Tish Wilhite grew up on the back of a horse.
“It was my mom and dad, so Tish’s grandparents, and me and I was holding her in my lap when we rode in the Clovis Rodeo parade,” explained her mother, Jo Wilhite. Tish was just 6 months old at that parade in 1962.
Now an experienced Reined Cow Horse rider and trainer, Tish began her riding career at the age of 3, taking lessons from the late Troy Henry, a Clovis bridle horse trainer.
She went on to become Miss Rodeo California in 1982 and was a Miss Rodeo America Top 10 Finalist.
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Although she her experience runs the gamut of equine disciplines, including halter, Western pleasure and equitation, English pleasure and equitation, hunter hack, Western riding and more, the discipline closest to Tish’s heart is showing the fast-paced Reined Cow Horses.
“It was something that my family had been into for years, we had horses shown in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Wilhite said. “As a youth competitor I had done all different disciplines. I took a 10-year hiatus and didn’t ride, but when I got back into horses I needed to pick a discipline.”
During her hiatus Wilhite got married, attended Fresno City College and Heald College and became a paralegal.
“I absolutely hated it,” she said.
After working in designer clothing at Macy’s for four years, Wilhite opened an upscale Western wear store in Old Town Clovis called Romancing The West.
“My husband had built the building, the two-story building across from DiCicco’s on Clovis and 3rd Street. He owned Cattle Rustlers Steakhouse,” Wilhite said. “We had managers there but had to take over the restaurant over ourselves. It was too much to work in the clothing store all day and then work in the restaurant all night. The days just weren’t long enough. We had more of a financial venture in the restaurant so we closed my clothing store. We ran the restaurant for four more years until he sold the building around 2006. He retired and I started riding show horses.”
She likes that showing Reined Cow Horses combines three events to decide a winner.
“Reining is pretty and nice, but I also like the fast-paced cow work,” she said.
Cutting involves separating a single cow away from a herd and keeping it away for a short period of time. A working cow horse event means working a single cow around an arena, performing various tasks. In reining, she guides a horse through a precise pattern of circles, spins, and stops.
“That’s where we do the sliding stops, figure eights and slides,” Wilhite said.
Not only does she love the sport — she’s good at it, too. Tish has earned more than $230,000 in about 20 years in the National Reined Cow Horse Association. Three of her American Quarter Horses have been world champions, and plenty more have earned various titles.
Competing in Reined Cow Horse events is expensive, however, and as a Non Professional, Tish was paying for her shows out of pocket.
“As a Non Professional I couldn’t charge people for training or for showing their horses,” she said. “So it came down to quit, or go with plan B.”
Plan B meant giving up her Non Professional card and going pro — which she did in October — so that she can offer lessons and training to the public. Essentially, her clients pay for her expenses now.
Wilhite couldn’t be happier with her decision.
“It has given me a new lease on life in the horse world,” she said. “I absolutely love working with the people and the amazing partners we have in this dance that we call the Reined Cow Horse.”
Her mother, now 83, is also ecstatic.
“I’m glad she went with plan B,” Jo Wilhite said. “This is my life, is following her. I don’t know what I would’ve done if she’d quit. My life would’ve been over.”
Jo Wilhite, a Clovis resident since birth, has boarded horses on her ranch just east of Clovis Community Hospital since 1978. She has been actively involved in her daughter’s career since its beginning.
“She has never been to a horse show that I haven’t been to,” Jo said.
Now Tish Wilhite trains seven horses and gives six students riding lessons. She is up before 5 a.m. and works until about 4 p.m.
Tish gives an outstanding lesson. She is thorough and concise, she explains her theories on horsemanship, she doesn’t give orders.
“I’m booked full,” she said. “I only want to take what I can comfortably handle and devote my time to.”
She splits her time between her mom’s ranch and Beal’s Quarter Horses on Bullard Avenue just east of Academy Avenue. Shauna and Ernie Beal are Wilhite’s clients, along with their children Mason and Trevor.
Mason, 11, will ride one of Wilhite’s world champions, Smokin My Cash, at a competition this month in Paso Robles. The Beals are leasing the horse, whose barn name is Marley.
“We had two goals when we first asked Tish to help us with our horses,” explained Shauna Beal. “First, we need the horses to perform better in the show ring. Second, we needed to perform better. Tish has done a tremendous job giving our horses a show ring finish. She quickly determined their weaknesses and developed a program to fix them.”
As a riding teacher, “Tish gives an outstanding lesson,” Beal said. “She is thorough and concise, she explains her theories on horsemanship, she doesn’t give orders.”
Wilhite also continues to compete, but is now in the Open Division.
“It’s a higher caliber of riders and the purses are larger,” she said.
The largest event she competes in regularly is the Snaffle Bit Futurity each September in Reno, Nevada.
She has also gone to the NRCHA World Show held every February in Fort Worth, Texas, where the top 20 horses in each region in each division go head-to-head.
Her horse, The Fresno Fox, was named the NRCHA World Show Non Pro Hackamore Champion in 2010.
“I sold (The Fresno Fox) two years ago to a woman in North Carolina and she qualified for an AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) World Show with this horse,” Tish Wilhite said. “And Hesa Smokin Indian (who was the Two Rein Champ and Bridle Champ at the 2008 NRCHA World Show) is probably going to be inducted into the (NRCHA) Hall of Fame.”
Wilhite has been with her husband, Brian Avery, for 32 years — but you won’t find him near a saddle or in the stands.
“In 32 years he has been to four horse shows,” Wilhite said. That’s why she was surprised when Avery bought a horse in October and asked her to train and show it.
“He even became a registered member of the National Reined Cow Horse Association,” Wilhite said. “He was my first real client.”
The horse’s registered name is Cat’s Moonshine Mate, but its barn name is Karma — for a reason.
Wilhite was on her way to deliver a horse named Bless Your Hart. Her trailer got its first flat tire in Chowchilla, and a second flat tire in Sacramento. The roadside assistance service she uses, specific for people traveling with horses, connected her with a family who would put her horses up for the night while she waited to get new tires for the trailer.
“They wouldn’t take payment for boarding the horses, but asked that I tour their ranch. Turns out, they had Reined Cow Horses,” Wilhite said. “Trinket (Jo Wilhite’s friendly Boston Terrier) started playing with one of their yearlings.”
The horse wasn’t saddle broken, but Wilhite saw something in him.
“We went back the next weekend to bring the horse home,” she continued. “If it hadn’t been for those flat tires, I would’ve never stopped at that ranch and met that horse.”
Wilhite, even as a trainer herself, still gets coaching from Lance Johnston, a trainer in Exeter. She even took Mason Beal, Karma, and another 2-year-old horse named Trigger, to Johnston earlier this month to get a second opinion on their progress.
“He’s been a judge, so he knows what to look for ... he gave Mason tips and told him what he did or didn’t do or what he could’ve done better,” she said. “It’s constant practicing and learning.”
Wilhite coached Alicia Aluisi, who won the 2015 Miss Clovis Rodeo title in April.
Tish was absolutely instrumental in me winning. She guided me throughout the way.
2015 Miss Clovis Rodeo Alicia Aluisi
“We’ve known the Aluisis a long time. My mom gave Alicia riding lessons when she was five years old,” Tish said.
Aluisi attributes her riding skills to Tish’s patient training.
“Instead of expecting the student to adapt to her training methods, Tish learns what works best for each individual she is training and then adapts her methods to help that student succeed,” Aluisi said. “That’s what makes her a great trainer.”
While preparing for the Miss Clovis Rodeo contest, which involves public speaking, rodeo knowledge and horsemanship, Aluisi felt that she struggled the most with horse riding skills.
“Tish was absolutely instrumental in me winning,” she said. “She guided me throughout the way.”
The mare Aluisi used in the contest, Ceemebquick, whose barn name is Holly, was Tish’s horse that Aluisi bought a couple of years ago.
“Tish spent countless hours training and preparing, not only me, but Holly as well, for the 2015 Miss Clovis Rodeo contest,” Aluisi said. “I had never felt so ready and confident walking into the arena, and I attribute that all to Tish Wilhite.”
Wilhite is just glad to be able to remain financially comfortable while doing what she loves.
“I just wanted to support my habit with the horses,” she said. “I am blessed to be very busy and loving what I do.”
Visit her at www.tishwilhite.com.