll ride these dudes like I’m 20.”