By Jahmal Corner
(Reuters) - Professional show jumper Todd Minikus, who was once a regular on the professional bull-riding circuit, stared down 1,500-pound snarling bulls with the same philosophy he now guides elegant chestnut mares.
The 54-year-old American boasts more than 140 national and international wins not simply for his ability to ride but his willingness to go along for one, believing he can only gain control by relinquishing it.
"When you're riding, you're always at mercy to how your horse is performing. They're not machines," Minikus told Reuters while preparing for this week's FEI World Cup Final in Nebraska.
"People just assume horses get up and feel like jumping.
"They are their own individual. People forget that sometimes."
Minikus will be ever mindful of his 12-year-old mare Babalou 41 this week as he builds on his career as a show jumping maverick.
Known for his course speed and horse sensibilities, Minikus punched his ticket to the World Cup Final two weeks ago at a qualifying event in Florida.
The final rider of the competition, Minikus and Babalou 41 seized top prize money and blazed past peers with a time of 47.7 seconds.
"My theory is if you don't practice being the winner you never are the winner. You don't practice going slow with a race horse," Minikus said of his knack for speed.
Minikus's easy marriage with horses stems from his proximity to them. He began riding at the age of six and now operates an equestrian facility where he lives in Wellington, Florida.
His cowboy tendencies made him gravitate to a more perilous challenge earlier in his career. Minikus estimates it was nearly 25 years ago when he attended the Calgary Stampede and casually told a friend he would like to ride a bull.
Before he knew it, he was training with eight-time world champion bull riding champion Donny Gay and whisked away on another journey.
Though Minikus no longer tames bulls, he is an accomplished rider and used to regularly compete in the Professional Bull Riding Championships.
"It's not that different (from riding a horse)," Minikus said. "The buck (of a bull) is very similar to the push (with a horse). We both hang on with our legs."
Working with bulls may have helped Minikus prepare for the often rocky ride of show jumping.
In 2011 alone, Minikus dealt with a kidney stone, a broken collarbone and then caught Legionnaires’ disease.
But he has mostly been on the high side of a stellar career run that spans USA Equestrian Horseman of the Year in 2001 to being named to the shortlist for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Through it all, Minikus, who now settles for motorcycles when he is not being pulled along by a horse, enjoys the ride content to be an appreciative passenger rather than driver.
"We’re lucky we can experience the athleticism of a horse," said Minikus. "We lose track of how cool what they do is. They are the athletes truly competing."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)