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Matthew Shiflet: Talented, Driven, Humble



By Ann Bullard

He seems too good to be true. That’s the assessment some of Matt Shiflet’s customers give when talking about the 29-year-old trainer. Of course, Matt comes by his talent, drive, determination, work ethic and charm naturally. As the son of Beverly and Harrison Shiflet, and Alice and Claude Shiflet’s grandson, it would be hard for him to be anything else.

Nor can anyone – including Matt – imagine him doing anything else. He’s been pursuing his profession since he rode his first stick horse and ‘bouncing pony.'

"It wasn’t a matter of pushing him, of saying you have to ride. It was more him saying I want to ride, let me on. He was mesmerized by the whole idea; he was eaten up with the horses from day one," Beverly said, smiling at the memories.

From the time he was big enough to walk, Matt rode and trained his stick horse. The toddler ran around the barn aisle dragging a lead shank and whip. At about three, he moved up to what his father calls "a big bouncing horse [on springs.] He would put chains, shin boots and rubber boots on it and ride it to death. One day, he was on the sofa behind it and driving it like a show horse. I’ve never known too many people on a mission almost from the time they were born," Harrison added.

Matt and Harrison dressed in blue riding suits when Harrison led his four-year-old son in his first lead line class. The blue ribbon the youngster earned on his white pony, Jubilee, proved to be the first of many.

Growing up as a Shiflet in Asheboro, N.C., gave Matthew many advantages and challenges. He had opportunities to learn and ride that many others only dream of. Much was expected of him and he delivered.

"Mom taught me how to ride," he said quietly, adding that his father and grandfather always were around. "She taught me to post, to canter. As I got older, I started learning from Dad and Granddad.

"Of course, you learn a lot when you’re around it," he said, alluding to spending almost every possible waking moment at the barn. "I grew up with horses 24/7 and with two different horse trainers."

As the first of the three Shiflet children, Matt had Harrison "to himself for the first four years," Beverly said. "That made an impact, a bond with Harrison, Claude and my dad [a horse lover/hobbyist.] People ask him, ‘Were you raised in a barn?’ He was."

Matt first showed a Morgan mare Beverly used for lessons. He showed his first ‘show horse’ in Walk and Trot, winning a blue on the first ride.

Growing up, Matthew’s entire world centered around the barn and his family. "Even as a junior exhibitor, after school and all summer I worked at the barn. I can never remember wanting to do anything else. At horse shows I wanted to be there early in the morning to watch horses work and be part of the crew. I got to see Tom Moore, Don Harris and some of those other guys and take note of a lot of things I never will forget. I was a big Tom Moore fan, but didn’t know him all that well. I remember the year [1994] when he won all three stakes at Lexington with Callaway’s Criterion, Attache’s Three Of A Kind and Be Happy. I’ll never forget watching him ride those horses. I cannot imagine how nervous I would be if I had a shot at that."

As Harrison and Beverly’s business grew and they moved around the country, Matt had many opportunities to show. By 1994, they had returned to Asheboro and Claude Shiflet Stables. Harrison worked with his dad and Matt got to hone his skills with the two of them.

"Matthew couldn’t get enough of it all," his mother continued. "He wanted to discuss everything from the tractor to the type of pitchfork used and the shoeing on a horse. Through all his questions came a lot of experiences. Those fell on Harrison who was patiently teaching and working with him. If Matt wanted to know how a horse felt and why, Harrison would get off and let him try."

"As a junior exhibitor, I got to show a lot of horses and rode whatever was available," Matt said. "That wasn’t a bad thing; it taught me how to ride if I wanted to show."

Many of the Shiflets’ customers were happy to have Matt show their horses in the junior exhibitor division. Matt was 15 when his father and grandfather teamed him with Loch Brae’s Jesse Helm in Show Pleasure. The horse had a checkered history when the teenager began riding and working with him.

Beverly Shiflet recalled those days. "Harrison worked with the horse, and then with Matthew and the horse. He advised Matthew while Matthew did the finishing training."

They went to Louisville. The Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited Show Pleasure qualifier had 25 entries.

"My men like to be with the men when they show. I usually go up in the stands," Beverly said. "Matthew was having one of those great shows, weaving in and out of the horses. I had that feeling he had done his job really well.

"After they lined up, Harrison was on the rail talking with Paul Boone. He said he hadn’t a clue who had won. Paul told him, ‘You’d better get in there because you just did.' They didn’t show back as the owners said not to."

One of Matt’s favorite memories came from his grandfather’s last ride in a Five-Gaited Championship. It came at the 2001 J.D. Massey Classic.

"Executive Dunk qualified in the ladies class," Matt recalled. "A bunch of good horses were eligible to show in the championship. Everyone was hyped. Granddad told me he was going to show back. I asked why; he said ‘I ain’t worried about those other ones. You just get him ready.' He went in and won the class.

"That taught me a lesson: you don’t ever know what’s going to happen. They made an outstanding show and beat a bunch of horses they weren’t suppose to. It was a great night and lots of fun," Matt said.

Matt has experienced every aspect of the Saddle Horse business. "I started out as a groom. I rode in the back with the horses and stayed with them at horse shows. It’s important to start at that level and get a taste of it. You appreciate the guys who will work for you one day. I graduated to being allowed to work colts," he said, emphasizing that he always worked horses the way Claude and Harrison told him.

"They started handing some horses over to me. They’d actually been doing that since I was young. I had a gaited pony that I worked after school and a little road pony. It was trial and error; they let me do that. Someone can tell you how to do it a million times over, but you’ve got to do it yourself. There’s a lot of trial and error; you’ve got to figure out what you’re capable of."

Harrison laughed as he told a story about that gaited pony. "At ASAC, Matt was all worked up about showing the pony. When warming up outside, it threw both shoes and we couldn’t get them back on. He was so mad, he got off the pony and walked back to the barn throwing clothes off as he went. We followed right behind picking up his clothes. He learned to take the good with the bad – this business is like that. And he never did it again."

Wes Hall and Matt have been friends most of Hall’s life. Hall is three years younger than his friend, the same age as Matt’s sister, Taylor.

"My dad worked for Claude at the same time Harrison was there. It was only natural for me to work at the barn with Matthew," Hall said, adding that Matthew found him his first road pony. "I may have been his first exclusive customer."

"We were like brothers growing up," Hall said. "I spent many a summer at my grandparents who lived across the road from the barn. I worked for Matt from the time I was 13 or 14 through college. He is my best friend; I was a customer as well as an employee. We have a different relationship than most people. It’s amazing we still talk to each other after all that."

Matt’s parents and grandparents advised him to go to college. He finished high school early so he could train full time.

"I did OK in school but just wanted to be a horse trainer," Matt said. "They said OK, but I’d have to go to work. That was what I wanted to hear. They gave me every opportunity a guy could ask for. My parents and my grandparents made me aware of how hard it is to make a living in this business. They gave me an education that no amount of money could buy."

Matt opened his own business in West Virginia, later moving to Kentucky. During these years, he personally won and trained several more world’s champions. Two of the most memorable horses are World's Champion CH Glider’s Star and World's Champion CH Manhattan’s Irish Cream.

Hall worked for Matt the summer of 2005, taking care of Glider’s Star. The mare had won the mare class and a reserve championship at Lexington.

"That whole summer was leading up to Louisville," Hall said.

On Aug. 3, 2005, Matt rode the nine-year-old mare under the light and onto the green shavings in Freedom Hall. Beverly watched from the stands as Harrison walked into the arena to pin the blue ribbon on the mare his son rode.

That same year, Whitney Bennett rode CH Manhattan’s Irish Cream to win the Three-Gaited Pony 14-17 qualifier and champion of championships title. However, the Shiflet family’s most exciting time with that pony came two years later.

Grant Shiflet had spent several weeks with his brother in Kentucky. He had shown the pony with moderate success. Then came Louisville. It was shortly after Taylor Shiflet had been severely injured in a horse accident. Beverly remained at the hospital; Harrison came for the first class and was there to see Matt pin the blue to the pony’s bridle.

Grant looked back on championship night. "Dad had gone home and was at the hospital watching the show on the Internet. The first way, someone cut me off at the canter. My brother called, ‘You’ve got to get open, Grant.’ We turned around and came down the middle and the pony got really good. It was real exciting!"

When the announcer called Grant’s number, Matt ran into the arena. "He had hurt his knee at Lexington and was wearing a knee brace. It was the first time I’d seen him run in a good while," the youngest of the Shiflets said, smiling at the recollection.

Three years ago, Matt returned to his Carolina home, hanging out his Matt Shiflet Stables shingle at his grandfather’s barn. In that short time, he has gathered a group of knowledgeable and fun-loving customers. The most ‘seasoned’ are Phyllis and Don Brookshire, long-time world’s champion trainers themselves, owners of A Different Story and Lady O’Lydia.

Don Brookshire explained why they chose Matt Shiflet. "I’ve been contemporaries of his family all my life, and have known Claude as long as I can remember. I thought they were a real ethical, high-class family and Matt seemed to me like one of the top up-and-comers.

"We first connected with Matt when he was 10 or 11 and we were at Green Haven Farm. We got him to catch-ride some of our horses in juvenile classes," Brookshire said. "The first time I saw Matt on a horse he was a little-bitty kid. I commented to Phyllis that I had never seen a little kid who had that kind of natural feel for a horse – the way he sat on one, the way he used his hands."

When the Brookshires retired from training and moved back to the Carolinas, Matt was a logical choice for them to make. "The location, his great group of customers and everything else made it a fairly easy transition for us. Besides his talent, Matt is one of the hardest-working young men and one of the most ethical I’ve seen. That’s quite a combination," said the man who had worked for Frank Bradshaw and Tom Moore. "As far as I’m concerned, that’s the league he’s headed for. He’s that good."

Now the Brookshires get to watch while Matthew prepares A Different Story for Phyllis to show in Amateur Five-Gaited and gets Lady O’Lydia ready for the open division. "We’re just a customer," Brookshire said. "I feel we’ve come full circle from getting him to catch-ride horses for us 15 years ago to being his client."

Melody and Sandra Murphy have been part of the Shiflet family for decades. They simply made the transition from one generation of the family to another.

"I’ve watched Matthew from the time he was a little boy to a grown man," Sandra Murphy said. "I felt like he was going to be successful. When he was at his grandfather’s barn for several years, Matthew paid a lot of attention to his grandfather’s direction. I felt he was trying to emulate Claude, to take his advice. That impressed me very much.

"We just kept a horse there and changed generations," Melody added. "Horses are his passion; he’s a great young horseman and works so hard. He’s making a name for himself."

Stacy Halloran of Charleston, W.Va., has been with Matt since he first went to West Virginia. She calls her trainer, "a great friend and a great coach. He is passionate about what he does. You have to be if you’re in this business."

Halloran calls herself Matt’s "business coach, too. I do his accounting and bookkeeping. It’s been very rewarding to see him prosper and thrive.

"Matt is one of those people who never gives up. He always smiles and tries to do something to make you happy. If you have a bad ride, it’s never your fault. He goes back and tries to do something different," she said.

Another thing about being part of Matt Shiflet Stables is he makes shows fun. Just ask Andrea Athanasuleas. They’ve been friends since junior exhibitor days.

"Matt works harder than most people I know. And I think he is the best at what he does," she said. "He still has that glimmer of excitement that many lack in this industry. You can tell he loves it so much because he works his butt off and does a good job. I probably have had more fun showing the last few years than I’ve ever had."

Matt teamed Athanasuleas with CH Juliette’s Déjà Blue. They hit their stride in 2009, starting the year with a pair of wins at the J.D. Massey Classic. From then until Louisville, they earned nothing but blues and tricolors. Eighteen teams went through the gate for the Ladies Three-Gaited Over 15.2 Hands class at the World’s Championships. Athanasuleas's win was one of the thrills of her equestrienne career.

"It was like a dream come true," she said. "When Matt came in the presentation area, he was so excited. He gave me a big hug. I never thought we’d do it, but we did. All I had to do was show up to ride that day. He had her perfectly right. He adapts to every horse and every customer."

Athanasuleas looked back on the mare’s time with Matt. "She went to him at three and was a nightmare. Matt would say, ‘I don’t know if she’s worth the money to train her this month,’ then ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something there that I like.' He was so patient with her. I’m not sure anyone else would have been that patient and kind. He gave her about a thousand last chances."

All Matt’s clients agree: he knows how to prepare a horse and how to be sure his customers have a good time. Friday nights at shows are fun nights, something about which all the customers are excited. They often include a Corn Hole game.

Matt explained. "Basically it’s a beanbag [or corn bag] toss, using two boards with holes at the top. It’s gotten to be a big game for tailgating and we often have a tournament at the shows."

With all his successes, Matt Shiflet remains a very humble young man. "I’m extremely blessed and fortunate," he said. "I have an opportunity in life when I’m old enough to realize how great my family is and the chance to be around them. When I was younger, I took all that for granted. I’m around some fantastic people. If I can be half as good a person as they are, I’ll be happy.

"I try to do things right, to be friendly with everyone and stand up for what I believe in," he added. "I’ve got the greatest group of customers a guy could ever ask for. Every day, every time we go to a show, I just take it all in. I realize nothing lasts forever; there are ups and downs in any business.

"We’ve got good horses and great customers. That’s what makes Matt Shiflet Stables what it is. Everyone likes to win, to work hard toward it and go after it," he said.

George Anne Nash, one of his newest clients, added another aspect to the story. "Matt is doing a good job and is learning how to get a balance in his life. He took a week’s vacation with his family. He’s learning at an early age that he needs to take time to breathe, or this business will burn him up. Everyone tries to be the best. We have a lot of fun at Matt Shiflet Stables. After all, we spend a lot of money to do this, we might as well enjoy it."

Yes, Matt is one who has followed his dream from childhood. He is fortunate enough to realize that talent, passion and hard work produce winners. Yet, as Beverly said, he hasn’t forgotten about the important things: God, family and friends.

And that’s his formula for success.

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