Learn how some of the top barrel futurity trainers jumped into futurity competition and what words of wisdom they have for aspiring competitors.
Experience is the greatest teacher. Sometimes it’s a good experience, but other times, not so much. Both can shape destinies.
Barrel racing is tough enough on its own, but when you add young, inexperienced horses into the mix, it gets even more challenging. That’s the very reason futurities pay so much—the gamble of the unknown.
Barrel Horse News visited with some of the top futurity competitors and trainers in the business. We asked about their first experience in the aged-event pen and what advice they would give to anyone wanting to compete in the futurity world or become a barrel futurity trainer.
—> Read more: Futurity Prep Tips
Before becoming an Equi-Stat Top 15 All-Time Leading Futurity Rider, Leslie (Shugart) Willis was a rodeo girl, having qualified for the International Finals Rodeo and Southern Rodeo Association Finals. Her boyfriend and now husband, Jason Willis, was a futurity competitor.
“He was the futurity rider, and I was just the girlfriend,” the Chester, South Carolina, trainer said with a laugh. “I didn’t care anything about the futurities. I went the complete opposite direction to the rodeos.”
Today, their roles are flipped with Leslie competing and Jason taking a supporting role. It was Jason who encouraged and helped Leslie from the beginning, spurring her to rodeo on A Special Timeto Fly (“Mister”), a 4-year-old Special Effort gelding out of Ms Timeto Fly by Timeto Thinkrich, that she had purchased from Donald and Ricky Glass.
“I remember the first rodeo I took him to,” Leslie said. “It was in Charlotte, North Carolina. I went to the barn to load horses and was going to load my mare, and Jason said to take that colt. It’s time for him to grow up and mature and be a rodeo horse if that’s what I wanted. I was not comfortable riding that colt at the rodeo that weekend, but I think he even placed.”
Mister competed at 20 rodeos that summer before Leslie took him to Florida for the Kim Landry Futurity in November 1997.
“Jason was going, and I threw Mister in the trailer because he was still eligible to compete,” Leslie said. “I think I won the first go, placed in the second go and was second in the average. Brett Monroe won it on Brazzle.”
Leslie was already starting to prepare for more aged-event competition that summer.
“I had stuck my foot in the door with some 3-year-olds that summer so I would have futurity horses the next year,” Leslie said. “I had some for Dr. Shannon—he was the dentist in town who treated me like a daughter. It all fell into place.”
—> Read more: Getting Confidence Back After a Fall with Leslie Willis
Her ace-in-the-hole was Jason guiding her through the futurity process.
“I would call him and ask him where I needed to enter and what I needed to do,” Leslie said.
Not surprisingly, she encourages those wanting to try the futurities to find someone successful and ask a lot of questions.
“Ask them what it took to get them where they are,” Leslie said. “I don’t think it’s something you want to try to do by yourself. I was talking to someone the other day, and just in general, it takes a team to keep my horses sound and going. You also have to know who to ask for help. I struggled a bit early on, because I wouldn’t necessarily ask for help, but I learned. By golly, I’ll pick up the phone now and call, ‘Will you please help me!’”
National Finals Rodeo qualifier Molly Otto stumbled into the futurity industry with a great first horse, Eyema Rare Bug.
“I didn’t really know what the futurity stuff was,” Otto said, who made her aged-event debut at the 2011 JJ Classic. “I thought well, they’ve got a lot of added money and I think my horse can run in it. I just decided to enter it. I think I placed in a round and got third in the average or something like that.”
Otto purchased “Fierce,” a daughter of One Rare Bug out of These Eyes by Mr Eye Opener, as a 4-year-old for $1,500.
“They didn’t ride her through the sale,” recalled the Grand Forks, North Dakota, barrel racer. “They said she was a great prospect and had never been bred. I got her home and had her for about three weeks, and she bagged up and had a baby a week later. I didn’t even start her on barrels until the end of Christmas break, so the end of December coming into her 5-year-old year. Then she won a college rodeo at the beginning of April.”
Fierce, who would later win three rounds at the Canadian Finals Rodeo with Cayla (Melby) Small and advance to the finals of RFD-TV’s The American Rodeo with Jane Melby, changed the course of Otto’s life.
“She’s the first horse I rode that I thought, ‘This is what a barrel horse should feel like,’” Otto said. “She was one of those that was just meant to be a barrel horse. She wanted to work and do her job. She was so easy and confident in herself. She was a really special horse. She always showed up when the pressure was on.”
By 2014, Otto was making the rounds at the Northern Region Tour Futurities, and she’s taken to traveling to some of the bigger events across the country.
“It’s a really neat experience to watch the horses progress, to take them from nothing and hopefully make them into something,” Otto said.
Otto says perseverance is important for surviving the futurity world.
“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Otto said. “I think people put so much pressure on themselves, because it does cost a lot of money. Then you watch all these other girls and guys go out on these amazing colts. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not.”
Rolling with the punches is also crucial when riding young horses in competition.
“Your horse can work so good and then act like they’ve never seen a barrel before in the next round, or vice versa,” Otto said. “You have to just keep going. You can’t let the lows keep you down. Every run is a new run. Just enjoy it and have fun.”
Molli Montgomery, an Equi-Stat Top 35 All-Time Leading Futurity Rider, got her start in the aged-event pen on a $1,500 cutting-bred mare that was supposed to be her husband Jimmy Owens’ future heel horse.
“He went off to work, and she was just sitting out in the pasture,” the Dawson, Texas, trainer recalled. “She was young, so I thought I’ll just see what I might have. You got to do what you got to do when you’re trying to make your name and get out there in front of people.”
Their first futurity was the 2012 Diamonds and Dirt Futurity, and she just narrowly missed the short round.
Molli found her way into the futurities because she played matchmaker, introducing her brother Kerby Montgomery to her friend Jolene (Stewart) Montgomery, who was training at the Jud Little Ranch. When Molli left her job with the Texas Department of Transportation to hang out her shingle as a horse trainer, Jolene told her if she was ever going to step off in the futurity world that now was the time to do it.
“I had to start riding whatever I could make a living on,” Molli said. “You’ve got to show up, even if it’s costing you money to be there. You’ve got to have your horses look good and perform good, even if they don’t win.”
Molli said if she could go back and start over, she probably would have gone about getting into the business a different way. She advises aspiring futurity competitors to work for established trainers.
“The best way to get into it is go to work for a trainer,” Molli said. “Don’t expect to work there a year, expect to work there three to five years. When you’re young, you think you know, but you don’t know. I still learn so much. I feel like I have a lot of things figured out, but I still learn so much that I’m blown away sometimes. Like, ‘How am I just figuring this out now!’”
DaCota Monk, a three-time futurity champion in 2020 with Famous Lemon Drop, had aged-event experience in the cutting horse industry before he made his barrel futurity debut in 2009. It was at the JB Quarter Horses Futurity in November that the rode the CD Olena-Doc’s Hickory-bred gelding Hesa Little Nubbin to a finalist check in the championship round.
Entering the futurity was actually an afterthought.
“It was something we thought about later,” the Emory, Texas-based trainer said. “The owner was like, ‘Why don’t you take him to some futurities?’ I didn’t even realize how young he was when I started him. He was not a finished cutter. He was started but a reject. He picked up on the barrels pretty fast. He really made it so easy. He just went in there and did it. I was like this is fun, and it’s what I want to do.”
Unfortunately for Monk, finding the right combination—a willing owner and the right kind of horses—was something that eluded him until Famous Lemon Drop came along.
“I had a couple of good futurity horses, but nothing like ‘Barbie,’” Monk said. “It takes a while to find that horse. I had a lot of nice horses that I just didn’t get in time. People think you can get a futurity horse ready in four months, and you can’t, no matter how broke they are. They have to be on the barrels a full year to excel and be comfortable.”
Seasoning one at the futurities is financially and emotionally draining and it isn’t good for the horse, either, Monk said.
“If you don’t do your job of taking them to exhibition at different places, you’re just trying to season them at your first futurity and they’re scared to death,” Monk said. “It doesn’t work that way. If you’re seasoning them at the first couple futurities, there’s no reason for you to enter them.”
—> Read more: Bits of Success with DaCota Monk
A more feasible option is starting the season at jackpots and adding futurities as the team gains in progress and confidence.
“I definitely recommend starting off by going to some jackpots,” Monk said. “People can exhibition all day long and do really good, but they put so much pressure on themselves at a jackpot or a futurity—it’s not good for the babies. I feel like if you think your colt is ready, but you’re not 100 percent sure, don’t pay those huge fees and put that much pressure on you and your horse. Just go to some jackpots and then maybe catch the futurities in late spring, fall and winter.”
Equi-Stat Top 20 All-Time Leading Futurity Rider Vauna Walker grew up in Pennsylvania and spent her junior high and high school years working at an Arabian farm. The farm’s owners were always sending her to shows and clinics to further her horsemanship skills. When Vauna relocated to Pingree, Idaho, she put those skills to the test when she became interested in speed events.
She went to her first futurity in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1986 after being invited by her friend Susan Hill Cronquist.
“I had this horse I started on the barrels,” Vauna recalled of “Wade,” a rotund grade Quarter Horse gelding. “I had been to a couple jackpots because it was so much fun. Sue invited me to go with her. We went to the one in Blackfoot and all the way to Rock Springs, which was a great big trip for us then. I remember how friendly everyone was and how much fun it was. I had a wonderful time, and I was hooked after that year.”
With her children still young, Vauna didn’t dabble in her newly found passion until she met and married her husband Randy Walker.
“When I got married to Randy in 1991, he was really interested in it,” Vauna said. “Our first one together was really fun. We had a really nice mare and went to the futurity in Olympia, Washington, which again, was a huge trip for us. We placed second in the first go. I will never forget how it looked when Randy came out of the stands, he was so excited. He was really hooked after that.”
Randy was also the one who made the connection between Vauna’s style and certain bloodlines.
“From the beginning, Randy felt like that was important,” Vauna said. “I used to feel that you could make a barrel horse if you rode them enough. He’s the one who started getting interested in the bloodlines. It was along 2004-2005 that we started choosing those horses more carefully. Some horses have that turn style you can’t train into them. It’s just them. It’s in their genetic makeup, and it’s just fun.”
Vauna’s advice to those wanting to try training futurity horses is to pick a horse that you love to ride and one that you want to ride every day.
“There are some that you just look forward to getting on,” Vauna said. “Of course, you want speed and mind, all those things, but it’s that horse you get up in the morning and that’s what you want to do.”
She says sometimes you have to break a few eggs before you figure out what type of horse fits you and the futurity game.
“All of them are so different,” Vauna said. “Now I get on these horses and they’re so free and so willing. You just fall in love with them, and they fit your style. I don’t like to do a lot of technical things. I like the ones that are just free— you show them something, and they try it. You can come back the next day and they’ve got it a little better. That style of horse is hard to describe, but they’re eager to learn.”