By Ally Nelson
Mark Davis and Cindy McGown were introduced to the Arabian horse in 1990 when their daughter Amanda Pagan showed great interest in riding. Amanda’s first Arabian horse was Sky Fire FM, a beautiful chestnut mare sired by El Bacchus and out of Perfectamente. Sky Fire FM not only taught their daughter how to ride, but she enriched their lives and started a deep-rooted passion for the Arabian horse. The exceptional memories they made together led the family to become one of the most influential Arabian horse programs in the United States. With multiple farms located in Arizona, they have become an influential player in both the halter and under saddle divisions. Today, we will focus on the Royal performance horses and those of their clients headed to the most important show of the year – U.S. Nationals.
Justin Cowden, Head Trainer at Royal Arabians, leads their team at the Rio Verde location. He aims to bring horses to Tulsa, Oklahoma, each year and have them crowned U.S. National Champion. He began his career with Royal Arabians in 2014 and has brought home countless trophies for both Royal and their clients, including his first U.S. National Championship in 2016 with Royal Maestro in the Purebred Hunter Pleasure Futurity. His history is rich in the Arabian horse as his Grandfather bred Arabian horses, and his mother was a very accomplished amateur rider. So, it is safe to say he was born to do this!
Behind every talented and successful trainer is a committed and dedicated assistant. Erin Belton has been precisely this to Justin. She began with Royal Arabians in 2021 and has flourished. When asked what about Erin makes her an essential part of the Royal Team, Justin replied, “She puts in the time to strategize, making every horse and rider better. Erin has a big appetite to grow and learn, continuing to expand her skill set. She has a tremendous passion for the horses and always puts their care at the forefront, which makes me very secure having her as a second set of eyes.”
Erin learned to ride horses at four; the first horse she rode was an Arabian. As she excelled in her riding, her parents purchased a Saddlebred mare that she showed in that circuit for seven years. Though Erin thoroughly enjoyed the Saddlebreds, she knew her heart was with the Arabians and eventually returned to them. At 16, she began working for Virginia Godwin, and in 2013, she purchased a beautiful Half-Arabian mare named Sparkin Afire+/ and started showing. From there, she has worked her way up to become the assistant to Justin Cowden, who, in her opinion, is one of the most talented hunter pleasure trainers in our industry.
As the 2023 show season arrives at the pinnacle of its success, Royal Arabians is putting the final touches on their show string, packing the trailer and bringing the following horses to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with big aspirations:
Mateo had a late start to his show career but has garnered some big titles in both junior horse and open divisions. It has been very rewarding to watch Amanda bond with him. Being Regional Champion with Amanda this year has made me very excited to watch her at U.S. this month.
It's always an honor to show for Mark and Cindy. Their program is filled with highly athletic and beautiful horses. This year I will be showing Royal Mateo, who has been highly successful in his career thus far. It is an honor that I do not take lightly knowing that Mark, Cindy, and Amanda have confidence in me to ride on their behalf.
Wow, it's difficult to choose a favorite between the horses that I am showing this year at U.S. I suppose I would say Royal Mateo because he is the most finished and ready to compete. We had a great Regional win in Del Mar, and we are ready for U.S. Nationals… Don't tell Mystic ;).
This is the largest group of horses Tom has ever shown at U.S. It is a very exciting group, and I cannot wait to watch him succeed.
We watched Stevie, as we call him, on the live feed at Region 9, and that’s all it took! Next was a call to Lauren and Jason Krohn and a quick trip to Texas. He is a true athlete - beautifully cadenced with motion and ring presence that demands….. ‘Look at me.’
Tom & Leola Hansen
In 3 words, describe Finesse - Balance, flow, presence. The fourth word: LUCKY, is me … when I ride I get that heart-swelling feeling in my chest. Honestly, it is hard to pick 3 words. There is no question that Maegan Friesen could not have picked a more suitable name for her….. She is Drippin In Finesse.
Tom & Leola Hansen
It is always a thrill to present her at any show. It’s a huge privilege to return to U.S. Nationals for the fourth year in a row with this multiple National Champion. She is FVF Bucarrdi’s first foal. Her National wins in the AHPA Futurity, junior horse, and amateur divisions are a testament to his siring capabilities, and she is still going strong.
Tom & Leola Hansen
Texie and Khal had a beautiful ride in 2021, and I am looking forward to them chasing that trophy again in 2023. They have come together as a solid team this year.
TN Khaliente loves his job and always enters the arena as if it was his first time. His ears are forward, his movement is fluid and graceful while also being very handsome! You have to look at him. He stands out in the arena by his shear beauty, grace and consistency!
This horse and I have grown so much together. He has made me a better trainer as I have made him a more confident show horse. Daz has a huge heart and is such a kind animal it takes him a bit of time to trust, but once he does, he gives you 200%. I am looking forward to his 200% in Tulsa.
Daz was Audacious’ last foal. He was laid to rest three months before Daz was born and two days after we purchased Mirabella Juell. Daz will always hold a special place for us. When he was a foal, we would spend hours sitting in the pasture with him and Mirabella. He is one of the sweetest horses we have ever met and is quirky yet dynamic. His amazing spirit draws people, especially kids, into his orb. We always talk about the Arabian horse being “goodwill ambassadors.” Daz truly embodies that spirit. He has been the calm in our storm, the unconditional friend, the sweater you put on when you just need a hug. He is all of that and so much more.
Lisa Atterberry & Dina Cale
The Marino family has been continuously supportive of me and my career. I am looking forward to showing an “M” horse in the Hunter Pleasure Futurity this year.
Of course, I always appreciate a beautiful Arabian horse and breed for these qualities. However, form to function is equally as important! Maverick is a beautiful horse, along with being athletic and conformationally correct, we knew he would excel with Justin Cowden.
Shelly and I found her horse Thriller WA in 2022, and we have been dreaming of this day that he gets his shot through the gate in Tulsa. I truly believe he is a horse that everyone will enjoy watching.
We had a Half-Arabian in training with Justin in 2019 named Sultans Showdown LOA. He was an incredible horse for me and my daughter Rosa Diego, a truly magnificent animal. Sadly we lost him far too early in life. We then told Justin to find us another Half-Arabian of the same quality. Of course, these horses do not come along often, so we were delighted in 2022 when Justin called and told us he had finally found one worthy. It was Thriller WA. Rosa has always been a fan of the Wunderbar horses, so we purchased him and could not be more excited with where we are today.
Ryan is an exceptionally strong rider who tries to understand how his horses think. I am looking forward to seeing how he does with his two great horses in 2023.
All the credit in the world to Justin for encouraging me to take Daniel home for a few months this year. While he was home, I had tons of time to get to know him on a personal level. This benefitted Daniel to have the opportunity to be a horse, getting turned out every day and out of the stress of a training barn. It benefited us as a team because we now understand each other better.
He is built perfectly for Western and looks the part. Dixon has a lower energy level and enjoys going slow - his personality is very suitable for the Western ring.
(Onyx A x Summer Holiday)
2013 Bay Gelding
Half-Arabian Western Pleasure Select with Amanda Pagan
Owned by Shelley Gomavitz
Leased by Royal Arabians
I'm super excited about showing Wyatt (Summer Nites), but a bit nervous as this is the first high-quality western horse I have competed on. He is kind, talented, and easy to ride. It is so wonderful that Justin can train not only hunters but do a great job with western horses as well.
Q & A with Royal Arabians
AHW: You have worked for Royal Arabians for nearly a decade now. Tell us what this farm and the family mean to you.
Justin Cowden: Mark, Cindy, and Amanda have unwaveringly supported my journey with them at Royal. I always enjoy riding and showing horses that are from our breeding program. I look forward to showing Maestro and Bvgulari this year.
AHW: Amanda, Justin has worked for your family for many years and trained your amateur horses. What qualities does Justin display that make him such a great fit for Royal Arabians?
Amanda Pagan: Besides Justin’s horses winning, he always has his horses completely prepared. I know my horses’ weaknesses and their strengths. Justin is very good at explaining these things to me so that I can be as prepared as possible when entering the arena. Justin always makes me very confident in the show ring. Beyond his talent, he is a lot of fun to ride with. He is a teammate who wants us to succeed but has a lot of fun along the way.
AHW: Justin, you are known to often come in the gate first on your horses. What is your theory on this?
Justin Cowden: If I have a horse with the confidence to go in first, I feel it sets a precedent for the class. Of course, I won’t ride one through the gate first if it needs the security of the herd. However, I always prefer the confident ones.
AHW: Erin, knowing how much you love each horse in your care, can you pick a favorite of your career thus far?
Erin Belton: This is a tough question, as each horse has helped me grow in many ways. Sparkin Afire, who I still own to this day, must be high on the list because she introduced me to the Arabian horse industry and opened the door. Royal Kharisto will always be special to me as he was the first horse I showed at U.S. Nationals as a professional, and he was bred and owned by Royal Arabians. Lastly is Aria Titlest. He was the first horse that Justin handed the reins over to me. He allowed me to find my way and navigate training an amateur rider within the Royal program. He went on to win many great titles with us. Returning to your original question, the most special horse of my life still lies in my future, and I cannot wait to meet them!
AHW: Ryan, if you could list two things about Just that you admire in a trainer, what would they be?
Ryan Dunn: The two things that come to mind are that Justin is very much a student of the game, paying attention to what others are doing and bringing those tips/tricks home. Justin is very goal-oriented and knows exactly what he wants to accomplish. When he rides, he knows his goal for each ride, gets it done, and calls it a day, not repeating over and over, which is very effective for his horses.
AHW: You have been a client of Justin’s for many years. What about his training style do you feel has brought you so much success?
Tom & Leola Hansen: He is a natural talent with the ability to bring out the best in our horses. His seat, hands, timing, and ring knowledge have repeatedly proven that he excels at his craft. He has an excellent eye for quality and can visualize what a very young horse will blossom into. He understands that each horse is an individual and lets them dictate the advancement in their training. He is absolutely against pushing a horse… they have to be ready.
AHW: Texie, what does your pre-show preparation routine look like?
Texie Lowery: TN Khaliente is always true to his job! He requires very little work down before competition. A short warm-up by Justin Cowden, and we are ready to go!
AHW: Justin, you’ve had many great horses in your career thus far. If you had to pick one that is most special to you, who would it be and why?
Justin Cowden: FVF Bucarrdi, he signifies all the growth in my career. Bucarrdi was the first big-time horse I competed with and was noticed on. He has since turned into an incredible breeding horse which has allowed me to craft the style of Arabian horse that suits my taste. He produces the style of horse that people are used to seeing me enter the ring on.
AHW: Working under Justin Cowden must be quite a thrill. What is it about him that makes a great mentor for you?
Erin Belton: I started working for Justin because he is one of the most talented Hunter Pleasure trainers in the industry. I will not lie, the idea was a bit intimidating. However, it was the best decision that I have ever made. He has pushed me out of my comfort zone and created an environment that allows me to grow greatly. Not only is he a mentor of mine, but he is also a dear friend. Going to work each day with him is fun. An important part of our teamwork is that he is not easy on me. He wants me to be the best trainer I can be, not only because it benefits his program but also because he wants that for me.
AHW: Justin, you have entered the show arena countless times, do you have any specific routines that you do to prepare to show?
Justin Cowden: Alone time with music in my dressing room always does it. I think about my horse and what they need from me, the good situations, the situations to avoid, and hone in my focus.