Learn how to channel your adrenaline from these top competitors.
The rush that comes from riding a lightning fast horse through the cloverleaf barrel pattern is a feeling all barrel racers appreciate.
But what do you do when your nerves get a little out of control?
When the fear of failure, the unknown or a myriad of other possibilities paralyze you and affect your performance?
These three top barrel racers have been in your boots, and they’re sharing how they’ve developed strategies to overcome those nerves.
Lisa Lockhart of Oelrichs, South Dakota, is a barrel racing legend. She’s amassed more than $1.8 million in rodeo competition and has qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo nine times. In 2015 she ended the year ranked second in the Women’s Professinnal Rodeo Association world standings after winning coveted titles at Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Calgary Stampede as Champions Challenge events in Utah Nevada and Arizona. At press time, Lockhart is leading the barrel racing standings in the 2016 Elite Rodeo Athletes organization. Her mounts include An Oakie With Cash (“Louie”), a 13-year-old buckskin gelding sired by Biebers Oakie out of Lady Kaweah Cash by Judge Cash; as well as Fast An Gold (“Chisum”), an 18-year-old chestnut gelding sired by El Roco, out of Romanna Glass by Raise Your Glass.
But as seasoned as Lockhart is, she still gets nervous for every run. “We are all adrenaline junkies,” Lockhart says. “We thrive on it. And sometimes you think you’re crazy, ‘What am I doing this for?’ and you’re sick to your stomach because of the butterflies. But deep down, we love it. The thrill of competition is what keeps me moving orward.”
“We are adrenaline junkies. We thrive on it. And sometimes you think you’re crazy…
But deep down, we love it.”
Kelly Valdez of La Junta, Colorado, won the all-around title at the 2016 International Finals Youth Rodeo and she was the senior all-around chamsion at the NRS Youth Timed Event Chansionship in 2016, as well as the reserve all-around winner at the 2015 National High School Finals Rodeo. Her favorite horse is Hickory Fletch (“Fletch”), a 9-year-old gelding (Royal Fletch × Hickorys Patty x Docs Hickory) that she’s owned since he was 2. At 18, she’s been competing for a decade, but she says each run still requires so many moving parts, and that is what gets her adrenaline going.
“Every time you run in the pen, you really have to trust your horse,” Valdez says. “For everything to work its really complicated. Everything has to go right for you to have a great run. When it all comes together, it’s just awesome.
Larkspur, Colorado, resident Kim Schulze has earned more than $184,000 in rodeo earnings. She was 16th in the world in 2013, and she’s done both rodeo and futurity riding the last few years. She won the 2016 Pike’s Peak or Bust Cinch Rodeo aboard her steady mount Vegaspeed (“Speedy”), a 2002 chestnut gelding sired by Frenchmans Guy son Frenchmans Vegas, out of Crystal Philly by Doctor Greyboy. She loves everything about a good barrel run.
“I love the speed,” Schulze says. “The feeling you get when a horse goes in there and is running full blast and just sits down and turns a barrel—it’s such a rush. That gets me pretty excited, to be on a horse that works like that.”
When nerves get the best of you
Although Lockhart says she uses her nerves to improve her performance, she can recall a time when they interfered with her riding. A few years ago at the NFR was one such time.
“It was on the last, last run—a world championship was on the line,” Lockhart says. “I don’t feel like my focus was there.
I feel like my nerves crept in and I don’t feel like I rode my horse to the best of my ability. So it was a very hard lesson learned.”
Lockhart says as a result, she and Louie nearly hit the first barrel, and while it affected their placing, more than that, she knew she could have done better.
“Most people probably would not have known what transpired because I didn’t ride Louie correctly,” Lockhart says. “It was all because I didn’t do my job. I really feel like the nerves probably got the best of me there. Lesson learned. It’s not because I wasn’t trying. it just happened. We are only human.”
Lockhart says she came to grips with the incident by applying a saying she uses often.
“It is what it is, and you move on to the next one,” Lockhart says.
Valdez can tell when her nerves are starting to be too much.
“Before the run, I get a nervous feeling in my stomach, and my hands start shaking,” Valdez says. “That’s when I just have to take a step back, take a couple of breaths, calm myself down and get ready to make my run.”
One of those times Valdez’ nerves got the best of her was at the 2016 National High School Finals Rodeo. She was on Fletch, and she had made a 20.24-second run in the first round—one of the toughest pole bending runs she’d ever posted—and landed 15th.
“I hadn’t had a great week,” Valdez says. “I missed my second calf so I wasn’t going to make it back in the breakaway or anything else. I really wanted to make it back in the poles. For some reason, I got nervous and started thinking, ‘don’t hit the pole.” I never hit poles on this horse, so I don’t know why I was thinking that. I sent him down there, and my horse was so good, like he always is, and he was running hard. But I hit the last pole. Honestly, I think it was because I was nervous. I should have just trusted my horse, but instead, I pulled because I was thinking about hitting a pole.
Valdez realized if she had kept her attitude of doing the same thing she always does, she probably wouldn’t have hit that pole.
“Now, no matter if it’s a huge rodeo or a junior rodeo, I don’t get nervous because I’ve trained myself to think about what I need to do and not what could go wrong.”
Schulze says one year when she was headed for Cheyenne Frontier Days, she was at the end of her rope—tired, beaten lown because her horse wasn’t working vell and she wasn’t riding at her best.
“I told my husband, I’m done. I’m not going to Cheyenne. I can’t do this anymore and I’m not having fun, ” Schulze says. “But I got some sleep. I was just so tired. And the next day, I realized I have no quit in me and after I got some rest, I regrouped. And I ended up winning Cheyenne that year.”
Make a gameplan
To combat nervousness and do her best in the arena, Lockhart maps out her strategy on the pattern.
“Having a plan and implementing it to the best of my abilities and focusing on that rather than focusing on the nerves works for me,” Lockhart says. “My nerves are skyrocketing when I’m at Cheyenne or at the NFR or wherever, knowing theres so much at stake. At those times, the adrenaline is going to be higher. But at the same time, every time I go down the alley, there’s adrenaline. That does not change. So have a plan, do the best you can to implement it and be focused on that plan.”
Valdez says when she gets nervous, it’s typically in the hours before her run because she can sometimes overthink the potential things that could happen.
“I feel like the reason you get nervous is because you’re thinking of everything that could go wrong,” Valdez says. “When you think about the negative things that could go wrong, most of the time they do happen, instead of just thinking about what you need to do right throughout the run.”
Valdez says she’s worked hard to harness her mind before runs, and she doesn’t get nervous anymore.
“Now, no matter if its a huge rodeo or a junior rodeo, I don’t get nervous because I’ve trained myself to think about what I need to do and not what could go wrong,” Valdez says. “Just go back to basics.”
Schulze says she spends some time by herself gathering her thoughts and centering on her plan.
“Stick to your gameplan and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing,
Having a plan is important, but our experts say putting it into play is the tough part, and that’s what sets winners apart.
“The hardest part for anybody is overcoming nerves and changing that adrenaline to implementing the plan,” Lockhart says. “That’s the mental thing. I think sometimes the fear of failure overshadows the confidence for success.”
Know what calms you
Lockhart says when she’s counting down to her run, she focuses inward, retreating to her own thoughts.
“Nerves are a very personal thing, and we all handle it differently,” Lockhart says. “Some people like to preoccupy their mind with something else, or they like to visit with people or stay active. For me, it’s a quiet time, spending time with my horse. Thinking about the things I need to do as the pilot. Thinking about my gameplan. I’m not one that is real chit-chatty before I go in. It’s just my way of going about it. I just become very focused and driven at the same time.”
Over the years, Lockhart says she’s improved her ability to channel her adrenaline.
“I’m sure my focus has gotten better over the years with experience, age and
wisdom,” Lockhart says. “You have to know your personality and what it takes for you to maintain that focus. Whatever it takes to get your game face on—everybody is wired differently. Once you tap into that, move forward with what works for you.”
For Schulze, watching other riders can get in her head, creating more stress, so she tries not to pay attention to the other runs at rodeos.
“I really just try to focus on my run and the run my horse can make,” Schulze says.
Schulze relies on her faith to put herself in the right mindset before she runs.
“I pray before every single run, and if I feel that I’ve got some nerves, I’ll pray and ask for God’s peace and leave it at that,” Schulze says. “It’s supposed to be fun. So I feel like if I’m getting nervous, I just really try to get to that state and trust God. Whatever happens, happens. It’s not the end of the world.”
Lockhart encourages competitors to avoid worrying about bad things that could happen during your performance.
“Keeping the positive energy is important,” Lockhart says. “There’s a lot at stake, but we do this for fun and enjoy-ment. Stay positive, just keep trying to surge forward and improve every time you come down the alley. All you can do is your best, and try, try again.”
Valdez also works to stay positive before she rides, and encourages others to keep the right mindset to reduce nerves.
“Just be confident about your run,” Valdez says. “You are already at the rodeo—what is going to happen is going to happen and there’s nothing you can change about it now. If you go in there confident and thinking you’re going to do well, you have a better chance of doing it.”
Schulze says she keeps her competition in perspective to reduce anxiousness.
“I just want to do my best every single time,” Schulze says. “I really feel like when I let myself get nervous, I don’t ride as well. So I just try to relax and tell myself, it’s just another barrel race. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Schulze says part of her sense of calm comes from the role barrel racing plays in her life.
“Barrel racing is not who I am, it’s what I do, and what I’m blessed to do.When it stops being fun and you start thinking it’s the end of the world if you don’t win that time, then for me, I feel that I’ve lost all perspective.”
– Kim Schulze
Schulze says realizing that how she performs doesn’t ultimately define her in the end changed how she approached barrel racing.
“It just took so much pressure off me,” Schulze says. “I quit living for everybody else. I don’t care what everybody else thinks anymore. I just think about barrel racing completely differently now. When you enjoy something, I feel like you don’t get as nervous. When you think you have to be the very best you possibly can be because people are watching you, I think you tend to have more nerves instead of just enjoying it. I love it and I feel so blessed to be able to do it, but I know for me, there are way more important things in life than running barrels, so I just wont allow myself to lose my peace or joy, because this is supposed to be fun.”
This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Barrel Horse News.