My friend, Kenneth Springer, and I were discussing the way barrel racing has evolved over the past few decades and as we were doing that, our conversation turned into a discussion of past great horsewomen who have been influential in the industry. As we reflected, I began to think about Celie Whitcomb Ray. I speak of her often at my clinics because much of my barrel patterning and ideas came from her. She was a close friend to both Kenneth and me. We were saddened to think that so much time has passed and that there are many barrel racers who don’t even know the great barrel racers from the past. I, for one, do not want to forget them and the impact they have had, so this article is about the barrel racer who impacted my career more than any other.
The same year that four-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Celie Whitcomb Ray, Sterling, Colo., began her five-year battle with breast cancer she qualified for the NFR riding her great sorrel gelding I Got Bugs (“Bugsy”) that first proved himself as one of the all-time great futurity horses of any decade. Continuing his winning ways into the professional ranks, Bugsy took Celie to three consecutive go round wins at the 1989 NFR with the record books showing her the winner of the third, fourth and fifth go rounds. The pair finished the year in third place behind two of the biggest stars of the era Charmayne James and Marlene Eddleman-McRae.
The first few paragraphs were written by Celie’s daughter, Mary Cecelia Tharp.
Celie Whitcomb Ray was an exceptional horsewoman at a very young age. She was my mother and my home is decorated with trophies that she won from the age of 5 and up. I am so very proud of who my mom was. My time with her was cut way too short, but we can remember how special and talented she was and share those memories with others.
Celie started at a young age with cutting and reining horses. There is a picture of her riding with her dad, Milo Whitcomb; they are riding double, Celie on the back, on a cutting horse working a cow. My grandfather said that Celie could lope circles on colts he was starting as soon as he got the buck out of them. She had a connection with horses that was eerie. They were comfortable with her and would usually go above and beyond for her. She communicated with them and they knew when she was happy and when she was disappointed. My mom taught me the basics on the barrel pattern and always had me on a talented horse that could assist in my learning. She had strict rules and a simple way to explain how to turn a barrel. These simple rules made learning easy for me, even though I was only 7 years old. I was to “pick him up” until my leg got to the barrel and then elbow myself in the stomach. After my mom lost her battle to cancer, I Got Bugs (aka “Bugsy”), took over my barrel racing lessons. Bugsy showed me what my mom wanted a horse to feel like running around a barrel. Because of him, I know what the ultimate goal is. Bugsy was my mom’s second child—he was exactly how she wanted a horse to work.
My grandfather, Milo, or Papa as I call him, strived for an all-around horse that could run on the track as well as run barrels or cut cattle. Some, like Slash J Harletta were even shown at halter. Papa trained cutting horses, and bred, raised and trained racing horses. Tonto Bars Hank was probably the most famous race horse he raised and trained. Hank won the All American Futurity and was the first Quarter Horse to win over $100,000! My mom learned the importance of good bloodlines from her Papa. Her great mare, Slash J Harletta, took Celie to the NFR in 1971, and is the only mare to qualify for the NFR and have two foals—Freetta and I Got Bugs—qualify as well. Harletta is also the dam of Firewater Flit and Letta Hank Do It, both of which have left their legacies in the barrel racing industry.
I came to know Celie when I was an aspiring young horse trainer. My “beginner’s luck” had worn off and I was struggling to get another winning futurity horse, so I began to study obsessively other successful trainers and their techniques. I quickly became attracted to Celie’s way of doing it because her horses were fat, sassy and working! The headgear she used wasn’t much and it looked effortless for both she and her horses. It was obvious to me they were running barrels because they wanted to. That was my goal and I began to pursue learning everything I could possibly absorb from her. Over time, she became not only my mentor, but also my friend.
I still tell people that she had the best hands I have ever seen. She could win on a horse that was fairly green because she was so consistent. She rode the exact same way whether she was in the practice pen or in the finals at The Old Fort Day’s Barrel Futurity in Fort Smith, Ark. Consequently, the horses she competed on worked almost as relaxed as if they were in their own home arena. She was definitely not a crash course kind of trainer, but she could win on a fairly inexperienced colt because of her steady hands and mind.
She has been gone for many years, but I still will think to myself when one of my horses gets it right…“Celie would like this one.”
Celie’s daughter, Mary Cecelia Tharp, and I have remained close. She was 11 when her mother lost her battle with breast cancer on Jan. 18, 1994. When CeCe was old enough to come spend time with me, I tried to teach her everything I had learned, and as close to the way Celie did it, as I possibly could. She has her mother’s hands and sits a horse so much like her. Celie would be very proud of the person and the horsewomen Mary Cecelia has become.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments on this article to [email protected].