Making a Career Out of Trick Riding

Empowered by a heartfelt partnership, Miko McFarland and Sparkle Grady One Eye have made a career of standing out together in trick riding and more.

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Photo by Adam Padgett

Developing a special partnership with a horse takes equal parts hard work, perseverance, and passion, but once formed, such a bond can last a lifetime. For Japanese-American cowgirl Miko Moriuchi McFarland and her American Paint Horse, Sparkle Grady One Eye (“Bandit”), an unshakable relationship has helped them stand out from the crowd while making a career of trick riding and accomplishing amazing things together during their 18 years together.

Conquering the World

McFarland and Bandit, an overo gelding with one blue eye and one brown eye, have competed in a plethora of disciplines, including mounted archery, extreme cowboy racing, drill team, western pleasure, horsemanship and trail.

Miko McFarland carries the American flag at the World Equestrian games. She has made trick riding her career.
Miko and Bandit carried the flag in a liberty stand at full gallop during the closing ceremonies for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Photo courtesy Miko McFarland

As a professional trick-riding duo, they also helped found and train the Trixie Chicks Trick Riders, and have performed trick riding and Roman riding in countless rodeo circuits, including the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Some of their most notable experiences include carrying the American flag during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., and exhibiting alongside the Budweiser Clydesdales.

According to McFarland, who lives in Lexington, Ky., her special partnership with Bandit is what made it all possible.

“It’s a great thing to have the kind of partnership with an animal where you don’t even have language as a common ground, but you have this unspoken relationship where you understand each other,” says McFarland. “In many ways, I feel like I know Bandit better than I know myself, because he’s always been that steady presence in my life.”

Learning Together

McFarland and Bandit have been fast friends ever since she bought him as a green 3-year-old in 2003. At the time, McFarland was trick riding professionally in Dolly Parton’s Stampede in her hometown of Branson, Mo. When she was little, her parents ignited her passion for horses with riding lessons and the gift of an ornery Shetland pony, but at the time she met Bandit, it had been years since she’d had a horse of her own.

“I put myself through college by trick riding in the Stampede,” says McFarland. “I would go to class during the day and perform six nights a week. I also saved up enough money to buy [Bandit], a little stud colt, from the show’s production manager. Several horses from his bloodline were already established trick-riding horses in the show, so I thought I’d take a chance on him. He had a willing attitude and a cool confidence about him, but no experience, and I was a feisty, overly confident college graduate.”

Miko McFarland trick riding as her career
Miko McFarland put herself through college by trick riding six nights a week and going to classes during the day. Photo by Adam Padgett

Faced with the task of training her first horse, McFarland wasn’t sure how to begin. But the man who sold Bandit to her gave her a piece of advice that she’s never forgotten.

“He was an experienced cowboy who was a very calm, gentle hand with the horses,” she says. “One of the things he told me was that my responsibility as a horse owner was to make sure that I was always setting Bandit up for success in any experience or situation. I took that to heart. Of course I made mistakes along the way, but I wanted to learn as much as I could from as many different disciplines and sports as I could.”

Made for Trick Riding

Over the course of their first years together, McFarland made sure to expose Bandit to as many situations and experiences as possible, including introducing him to a variety of disciplines, such as western dressage, horsemanship and Extreme Cowboy Racing.

A trick-riding Paint Horse
Bandit did everything with a willing attitude while learning to be a trick-riding horse. Photo courtesy Miko McFarland

By the time Bandit was 8 years old, McFarland decided he was ready to learn to be a trick-riding mount. In addition to drawing on her own experiences training trick-riding horses for the Stampede, McFarland took Bandit out west to train with the Harry Vold Rodeo Company in Avondale, Colo.

“At the time, there were probably less than 100 people in the United States who were actively trick riding,” she says. “Trick riding has become more popular over the last 10 years or so, but for a while, it was a dying sport. The Vold Rodeo Company are renowned rodeo professionals who were the go-to people at the time to learn how to trick-ride.”

During their time in Colorado, McFarland worked carefully with Bandit, teaching him how to get used to the way her weight might change and shift as she performed different trick-riding maneuvers on his back, under his belly or around his chest and sides.

“Everything I asked him to do, he did with a willing attitude,” she says. “That’s something that has always impressed me about Bandit.”

Turning Points

Bandit’s willingness to please was put to the test during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. During the closing ceremonies, McFarland and Bandit were honored with the task of carrying the American flag.

“They wanted us to do it in a liberty stand, where you stand on top of the saddle and ride at a full gallop,” says McFarland. “The only catch was that there were 20 other horses in the arena. That part was intimidating for me because I knew I could account for Bandit, but I didn’t know if the other horses might spook.”

As they prepared to enter the arena, McFarland gathered the flag and her courage in both hands and made Bandit a promise.

“I told him, ‘Let’s carry this flag and represent the United States well, and if you can do your job, then I promise I will take care of you the rest of your life,” she remembers. “You don’t have to worry about anything—just help me get through these next few minutes.’ I was so nervous!”

Within moments, a star-spangled McFarland and Bandit galloped through the arena at full speed. With her horse running steadily and smoothly beneath her, McFarland stood proud and straight atop Bandit’s withers, the stars and stripes flowing gracefully from her outstretched hands.

Affinity for Archery

After that ride, she knew it was time that she and Bandit find new ways to enjoy their partnership. In 2009, McFarland tore her ACL in a riding accident on a different horse, so she knew that her trick riding days were numbered.

A rider performs mounted archery
Miko enjoys mounted archery because horses and riders from any background can compete as long as they have a strong partnership. Photo by Lee Bishop Photography

Over the next few years, McFarland and Bandit worked together to coach and train the founding members of the Trixie Chicks Trick Riders, now one of the country’s most popular trick riding teams. They also embarked on a variety of other adventures, including learning mounted archery.

“I enjoy mounted archery because it welcomes riders and horses of all breeds and backgrounds,” says McFarland. “It doesn’t matter what breed of horse you have or what discipline you ride. It doesn’t matter what kind of tack you use or what training your horse has. Everyone can compete together because what matters is your strategy and your partnership with your horse.”

The Next Generation

Mother and daughter with their horse
Now 21 years old, Bandit has become a leadline horse for Miko’s 5-year-old daughter, Emii. Photo courtesy Miko McFarland

While Bandit continues to be one of McFarland’s main riding horses, he has taken on a new role as leadline pony for her 5-year-old daughter, Emii. Now 21 years old, Bandit is demonstrating a new talent for gentleness and slowness as he introduces Emii to the world of horses.

“As a trick rider, you achieve an entirely new level of partnership with a horse when you trust him with your life by doing trick riding stunts in a high-intensity, high-speed performance,” says McFarland. “But it’s a whole other level when you can entrust your child’s life to a horse. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Bandit because he’s been able to do everything I’ve ever asked of him, from high-voltage performances to being a leadline horse for my daughter. That’s one of the things that makes him so special.”

Proud to Stand Out

On a more personal level, McFarland has learned a lot of valuable lessons from Bandit. As a Japanese-American, she says it hasn’t always been easy to be a part of the horse industry, but Bandit has shown her the value of standing out in a crowd.

“Bandit commands attention wherever he goes, and he wears his colors loud and proud,” McFarland says. “I think that’s helped me find my courage and my own level of comfort in knowing that I may look different, and my name may sound different, but in the arena, it’s all about the partnership with your horse and what you can do, rather than who you are or what you look like.”

It’s a lesson she hopes to pass on, not just to her daughter, but to other young men and women establishing their places in the horse industry.

“People are being more intentional about confronting prejudices nowadays,” says McFarland. “It’s empowering to see people of color representing themselves in the horse world. Like Bandit’s markings, I choose to wear my heritage as a badge of honor. Every single person is special and unique and brings qualities and experiences to the horse industry that will only help us grow. No matter your background, you can make your mark in the equine industry because horses help level the playing field.”

This article about Miko McFarland’s trick riding career appeared in the October 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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