Throwback: 35 Years Behind the Second Barrel
Take a look back at one of the industry's most iconic photographers, Kenneth Springer. In December 2005, he'd spent 35 years behind the camera, and today the number reaches 47 years.
35 Years Behind the Second Barrel... Photographer Kenneth Springer
By Tayna Randall, first published in the December 2005 issue of Barrel Horse News
"It's really odd watching it from anywhere else," said barrel racing's lengendary photographer Kenneth Springer of his second -barrel post.
For 35 years our barrel racing lives have been documented "By Springer."
Kenneth has captured champions of all ages and abilities, "leaning left" in the turn. He's taken other photos that have inspired awe - Charmayne James and Scamper's winning run at the 1985 National Finals rodeo (NFR) with the bridle dangling between Scamper's legs. Other photos hace touched our hearts - a young Mary Cecelia Ray climbing the wheel well of the horse trailer to give I Got Bugs a pet on the nose while her mother, Celie Whitcomb Ray, who later lost her life to breast cancer, hung a hay net.
Kenneth, Fort Worth, Texas, didn't grow up with aspirations of becoming a photographer. In fact, his career was born as a means of spending time with his friends, now his family - the barrel racers.
A Father's Fatal Flaw
If Paul Springer made one error in Kenneth's upbringing in Midlothian, Texas, it was taking his son with him to the local weekly rodeo during the summers. Kenneth simply called it his father's "fatal flaw." For having taken young Kenneth with him, it sparked a lifelong obsession with rodeo.
The Springer family farmed, but Paul usually kept a horse or two for riding after the cattle. He would take a horse to ride in the Midlothian Rodeo's grand entry, and Kenneth alwasy went with him.
"The first thing I remember is loving to watch the bull riding and the barrel racing," recalled Kenneth who was about 10 or 11 at the time. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday on Nov. 4.
Kenneth kept a sharp eye out for his favorite barrel racers in the grand entry, but he soon noticed their absence. Kowbell Arena in Mansfield had opened and started holding its weekly rodeo.
"Because they weren't riding in the grand entry," Kenneth said, "I figured out that the barrel racers were runnin at Mansfield first and then running at Midlothian. They were only about 10 miles apart. I got smart and would go to the top of the grandstands, since it was an outdoor arena, and watched them pull in and unload their horses because I really didn't care about the rest of the rodeo. I remember as a kid thinking how glamorous that was that they were getting to make two rodeos in one night."
When Midlothian no longer held its rodeo, Kenneth graduated to bugging his dad to take him to Mansfield every Saturday night.
He related, "I would start in on Sunday, 'Are we going to get to go to Mansfield on Saturday?' My world would pretty much come to an end if I didn't get to go to Mansfield on Saturday night."
Luckily for Paul, Kenneth quit bothering him once he was old enough to drive himself. Like his father before him, Kenneth would take a horse to ride in the grand entry.
Driving also opened up another world for Kenneth - that of Quarter Horse shows.
"I would go to the ones in Alvarado and Waxahachie," he said. "I loved to watch all the classes and would stay all day.
"It was about that time that (1980 WPRA World Champion) Martha Arthur (Josey) appeared with Cebe Reed. Not knowing anything, I knew this was one of the finest barrel horses that I have ever watched, and Martha was the first barrel racer I ever saw wrap a horse's legs."
Kenneth introduced himself to Martha that day and complimented her on Cebe Reed, never dreaming how their futures woudl intertwine.
The Opened Door
Kenneth's baptism into the world of barrel racing came through his relationship with Bill and Nelda Patton of Mansfield. Nelda, one of the top barrel racers in the Texas Barrel Racing Association (TBRA), lived in Midlothian at the time, and Kenneth had bred his mare to her famed barrel racing stallion, Shewardabe Star.
He recalled, “The open invitation came when Nelda asked me if I wanted to go to the rodeo in Grand Saline. I said ‘Oh my gosh! Do I? Yes!’ That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me – to get to go to a rodeo outside of Mansfield or Midlothian.
“When we got home, she told me that they were going to Mesquite the next night, and if I wanted to go, be at their house at 5 o’clock. Well, you couldn’t have kept me away! From that point on, I started going with them almost everywhere. It was an opened door, an unbelievable opportunity.”
He continued to expand his knowledge of barrel racing by subscribing to the major equine publications of the day – the Quarter Horse Journal and Western Horseman. Until then most of the barrel racers he witnessed belonged to the TBRA, a sate association made up of amateur barrel racers.
“I never knew of anything else until I started subscribing to the Quarter Horse Journal,” he said. “I learned that there was a professional element. I think the first issue I got had a picture of (1959-1961 GRA World Champion) Jane Mayo on the cover for winning the GRA’s first NFR in Clayton, N.M. Florence Youree wrote a monthly column for the Quarter Horse Journal called ‘GRA Highlights.’ Of course, I read every word and looked at every picture. I knew that there were great horses in both (the TBRA and GRA), but the GRA had more.”
During the 1960s, there weren’t many opportunities to compete, so like most barrel racers, Nelda competed in AQHA shows too. Most of the time the shows had an open barrel race in addition to the registered class. Barrel racers would make a run in each class before heading to a rodeo that night.
Most of the shows were held outside during the day. Kenneth’s sister Nancy (Sutherland) had a movie camera. So he decided to take advantage of the daylight and film the barrel race. Kenneth ended up taking “rolls and rolls and rolls” of movie footage.
Then Nelda suggested that Kenneth take photographs.
Kenneth, a senior business major at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) at the time, promptly went to price a camera at a shop in Fort Worth. A whopping $125 price tag set the ever-frugal Kenneth on his heels.
At the end of May 1970, Kenneth used his first paycheck from Ling-Temco Vought (LTV), an aircraft defense company, to buy his first 35 millimeter camera.
“I bought the camera but not the flash,” he explained. “You know you can’t get everything at once. I remember going to a Quarter Horse show in Decatur. Those were the first pictures I took.
“I hadn’t taken any photography lessons, but I had looked at every barrel racing picture known to man. From just looking at them, I kind of knew what I wanted to capture, but I didn’t know anything about the techniques of photography or anything.”
The barrel racers gave him much support and guidance. Al Long, father of 1969 GRA World Champion Missy Long, helped Kenneth with equipment selection and Edith Eggleston, a barrel racer from Keller, showed him how to mix chemicals and develop prints in trays.
Hit The Ground Running
“I just sort of hit the round running,” Kenneth said of his first year snapping pictures.
He hadn’t been at the photography game long when TBRA Secretary Barbara Cummings, one of his early barrel racing idols, asked him if he was ready to take pictures at the 1970 TBRA Roundup. That gig led to several years of working for the TBRA at their numerous events, including the monstrous TBRA Futurity, which helped spawn a new facet of the barrel racing industry.
A young Vickie Adams had him take pictures of the famous Paint stallion Yellow Mount for the stallion’s owners.
“The next thing I know it’s a centerfold in the Paint Horse Journal,” Kenneth commented.
The icing on the cake was his first book cover. Western Horseman was publishing Dale Youree’s book on barrel racing, and Florence thought that Kenneth’s picture of their daughter Renee (now Ward) taken at the 1970 TBRA Roundup would make a fine cover.
“I was just blown away by that,” he said. “It just couldn’t get any better than that.”
In June 1971, Kenneth got laid off from LTV, a typical procedure for the company after it lost a defense contract.
“I’m sure it bothered my parents some,” he said, “but it didn’t bother me one bit because it was the height of the summer rodeo run. I get laid off one afternoon, and he next morning I’m heading to Colorado to (1964 GRA World Champion) Ardith Bruce’s house and then on to Cheyenne and rodeos up there. So, I didn’t have a care.”
In December, Kenneth landed a job with the city of Waxahachie, which allowed him to make a living and pursue his photography. For 28 ad a half years, Kenneth worked for the city, first as the administrative assistant to the city manager and then as assistant to the city manager.
“Of course, I didn’t know how fortunate that was for me to get a job with that much flexibility for scheduling time off,” he explained. Naturally, the perks of the job made it difficult for Kenneth to opt for early retirement, which he did in 2000.
In the late 1970s Kenneth started branching out from the TBRA and began taking more pictures at professional rodeos.
“I started going to Mesquite,” he recalled. “That was my new Mansfield as an adult, going to Mesquite every Friday and Saturday night. It was cool because I got to see a lot of the professionals and it was less than 45 minutes from my house.”
Kenneth said his rise as a photographer in the GRA paralleled the rise of 1975 GRA World Champion and former GRA President Jimmie Gibbs Munroe and 1979 GRA World Champion Carol Goosetree. Jimmie was a the top of her game with Billie, aka Robin Flit Bar, the horse that introduced Flit Bar to the barrel racer vocabulary, and Carol was just hitting her stride with Dobre. Kenneth had followed the careers of both world champions closely as both started out where he did – in the TBRA. In the process, both became lifeline friends.
He photographed his first National Finals Rodeo in 1978, and hasn’t missed one since.
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the barrel futurity industry in Texas and Oklahoma took off. Most of the events were fundraisers for the powerful state associations.
Kenneth explained, “Back then, state associations were strong because you couldn’t work both the GRA/WPRA and amateur. The rules were very stringent. (WPRA card holders couldn’t work non-sanctioned GRA rodeos.) If you dropped your WPRA card, you couldn’t get it back for two years. It was very difficult, so state associations were thriving.”
The two major state associations in Texas were the TBRA and West Texas Barrel Racing Association (WTBRA). Each held major futurities, the largest in the country at the time. The WTBRA had one in the spring and the TBRA held one in the fall.
The futurities also provided lasting contacts and friendships for Kenneth.
He said, “I was getting to meet the people that were the strongholds, and still are the strongholds, in the futurity industry. I was making contacts, and certainly friendships, that have lasted a lifetime.”
I was at the TBRA Futurity, held at Trader’s Village in Grand Prairie, Texas, that Kenneth first met the Green brothers, Mike and Talmadge.
In the early 1980s, Kenneth started taking pictures for Martha Josey at her clinics and barrel races. Although he missed the first one for a WTBRA event, Kenneth has taken pictures at every Josey Jr. World since 1982.
It was at the 1983 Josey Jr. World that Kenneth first captured 11-time WPRA World Champion Charmayne James and Scamper in action.
The Biggest Break
Kenneth says his biggest break was getting in on the ground floor with the NBHA. Until then, the futurities were the biggest events that Kenneth attended and even then, 60 to 70 entries were the average. Making a living taking barrel racing photos wasn’t something that Kenneth could ever comprehend.
“All the people that are taking pictures now wouldn’t have done it back then because the numbers weren’t there,” he said. “I didn’t care how many entries an event had as long as there were great barrel horses to watch.”
The NBHA changed all that.
In 1994, he met NBHA Executive Director Sherry Fulmer at the Old Fort Days Futurity in Fort Smith, Ark. She asked Kenneth to take pictures at their Finals in Augusta, Ga., that fall. He was concerned that the two-week-long Finals would eat up his entire bank of vacation days. Luckily, Carol Goostree’s husband, Phil, who worked the ground at the first NBHA finals with Chuck Dunn, convinced him to take the chance.
As the NBHA grew and added more events, Kenneth found his vacation time stretched to the max.
“It just got to requiring more days off than what I had,” he explained. “I realized that I had to make a choice. It wasn’t a particularly easy one because I loved my job and its flexibility. I was right at the age where had I stayed 10 more years, my retirement would have doubled, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to continue with the NBHA.”
It was the NBHA that allowed Kenneth to retire from the city of Waxahachie and become a fulltime photographer.
“I remember the day that I went in to tell the city manager that I was retiring early,” he recalled. “Sherry Fulmer had called from an airplane to her office and had one of her girls send me a fax that said, ‘Do It,’ as she knew the day I was going to announce it to the city manager. Later she told me if I backed out she would have never forgiven me because the phone call from the plane to the office cost a small fortune.”
Making the move a little tenuous was that Kenneth’s jump to fulltime photography coincided with the digital takeover of the photography world.
“The new digital kids on the block would have stomped me into the ground by now if it were not for the unwavering loyalty of the barrel racers I’ve met throughout the years,” said the now-digital-convert. “The only reason I have the events today that I do is because of the loyalty of friendships.”
For Kenneth, it was just another reminder that he had just been in the right place at the right time.
Kenneth’s career has marked the progression of the barrel horse industry from Quarter Horse shows to open rodeos, from state associations to the WPRA and from futurities to the NBHA, which Kenneth emphatically says, “revolutionized the sport.”
“What the 4D has done for people like me is that it’s allowed me to see people that I haven’t seen in years, because they are still competing. It used to be once that good horse was done, you never heard of them again. Now you see people that you’ve known forever in unsuspecting places,” he said. It’s allowed him to keep in touch with his family – the barrel racers.
“Not being married, it’s my family,” Kenneth said of barrel racing. “It’s my friends. It’s my life. It’s everything. The Lord has blessed me beyond measure. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the world.”