A retirement journey – from auto executive to cowboy, Bob Canniff on life in the saddle and how he ended up on an Arizona I-10 billboard
Bob Canniff went from being an automotive executive with no knowledge of horses to owning two of his own on a whim. He reflects on how far he’s come and the power of goal setting – “if you set a goal to be a Grand Prix champion and you only end up riding the Grand Prix, you’re still light years beyond if you didn’t have a goal at all”. He and his wife Sherry live their passion while touching and inspiring the lives of many a person and critter along the way. Oh, and he’s also my Dad.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your lifestyle.
My wife Sherry and I have 12 acres with a house and two cabins on a quiet lake in Northern Michigan. My kids call it paradise because it has the best of everything: pastures, horses, open fields, wooded areas, trails, tractors, boats, a water trampoline and a beautiful beach. We spend summers here and winters on our ranch in Grand Saline, Texas with our eight horses and two dogs. We have an English Bulldog named Blue, who was a rescue we found in a Texas field, and a Pit-bull named Barney.
What was life like before?
I spent 37 years in automotive, often working 12 and 14 hour days and many weekends. It provided a good living for my family and the opportunity to retire without having to seek other work, but it was very hectic. I purchased some property in Northern Michigan as a retirement home as well as a place for family to gather. We went up a few weeks a year for summer vacations but we lived closer to Detroit where I worked.
Over the years I had been searching for a passion that I could carry into retirement. I tried music, saxophone, clarinet, piano, guitar, skiing, snowboarding, water-skiing, cycling, motorcycling, wake-boarding, windsurﬁng, sailing, tennis, golf…and running. A lot of these continued after I stopped working but none enthralled me. Things happen when you least expect them.
Tell us about your journey.
I retired in 2003 and began to live full time at the cottage property. Two years after I retired we attended the funeral of my wife’s grandfather in Tennessee and met her uncle Jerry who raised Tennessee walking horses. So off to his farm we went the next day. As we drove down the road we saw two stunning horses running through his ﬁeld towards us, a palomino and a buckskin. I told Sherry that if I ever owned a horse I would like it to look like one of them. They were breathtaking.
I have always been drawn to the mystique of a horse and had only been on one once when I was ﬁve, for a pony picture. We spent two days with Jerry and his wife Linda, and for some reason I couldn’t get myself out of the pasture with the horses – I even bought a rain suit for the wet Tennessee spring.
Well, life is a trip and at 62 and 47 years old we purchased those two 18 month old colts, having no experience with horses, no facility to keep them in, no knowledge of how to handle them and no way to transport them. We headed home to Michigan, built stalls in our storage barn, bought a trailer and drove back to Tennessee to pick up our new boys a few weeks later. Everyone said I was crazy.
There is a saying in the horse world that green horses and green owners soon become black and blue and we soon found out why.
After a harrowing trip home pulling the horse trailer in a short wheelbase land rover, feeling gusts of wind as transports flew by us on either side, we arrived safely and were ready to unload the boys. As I opened the escape door, which I thought was for people, the buckskin tried to rear up and come over it into my lap. I think back to those first days and I’m not sure how we made it.
I have since heard many horsemen say that buckskins are difﬁcult and I would agree. We found a great trainer in in Kingsley, Michigan named Judy Shapton and started our journey, consisting of a lot of work on the ground as they were too young to ride. Over the next three years we found that we gained more knowledge about horses than 90 percent of people who own horses.
We had truly found our passion, and it was about time.
In 2008 we felt somewhat comfortable to begin traveling with the horses. Arizona sounded much better than the 250 inches of snow we get at home each winter and, after searching a bit, we found Dorly’s Horse Camp in the Coronado National Forest outside of Tucson.
We spent a few winters traveling to Arizona and staying in our trailer living quarters at the base of mountains. We realized we were not unique as hundreds of horse people travel to Arizona each winter with horses, and I think we have met most of them. We have rode through the most beautiful mountain passes, alongside waterfalls from the melting snow, and swam in cool mountain ponds. We even rode our two boys in the Tucson parade which brings people from all over the world.
It was beautiful but it got a bit tiring and soon we wanted to buy some property. We decided to go to Texas and bought a ranch near Grand Saline. Then we realized it was time for more horses – just like potato chips, more must be better.
Can you tell us a story from along the way?
Well, we bought two more horses from Uncle Jerry. One had excellent breeding and he was my performance horse who I named Black Ice. He was a handful, very energetic. As luck would have it he ran into a tree and chipped his hip at eight months, and was not able to get up on his own. The vet said we should put him down.
Somehow we thought this colt had a purpose in life and we just could not bring ourselves to do it. Horses cannot stay down for long periods of time or they will injure their organs due to their body weight. Over that cold Michigan winter Sherry and I took turns getting him up every few hours with a sling over the rafters and the use of the winch on my truck. I took the day shift and she was on nights, it was exhausting.
Finally, in the spring he made it up on his own and the following fall we headed to Arizona for the winter. On the way back to Michigan in the spring we stopped at a ranch for a week and met Tammy, the caretaker, and her granddaughter, Samantha. It was obvious after a few days that Sam had fallen in love with our colt. As it turned out, Samantha was hurting over an emotional ordeal and spent every moment with him that she could.
On the day of our departure Sam was very upset, then I looked at Sherry and we both knew that this was why we had saved this horse. We sold her the colt for a dollar and the moment she knew he was hers, it was worth all we had been through to save him.
How did you manage to get a billboard on I-10?
It wasn’t planned, that’s for sure. We were visiting the Triangle T Ranch near Benson, Arizona for a few months last year and one day a photographer came by. She was there to take pictures of Lanny leach for a horsemanship brochure and they also wanted to advertise with a billboard on Interstate 10 East Expressway. We were just hanging out with the horses and the photographer asked if she could take a few pictures of us as well. We were a mess and just finished mucking stalls, Sherry hid her face, I put my hat on to cover up my hair…we still laugh at how it all came about. And now we’re seen by thousands of people on the I-10 every day.
How do you feel about your new lifestyle?
It’s so rewarding. We have started and trained many young horses and we live in Michigan in the summer and Texas in the winter. We don’t travel the country as much now as we have eight horses: three Spanish Andalusians, one Andalusian stallion and four Tennessee walking horses, all of them trusted, steady mounts. We do a few shows a year but mainly enjoy our horses with our family and friends.
Thunder and Lightning, the two colts we saw running through Jerry’s ﬁeld years ago, are now ten years old, carry our grandkids, and provide a great introduction for beginning horse riders. They have put smiles on many faces and will for some time to come. We are eternally grateful to these two horses for keeping us safe, providing endless hours of joy to our family and friends, and for teaching us the endless possibilities of connecting with these magniﬁcent creatures with patience, care and love.
I would say we have found our passion in life and are making the best of it. And it all started out in the most unimaginable of places…a funeral in Tennessee.
What advice would you give to someone else considering a new or similar lifestyle?
You need to figure out what you want, set a goal, make a plan and go for it. If you don’t choose what you want, someone else will choose it for you. The big thing is to have a plan. We didn’t plan on having horses in retirement but I did purchase a large property that gave me a lot of options. Financially you need to start as best you can at a young age. I started to put money into RESP’s in my early 20’s. It’s good to start young because it comes so fast, but if you didn’t, then start now.
What’s next for you?
We have two big goals. Sherry has a 6 year old Andalusian stallion that she’s training. Her goal is to ride in dressage and progressively work up to the Grand Prix Level.
My goal is to ride Doma Vaquera, which is a Spanish-Western style of riding in the Vaquera tradition where you ride more from your mind and being one with the horse. I ordered a Spanish hand-made saddle last year and I just heard yesterday it’s going to be delivered next week, I can’t wait.
A goal is like anything else in life, if you set a goal to be a Grand Prix champion and you only end up riding the Grand Prix, you’re still light years beyond if you didn’t have a goal at all.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
I would be an Andalusian stallion, riding free. And Sherry, even though she’s a woman, she would be a Stallion as well!