Visitors come from around the country to buy amazingly trained horses from Dora family
Anyone asked to name Ozark County’s leading “exports” would be right in mentioning cattle, and also the cedar products shipped from Giles & Kendall, or the plastic construction materials manufactured by Wilson Industries, or the nut butters made at the East Wind Community. But maybe you would be surprised to know that buyers come to Ozark County from all over the country to visit a farm in Dora that sells amazingly trained foxtrotter trail-riding horses for thousands of dollars. Or they purchase at online auction one of the horses trained by Brian Land, owner of Premier Foxtrotters, and his daughter and assistant trainer, Keeli Land. Their horses are often offered on thehorsebay.com website, where horses sell for $7,500 to $50,000 or more.
To understand why horse people come so far and pay so much for one of the Lands’ well-trained foxtrotters, picture a scene where Brian Land comes driving a pickup truck down a country road pulling a low-boy, flat-bed trailer with no sides or railings. On the trailer stands Rocky, a steel-steady horse with a confidant Keeli Land sitting in the saddle. The pickup pulls into a farm-lot driveway, and Keeli, still in the saddle, gently guides the horse in nonchalantly turning around and stepping off the back of the trailer.
You don’t have to imagine the scenario. Watch the video (and others promoting other Premier Foxtrotters offerings) on the Premiere Foxtrotters Facebook page. It’s a remarkable demonstration that underscores why Missouri foxtrotters, a breed born and refined in the Ozarks in the 1940s, have an international reputation, not only as beautiful show horses with a distinctive, high-energy gait, but also as calm, unflappable trail-riding horses that can handle rugged terrain and nearly any surprise without flinching.
In the video promoting Rocky – and other videos featuring additional trained horses on the Premier Foxtrotters Facebook page – you can see Keeli firing a rifle while sitting in the saddle. The horse doesn’t flinch. Next, the horse stands chest deep in the creek, and Keeli and her sister, Kelsi Haney, use him as a swim platform, jumping off his back and plunging into the water while whooping and hollering. Later, they all – horse too – stretch out on the bank to sunbathe.
In other scenes, Keeli stands on a mounting block or on a pole fence, snapping her fingers, and the horse quietly sidesteps closer so she can mount.
As the video continues, Keeli shoots Roman candle fireworks while sitting in the saddle. Next, she drapes herself with a loudly rattling reinforced plastic tarp and rides around a corral. Then Kelsi stands on the ground beside Keeli astride a horse, rattling the tarp in front of the horse, in back of the horse, dragging it through the horse’s legs, under its belly, over its head. The horse doesn’t move.
Later in the video, Keeli rides a calm-and-composed foxtrotter in the round ring while a loud four-wheeler ATV with a large flag fluttering behind it zips around the ring too. Next she rides the horse down a set of landscaped-terrace steps and over a teeter-tottering footbridge on a path. The horse calmly traverses the obstacles without hesitation.
Then the foxtrotter is shown lying on the ground while someone snaps a long whip close to its nose, close to its tail, and all around the horse, who appears to be dozing off. Finally, Keeli uses loudly buzzing electric clippers to trim the horse’s muzzle and ears.
The horse. Doesn’t. Move.
Training trail-riding foxtrotters
Brian Land is familiar with foxtrotter novices’ surprised reaction to the videos. Foxtrotters are known for their even temperament, he said, and he and Keeli practice “natural horsemanship,” following the gentle training system taught by Clinton Anderson to desensitize their horses to a variety of potential disturbances and distractions.
The training complements the horse breed’s traditional easy-riding sure-footedness on rugged trails, the kind of trails found in the Mark Twain National Forest near the Lands’ farm. That’s where Brian and Keeli take customers who come to Dora to try out prospective purchases. One recent customer from Wisconsin spent the day riding a prospective purchase with the Lands over 13 miles of trail in the Devil’s Backbone area.
“They usually say, ‘My gosh, if this horse can do this trail, it’ll do fine back in our area. We don’t have anything this rough,’” Brian said.
He and his wife, the former Tara Watkins, didn’t grow up as horse people. Brian grew up in West Plains, the son of Larry and Brenda Land, and he only occasionally rode a friend’s horse during his boyhood, he said. He got his own horse when he was 19 or 20. “We had a little 1-acre lot just outside of town, and we kept it behind the house,” he said, laughing.
Tara grew up in Dora, the daughter of Wanda and Ronnie Watkins, who “despised having horses. They’re cattle people,” Brian said, laughing again.
The Watkinses’ attitude changed after Brian and Tara were married in 1996 and daughters Kelsie and Keeli came along – and developed a heart for horses, especially foxtrotters. An Ozark County Times article published 11 years ago this month reported the Land girls had just become “the first sisters in youth classes to win concurrent world grand championships at the Missouri Foxtrotting Horse Breed Association’s 51st annual show in Ava.”
That was in 2009, the year Keeli, then 8, won the title in the Youth 11 and Under class; Kelsi won in the Youth Model class. It was Kelsi’s first competition, while her younger sister already had a couple of years of competing. Keeli started showing foxtrotters when she was 6 and “so little she left spur marks on her saddle pad because her legs were so short,” her mother, Tara, said at the time.
Now Keeli, who will be 20 this fall and is a sophomore working on an education degree at Missouri State University-West Plains, is one of the most decorated teenagers in foxtrotter history, having won six World Grand Championships and 23 garlands representing champion and runner-up winnings in major shows. She and her dad are also competing in adult classes in this year’s shows.
While they enjoy competing, training trail-riding foxtrotters has become the Lands’ focus, and their original two-horse operation has grown into a herd that usually numbers 50 or more. Typically, four or five of them are being trained at a time.
“That’s about all you can do, because you have to work with them every day,” Brian said.
He also works part-time as an Aflac insurance agent, and Tara teaches third grade in Willow Springs while supporting Brian and their daughters, especially Keeli, in managing the horse business and helping at shows.
Getting the horse to use the ‘thinking side’ of its brain
Their work as trainers started several years ago by watching Clinton Anderson videos and then trying to put his methods into practice. “We go out and try to do what he does, then we come back and watch more videos and go back out and try it again,” he said.
The hardest thing about the training, he said, is getting the horse to use the thinking side of its brain.
“Horses have two parts of their brains, reactive and thinking. Almost all horses start out not really knowing much; they just react to everything,” he said. “The more you mess with them, the more tired you get them, you get them to start using the thinking side.”
Giving the horse a workout before training is important, he said. “We start them in the round pen – get them doing the round pen stuff the correct way, not just running around in a circle but getting them to pay attention and use that thinking side of their brain,” he said.
Then comes the slow, step-by-step work at what he calls the “desensitizing.” For example, to train a horse not to react to someone firing a rifle while sitting in the saddle, he said, “You don’t just get the horse out of the stall and start shooting a gun.” First, they work the horse to get it a little tired, and then they may shoot off a firecracker somewhere.
“You want to get the horse comfortable. You want him to use that thinking side of the brain and get him to trust you,” Brian said.
The Lands usually have four or five horses that are ready for sale; most are offered on internet sites such as thehorsebay.com, YouTube.com or Facebook (search for “Premier Foxtrotters” or “Brian Land”). While the Lands are the only foxtrotter trainers in Ozark County, they’re not the only ones in the Ozarks. “Ozark County and Douglas County – and even Greene County – this is the foxtrotter mecca of the world,” Brian said. “This is where they come for foxtrotters.”
For more than 10 years, Premier Foxtrotters horses, ridden by the Lands or friends or buyers, have competed in nearly every show at the Missouri Foxtrotting Horse Breed Association headquarters in Ava. That also helps them get the word out about their business.
They encourage prospective buyers to come to Dora to “test drive” their horses. A few customers have bought a horse based completely on the online videos and messages, as well as phone calls, and then had the horse shipped. Most, though, come to Dora to get acquainted with the horse they’re considering.
Buyers from all parts of the nation
“Most of them stay down the road at River of Life,” Brian said, referring to the resort on the North Fork of the White River. “Some people from Wisconsin came in a camper recently and stayed at Sunburst Ranch. They stay somewhere like that and then come here to try a horse.”
He and Keeli introduce them to the horse at the farm and “help them get started with it,” Brian said. Then they take the buyers to nearby Mark Twain National Forest to ride the trails. A typical day might include an 8- to 12-mile ride up and down hills, through creek bottoms and along the ridges, Brian said. The buyers want to see that the horse loads and unloads easily from the trailer and adjusts to being anywhere among the riders – in the lead or the middle of the group. And, of course, they want to know that the loud crack of a tree limb or small animals darting across the path or a rock tumbling down the hill or other possible distractions on the trail don’t alarm the horse. They want a horse that gives them a smooth, loose-rein, no-drama ride.
In the last several months, the Lands have sold horses to buyers from Nevada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia, Utah and Colorado. There’s no telling where the next customers will come from. “A friend of mine shipped two or three horses to Israel,” Brian said.