By Tanya Randall
While providing commentary for RFD-TV’s The American this past March, legendary cowboy Ty Murray said, “Father Time stops for no one.” When you have an athletic passion like barrel racing, Father Time can be brutal—even more so if you’ve endured a wreck or two. Knowing the physical demands of the sport—balance and quick reflexes—are often stolen by time and mileage, we are in awe of those who defy the odds of our youthful sport.
Here, Barrel Horse News caught up with two of the toughest barrel racers over the age of 70. Both are still running and competing at the highest level of the sport. Carl Wise is the 2013 NBHA Senior 1D World Champion, and barrel racing grandma June Holeman is still outrunning ladies 50 years her junior at the professional rodeos.
When Carl Wise won the 2013 NBHA Senior 1D World Championship aboard his home-raised and trained gelding, Docs Reckless, it was an honor many thought fitting for one of the East Coast barrel racing pioneers.
“I waited a long time for that,” Wise said. “I felt like if I ever was going to win the world, it was going to be last year because I had the best horse I’d ever had.”
The horseman from Williamson, Georgia, started competing in local gaming shows and playdays when he was in his early 20s in the early 1960s.
“I never was much of a ball player or anything like that,” Wise said. “I had pretty good luck with the horses, and it just kind of came natural.”
Although he started out running for ribbons and trophies at events near his home, Wise soon began traveling to shows around Atlanta that offered purses.
“I’d make $45-50 a week working on a job and then go to Atlanta to a show on the weekends and clear $125-150,” Wise recalled. “Of course, $150 won’t go nowhere, but back then it was like $1,000. That horse show business just came more naturally to me than a lot of other things.”
Wise recalls the first time he went to one of the money shows, he thought he didn’t have a prayer of winning.
“They were talking about running 16-second cloverleaf (patterns), and I had never heard of anyone running that fast,” Wise laughed. “I thought I had done come to the wrong place. The fastest I had run was 18 seconds. I wasn’t thinking about the pattern being a different size. The patterns at the shows we went to back home were all the same size. After I outran them all, I figured out the patterns were smaller than the ones we ran on back home.”
Barrel racing jackpots were just in their infancy when Wise started. With very few people training barrel horses for a living, Wise honed his craft through trial and error.
“I started so long ago there wasn’t anyone doing a whole lot of it,” Wise chuckled. “When I first started, they had some of these shows on ball fields. I had a friend give me a little piece of advice. He said, ‘Carl, when you’re running on those ball fields, you’ve got to slow down to turn.’ I learned right quick he was right about that!
“From riding and going to shows and wanting to win, I guess I just picked up a little bit of knowledge. I told Kassie [Wise, his accomplished barrel racing daughter], I lay in bed at night and I see in my mind every step I need to take with those horses. How you need to do them and not do them. You pick up on the quickest and best way around a barrel.”
Wise also shared his knowledge with younger hands like Brett Monroe and Talmadge Green.
“The one thing I always told them is if they wanted to win, they had to ride hard,” Wise said. “If you’ve got an average horse, then you’ve got to ride hard to make it the best you can.”
Wise has also shod horses for nearly as long as he’s run barrels—always leaving home in time to be shoeing by daybreak.
“I’m usually back home by noon because I’ve got a heap of riding to do,” Wise said. “We have always kept eight to 15 horses, so I’ve always got plenty. Now, if the weather’s too hot or just not quite right, I go back and sit in the lounge chair. I used to not do that. I take a little more breaks than I used to.”
Wise has never trained outside horses. Instead, he chose to train his own, keep a few to run himself and sell the rest. Unfortunately, in order to keep doing that, it meant he had to sell some of his best horses.
“I’ve always been left riding the rest,” Wise laughed. “I used to hate going to [the Old Fort Days Futurity in] Fort Smith. I’d have several 3-year-olds and someone would always come along and buy my best ones. Naturally, that left me riding whatever I had left, and that one generally wasn’t too good.”
Wise is still sharing the good horses, mostly with his youngest daughter, Kassie, 22.
“I’d whole lot rather see her win than me,” Wise said. “When she wins, it makes me feel really good.”
He has fond memories of hauling Kassie and the great mare, Sixums Lady Luck, who now belongs to the Chouest family of Cut Off, Louisiana.
“As long as we had that ‘Lady’ horse, we knew that if we went to a show—it didn’t matter how far we went—most of the time, we were going to have some extra money coming home,” Wise said. “It wasn’t that she won all the time, but she was going to be somewhere at the top. When I sold her, it kind of dropped down for us for a while. We’ve got some horses that are probably just as good, but just not as consistent as she was.”
One of those good ones is Docs Reckless, who also won the Old Fort Days Futurity Reserve Championship with Kassie in 2012. The two share the horse, but Wise prefers Kassie ride him unless he’s in a bad need of a win.
“We’ve got a pretty strong NBHA district,” Wise explained. Gina, his wife of 24 years, is the district director. “Normally, I’ve got to ride what I’m getting ready, and I let Kassie and Kyle (Noon) ride the best. I’m riding something that’s not 100 percent trained, and for someone that’s as old as I am, it’s not as much fun to ride them horses.”
The unfinished horses will set Wise behind in the points standings, so he has to steal “Doc” away from Kassie from time to time.
“Most of the time, if I get my run on him, I’m the only one in the 1D and that helps me catch up pretty fast,” Smith noted.
Although he’s not sure what he’ll be riding this fall—he wants Kassie to ride Doc—Wise plans on defending his long-awaited NBHA Senior 1D World Championship. He’s not ready for the rocking chair yet.
“I always tell people if you ride horses, you don’t have to go to the doctor,” Wise said. “You’re always sore and can blame it on the horses. It gets rough sometimes, but when it comes down to it, if you’re going to ride horses, you’re going to get sore and you just get used to it. You just overlook anything else.”
She was a fan favorite when she became the oldest qualifier at the National Finals Rodeo in 2005 at age 62. As the oldest qualifier to RFD-TV’s The American rodeo at age 70, June Holeman once again inspired legions of barrel racers to never give up on their dreams.
“It’s not easy, and age makes it harder,” Holeman said, who will celebrate birthday 71 this month. “You’ve just got to keep going.”
Holeman was born and raised on a ranch in Nebraska, and she spent a lot of time in the saddle.
“I rode two-and-a-half miles to school until the eighth grade—in the ice, snow, whatever weather,” Holeman laughed. “I had to drive cattle on the ranch, too.”
With her riding skills born of countless hours in the saddle, she credits her late older brother, Laddie Leach, with teaching her to train horses.
“My brother taught me a lot,” Holeman said. “I used to train horses at a home. My dad would buy horses at the local sale barn, and I had to train those stupid colts. I could do it and re-sell them in six weeks or two months. I couldn’t do that anymore, but I was good at it [back then].”
Holeman started competing in local open horse shows before she was old enough to start school and got the barrel racing bug after watching “the big girls run” at the Burwell, Nebraska, rodeo. Other than attending a couple Martha Josey barrel racing clinics, Holeman found her own way through trial and error and was able to make a living training, selling and competing on rodeo horses.
“That’s what paid for our place,” said Holeman of the Arcadia, Nebraska, home where she and Donnell, her husband of 52 years, raised three children—a son, Donnell, who lives in Wyoming, and two daughters, Teresa McCormick, who competes with her mother at the larger jackpots and amateur rodeos, and Tammy Mohr, whom she lost to a horse-related accident in July of 2009.
Horses are the only business Holeman has ever been in, except for a brief stint as a dental assistant.
“Of all the silly things, I was a dental assistant for a short time before I got married, and I hate (going to the) dentist with a vengeance,” Holeman laughed. “I actually enjoyed the work, but that was because I didn’t have to have anything done.”
Although she has trained a few futurity horses in the past, the focus of Holeman’s program was always rodeo.
“I’ve placed at several, like Fort Smith and some different ones over the years, but I’m not a futurity person, really. You have got to go early and do all those exhibitions and stay; that’s just not my thing,” Holeman admitted. “I’d rather go to rodeos.”
For many years, Holeman dominated the open amateur rodeo circuit in her region, winning barrel racing championships in the Mid State Rodeo Association and Nebraska State Rodeo Association on numerous occasions. She competed in the occasional professional rodeo on a permit until 1994, when a right-to-work lawsuit forced the professional associations to allow their members to compete at the amateur level.
While she’d like to make a return trip to the NFR, today’s rodeo environment is not as conducive to dark horses as it once was.
“It’s a lot more complicated than it used to be,” said the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Gold Card member. “It’s harder for me to get to the top because of the limited-entry rodeos. With the rodeos being limited and them counting the money at them, it makes it even more difficult.”
Holeman said she’s had more than her share of great horses over the years, besides her great little NFR horse, Sparky Impression, and current standout, Hopes Money Boy, including Bucks St Pat, a granddaughter of Mr Bar None, who dominated the amateur circuits in the 1970s.
“She was a very, very nice mare,” Holeman said of Bucks St Pat. On a newspaper clipping from 1977, Holeman wrote, “The greatest most consistent horse I’ve ever had.”
Holeman later sold Bucks St Pat for $7,500 to the Grogen family for their daughter, Jeannie. The Grogens later bred the mare to Magnolia Bar, producing the stallion, Runnerelse. Holeman was also successful with many of his offspring.
About the time she was running some of Runnerelse’s colts, “Sparky” came along. Like Bucks St Pat, he traced back to Mr Bar None, so she took a chance on swapping the little breakaway rope horse to full-time barrel racing.
One of her most bittersweet moments with Sparky came at the 2006 Calgary Stampede when she tied for the $100,000 Championship with Jolene Seitz, but lost it on a run-off.
“They told me I had to run again or I wouldn’t get any money,” Holeman said. “My old horse couldn’t make three runs in that short of a time.”
Holeman missed a return trip to the Stampede by one tenth of second when she finished second at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo with Hopes Money Boy (“Tall Boy”), who is by her late brother’s On The Money Red stallion and out of Sparky’s predecessor, One More Hope.
“I had no idea he was going to be a good one,” Holeman said of Tall Boy. “Here, at the end of my career, I got another one. It’s a miracle. I wanted another little Sparky horse, but I couldn’t afford one, so I had to fall back on what I had.”
Although she’s had several offers for Tall Boy, Holeman said she wants to see if Tall Boy can take her places Sparky couldn’t.
“I know he’s going to be the last one for me,” Holeman said. “He’s the only one that’s going to be able to win for me when I can’t do anything to help him. I’ve got to have the kind that’s willing to go and do without a lot. This guy is still learning to run; I don’t know if he gets much faster if I can stay with him or not. I’ll ride him until I get hurt, or he runs out from underneath me.”
Tanya Randall is an avid barrel racer and veteran contributor to Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected]