Rodeos feature a more intense, heavier environment than jackpot barrel races, such as cheering crowds, carnivals, roughstock, fireworks, hard or slick ground, music and announcers. Pictured is Kassidy Dennison and Sierra Hall Of Fame at the 2015 Calgary Stampede. Photo by Deanna Kristensen.

By Laura Lambert

Some people believe particular horses are better suited to the divisional barrel racing arena and others the rodeo pen, and though there are varying schools of thought on the issue, horses do require different characteristics to compete in each environment. Barrel Horse News sat down with three champion barrel racers to learn their thoughts on the traits of rodeo horses vs jackpot horses. Two Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champions—with 16 world titles between them—Kristie Peterson and Charmayne James share their knowledge from a lifetime of riding champion horses, both in the divisional barrel racing arena and the rodeo pen. Jordon Briggs [formerly Peterson], a notable futurity trainer and Peterson’s daughter, also weighed in.

The Elements

When comparing rodeos to jackpots, there are a host of considerations that come into play. Rodeo circumstances include so many elements like carnivals, crowds, lights, ever-varying ground conditions, ropes, flags, loud announcers and music—the list only grows from rodeo to rodeo. Divisional jackpots pose a quieter atmosphere along with generally better ground. All three ladies agreed there are in fact “rodeo horses” and “jackpot horses.”

Multiple WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer and $1 million-cowgirl Kristie Peterson says the major difference boils down to the rider’s role in the equation.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I really believe most of the time, the success in one area or the other depends on the rider,” Peterson said. “A horse only runs to the level of the rider. We give our horses cues and attitudes just by our actions on a particular day or at a particular event.”

Peterson recalls hearing a rider once say they had their “jackpot shoes on” as an explanation to why Kristie could outrun them at the jackpots but they ran tougher at the rodeos. This, Peterson says, amounted to cues from the rider to the horse.

James agrees a multitude of factors affect horses and riders in various ways.

“There are horses that can stand the energy that comes from rodeos,” James said. “When you start adding up the elements, there is simply a lot of extra energy for the horse to deal with at a rodeo, and it affects horses and riders both positively and negatively.”

Some horses need “rodeo energy” to get their game face on and perform to the best of their ability, while others simply can’t handle the environment and become overwhelmed by their surroundings. James cited her horse “Sea Doo” (registered Dash Dreamer) as a prime example. James says he is a free runner that does great at the jackpots, but when he was introduced to the stress of a large, loud event, he didn’t handle it as well. James believes as a horse ages, they get better at handling the excitement. James also agrees people send a lot of signals to their horses indirectly. James says horses can read their riders and know when the rider is taking things more seriously, as might happen at a major rodeo. 

Jordon Briggs offers a different perspective on the elements of rodeo and how they affect a horse. Briggs puts a lot of stock in the fact that some horses have a style more conducive to rodeo conditions.

“Soundness issues can limit where a horse can run,” Briggs said. “Hard ground is tough on horses, and rodeo ground can limit some horses if they have soundness issues.” 

Stressful Situations

All three experts opined that stress plays a major role in a barrel horse’s success or failure at any level. Horses are constantly under varying degrees of tension. Sometimes even saddling a horse creates stress. Anytime we do something to a horse that is unnatural for them, we create stress. The horse’s ability to handle stress contributes greatly to their success at any level, particularly rodeo.

Both Peterson and Briggs like some cow sense bred into their horses. They believe this helps horses adjust and mentally endure stress.

“I don’t necessarily believe one bloodline makes a better rodeo horse,” Briggs said. “They have to have a good mind. Rodeo horses are going to be under a great deal of stress, and they need to handle it and still work.”

All three agree hauling is a source of anxiety for any horse. Jackpot horses generally go once a weekend to an event and stay for a couple days in one location. In contrast, rodeo horses are on the road a lot, sometimes even four or five rodeos in a weekend. Loading and unloading, plus the strain on a horse’s joints associated with hauling, can certainly take a toll.

Eating and drinking is another major concern relating to stress. Some horses lose weight on the rodeo trail, regardless of the best efforts and intentions of the rider or caretaker. Keeping horses eating and drinking is vital while traveling to jackpots or rodeos. 

The bottom line: rodeo horses are tough—they have to be. These horses handle a high degree of stress. The various factors confronting a true rodeo horse demand level headedness and concentration on the horse’s part as well as the rider’s.  

Ground Conditions

1D Brianna Trepanier DHR Phoebes Rose running at the All in Barrel Rce
The ground at divisional barrel races is usually meticulously prepared and dragged after every five horses run the pattern. Pictured is Brianna Trepanier winning the 2016 All In Barrel Race aboard DHR Phoebes Rose. Photo by PixelWorx.

One thing most barrel racers agree on is the simple fact that rodeo ground is not as good as jackpot ground. Many factors contribute to ground conditions from place to place, but one thing is for sure, rodeo horses must adjust to all types of ground. In one rodeo run, you can encounter hard, slick and shifty ground. Conditions can even change from barrel to barrel at some rodeos. A good example is running to the barrel in front of the bucking chutes. The ground at this barrel is generally harder than the other two barrels, because some stock contractors like to keep the ground firm for the bucking stock.

Seasoning a horse to perform on various types of ground is a lengthy process. Briggs prepares by working her horses in different arenas with different types of ground.

“Mom and I will run our horses on trashy ground. We really think they need to learn to place their feet,” Briggs said.

Peterson stresses the importance of not treating your horse like a glass figurine—expose the horse to rough ground as safely as possible to prevent serious injury in a competition run.

“I don’t protect them,” Peterson said. “I try to expose them to everything within reason and as safely as possible, but I don’t protect them. They have to learn.”

James likes to send a horse to the feedlot to help the horse learn to balance and keep their legs under them in shifty situations.

“Once those horses learn to be careful on all types of ground, they learn to stand up and keep their feet under them,” James said.

James also points out horses can handle more types of ground if you keep the horse balanced, so she trains for balance in the turns.  Keeping a horse between the reins and allowing for adjustments will help a horse perform on bad ground.

Having a smart horse can also influence clocking differences. Once a horse gets smart to rodeo ground, they might not always runs as hard as they possibly can because they are taking care of themselves, and you, for that matter. This explains why some horses are scalding at a jackpot but can’t handle the ground at a rodeo. Old hat rodeo horses get smart and take care of themselves. This sometimes hinders rodeo horses at a jackpot, because they are competing against jackpot horses that give their life with every run because they trust the ground is always good. 

Success at Every Level

With all variables considered, what makes a horse successful at all levels? The list is long, but some aspects are too important to overlook. Confidence, seasoning, timing, training basics, individualism and experience must be considered. The rider is as much a part of success as the horse in most situations. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but for the most part it requires a team effort.

If you examine all the components, you will find each one is just as important as the next.  Confidence is key to winning, regardless of where you choose to haul. Riders must be confident in their horse, their training, their riding ability and their decision-making. Briggs learned from legendary world champion Wanda Bush to trust your training. This builds confidence in your horse by allowing them to do what they know. It also relaxes the rider if they’ve done their homework before arriving at the race or rodeo, because they know the horse is going to work and won’t transfer anxiety to the horse.

Confidence is built between horse and rider many ways.

“Horses get confidence from their riders,” Peterson said. “Doing the same things and being consistent all the time is important. Don’t give your horse mixed signals. You should practice the way you want to perform, and then if you perform the same way you practice, you build your horse’s confidence.” 

Peterson believes riders must be consistent with their cues and ride with their body

“The faster a horse goes, the more they look to you for support,” Peterson said. 

James says just as people are individuals, so are horses. The most important point, according to James, is not tearing a horse’s confidence down by jerking, pulling in the turns, becoming overly nervous or giving incorrect cues. A very important ingredient to the recipe of success is letting the horse know you like him and not losing the relational aspect of riding. 

“I think by being a really correct rider, you instill assurance in your horse,” James said. “If the horse knows you like them, they will do anything for you. They will always have their quirks, just like people, but they will perform if they know you like them. Bonding with a horse is important, and you need to spend time doing it for a horse to give you his all.”

Charmayne James holding reins
Riding correctly and consistently at all times will instill confidence in your horse when competition time rolls around. BHN file photo.


James emphasizes when you purchase a finished horse performing to the best of its ability for the current owner, you need to spend some time learning everything you can about the horse from the owner. Knowing as much as possible up front, including the horse’s personality traits, will help you bond with them and get to the top faster. 

Seasoning

Winning requires a lot of sacrifice. One of the points all three champions agree on is the importance and cost of seasoning a barrel horse. Each barrel racer does it a little differently, but the ultimate goal is a solid, seasoned horse. 

Peterson starts at home when the horses are young, exposing them to every possible element. Peterson says spending enough time with your horse is critical, so she does little things like catching other horses while riding one horse or penning her horse next to other animals. Peterson opens gates, rides in the pasture and does as much away from the barrels as possible to season a horse the same as she does on the pattern.

Briggs exhibitions horses when she first starts hauling them for a couple of months, and then she sends them in the pen cold turkey. Briggs takes her young horses everywhere with her so they can see the sights.

“Really, it just takes spending money,” Briggs confessed. “You have to pay your dues and let the horse learn.”

James agrees that loading your young horses in the trailer every chance you get is imperative to the seasoning process, but James says you need to decide early on what your ultimate goal is for both you and your horse. If you are trying to season a horse to rodeo, you need to go to the rodeos. The horse needs to be exposed to all the elements you are expecting it to overcome. James also believes horses need to learn how to haul and be in the trailer.   

“Every time a horse goes through the gate, it’s business,” James said. “They need to understand when they are away from home, they are there to run barrels and forget about all the distractions.” 

The Bottom Line

The common thread existing between these experienced horsewomen is each of them believes horses are individuals. Yes, there may be horses that perform better at jackpots or rodeos, but the key often lies with the rider. Each rider’s approach is very important to enabling a horse to perform at the best of its ability. Riders must be in tune with their horse and its insecurities.

The panel of champions all agrees horses must like you and respect you. Recognizing whether your horse is performing at its best is the key to winning at any level. The horse must like its job and want to perform. Being sound, staying calm and enjoying the task at hand tops the list of considerations for Peterson, Briggs and James.

Knowing your horses and where they perform best, along with knowing where you perform best, will increase the odds of winning. At the end of the day, we all have a passion, and that passion includes incredible athletes that deserve the best chance they can get to be winners.


Laura Lambert is a multiple Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo qualifier, Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo qualifier and a freelance contributor to Barrel Horse News. She reside in Wiggins, Colorado, with her husband, Ricky, and sons Brayden and Boedy. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected]

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