Trick riders: the daredevils of horse riding

Callder Griffith doing a trick on Batman during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

Performing stunts while riding a horse is a time-honored tradition for some risk-takers. Trick riding has been around for years, and perhaps the most standout examples include a few Santa Clarita Valley residents who’ve even starred on the silver screen.

“Basically, trick riding is equestrian gymnastics,” said Gattlin Griffith, 20. “It’s a performance, and doing tricks on horses while they run and perform in their own right.” 

You don’t hear about many trick riders these days, especially a group of trick-riding kids. In fact, the Griffith’s — Callder, 17, Arrden, 16, Garrison, 10, and Gattlin — along with neighbor Demi Trepanier, are among the top trick-riding groups in the nation.

“We’ve built that community in our own family and with Demi,” Gattlin said. “That’s made us really connected and we have a really special bond because of it.” 

Wild West Express is a fourth-generation trick-riding group, coached by Griffith patriarch Tad Griffith, a famous stunt actor. 

Tad started trick riding at the age of 5, because his parents had done it, according to Gattlin. Tad’s father is in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame, while his mother is in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. 

“They made their living going rodeo to rodeo, so it was kind of a family business,” Gattlin said. “We don’t do it nearly as much as he did, but given who he is, we had a lot of great opportunities.”

Garrison Griffith, Arrden Griffith, Callder Griffith, Demi Trepanier and Gattlin Griffith, from left to right, together form Wild West Express, a trick riding group. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

Except for Garrison, who started when he was 4, the Griffith kids were all about 7 or 8 when their father started teaching them.

“Learning how to trick ride starts with learning how to ride,” Gattlin said. “They went hand-in-hand, because you have to know how to sit on a horse and ride first.” 

The kids were first taught how to get on a horse bareback and just ride around before they began learning any of the basic tricks.

“When you’re in time with your horse, it really helps you get to the different positions you need to do in trick riding and being able to perform the tricks,” Gattlin said. “There’s a few foundational tricks you learn that have a lot of the same techniques that some of your more difficult tricks require, so building technique and building a sense of timing is huge for trick riding.” 

In trick riding, although they may perform as a group, routines are done individually. 

“We all have diverse tricks, and we each have our own set of things that we’re a little bit better at,” Gattlin said. “Callder’s definitely a trickster — he’s got a real improvisational aspect of his performance.” 

Arrden Griffith doing a trick on Brownie during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

“Gattlin’s more of the steady graceful trick rider,” Callder said. 

“Traditional, I guess,” Gattlin added to the conversation. 

“The holding tricks he’s really good at just because he’s got a lot of upper (body) strength,” Callder continued. 

While Arrden is a mixture of the two, Trepanier, being the only girl, has a different style entirely.

“There’s a difference between girls’ tricks and guys’ tricks,” Gattlin added. 

“The boys have a lot more ground tricks, so they’ll hit the ground and go back up — for me, it’s all on saddle,” Trepanier said.

Each horse they ride has its own personality, Callder said, and the horse has to enjoy trick riding and trust the rider just as much as the rider trusts them, Garrison added.

“There’s a bond there and a connection that has to be formed,” Gattlin said.

Garrison Griffith doing a trick on Okie McAlister during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

The group usually begins training two weeks to a month before a show, with 4-hour practices sometimes six or seven days a week. 

“(Our father) is always having us practice at different times, different environments,” Callder said. “So we’ll take the spotlight out and shine it on the horses so they get used to it for the show.”

They do this so they’re “prepared for anything,” Gattlin said. 

Wild West Express has had opportunities to perform at various venues, including the Fort Worth Stock Show, North American Trick Riding Championship, and an almost annual performance at the Fiesta of the Spanish Horse at Griffith Park, as well as making an appearance on “America’s Got Talent” in 2015. 

“That was kind of a big deal, just to be able to broadcast this aged sport to a larger audience,” Gattlin said. “It felt like we got a lot of feedback from people saying it’s nice to see young people still doing it.” 

Gattlin Griffith auditioning for America’s Got Talent with Clash in 2015. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

Trick riding can actually be quite dangerous, and the Griffith’s attribute their success to the help of their father. 

“Because he knows so much, we don’t have to spend as much time as he did learning,” Gattlin said. “He can tell you situations that you’re probably going to encounter way before they happen, which makes the learning process a lot quicker.” 

Even with his help though, all of them have gone through some wrecks, especially Arrden, who Gattlin said has been in some tough falls. 

“I broke my left foot last April,” Arrden said. “I was on a big horse going around a corner doing a trick that has you on the side when he lost footing, tripped and stumbled on my lower torso and broke my foot.” 

In fact, that’s how their grandmother died, Callder said: “A horse fell on her during a performance.” 

“Luckily, it was just the broken foot, but he’s had plenty of wrecks like that — we’re surrounded by angels all the time,” Gattlin said. “We just know how lucky we are.” 

Callder Griffith doing a trick on Lightening during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

In trick riding, there’s a special skill to getting out of tricky situations, which can only be learned as you get older, according to Gattlin. 

“There’s a special spot in the trick,” Garrison said, almost like a “sweet spot,” where a trick becomes easier on the rider, as well as the horse, which is also often times the scariest position to get in.

“A lot of trick riding is going against your natural senses and what would be logical and just using physics,” Gattlin said.

And though it requires a toughness and bravery not required of most show events, each of them enjoy trick riding for their own reasons.

Garrison loves traveling and “the experience because its a certain kind of horseback riding that only some can actually do,” while Arrden loves the feeling.

“There’s a feeling you get before a show that’s like adrenalin mixed with motivation — it’s a feeling you can’t get with any other thing,” Arrden said. 

Demi Trepanier doing a trick with Sliver during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

Similarly, Gattlin likes the feeling just after a show. 

“It’s this climax where everything has come together — all the hard work, all the practices in the dirt — we’re doing it for that feeling,” Gattlin said. 

Trepanier loves the feeling she gets after learning a new trick, like she’s accomplished something, both solo and as a group.

“I love all of them — they’re just like my brothers — and just being with them after shows, we know what we’ve accomplished together,” she said. 

Callder agreed, and said he loves “the conversations we have while we’re in the stations when it’s just us lined up.”

Now, although they’ve gotten a bit older and have begun to go their separate ways, they agree that their experience with horses and on the ranch has shaped who they are today. 

“We’re in this interesting position where we’re acting in Los Angeles and are a part of that quick lifestyle, but then we come home to our ranch,” Gattlin said. “I’d like to bridge that gap and show both of those worlds.” 

“It’s kind of like living double lives,” Callder added. “At home, we’re on the ranch. We have our horses, but once you go to school, it’s a totally different lifestyle.” “I love living on a ranch though,” Trepanier said, “I wouldn’t want to grow up another way,” 

Gattlin Griffith doing a trick on Clash during a performance. Courtesy of Wendy Griffith

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About the author

Emily Alvarenga

Emily Alvarenga

Emily Alvarenga covers features and community for The Signal. She's new to the paper and Santa Clarita, but hasn't moved far from her hometown of Temecula, California. Emily graduated from San Diego State University in 2017 and has been writing and reporting since high school.