Horse trainer turns to tobaccoless chew as 'pacifier'

2012-03-14T00:15:00Z Horse trainer turns to tobaccoless chew as 'pacifier'By CINDY UKEN The Billings Gazette
March 14, 2012 12:15 am  • 

As a trainer at Miller’s Horse Palace in Laurel and owner of the Fromberg-based It’s All About ‘U’ Barrel Racing Championships, Ross Wagner travels up to 40,000 miles annually. To help pass the time, he would stick a pinch of Skoal in his cheek.

It was his “pacifier,” he said.

The odd thing about this habit is that he found it disgusting.

“I can’t stand the smell,” said Wagner, 32. “It makes me gag. It was just something to do while I was driving.”

In addition to its repugnance, Wagner knew the chew could cause cancer and other diseases. Still, he nursed the routine until about a year ago when some friends turned him on to a Montana-grown, tobacco-free snuff called “Holt.”

The herbal snuff is made at a small, mom-and-pop operation owned and operated by Dave and Colleen Holt on their Whitehall ranch. Licensed for sales about two years ago, it sells for about $5 per can and consists of all natural ingredients, including: alfalfa leaves, water, honey, peppermint, cayenne pepper and ascorbic acid.

“I don’t mind the taste and texture,” Wagner said. “You don’t have to walk around and spit. That’s not exactly real attractive.”

Everything in the small can is designed for health reasons, Colleen said. That is intentional. In 2009, Dave was diagnosed with lymphoma, a result of using Skoal for 45 years, Colleen said. After being told he could no longer chew, he tried alternatives but found each too dry or sticky. He started experimenting with various substances, including coffee grounds.

“Most chewers need something in their lip,” Colleen said. “It does not need to be nicotine.”

After months of research, Dave Holt, a former agriculture teacher at Whitehall High School and now cancer-free, zeroed in on alfalfa. Years later — and after working with researchers at the University of Nebraska — Dave developed a recipe that has propelled sales from a 12-can-a-day operation to a nationwide market. Production has stepped up to at least 600 cans a day with outlets across Montana and on the Internet at

“It’s a growing item,” said Doug Pilcher, a buyer for Service Candy Co. in Billings, which services outlets within a 200-mile radius. “It’s not setting the world on fire, but sales are steady.”

While it is still an operation that involves Dave, Colleen, their two sons and some part-time help, they are on track to build a factory to meet with demand, Colleen said. “Our production changes daily and just keeps increasing.”

While the product was started as a way to get people to quit chewing tobacco, it’s gaining popularity in some unexpected corners of the commercial market. The Holts say it has medicinal value, makes a tasty tea when mixed with honey and boiling water and can aid in weight-reduction.

“I suck on it to curb my appetite,” Colleen said. “Whenever I get hungry, I put it on my tongue and suck on it. It really helps.”

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