Dona Kay Rule runs barrels for the love of a good horse and the sport. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. She is fulfilling her dreams and counting her blessings after a rollercoaster 2017 year.
By Kate Bradley Byars for the July 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News
White oversized wind turbines whirled on the hill above Dona Kay Rule’s home and barn in Minco, Oklahoma, with the state’s signature red dirt catching flight on the midday wind. The dirt was almost the color of the gelding Dona Kay led out of the dark barn into the bright sunlight, but as the sun hit the long hair of the horse’s winter coat, the brilliant sorrel lit up like a flame. White blaze set between alert eyes, a long and flowing mane waving in the breeze, and an eagerness to stick to his owner’s side marked the gelding as A Juicy Adventure, Dona Kay’s good pal.
“Juice” joined High Valor and a 4-year-old Paint prospect named SK Sckretin Badger, or “Bodee,” at Dona Kay’s trailer, where the horses were saddled. The quick, eager step was not expected from a horse that had nearly severed his extensor tendon, and his stride never faltered. In fact, unless you looked closely, the scars from the Springfield, Missouri, wreck that kept Juice stall-bound for nine months are hard to find.
The physical scars may be healing, but the emotional effect of that March day in 2017 remains with Dona Kay and Juice. More than a year later, the once fearless duo is back to square one, literally. Juice is only now starting to be ridden under saddle faster than a walk. While her No. 1 mount healed up, Dona Kay shifted her focus to “Valor,” the back-up, behind-in-training youngster. He stepped up like the champion he has proven to be in the barrel arena.
“Valor is a year behind Juice, and I was running him at jackpots and Juice at rodeos,” Dona Kay said. “Valor is a kind horse, and he wants to know you like him. He’s taken good care of me, and I knew Valor could go fast if I pushed him.”
No stranger to making a good barrel horse, Dona Kay has trained and competed all her life. But family, running the family business and focusing on client horses kept her from stepping into her own spotlight until she purchased Juice in 2012. She filled her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association permit and gained full-card status at 57 years old riding Juice. Today, in spite of terrible setbacks, she’s blazing her own rodeo trail and focusing on the fun of barrel racing.
As a young horsewoman, Dona Kay and her father hit the rodeo road on the weekends. She ran barrels but also loved to rope, competing in tie-down, breakaway and team roping. Before barrel racing in the WPRA, she was a card-carrying member of the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association, making the association’s all-girl rodeo finals multiple times. She found a mentor in fellow Oklahoman Billy Perrin, whose daughters Jackie Jo and Cindy were accomplished in the rodeo arena. There she started a buy-train-sell habit that would carry her young family through the next decades. John Rule and Dona Kay married in 1980, and she moved to Oklahoma City to help her saddle-maker husband run National Saddlery.
“I had two children in private schools, and I had to have enough money to pay for those schools,” Dona Kay said. “I’d buy a colt, train it and sell it. I rode barrel horses for the money and roped for fun.”
Days were grueling and long, with Dona Kay working 10 hours a day at National Saddlery, then juggling mom duties and training horses in the evenings. Barrel racing became a job, but one necessary for her family.
“As a mother, horse trainer, business owner and wife, I was up against a wall to get it all done,” Dona Kay said. “You have to decide what you want, and if you want it bad enough you make it happen.”
In the mid-90s, Dona Kay had a talented young horse that excited her, shaking up the daily routine. Never one to train with futurities in mind, but rather the long game of barrel racing, Dona Kay decided to work the horse up to a futurity run. But when she asked for a big run, she received a big disappointment.
“We dropped the hammer to make our first run [at a futurity], and I think they had to replace the second barrel because we hit it so hard,” Dona Kay said. “I was so disappointed that I went to the trailer, unsaddled and didn’t run barrels again for 10 years.”
Instead, she roped, focused on her kids and helping others. A typical rodeo mom, Dona Kay would help not only her kids but others with horses. Better Barrel Races producer Ross Wright recalls Dona Kay providing her with a horse when Wright was in high school.
“She let me borrow and keep a horse named ‘Snake,’” Wright said. “I won several saddles and all-around titles, because I was able to use her horse. I’ve known her pretty much my entire life. Dona Kay puts others before herself.”
Today, Wright continues to rely on Dona Kay and her extensive knowledge to serve as an arena judge at the BBR. Dona Kay watches the alley, the tractor man, sets the barrel pattern and makes fair decisions during many of barrel racing’s elite events, including the Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Horse Classic, the Patriot Event and the BBR World Finals.
“You don’t have to worry about any detail being overlooked,” Wright said. “She is there when you need her and very supportive. She’s a conscientious judge and makes sure all the necessary elements are in place to give everybody as fair a shake as they can be given.”
Dona Kay’s fair shake came when a young lady sought help with her barrel horse in the early 2000s. She realized barrel horses could be fun and started to enjoy being back in the barrel saddle.
“I had just roped and done the all-girl rodeos,” Dona Kay said. “When I got back on a barrel horse, I remembered it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the horsemanship part of it.”
By the time her kids had flown the nest and she had fewer responsibilities after the Rules sold National Saddlery, Dona Kay decided it was time to ride. She set out looking for her special horse.
A Horse Of Her Own
“I told my husband I wanted to find a horse of my own. I wasn’t going to groom it for anybody or set it up for anybody, I was just going to have my own horse,” Dona Kay said. “If he was dirty, he was dirty. If he didn’t work good, I would fix it. I looked at 22 head before I bought one, and Juice was the one I bought just for me.”
A Juicy Adventure is a 2008 gelding by Smart Like Juice out of Minis Daisey Mae by Carbon Nowata. He’s not the typical barrel horse seen today—he’s a little shorter and looks best fit to work a cow. But to watch him turn a barrel was a beautiful thing, says John, Dona Kay’s husband.
“Her and Juice got along on Day One,” John said. “She’s always had horses of her own, but she spent more time working on other people’s horses than anything. It’s a big step to put yourself out in front of people, and Juice instilled some confidence in her.”
Juice drew Dona Kay in with his ornery personality and gritty ability to try anything she asked. He had mainly arenariding time, so she began to ride him out to gather cattle. Not too long after purchasing the gelding, Juice stumbled into a hole, falling and breaking Dona Kay’s arm.
“We had kind of a rough start, honestly,” Dona Kay said. “I started running him about a year and a half after I bought him. Then, when I realized he had talent, I really started asking him to run. That was late in his 6-year-old year, and now he is 10.”
In 2014, Equi-Stat records show Dona Kay and Juice with $726.24 won at two barrel races, then in 2015 at three barrel races, the pair earned $895.70. While many of the jackpots aren’t kept by EquiStat, it is clear Juice was running with the herd. Dona Kay took him to a barrel race in Elgin, Oklahoma, where she asked him for all he had, and Juice gave it. With a fast-turning, hard-running horse under her, Dona Kay opted to obtain her WPRA rookie card. She and Juice filled it quickly in 2016, placing second at the professional rodeo in Duncan, Oklahoma, on May 6, then tying for 9th in Loveland, Colorado, on August 7. With a first-place finish at the D&D barrel race in Chickasha, Oklahoma, the pair earned more than $1,500 in Equi-Stat recorded earnings in 2016.
“I’ve always been restricted by owning a saddle shop, having a family and running a business,” Dona Kay said. “I chose rodeos I thought would be fun that first year. In my second year, I wanted to make the Prairie Circuit Finals, and that happened.”
The pair was off and running on the rodeo trail in 2017. Hauling along was High Valor, a tall 2009 sorrel gelding by Valiant Hero and out of Rare High by Rare Form. Dona Kay purchased him from Lana Merrick.
“Lana bred and raised him but was so buried in her job that she offered him to me, and made it where I could buy [Valor],” Dona Kay said. “I brought him along, running Juice at rodeos and Valor at jackpots. Valor went everywhere to see the sights.”
At a D&D barrel race in Waco, Texas, in early March 2017, a dream came true for the Oklahoma cowgirl when she took the first- and second-place spots on Valor and Juice, respectively. It was the high point in her long-awaited professional barrel racing career. The next stop for Dona Kay was a WPRA rodeo in Springfield, Missouri.
Dona Kay arrived in Springfield with fellow barrel racer Ivy Hurst, with only Juice in Hurst’s trailer. As Dona Kay prepared to warm Juice up, the unthinkable happened. A horse tied to a panel tore it loose, creating havoc in the small, indoor warm-up area.
“Four horses got away from people, and behind those horses, there was a horse tied to a gate. I tried to send Juice down and away, but the gate I was near was locked,” Dona Kay said. “I couldn’t get out, but I tried to get him away. About the time I turned him loose, horses hit him from behind, he was pushed into me, then jumped over me and landed in the bleachers. All four horses ran over him and me. It was a wreck. No one could get out.”
When Dona Kay came to, it was eerily quiet.
She was partway under a railing under the bleachers, and she couldn’t move. In her shocked state, she thought it was a “fine how-do-you-do” that she was going to die there alone. Finally, Dona Kay heard a voice calling. An EMT had come to check on her, and while she was being looked at, Hurst brought in Juice.
“As soon as I saw Juice, I got up,” Dona Kay said. “My hand was broken; I had broken ribs. It was a wreck. But Juice’s back leg was kind of dangling. He had jumped into the metal bleachers, and it took a chunk from his [left hind] leg. We got him bandaged up and in a stall.”
Despite her own injuries, Juice remained Dona Kay’s top priority.
“I sat with him all night until he got over the shock,” Dona Kay said. “The next day, Ivy helped me load him and we went to Purcell (Oklahoma) to Robin Johnson, DVM, but she said to go to Oakridge Equine Hospital.”
At that point, Dona Kay was hauling her injured horse—with her own broken hand and broken ribs—solo from Purcell to Edmond, Oklahoma. The hour-long trip was tough for Dona Kay.
“I was driving along, remembering how distraught I was just thinking about selling him when I had a good offer. I prayed on it then, and thank God I hadn’t sold him,” Dona Kay said. “On the way to Oakridge, I just kept saying ‘God, don’t take him from me now.’ In my head popped a Christian song, In the Eye of the Storm, and I started smiling. God had nothing to do with that wreck, but God will have everything to do with what comes from here forward.”
At Oakridge, Chad Zubrod, DVM, went over Juice’s injuries. With a twoinch section of his extensor tendon severed, there was no surgical option. A cautious prognosis rested on nine months of stall confinement. For Dona Kay, the fact Juice could come home was more than enough of a reward.
“We do a lot of liberty training, and I engage with the horses. The biggest thing I remember from the wreck is that Juice looked to me for help, he came to me, and they hit him from behind,” Dona Kay said. “A lot of people were in wrecks last year, and a lot of horses didn’t get to go home. I feel blessed. I almost feel guilty for being able to keep him.”
John says Dona Kay was a bit defeated after the wreck.
“She was banged up pretty good, but she was more concerned about him. She was tickled to death they didn’t have to put him down,” John said. “She had Val coming on, and that kept her from staying home and stewing about [the wreck].”
Juice went home to Minco, and Dona Kay rested all her hopes on the remainder of the year on Valor.
Hammer Down, Confidence Up
Similar to Juice in color but not in size, Valor stepped up to become the horse Dona Kay needed to help her recover from the March wreck. Talented and bred to run, the gelding was more kind than gritty. He proved his worth the first weekend Dona Kay began running barrels.
Only five weeks after breaking her hand and ribs, Dona Kay entered a Friday night rodeo in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, and a Saturday morning run in Wichita Falls, Texas. Cheyenne went fine, but Wichita Falls, in her words, was a disaster.
“It was too soon. I made my run at Cheyenne and the next morning I couldn’t hold my saddle horn at Wichita Falls,” Dona Kay said. “It went horrible. I couldn’t ride, was timid, and it showed. I wasn’t ready, and at barrel two, Valor just stopped. He waited on me. Juice would’ve gritted up and told me I was on my own. But Valor is one of the kindest geldings I’ve ever been around.”
Regrouping at home and taking time to heal herself, Dona Kay and Valor took aim at rodeos further down the line. In 2017, they were fifth at the Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo in May, then won the Open 1D at a D&D barrel race in Chickasha on May 19, and went on to place at WPRA rodeos in Garden City, Kansas; Ponca City and Woodard, Oklahoma; Dodge City and won at Abilene, Kansas. The pair picked up checks at the Barrel Bash in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a D&D in Graham, Texas, and in Duncan, Oklahoma, on their way to earning almost $17,000 in Equi-Stat earnings for the year.
Now a year after the wreck, Dona Kay is in a different place. She’s aiming at bigger rodeos with Valor and looking forward to a future with Juice. What kind of future is uncertain, but she knows he will be there as her pal, for years to come.
“Suddenly, I’m in the twilight of my career and have such a nice horse [in Valor],” Dona Kay said. “If you have that kind of horse, you’ve got to go out there and try.”
She may once again have two nice horses. In late March, Dona Kay was cleared to start riding Juice. More than 60 days later, she was contemplating loping him through the barrel pattern. Regardless of how that lope-through goes, Dona Kay is set for a future with Juice as a mount for her granddaughter, Hensley Rose, and Valor perhaps as a mount for her daughter, KK, to ride at some major events. She says it would be fun to haul with her daughter again.
But don’t count Dona Kay out of the pilot’s seat on a good horse. John says she’s not slowing down and is enjoying her time in the saddle. After all, Dona Kay has been in it for the long haul.
“No, I never thought I’d come back. Barrel racing was always a chore, always a job. Now that I’ve gone away and come back to it, I’m not dragging the wagon,” Dona Kay said. “I can enjoy it. I enjoy the horsemanship and love watching other people run good horses. Instead of thinking I have to be better than someone to make the horse make money, that is over for me; I enjoy the ride now.”
Since this article was originally published in July 2018, Dona Kay Rule and High Valor have qualified for the 2019 National Finals Rodeo, won two rounds at the NFR and finished as reserve champion at the 2020 RFD-TV’s The American. High Valor was also named the 2019 AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year. Juice has also made a comeback, running at the RodeoHouston Super Series Finish in Fort Worth in May 2020.