The ability to adapt to different styles of horses is an attribute shared by great horsemen and horsewomen.
By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley
You can have a model or an ideal of how you want a barrel horse to work, but one of the most important attributes of successful barrel racers is the ability to adapt to a lot of different styles of horses. barrel horses are all a little different with unique traits that make them winners. with every horse that comes into your life you’re faced with a decision of how to get their best potential to shine through.
Great things come through a passion and drive for what you’re doing. if you really care, you find a way to make it work with that horse if you think it’s the one, whether your goals are in professional rodeo, at the high school rodeo level, a beginner looking to advance to the 1- or 2D—whatever your goal, have the passion to do it, whether or not that horse fits the mold of what people say a barrel horse should work like.
Dealing with Differences
With Scamper, I had to let him be who he was as an individual. The thing was that I loved my horse, I just wanted to ride every day as much as I could ride. I wanted to be successful barrel racing in order to win enough money to keep going and pay my way. With that thought in mind, I had parents who told me, “you can do it.” When you have parents or people in your life who encourage you and believe in you, I think that’s the best gift. When you doubt yourself, or have others around you who doubt you, that can be tough to overcome.
At my clinics I try to teach people an awareness of what they’re doing as riders. I teach good, correct fundamentals and the best horsemanship, as I know it. Knowing your leads, having good hands, feeling where your horse’s feet are—you have to learn all of those things, but also learn how to bring the best out in each horse.
Scamper and "Cruiser" are good examples of two totally different horses with the one thing in common being they each earned world championships. Regardless of how different they were in the way they worked, the drive and passion to get them to excel made me take the best possible approach to each of them as individuals that I could. With a hotter type of horse like Cruiser, I see a lot of people who will do things like not feed them up, or tie them saddled for extended periods. I didn’t want to do those things; I couldn’t rely on having a horse not fed up with enough energy to handle the demands of the road. What I did to deal with Cruiser’s personality was spent time gathering cattle, roping, and other jobs that occupied his mind before going to the barrel pattern. A person could relate it to a Border Collie because they have to have a job to do, so you have to learn to manage that level of energy properly. If Cruiser had a job to do before going to the pattern, it was easier for him to focus.
Horses are all different so you have to have the thought process of developing a strategy of what’s best for that particular horse. It takes some trial and error because you learn based on how things are going what works and what doesn’t. That’s why if you don’t have the drive to do what is in that horse’s best interest it’s easier to resort to tactics that aren’t in my opinion good, like drugs or a poor feed program. These might be short-term fixes for some, but I don’t advise them as long-term options for a successful barrel horse that enjoys its job.
Look at how dominant the team of Mary Burger and “Mo” (Sadiefamouslastwords) was in 2016. Mo’s style is slightly unorthodox to some; he’s straighter and stiffer in the turns. Mary holds the outside rein a little longer, and I’ve heard some criticism of that, but that is what works best for her horse. I watched Mary ride Rare Fred, the horse she won her Women's Professional Rodeo Association world title on in 2006, and his style was much different—he was rounder in his turns and perfectly arced. She adapted to each style of horse rather than asking one horse to fit the mold of how the other worked. That is a trait of a great horse person. Mary Burger is one of those special people whom horses like and respond well to, and I don’t say that lightly. She’s not babying her horses; she is simply a tremendous horsewoman capable of riding the way she needs to in order for her horse to be its best.
I’d like people to understand that it’s so important to ride horses and care for horses the way they need to be in order to win. Some horses have straighter styles, some work more rounded through their body. Some horses work best in a ported bit like what I used during much of my career, some like a snaffle. You can’t be stuck with a single vision of what a horse is supposed to conform to and not be open minded to different styles. The thing that sticks out to me about both Mary Burger and Lisa Lockhart is it’s apparent they genuinely love their horses. It’s really an inspiration to see people like that winning, because they like their horses and take immaculate care of them.
The longer I teach, the more I realize it’s not all about the training. All these things that we talk about from proper training techniques to care and personality fit between horse and rider have to come together. You have to decide the kind of barrel racer you want to be, and if you’re willing to develop greater awareness and learn to adapt to the needs of each horse.