When searching for a 1D or rodeo-caliber horse, developing solid criteria for what you want is a must.

A horse’s ability to shut the clock off is often something you only know when you start to enter and see the proof. Finding those exceptional horses is no easy task. At my clinics, I get a lot of people who express their desire to move out of the 3D and into the 1D, but a full second is actually a lot of time in this highly competitive sport. Finding the right finished horse or prospect to get you where you want means first identifying your goals and being objective about how you will accomplish them.

To me, you don’t know how fast a horse will be through the barrel pattern until you actually put it on the clock and it gives you a good indication of its ability to stop the clock. A horse can be fast on a straightaway and not in its turns, or vice versa. To give yourself the best odds, knowing what to look for—especially in a barrel racing prospect—is very important.

Identifying Talent

Today there are so many quality breeding programs that offer proven barrel racing genetics on both sides of the pedigree. There are some very good stallions out there, and I think with barrel racing being as competitive as it is, it’s equally as important to find those top-producing mares with proven 1D and rodeo offspring. Prospects out of proven mares, or mares with proven offspring, will more often than not put you money ahead in the future.

You can buy a cow-bred horse that will likely frame up a bit more easily and may have a more trainable mind, but to me the odds are lower of having enough run with a horse bred that way. Of course there are always exceptions, but I think you generally improve your chances by finding a horse that’s bred to run barrels, which so many are these days compared to 10–15 years ago.

The No. 1 thing you have to ask yourself when setting criteria is if the horse will be fast enough when you set up the timer. If you start with a horse that has the right pedigree for speed, you hope that after you’ve trained it and put it on the clock that—even if it’s green—it will be fast enough.

The first time I ran Cruiser in competition, he won the $200 Novice Horse class. Even though it wasn’t a real big race, I thought to myself, “This horse can really stop the clock.” Even with room to improve on the pattern, he was still fast enough that I knew I had something good to go on with. Scamper was the same way; he won third in the Open at the first jackpot we entered and was running green. When you get out there in a competitive environment and the horse is not necessarily making perfect runs but still stopping the clock, you have a good idea of what the future might bring. Those initial runs also give you a great indication of the areas that need to be smoother so you can go home and work on getting to the next level. There is no escaping that the God-given talent has to be in the horse initially.

Some horses have a ton of grit, try, and a great style of running, even if they aren’t the fastest. I’ve seen those types of horses have to work a little harder than a horse that possesses a lot of natural speed. That’s the case with human athletes too—sometimes the person with the most try and determination will beat the one with natural talent, it just takes more hard work.

My advice is to be realistic about the physical ability of the horse. If you’re trying a finished horse that places 10th at a rodeo on its best day, you have to understand and acknowledge that. You can look at ways in which the horse’s performance could possibly be improved—dental work, better shoeing, nutrition, veterinary care—all of these factors play a part. I’ve always emphasized that knowing how to provide the best care for your horse will pay off with better results in competition, but you need to stay realistic at the same time.

For people who buy a finished horse performing at the top of its game, find out what the previous rider did to achieve those results and employ their shoeing, feed, dental and general care into your program. Not only will you learn things that may benefit other horses you’ll own later, but radically changing the horse’s routine or ignoring the care it needs is unfair to the horse.

The Right Foundation

No. 2 behind talent is the importance of slow work and patterning to a horse’s success in competition. Having a good handle on a horse early on and a solid foundation on the pattern are both so important. People can be inconsistent riders, so having a horse well broke and trained to know its job sets you both up for success.

Barrel racers often ask me how long I wait on a horse to see if it will make the grade. It really depends on the horse and how much opportunity it has been given in competition. It’s wise to have a game plan for your horses. Do you want to invest two years or more in a prospect and ultimately have a rodeo horse? Then that horse better show some promise early on at the local level. If you’re going to races on a fairly consistent basis and not running out of the 4D, then it’s time to be honest about the horse’s ability and the fact that it probably won’t be a 1D horse.

Futurity trainers are on a timeline, and I’ve seen some set pretty serious expectations for the first 45 days or so on the barrel pattern. They’ve learned to select well-made, athletic and fast-maturing individuals that are bred to run barrels, and the trainers get them very well-broke before introducing the barrel pattern. Some horses mature later and need more time, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean they won’t make it someday with the right training, it just means you’ll have more time invested.

Riding Skills

If you’re making smooth, solid runs and still clocking in the 3D, you can always seek help and instruction to improve as a rider. We can all definitely work to improve ourselves on every level, but you cannot always change the horse’s inherent speed, ability to handle ground and be athletic and quick in the turns—all the things that take a good horse to the next level of being a great horse.

Ultimately, being objective about your riding ability in relation to your goals is crucial. A good, solid barrel horse that is well trained to know and love its job is capable of carrying riders, even through our own human inadequacies, to victory. Those types of horses are out there and are very special, hard-to-find individuals.

I always say shoot for the stars. Stay true to your objectives, and if you’re doing a good job with your riding, training and horse care, you will add value to the horses you ride. Even if they don’t make it to the top of the 1D, you’ll still have something to market. I recommend selecting horses that meet the requirements of being fast, staying sound and having the heart and try to make it to the top.

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.