What it Takes to Make NFR Barrel Racing Dreams Come True

What it Takes to Make NFR Barrel Racing Dreams Come True

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It’s what every little barrel racing girl dreams of – blasting down the alley of the Thomas & Mack, laying down record-setting runs with thousands of fans screaming, then standing on the stage and taking home the gold.

However, what competing at the NFR might look like from the stands, and what’s really necessary to make that dream reality, are two very different things. If you’ve ever been to the NFR to watch in person, it may have even fanned the flames of your burning desire to be competing there one day even more. It’s no wonder – a prestigious event like the National Finals Rodeo adds even more glamour and excitement to a sport so many of us are already smitten with.

If you haven’t already embarked down the pro rodeo trail, then what you don’t see or experience are the hardships and challenges – the highest of highs followed by the lowest of lows, the many miles, the sleep deprivation, the horse, parking, weather, and vehicle problems, etc., etc. It all makes the actual barrel racing part look easy, BUT you already know that part is indeed NOT easy either.

I can’t say that I’ve made my own NFR dreams come true (yet), but I’ve had the opportunity again this year to share special input from 15 women who have. Rodeo’s leading ladies were asked “What quality do you feel barrel racers need most in order to make the dream of qualifying for the NFR a reality?”

Below I’ve included their answers, as well as a deeper look at what I personally feel is necessary to make a trip down the alley at the Thomas & Mack. Again, not that I can speak from actual experience, although I’ve been fortunate to spend a considerable amount of time competing with, riding with and learning from numerous World Champions and NFR qualifiers, and one can’t help but connect a few dots and draw some conclusions in the process.

So let’s get started diving into “What it takes to make NFR Barrel Racing Dreams Come True.”

MONEY – It can be a sensitive subject to address, but most of us are already in touch with what it takes to fuel up a diesel truck and have the oil changed. Let’s start by playing a little comparison game and running some estimates in our head… Let’s say you went to a barrel race or rodeo in your region or circuit EVERY WEEKEND all summer. If you did, for three months straight, that would be 12 events. Many NFR qualifiers attend close to 100 rodeos (sometimes several in ONE weekend), which requires them to zig zag their way around the entire US (many also ran in Canada).

What barrel racers do.

Just THINK about what that adds up to in fuel alone? During certain times of the year, some barrel racers have more than one rig on the road, and multiple horses to haul and care for. Many also compete in futurities and a few open events in addition to professional rodeos. We also need to include entry fees, truck and trailer maintenance, the purchase price of the actual rig necessary to get around in, top notch horse(s) AND the costs of care and maintenance to keep high level competition horses going strong.

I’d venture to say that few barrel racers actually pay ALL their expenses with winnings alone. Many go to the NFR with hopes of breaking even for the year. Although sponsors can help out quite a bit, I wouldn’t recommend banking on them at any point. Consider that possibility as icing on the cake, icing that’s most likely to come after you’ve worked hard and earned your status as a high achieving barrel racer.

This isn’t meant to discourage anyone, but offer a realistic reminder of how quickly a lack of funds can impose limitations. I don’t believe a barrel racer has to “come from money” to be a successful. However, I DO feel as though being a successful self-employed barrel racer, one that can keep a horse in top shape, and keep AND going down the road even in a slump, DOES require some business savvy.

It’s been said, “that in order to make a small fortune in the horse business, start with a large one!” My best advice in regards to money is #1. Don’t go into major debt to stay out on the road, and #2. Have more than one stream of income, preferably something passive (or generated by someone/something else completely) that doesn’t require a whole lot of your time and presence to be generated (yes, there are such things). If you haven’t already started thinking in this direction, let this be motivation to get the wheels turning in regards to how you can add and receive more value in the world, as well as develop a positive relationship with your MOOLA, so that you can build the financial freedom necessary to support your barrel racing passion without being slowed down and stressed out by a lack of resources.

To get your financial ducks in a row, I recommend The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.

HORSE POWER – Most of us aren’t tapping into all the potential our horses really have. Although there’s always room to improve ourselves, and therefore improve our horses, we DO need to be very realistic about our horse power as it stands (or runs) alone.

Grand entry

Many of us hang on to certain horses because we’re emotionally attached. There’s nothing right or wrong about being a “stayer,” but again it comes down to being realistic about our goals, and what it will take to achieve them. Sometimes, our rose colored glasses cause us to see athletic potential that isn’t really there, and may never be. So often we get so attached to our horses, when in reality it’s possible that our equine partner doesn’t quite have the athletic ability to take us to the top.

I’m not going to dive into great depth on this subject here, because I already did in Discover and Develop the Horse Power You Need to Succeed. If you’re wondering whether your horse has what it takes, it’s well worth the read.

Every year, with more and more extremely talented, genetically engineered foals hitting the ground, the barrel racing world changes and becomes even more competitive. It’s not uncommon for “freaks of nature” to come in and blow the doors off everyone and jump ahead of fast times by a half second or more. I’m sure you’ve been there – suddenly that awesome run you had doesn’t seem so awesome. The reality is, that it’s TOUGH out there, and it’s only getting tougher. It takes a very, very special horse to be competitive at high levels.

We as riders and trainers DO ALSO need to step it up in order to fully optimize and bring the best out of our horses, but even then, we NEED to have some serious natural talent backing us in our equine partners as well (you might want to refer back to the MONEY section again now).

If you’d like some more insight for sizing up your current horse power, click here.

TIME – A few weeks ago in a weekly tips email, I explained the “10,000 hours to mastery” concept from the popular book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The idea is that on average it takes 10,000 hours of devoted study and practice to achieve mastery in any certain area. If you’re spending a couple hours a day, five days a week with your horses, at that rate reaching “mastery,” and really developing the skills and experience it takes to compete at the highest levels will take about 20 YEARS (gulp)!

Heather Smith and 2012 World Champion, Mary Walker

Barrel racing looks so easy from the stands. Of course there are isolated cases of beginners luck. I’ll also be the first to say that having the right horse, and the right instruction and support early in your barrel racing career can fast forward your progress immensely. But if you’ve paid your dues, worked really hard, rode well, on a talented horse and STILL been outclocked by a whole second, you KNOW that this day and age it just requires something extra special to win – and that something special goes beyond having a talented horse. Being the best in any area takes a TON of dedicated attention and focus to LEARN positive habits and movement patterns, experience to develop the “eyes to see,” problems and troubleshoot issues, if you’re good – well before they come up.

It’s so critical that we be honest and realistic about “how bad we want it,” and how much we’re really progressing. At the same time, this “10,000 hours to mastery” concept gives us permission to NOT beat ourselves up if we haven’t yet qualified for the NFR!

Do know that this level of success doesn’t just require TIME alone, but quality time. If you’ve been barrel racing since you were knee high to a grass hopper and you keep doing the same things and riding in the same way without REALLY learning and improving, not even 20,000 hours will result in true mastery. Of course, when you do achieve mastery, it doesn’t mean you’re done learning, know all there is to know, or that horses won’t continue to present challenges that require provocative solutions.

I believe, that if you’re SERIOUS about being successful at a pro level, it would be a good idea to think of how you can COMBINE your career with your barrel racing passion (if you haven’t already), or at least think about how you can start heading in that direction so you can put in the time necessary to achieve mastery sooner than later.

Then ask yourself…

  • Am I progressive?
  • Do I need a more talented horse?
  • Do I need to own more (or fewer) horses?
  • Do I need to take in outside horses for training?
  • Do I need to rearrange my work schedule?
  • Do I need to rethink my career entirely?
  • Get a babysitter while I ride?
  • Do I need to ride with and learn from professionals more often?
  • Go to more clinics?
  • Study/read/watch more educational materials?
  • Set boundaries with friends and family?

Only you know the answers for YOU.

Qualifying for the NFR is one of those things you have to want “as bad as you want air.” Only YOU knows HOW BAD you want it, and the lengths you’re willing to go. Click here to learn more about “what makes high achievers different.”

SUPPORT – They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to support a professional barrel racer too. Here’s the thing about barrel racers – they often have MANY other obligations and responsibilities in life. They are wives, mothers, animal lovers, and they can’t be everywhere at once – especially when they’re on the road. Most barrel racers leave behind a family and a whole herd of horses and other critters when they travel which requires a team of responsible, supportive friends and family to hold down the fort.

The windshield's a painting that hangs in my room.

It’s not just the home front where assistance is needed. Those all night drives are often more than one person can handle, and it’s always nice to have someone to share the chore of lugging hay bales and bags of shavings.

But what if you don’t have a huge family or system of people that understand what you’re doing, and are able to help? That’s OK too, you may just consciously decide to keep your animal population low, then pay a house sitter or trustworthy neighbor to do chores, or hire a budding barrel racer to help you on the road in exchange for the experience (or offer to do the same for a pro barrel racer) – where there is a will, there IS a way.

Ask yourself – who is your tribe? Identify those people and be sure to share your goals and dreams with them, even if they are long term goals and dreams. Don’t be afraid to ask for support. When you do – you’re helpable and can be held accountable. Also know, that as you start climbing the ranks, people will tend to come out of the woodwork to support you. This isn’t all bad, after all people are naturally attracted to and want to be around other successful people – you’ll essentially become a magnet and inspiration for others. At the same time, there will also be those who come forth taking more than they give.

You’re likely to make new friends that will be genuine, but it would be wise to hold a special place for all those that supported and loved you “before you were famous.” It’s OK to be selective when it comes to your inner circle – follow your instinct here and choose the people who make you feel expansive vs. constricted when you’re around them. Don’t be afraid to set healthy boundaries. Choose people whose presence lifts you up, and do the same for them in return.

You don’t win gold buckles by yourself – “going pro” is a huge team effort.

FOUNDATION – When I say foundation, you might automatically think I’m referring to your horse’s foundation. Although I believe that is critically important as well, in this instance, I’m referring to your own personal foundation. As I mentioned above, people are attracted to things that “shine.” People also tend to throw rocks at things that shine. As you start to become a household name in the barrel racing world, suddenly new heads will turn and you’ll find that all eyes are on you everywhere you go. If you’ve spent most of your barrel racing life going relatively unnoticed, it can seem like a lot of pressure. As you become more visible and popular, you naturally set yourself up be the object of criticism, an unfortunate part of standing out for any reason.

Stand on a strong foundation.

Barrel racing is a competition – a world in which we’re always critiquing runs, horses, and in a sense, sizing each either up. In the process, not all of what other people will think, share, say and talk about will be positive or even true.

If your own inner “foundation” and level of emotional fitness isn’t already really strong, you’re likely to crumble under the pressure and criticism. You have to believe in yourself and your path so firmly, that nothing can knock you off course. There’s a time and place to have selective amnesia or a “short term memory.” Stepping up your barrel racing game requires great mental and emotional strength, to leave the negative behind, forget the fear of what other people think and focus only on your horse, your goal and your purpose.

One thing to remember is this – those that throw rocks often do so out of insecurity, they haven’t walked in your boots. Barrel racing is a humbling sport. We ALL experience major ups and downs, it doesn’t add to anyone’s life to focus, think, speak or judge someone (ourselves included) negatively.

It’s important to look at this from both sides. Before we go pointing out the manure stain on another someone else’s jeans, we should look at our own. Rather than criticize someone for failing in some aspect of going for their dreams, perhaps we should find admiration for the qualities they DO have, then learn from and be inspired by them – differences and all. At the same time, we can pray for those rock throwers standing on shaky ground, and take conscious action to build our own personal foundation, so we’re not as likely to get knocked off track by the pressures and challenges that come along with life as a high achieving professional barrel racer.

A PLAN – Just because you don’t have “the horse” that is athlete enough to take you to the finals now, doesn’t mean you won’t get there eventually. Just because you have a full time job now, doesn’t mean you can’t start working your way through the transition to rodeoing full time. Just because you’re going to school now, or focusing on raising a family now, doesn’t mean that you still can’t be also thinking about, planning and working toward making your pro barrel racing dreams come true. You might not be anywhere close to heading down the road yet. However, chances are good that the experiences you have had, or are in the middle of (like raising a family), are all great preparation for your pro rodeo debut.

Opening Ceremonies - Can you FEEL the excitement!?

Here’s an action step I recommend taking – get a piece of paper (and a calendar) and jot down some notes about where you’d like to be and what you’d like to be doing in the next few years. Set some goal dates for changes or transitions you’ll need to work toward making in life to get closer to all this becoming a reality. Now post these desires and timelines in a place where you’ll see them every day.

You don’t necessarily need to be going hard down the road to start preparing yourself. Start your journey toward financial freedom NOW, develop impeccable habits of caring for your horses NOW, work on building your inner foundation NOW, focus on improving your horsemanship NOW, get connected with a barrel racer you admire and respect in your area NOW, think about what kind of career changes need to take place, and start the ball rolling NOW.

Once you do hit the road, expect there to STILL be a HUGE learning curve! However, there are ways to lessen the pain of “learning the hard way,” such as hiring a professional to enter you or traveling with someone who has already “been there, done that.”

Don’t just dream about blasting down the alley at the Thomas & Mack – put it writing, take the first steps, and stay committed!

NO LIMITS! – As you go forward, remember that the ONE thing that stands in our way more than anything, in barrel racing or in life, is NOT lack of money, it’s NOT lack of a good horse – it’s that thing between our ears. The way in which we THINK about our challenges is what creates very realistic seeming barricades to accomplishing our wildest dreams, that are often only figments of our imaginations. If you keep telling yourself that you don’t have the horse or the money – that is likely to continue being your reality. If you keep questioning your own ability, wondering if you’ll ever be the caliber of rider you need to be, THAT uncertainty will hold you back even more. It’s not our reality, but how we think about our reality that becomes a road block. If we could just CHANGE how we think about our conditions, we could harness the power to change them VERY quickly. It may not always be easy, but it is very simple.

Imagine yourself on this stage.

So often we get stuck in paralysis by analysis, but rather than worry about whether you have what it takes – instead go out and GET BUSY developing the skills, experience and confidence, so that you get to a point where you no longer question or compare yourself!

It’s OK for each of us to be where we are on our individual barrel racing journey. Half of this year’s NFR field are in their 40’s (they range in age from 21 to 54), it’s never too early OR too late – believing in yourself and taking action means you don’t have to stay where you are now. Keep moving onward and upward!

YOUR barrel racing dreams were put in your heart for a reason. We DO have to work hard, we DO have to take action, we DO have to get uncomfortable, we DO have to drive all night when we don’t feel like it, take care of our horses when we’re tired, and much, much more. However, you’ll find that when you step back, out of your own way, that the unfolding of YOUR barrel racing dreams becomes the most natural (although not necessarily easy) course possible.

Remember – “A dream is in the mind of the believer and in the hands of the doer. You are not given a dream without being given the power to make it come true.”
– Anonymous

For more inspiration and motivation from the pros themselves, read on as the top 15 answered…

“What quality do you feel barrel racers need most in order to make the dream of qualifying for the NFR a reality?”

Fallon Taylor: A lot of $$!

Brittany Pozzi: Determination and to not give up but also be able to realize when it’s time to go home and regroup.

Mary Walker: Great horse

Kaley Bass: Setting a goal for yourself, make sure that you have the right horse, at the right time.

Jane Melby: First you need a top quality horse. You also need a positive attitude and lots of determination.

Sabrina Ketchum: Drive, it’s takes a tremendous amount of dedication and desire. When things go bad you have to keep going when things go good you can’t get over confident. There are scarifies that you, your family and friends have to make if you don’t really want it and really crave it, it would never be worth it.

Michele McLeod: I feel they need to be able to focus on themselves and their horse don’t worry about what other people are doing and have confidence in yourself and your horse! Not every run is going to be good so you have to let that go and go on to the next run!

Taylor Jacob: Just like your horse you need to be tough and gritty; you need to be able to drive and not let things bother you, mostly you have to be determined and willing to work hard no matter what is going on.

Jean Winters: Perseverance. Learn from your runs, good and bad. Don’t over analyze. Kappy Allen told me one time I had 10 minutes to think and talk about my run, after that you start second guessing yourself.

Sydni Blanchard: Besides faith, opportunity and horsepower I would say the one thing that holds barrel racers back is their mental toughness. I always hear excuses, I just tell them if you don’t feel strong enough to ride that horse, then work out, if you need more knowledge than ask somebody and if you are green than ride with someone. There is always something you can do to progress yourself, so do it, again it just depends on how badly you want it!

Shada Brazile: Work ethics, work hard. Never leave one detail out. Old fashioned dig your heels in work hard.

Sherry Cervi: You have sacrifices and desire to never give up!

Trula Churchill: Perseverance

Christy Loflin: Never give up!

The standards are high and the competition is fierce, but if you’re ready to learn more about climbing the ranks along side the nation’s top barrel racers as a member of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, then follow the links below to learn more.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to check out the NFR Barrel Racing content category here at BarrelRacingTips.com for even more NFR barrel racing coverage!

24 replies
  1. Deedle
    Deedle says:

    Heather I have read everything and I know U R right I have a horse I love so much but I know he will not take me where I want to go he a cuttin horse out of a champion but he a cuttin horse fast but lazy. I have another horse who I just got he is out of On the money Red horse he is so fast like a rocket BUT the person that I got him from ruined him he is 6 going on 7 and I am trying to retrain him he loves to run but she really did a number on him she did one week of slow work then turn him wide open and she would yank on him at the pocket. I have started trotting him and say hooo at the barrel which he does but it u lope him he gets nutty like he needs to run and if u lope to the barrel he charges the barrel speeds up and turns it but throws his rear out but he gets real ruff and he just acts wierd . I have spoke to trainers and they tell me he is ruined and put a bullet in his head before he hurts me but He is fast do U think he is worth it or should I just auction him off he is out of some top barrel racing blood lines but I wonder if that 23 yr old person that believein beating a horse has made him crazy and he will never recover. LOst and I wish U could work him and see he is sweet on ground and good up until a lope then hard to handle. HELP> CONFUSSED.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      It’s a tough call to make but we all need to be honest about our goals – how bad we want to achieve them and how LONG we’re willing for it to take (how much time we have). Although it’s possible for what I refer to as a “project horse” like you described to make a turn around and be successful, it does tend to take quite a bit of time and patience and also a high degree of skill and experience to fully work through their issues. Are you more interested in the journey – in growing in your horsemanship or are you anxious to actually compete, and do so at high levels? Neither one is right or wrong, and challenging horses CAN offer great learning experiences (as can super talented winning horses)! There are plenty of fast, talented ones out there and to really excel we need an equine partner we can trust and be totally confident on.
      Horse ownership is a responsibility I take very seriously, when I do sell one I’m particular about where they go. It’s hard but sometimes we have to let go of something good to make room for great. You can always offer him for sale at a reasonable price while fully disclosing his issues. When you get interest just be honest that you’re really looking for the right match.
      To summarize – first get clear on your desires, then think about whether you’d like to keep trying or already feel as though you’ve exhausted all your options with him (check out “Speed Kills” if you haven’t already), and lastly trust your instinct, and I’m sure something will work out! 🙂

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      Stick with that horse and fix it. It has more to teach you than you could ever teach it. And God will reward you tenfold. I went through the same thing. Best medicine I ever fed my soul was that your here’s horse. And best feeling ever are her 1D runs

  2. Katie
    Katie says:

    What rodeo circuit do you have to ride in to be in the top 15 to qualify for the NFR? I know it’s the WPRA but unsure of the getting in the top 15.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Katie, Many “weekend warrior” barrel racers start out competing within their own circuit (closer to home) with the goal of qualifying for their circuit finals. Qualifying for the NFR most definitely requires a barrel racer to compete outside their home circuit in order to enter more and higher paying rodeos in order to win as much $ as possible! There are more details explained in “So You Wanna Be a Pro Barrel Racer?” and of course, you can get ALL the fine print at http://www.WPRA.com!

  3. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    I’m female and I’m determined to do bull riding and bareback riding and kick all the guys butts! And do barrel racing

  4. VeLisa
    VeLisa says:

    I do some of the jackpots in my area. But when I try to talk to someone they act like i have the plague, and then i wonder man did i just bump them down to 4d?
    i try to ask questions but no one is replying. So how do i go about getting the answers I need or just keep on doing what i am doing? I know i need more practice, on both my mares, and my colt needs more riding time. But what do you do when there isn’t any feedback? I’ve been to clinics and they tell me i’m doing it right. But I want to ride at the Diamonds and Dirt in College Station in march.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I think keep asking and just feel people out… some people, even those who are pretty handy aren’t always the best communicators, some folks feel as though on a deep level they should protect and not share information that would help others, but there are some barrel racers who would be honored and glad to help. As long as you are polite and professional about how you approach them, you should be able to get a feel for who is open to giving you a few words of advice. Always be sure to thank them or even offer something in return, etc. Even at clinics – keep asking! Like I said, not every one will be able to explain what you want to know (even clinicians), but keep digging and trying and you’ll sort things out. 🙂 Also, keep my Power Hour Video Coaching in mind! I appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication to learning and being your BEST!

  5. FJ Thomas
    FJ Thomas says:

    This is a great article and a great wake-up call for anyone that has that dream.The saying, “Don’t give up your day job!” comes to mind. I know a few girls that have won a small handful of races and they won’t work a job or earn their own money and they honestly expect to find sponsors to fully fund their trip down the road. I love to run as much as anyone else but I also know I have a mortgage payment and mouths to feed so weekend warrior it is!

  6. Heather McGhee
    Heather McGhee says:

    Just had to jump on here and say…wow….fate is great. Right in the middle of trying to do late homework, working on my doctorate, working fulltime and raising a family…I DO have this dream…at 54, to try barrel racing. I have a horse, a beautifully built mare, who I think at this point, has the mental attitude to play the game. Your article was dropped in my lap by the powers that be…and has given me the extra spark to continue to believe in what I want to do and what I want my horse and I to accomplish. Super excellent, realistic article and wow…makes me wish I could speed up training my mare, but I will take the time it takes and then we will blast out with the fun! Thanks so much for reminding me of my new passion and goals!

  7. Emma
    Emma says:

    This article is wonderful, and I very much agree with it. I am an aspiring barrel racer and horse trainer, but my parents don’t yet believe I can do it… any of it. But I won’t let that put me back! I’m putting more blood, sweat, and tears into horses than ever.. and this article is VERY helpful!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Way to go Emma, always remember that OTHER PEOPLE’s LIMITED THINKING DOES NOT HAVE TO APPLY TO YOU! Trust me, I grew up around a lot of it, but I refused to let it define me or hold me back and I know you can do the same. Just focus on where you’re going and put “blinders” on to anything that doesn’t relate, support, or uplift you in achieving your goals and you WILL get there. I’ll be thinking of you and “cheering you on!” 🙂

  8. Brianna Doss
    Brianna Doss says:

    Hi Heather! I have waited 15 years of my life for this moment. My passion is to be a professional barrel racer and going all the way to the top. I just moved to Pennsylvania and looking around to find a good place to start my training; also finding someone who has barrel racing experience. What would you recommend regarding to finding a barrel racing trainer and buying a horse for the novice owner?

  9. pamela
    pamela says:

    Hi,I love this article. You definately keep it real.
    I have a question though. Nothing about this article, just more for curiousity.
    Every rodeo has entry fees. Does the NFR have fees too or is it sponsor funded?

  10. Ashleigh K
    Ashleigh K says:

    I am need of a faster horse. Where do I look to find my winner. My gelding I have now has all the heart but sadly not the speed. I am beyond ready to get more serious with my barrel racing but I dont know where to start looking for my new partner.

  11. Samantha Clark
    Samantha Clark says:

    Looking to find out what it takes to get to the NFR ring besides money, besides the horse I can’t find my answer on these forms spelled out. How many races and do you have to win at all competitions. Please help I have been barrel racing for a long time but would love to know what it would take to get to the NFR


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