Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #39 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.
The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo serves as a source of inspiration for many barrel racers. After all, who hasn’t dreamed of blasting down the alley at the Thomas & Mack?
Qualifying for the NFR is never as easy as it looks, however. The competition is tough and the standards are high – only the top 15 earnings leaders among over 3,000 WPRA members qualify each year for what is known as “the greatest show on dirt!”
With the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo now in our rear view mirror, it’s a good time to look ahead to the New Year and write/talk barrel horses; after all it takes a very special equine partner to rise to top of professional rodeo.
There has ever been a point in history when the equine athlete has been a more important part of the barrel racing equation. Every year the number of horses who have been genetically engineered for barrel racing grows. Although many of the elements necessary to win (hard work, determination, positive attitude, etc.) will remain the same as we go forward, at the same time what it takes to be competitive today is different than it was a few years ago.
As times goes by, the sport is changing. Competition is getting tougher and tougher. More advanced training techniques have played a part in barrel racing’s evolution, but there is definitely much to be said for the carefully developed breeding programs that exist today. The programs responsible for introducing offspring from the likes of top barrel horse stallions such as Frenchmans Guy, Dash ta Fame, and others – have taken the barrel racing world by storm.
I’m sure you’ve sat in the warm up pen and watched a breathtaking run by a horse that out clocks the rest of the competition by several tenths, and does so in a way that seems almost effortless.
These are horses we often refer to as “freaks.” Freaks of nature that are just so athletically gifted and equipped with natural talent that serves them well in the barrel racing arena, that they seem to outshine hundreds of other horses with ease.
I don’t use the word “freak” in a negative way. Whether it’s watching a gifted dancer, or a horse race around three barrels, it’s riveting to see any highly talented individual perform in their element.
When it comes to barrel horses, no matter how much natural talent you start with, a horse’s greatest potential will only be brought out when natural talent is combined with quality training, riding and health care. So many horses never reach their potential. The freaks are horses that will blow everyone out of the water when they have these basics. Even in cases when parts of the training, riding and health care equation are lacking, they’re still likely to perform well – because their sheer natural talent makes up for the weak links.
The barrel racing world is changing because there are more freaks out there than there ever has been before. Taking your barrel racing to the highest levels will always require quality training, riding, and health care, but these days, it also requires a phenomenal horse. It’s not to stay that you may stumble upon a champion by accident, one without well-known barrel racing bloodlines. However, the odds are more in the favor of those who do side with genetically proven barrel horses, more so now than ever.
Many barrel racers start out with a simple, genuine foundational love of horses, and a love of barrel racing grows from there. It’s not uncommon fora barrel racer to have several horses and with lofty goals, end up falling head over heels for a certain one (or several). They not only want to reach the highest levels, but they want to do it on their existing horse(s), that they raised or have had for years and have built a connected, comfortable relationship with.
Reaching the highest levels of professional barrel racing may require anyone with this desire to get realistic about their horse’s capabilities and their own. First though, it’s important for individuals with high aspirations to get very clear at what their barrel racing desires are.
Are you a career woman or mom who would be happy as a weekend warrior with your ultimate achievement to qualify for your circuit finals? Would you be content to have solid, consistent runs that knock on the door of the 2D at open races? Or are you determined to rodeo professionally and have your sights set on the NFR, no matter what it takes? Is growing in your own horsemanship and barrel racing journey more important than what the clock or the results say? Perhaps you have goals that include a combination of these things.
Maybe you have a horse that you know has much more potential, but you just haven’t been able to get the combination to the lock quite right yet, and although frustrating at times, find yourself enjoying the process of figuring it out. Maybe you have felt as though your current horse has the talent and speed to be successful at high levels, but you don’t actually have much to compare to.
Perhaps you pride yourself on raising or training your own horses and would never imagine buying a finished horse and competing on a horse that someone else “made.” It’s possible that you have the horsepower you need for now, but plan to remain open to moving up when you’re ready to advance. Maybe you feel as though you don’t have the interest or patience for training, and instead competing (and winning) is your specific passion! Maybe you’ve even set goals, reached them, and still didn’t feel fulfilled, or didn’t reach your desired result and DID feel satisfied with the effort put forth.
None of these are right or wrong. There’s a place for ALL barrel racers to enjoy themselves no matter what shape or form our desires take. If you haven’t exactly found yourself on the fast track to achieving your specific desires, and have experienced a great deal of frustration over it, it might be time to re-evaluate the horse power you have available to you from a new perspective. After all, it takes a really special athlete to be competitive at a professional level.
Often times, the most naturally talented horses are ones that showed promise on the pattern right away. They may not have always been easy in every aspect of their early development, but barrel racing is natural for them, even when parts of their development aren’t perfect.
These are the horses that are more likely to rise above the competition when they’ve had an all-night drive, or when their rider is not at their best, or when they are a little sore, or the ground isn’t great – the typical day to day challenging circumstances that we all face.
These very gifted and naturally talented horses will outshine the others even when the odds are against them, or the stars aren’t perfectly aligned. These horses are rare, but not as rare as they once were. Training techniques and breeding programs especially (although there are no guarantees), have raised the bar.
On the other side of the coin, I am always quick to encourage barrel racers to place more focus on developing themselves – to place less blame on the horse and accept more responsibility for the part they play in the partnership. Honestly, many riders give up, thinking “it’s the horses problem,” when that’s often not the case. For some people, the end result is more important than the journey, and again, that’s not wrong or bad, it’s just a different path. I encourage barrel racers to find a route somewhere in the center.
I recommend that riders put genuine effort toward developing their own ability in order to bring out the best in ANY horse they get on, while at the same time, honoring their dreams by being realistic about each horse’s abilities.
I have to side with Ed Wright in his belief that “There is not a horse, mule, donkey or zebra that won’t make.” But again, there aren’t any mules, zebras or donkeys running down the alley at the Thomas & Mack. To continue quoting Uncle Ed, “If he’s not making, you’re not educating.”
Think about how much you could learn and improve if you apprenticed with a top barrel racer, participated in an intense horsemanship clinic, took weekly lessons or simply set aside time every single day for your own development as a barrel racer?
When it comes to finding that special equine partner, unless you’ve had the opportunity to ride, train and compete on an exceptionally naturally talented athlete, you may not fully understand or appreciate how easy it can be, or how hard it can be for horses that are lacking in the athleticism department.
Although I consider myself to be of average athletic ability, I certainly couldn’t be expected to perform on the basketball court with the likes of LeBron James. Now with proper training and development, I could learn to enjoy basketball, and be a much better basketball player than I am now, but I my success on the court would be seriously limited in comparison to those who have natural talent for the sport.
Are you getting “square peg – round hole” visual yet?
You can spend years with a horse trying to “pound harder,” wanting to reach your goals because you want to do so with a CERTAIN HORSE. Finally, you may throw your hands up in the air, and decide to either seriously commit yourself to further developing your own abilities – to make absolutely certain that you’re doing everything possible to reveal the buried potential, OR simply stop pounding.
A lot of people keep pounding a “square peg” because they are emotionally attached, but keep in mind that ceasing the pounding and instead finding a round peg, can be a reflection of love for that “square pegged” horse as well. Be a dreamer, but at the same time be realistic about what your horse is capable of. Pounding a square peg into a round hole is frustrating, uncomfortable and no fun for the pounder OR the peg!
While there IS great value in building long term connections with horses, and continuing to develop and hone your riding and training abilities over time, a TON of learning can also come from getting on and experiencing either a wide variety of horses, or an especially naturally talented, finished, winning horse. An awesome horse can show you things that you may have never felt before. They can help you feel ways of moving that you will help you inspire the same in your other horses (as much as their ability will allow).
In fact in a recent issue of Barrel Horse News, Dena Kirkpatrick said:
“My “beginner’s luck” at the futurities had worn off. I had come to a roadblock in my barrel racing career. I could not seem to train a horse I would win on, so I decided that riding a horse someone else had trained might help. Maggie was my first horse trained by someone else, the first horse to carry me to major rodeo wins.”
If you want to reach high levels and don’t seem to be getting there, the recipe for success requires a mixture of ingredients. I encourage all barrel racers who are willing and able to dedicate themselves to the process, to start a colt or train a barrel horse from the ground up. If that’s what you’ve been doing all along, then I encourage you to be open to jockeying a successful finished horse that someone else has trained. If you’ve spent years teaching horses, consider the growth that’s possible with a new equine partner to learn from.
Humans teach horses and horses teach humans.
If you have high level barrel racing aspirations, it might be time to loosen up your “rules” when it comes to the idea of starting your own horse OR getting one that someone else trained. I believe in focusing on our strengths, but I also believe in developing a firm foundation as a horseman. Again, how far you dive into either area may depend on your other life responsibilities and your own unique barrel racing desires.
Ask yourself: Do you love your current horse more than you would love to be successful at a pro level? Are you ready to release amateur and embrace professional on all levels? Are you willing to go outside the box to develop your own abilities – perhaps do something you’ve never done before?
In the end, when considering your current equine partners and what possibilities are out there, it’s critically important that you first get clear about your where you want to be, HOW you’d like to get there, how you’d like to FEEL as you do, your timelines for doing so and consideration for what is honestly standing in your way.
I’d MY desire for the members of the BarrelRacingTips.com community to achieve success beyond their wildest dreams. I hope this article has given you some things to consider that will help you accomplish that, and more!
To wrap up this week I’d like to share some more input from none other than the top 2012 15 NFR barrel racers, as they answer the question…
“What do you feel are your horse’s strong points?”
Brittany: I think one of Dukes strong points is that he is very versatile and he loves the road and loves the Thomas and Mack!
Mary: Latte’s strong point is his mentally as far as being aggressive, he just loves running barrels.
Carlee: Dillon can run in any arena whether it’s big/small or inside/outside on the other hand Hammer is a very big horse but likes the little indoor pens.
Sherry: She’s gritty, a big or small arena she always gives 110% every time. The more runs the better she gets.
Nikki: Nilla is so tough, mentally, physically and she just loves her job. The more runs she has the better she is. Bella has the biggest heart and gives so much every time!
Kaley: I am really confident in Cowboy whether it is an indoor/outdoor or a big/small arena. He’s just a great worker and is really consistent.
Brenda: He’s tough! He gives me everything he’s got every time.
Lisa: Both of my horses are very consistent.
Benette: He just loves his job and he is always honest.
Kelli: Cleo is an outstanding competitor. The more erratic the environment is the more focused she is, that is a great quality in her and she is never nervous.
Lee Ann: He has a lot of mental and physical constitution. He never lets stuff bother him and he is very consistent.
Christina: The two horses that I am taking to the NFR are both from Texas and have been run in a lot of indoor buildings.
Trula: He just loves his job!
Christy: Rascal is wicked fast, he just works every time. Trudee has amazing turns. She just turns great.
For a list of questions to ask when buying a new horse, click here.
For more from the WNFR barrel racing qualifiers, check out: