Luis Hernandez never dreamed about being the man on the winner’s podium, but he’s using his gift to quietly train champion horses that have skyrocketed Mark Singletary’s Tres Mesa Horses and barrel racer Wenda Johnson into the spotlight.
The sun was breaking over Tres Mesa Horses as Luis Hernandez finished cleaning the final stall of a 10-stall barn. He works quietly and methodically as the horses around him munch breakfast peacefully before their day begins with morning workouts— Luis’ favorite part of his day.
“When I’m with a horse, I forget about the rest of the world—it’s just me and the horse,” Luis said. “What I like about horses is enjoying the horse. A lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s his job, it’s what he makes for a living,’ and right now yes, I do this for a living, but I do all the other stuff, too, not just riding horses and training horses. I feel if you treat a horse well, and in a way you can feel he’s doing good, I can give back something to the horse. They understand me and treat me better.”
The San Felipe, Michoacán, Mexico, native has worked with horses his entire life, whether on their backs or doing all the other work necessary for barns to function. His experience in nearly every facet of the horse industry and at every level has given him a broad-brush outlook on understanding the animal as a whole.
“I grew up in Mexico in a small town, it’s just an agriculture town—cows, horses, agriculture,” said Luis, who came to the States at 17 years old. “I’ve been with different breeds of horses, training different styles of horses and different performances. When I was younger, never on a level of a professional, but I did race some at the track as a jockey. I’ve done a little of everything, so I have a lot of knowledge about horses. I showed gaited horses for over 10 years. I was down where in Spanish, we call them ‘baile horse’—it means dancing horse. We teach the horse to dance and do tricks. I like to mess with the horses to see what I can do. Honestly, I haven’t thought much about my background. I just grew up with horses, pretty much like any other horse person.”
With his wife, Imelda, and two sons Jorge and Rafael, Luis lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where he’s worked at the farm now called Tres Mesa Horses for around 20 years. Located in urban Northeast Fort Worth nestled in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Tres Mesa is a full-service boarding facility owned by Mark Singletary.
Singletary was new to horses when he purchased the farm in 2013, which was then a Peruvian Paso breeding operation, and he kept Luis on staff.
“Luis had been here at that point over 15 years, and he’s very modest—probably didn’t tell you he’s won two world championships training Peruvian Pasos. They still have a horse here that Luis won one of the world championships,” Singletary said. “I thought he was gifted. But I wouldn’t say I immediately realized how great Luis was. I knew he was a hard worker. Reliable. He looked good with horses.”
It didn’t take long for even a novice eye to notice Luis wasn’t just a good worker. “At that time, I’d never ridden a horse two consecutive days,” said Singletary, who owns an audiovisual company. “But I was exposed to more horses and more people, and I realized what a calming influence Luis was on horses.”
At Tres Mesa, Luis cares for about 40 horses on the farm, between boarders and horses owned by Singletary—his day usually starts around 6 a.m. and ends close to 8 p.m. A long day’s work has been the fabric of his life since childhood.
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons I feel comfortable with the horses—I learn to do a lot of things with the horses, not just riding,” Luis said. “I build fence, I mow, I weed eat, I clean stalls, I’m the trainer, I’m the handyman. Whatever needs to be done here, I’m the only one.”
Luis has continued training champion horses, but they’re not gaited. Inside that 10-stall barn are three First Moonflash geldings owned by Tres Mesa that have set barrel racing arenas on fire across the country with their National Finals Rodeo-qualifying riders Wenda Johnson and Kassie Mowry.
Dreams First Flash and Macgyver Moonflash have won rodeos, barrel races and futurities, set arena records and qualified for the NFR with Johnson. The younger Steal Money has been making headlines this year, winning more than $50,000 at the futurities as a 5-year-old with Mowry in only the first four months of the futurity year.
The horses have collectively won close to $550,000 in the barrel pen at press time and make up three of the top four all-time highest-earning First Moonflash barrel racing progeny, according to EquiStat at press time.
All three geldings were trained on the barrels by Luis and live at Tres Mesa under his care when they’re not being hauled to competitions. Dreams First Flash, dubbed by many as one of the fastest horses to ever grace the barrel pattern, was Luis’ first venture into barrel racing in 2016.
“When I started ‘Flash,’ it was the first barrel horse, and to be honest at that time, I didn’t even know the pattern,” Luis said with a laugh, adding that he and Singletary thought each turn was a different direction and started Flash that way before a friend corrected them.
Even so, the gelding was a 1D horse from the start—Flash’s first money won and Luis’ one and only EquiStat earning as a rider comes from a third-place finish in the 1D at the 2016 National Barrel Horse Association Texas State Finals in Waco. Johnson took the reins soon after, and the gelding has lit clocks on fire at the highest levels ever since.
Luis thought he’d just gotten lucky, even when the second horse he trained, Macgyver Moonflash, started winning under Johnson in 2018.
“I’d been on many horses, but not that discipline. When Flash started going really good, I thought I was lucky that this horse goes so well,” Luis said. “And then when I start training ‘Mac,’ I had to do a little different, because every horse is different. He started kind of slow and then he progressed, and he’s a lot more consistent, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a great horse.’ Then he started getting really nice, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m a very lucky guy. I’ve had two horses get there.’”
Steal Money then debuted as a 4-year-old at the 2020 Barrel Futurities of America World Championships with Mowry. “Mo” was a chance for Luis to truly gauge if he was lucky or good.
“Then I get the young horse, and I say, ‘I’m going to see if I’m really lucky or there’s something I’ve been doing right.’ I was so proud and so glad that not just Wenda and Kassie but other good riders can see the horses, and I said, ‘Well, it’s probably something I’ve been doing right,’” Luis said. “That really makes you feel good about what you’ve done with those horses. Girls like Kassie and Wenda, they’re some of the top best riders. It’s really nice to see that it’s successful for me, the third straight horse I started training for barrels, they’re at the top and they are recognized for what they’ve done. I think everybody should be proud to do something like that.”
Training Philosophy—Slow and Steady
Luis doesn’t do anything complicated with the horses. His methods are centered on feel and adjusting his strategies to what each horses communicates to him through their responses.
“I try to understand the horse, I really take the time to know the horse,” Luis said. “I have a few people ask me about my routine, what time it takes me to get a horse trained, and I say I never get a time. I can’t really say it’s going to be done in four months, or it’s going to be done in a year. I always go with the horse. If the horse is thinking, well, I’m happy with the horse,” Luis said. “Sometimes if I’m trying to push the horse and the horse is not comfortable, but I feel like I’m starting to progress, then I stop.”
The key to progressing with a horse, Luis says, is a strong foundation on which he can build as the horse slowly learns to handle speed.
“That’s one of my biggest attributes is starting a horse. In any discipline, if I can put a really good foundation and the basics on the horse, I feel comfortable to do pretty much anything with the horse and not get the horse so fast, so wild. I always tell people it’s a lot of patience—I tell my wife I have more patience with my horses than with my wife,” Luis said with a laugh.
To Luis, a good foundation means the horse understands what the rider is asking and can execute what’s being asked of it lightly and in a calm and responsive manner. It also means the horse can handle pressure and speed but come back down with a level head.
“At the same time, the horse is relieved of all the pressure and you don’t put that much pressure on the horse to get done the stuff you need to get done,” Luis said. “When I say a really good foundation, it means I need the horse’s trust in me and I need to trust in the horse. I take him somewhere and I can run this horse, I can trot this horse, I can walk this horse, I can lope him, and I can run him at speed. At the same time I still control the horse but the horse doesn’t feel like he’s going to explode. The horse still feels comfortable in all those changes in speed.”
Luis says there’s no magic key to what he’s doing other than time, consistency and patience. Rushing the process or skipping steps will eventually expose holes in horses when speed and pressure rise.
“I think the most important part is the consistency in what I’ve done with them. Every time after they run, I go back again where we started and I go over slowly,” Luis said. “I’ve been getting on horses for some other people, and you barely get on the horse and they want to take off. Out of control. That’s when I work with those horses and get them back and start a good foundation. It takes a lot, and it takes trust in the horse and him to trust in you, just like in a relationship.”
The trust between Luis and his horses extends through every facet of his interactions with them.
“I have a small pasture at the house in front of the place, and that’s where I put the horses during the day. When it’s time to feed and put them up, I open every door to the stalls where they go, and I go over there, open the gate, and we don’t have a closed gate at the front of the property. The alleys are completely free. They can run to the street if they want, or they can run to the barn. Those horses trust me. I open the gate and I let them run, and each one goes to their own stall. Sometimes I walk in front of them, and they follow me there, sometimes I walk behind and they just go straight to their stall,” Luis said. “One time I had one girl who was boarding with us, and she was so scared to see those horses in the alley, by themselves running, and I said, ‘Do not freak out, they know where they go.’ She watched them, and they went straight to their own stall. And she was like ‘Oh my gosh, I was so freaked out, I thought they were going to run into the street.’ No, they don’t run to the street.”
Building a Barrel Horse
The patterning process is fairly simple once Luis has a foundation in place on a horse.
“Once the horse knows trotting and loping and stops, that’s when I go over to the barrels. The first thing I do is let the horse walk around the barrel. I go slow,” he said. “I start walking—probably everybody starts that way—but I just start like it’s going to be something normal for the horse, always going to be part of his job to go over the pattern and not get excited. He’s not going to run and run all the time. I just let him be relaxed around the barrels.”
Naturally, problems crop up with horses during the training process. This is where Luis’ patience, consistent methods and even-keeled temperament really come into play. He won’t move on to the next step or a higher gear until the horse feels relaxed on the pattern at the current speed.
“It doesn’t always go how we want it, but I just go back and try to go again, and if I do something wrong or the horse doesn’t feel comfortable, I try to figure out something else to where the horse feels comfortable,” Luis said. “After that, I start increasing the speed little by little until he really feels comfortable.”
His personal relationship with each horse also goes a long way toward keeping a horse confident once it starts running.
“I talk to them, too; I talk sometimes with them, I pet them a lot, and when they do nice I always pet them and reward them—that’s a good job, that was nice,” Luis said.
Incredible speed is a prominent stamp of a First Moonflash-bred horse, and things could get out of control quickly in the wrong hands. Luis keeps in mind what the horses are bred to do but provides balance and leadership as he increases speed so that the horses continue to trust his guidance and listen to his cues.
“It’s a little hard, and most of the horses get excited at some point, especially when they run, but I let the horse know once they’re done, when they finish running, that’s it. There’s nothing wrong, you just did your job, and we did the best we can,” Luis said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t want to get excited—they’re horses and they’ve got it in the blood, especially in the crowds, they want to run. And Wenda’s done a really, really great job with these horses running them.”
Johnson typically goes on with the horses to season them at futurities or rodeos once Luis has them working a solid set. Mowry has also been an important part of the team, taking 5-year-old Steal Money to some early 2021 futurities since Johnson was on the road rodeoing with Flash and Mac.
“Luis is a great trainer,” said Mowry, who has also won on Dreams First Flash in 2017 and is familiar with Luis’ style. “I know pretty quick if I can get along with something, so if it works it works, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t, but it worked, and [Steal Money] felt good pretty early. I was able to clock some decent times right away. The horse felt confident—Luis did a great job.”
Mo is another shining example of the combined efforts of the entire Tres Mesa team that started with the foundation Luis instilled. The gelding is now on Johnson’s trailer for some summer rodeos, and the pair even won the Coleman, Texas, pro rodeo in June against some of the toughest rodeo horses out there.
Luis’ way of training and Johnson’s own theories and riding style fit Singletary’s program perfectly. Longevity is important to everyone involved—Singletary aims for his horses to move into rodeo careers rather than dropping off after a futurity year.
“If I can get the horse to where the horse feels comfortable and has a good foundation, I know I’m going to have a horse for a long time, not just have a horse that can be really good but it’s just going to be for a short time,” Luis said. “Even if I have to do longer work, take more time, to me it’s a payoff to see those horses get all the way there.”
Singletary says one of both Luis’ and Johnson’s greatest attributes are their patience and consistency, which makes the transition seamless for the horses between the riders and their different roles—Luis as trainer and caretaker, and Johnson or Mowry as competitive riders.
“In our situation, it has worked really well to have Luis continue the daily exercise regime and tend to the horses’ everyday needs. When I arrive to prepare for a competition, the horses are healthy, in shape, and ready to go run,” Johnson said. “His abilities definitely provide the foundation for each of the individual horses he has trained to compete at a high level with confidence. His consistent support and work ethic provide an added support and are a part of the horses’ successes.”
Love the Horse First
Don’t count Luis completely out of the arena for the future, though. Competition may not be his driving force as a trainer or a major goal for him, but Luis says given the opportunity, he would take his shot at sending a Tres Mesa horse down the alley.
“I’ve been training horses a long time, and I feel like I’m better at training than performance. I mean, I haven’t tried, but I would like to see if I can perform these horses. I have raced horses, I can show native horses, but I haven’t done any in the barrels,” Luis said. “There’s some people who say, ‘You could be very successful, you can get a lot better life winning $100,000 or $50,000 instead of working all the time.’ I say well, honestly, I enjoy working with these horses.”
For Luis, the reward from training horses is seeing them succeed on a national stage knowing that he put in the hours of work to bring the horse to its full potential.
“If I don’t get money out of these horses, it’s really a reward for me that the horses are successful. I don’t get anything else from these horses other than this satisfaction to say I train these horses,” Luis said. “When you see a horse going to the NFR, that’s when you say well, all those long days, all those hard days, doing more, it is payoff. Even if it’s not money, but you worked, it’s something really big to me.”
Luis’ drive to get up, work and train every day doesn’t come from dreams of trophies, buckles or prize money. Luis simply loves the animal and strives to use his gift to bring out the horses’ abilities for the world to see.
“I haven’t tried to get anywhere, but I’ve been really happy with whatever discipline I’ve done with the horses, I have been in the top. But I would like to say, there are a lot of people like me who are always behind the stage, they’re not the ones in the front pages, but they’re the ones who do the job, who do the work, and someone else shows the horse and they’re the ones in the front of the page,” Luis said. “I’m really thankful for the time I’ve been working with these horses and very proud of what these horses have done. I’ve been working years and years, and it’s very rare to have one horse get in the top, it’s not very common, and it really makes me proud of these horses, to see these horses get there.”