Leslie Smalygo doesn’t really consider herself a dreamer. She doesn’t believe in fairytale endings, good fortune, or luck. She learned her lessons the tried-and-true way, working the feedlots in North Dakota, checking cattle in Kansas, and training show horses alongside her father from the tender age of 8 years old. Mornings started well before six o’clock and ended long after school was over. The days were long but full, and Smalygo understood from an early age there was only one way to make something happen — you had to work for it.
An Unlikely Origin
If you’ve ever watched Smalygo send a horse screaming down the alley toward the first barrel, you’d think she’s spent a lifetime in the sport. But the 47-year-old barrel racer from Skiatook, Oklahoma, took the long way to the barrel racing arena, spending her formative years showing western pleasure and all-around horses.
“As kids, my sister and I did everything on our western pleasure horses. We even checked cattle on them, because our dad said, ‘If you go check cattle, these western pleasure horses are going to be broke.’ They were, and we won a ton on them,” Smalygo said.
By the time she was in junior high, Smalygo had enough experience to start training western pleasure horses for outside clients, and she quickly fell in love.
“I just loved training horses,” Smalygo shared. “I liked to see what I could make of each one.”
Smalygo carried that passion into a career training all-around horses in Sperry, Oklahoma, under the tutelage of Hank and Mary Helen Freter, where she took responsibility for training, conditioning, and showing weanlings to 4-year-olds in every event imaginable — except for barrel racing. Smalygo recalls it as a period of tremendous growth for her, both personally and professionally.
“We went to lots of events on futurity horses,” Smalygo said. “We did everything from halter to western pleasure, and from English events to reining. I learned so much.”
Hank’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2007 sent Smalygo reeling. Unsure of what to do next, she knew only one thing for certain — something had to change.
“Hank was like my adopted dad,” Smalygo shared. “I could not bring myself to get on a pleasure horse or a reining horse after he died, because that’s what I did with him. I knew I wasn’t going to get out of horses. I just didn’t know what I should do next.”
Barrel Racing Beginnings
It took Smalygo nearly a year to get her bearings after Hank’s passing.
“I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do,” Smalygo said. “I really tried to decide what event I thought I could excel at by myself. I was training all these [western pleasure and reining] futurity horses and I guess I thought, ‘Barrel racing can’t be that hard — all you have to do is turn three barrels.’”
Inspired to get started in her new discipline, Smalygo went to work training her reining horse how to run barrels. She quickly learned the transition was not going to be as seamless as she had expected.
“The problem was, coming from a western pleasure background, even if it was just a high lope, I thought I was setting arena records,” Smalygo said with a laugh. “I could have sworn I was laying down National Finals Rodeo-quality runs, but it turns out I was in the 4D. That hurt my ego a lot, and I decided I was going to need a little more knowledge than I had.”
Fortunately for Smalygo, her parents were good friends with barrel racing icon Marlene McRae.
“They sent me to Marlene’s house for a couple weeks,” Smalygo said. “She showed me how to adapt my way of training and advance it. I left there feeling like I knew what I needed to do to move farther along.”
Putting it All Together
Smalygo combined the knowledge she learned from McRae with her decades of expertise training all-around horses to create a program uniquely her own, and it flourished.
“Having the background in a lot of different events gave me a great feel for my horses,” Smalygo said. “Each horse is an individual, and I can be very in-tune and feel each horse’s body. I know what techniques I can use to make training easier on them, and that helps them excel.”
Smalygo bought, trained and sold several barrel horses as she began making her way up the ladder, but her first standout star came in the form of a young gelding named Alotofheartabitoffame — affectionately known as “Hurley.”
“I bought him off the internet for cheap,” Smalygo said. “I was like, ‘OK, the information is in my mind, now I just have to transfer it to my body and my horse.’”
Within four months, Hurley was running as a solid 1D horse. Smalygo found herself face-to-face with a sale she didn’t really want to make.
“We won everything we went to,” Smalygo recalled. “In the end, someone offered me money I just couldn’t say no to, and sometimes in this industry you have to make hard choices.”
After the sale of Hurley, Smalygo may have been down, but she certainly wasn’t out. In fact, the wheels were already in motion, chugging toward a new and promising plan — a plan that would ultimately change the trajectory of her barrel racing career.
Journey to the Top 15
Smalygo had never laid eyes on Hurley’s full brother when she decided to purchase 3-year-old Justaheartbeatoffame off the racetrack, but that didn’t matter to her. She knew from riding Hurley what the young gelding could be capable of, so she never thought twice about blindly meeting a commercial transporter in a gas station parking lot to bring “Gus” home.
“I had this feeling that if I got Gus, he was going to be great,” Smalygo said. “I just knew it in my bones. I started riding him, and within two weeks, he was solid on the pattern. With the Justaheartofawarrior horses, you show them something once, and it better be right, because that’s going to be how they do it for the rest of their lives.”
Even with Gus’ quick success, Smalygo didn’t let her head fill with dreams of running down the alleyway of the Thomas and Mack Center arena.
“Dreams just don’t come true for people like me, so I didn’t really waste my time on them,” Smalygo confessed. “I don’t come from much. I was a nobody. I was going to jackpots, and then I was like, ‘I want to see what rodeos are all about.’ It just went from there.”
Smalygo surprised herself by filling her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association permit in 2018 without even realizing it.
“That’s how much I paid attention to it,” the Oklahoma cowgirl said with a laugh. “I was in the office [at a rodeo] about a year after I got my permit, and someone said, ‘Hey, why don’t you buy your card?’ That’s how I found out my permit had been filled.”
As the 2022 season got underway, Smalygo found herself invited to some of the bigger rodeos. She did well at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, Colorado, and at Guymon Pioneer Days in Guymon, Oklahoma.
“He ran really well at Denver,” Smalygo said. “We didn’t have a very good run in the first round at Guymon, but in our second run he broke the arena record. From there, it was really me saying, ‘I’ll try this one or I’ll try that one.’ I didn’t watch the standings — I knew I had money in my account to keep going, and that’s what mattered to me. It was that way until Cheyenne Frontier Days, where I won my performance and my semi-finals, and then placed second in the finals. From then on I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a shot. I think we can do this!'”
After Cheyenne, Smalygo says she started looking at some rodeos and trying to figure out where to go to optimize her chances of a Wrangler NFR qualification. With only one horse on her trailer, strategy was of paramount importance. All the weight rested squarely on the back of Gus. The gritty red gelding rose to the occasion, hanging tough to help Smalygo round out the top 15 barrel racers and punch her ticket to her first NFR.
“I would marry Gus if I could,” Smalygo said with a laugh. “He will never understand how much he means to me. He’s the type of horse people only dream of. He’s my whole heart.”
As Smalygo looks toward December and her first NFR experience, she says qualifying to run on one of the biggest stages in barrel racing doesn’t feel real. Still, she’s looking forward to taking her underdog advantage to Las Vegas and showing the world what’s possible if you’re willing to put in the work.
“If you believe in yourself and you really have a vision of what you want to do — not just a dream, but a vision — there is nothing that can stop you,” Smalygo said. “If you believe it, if you want it, and if you work hard enough for it, it will happen. I’m proof of that.”
Smalygo thanks her sponsors Succeed, Pyranha, Adeptus, PEMF Complete, Master Saddles, Vita E CBD, and H&H Tires and Wheels.
Wrangler NFR Top 15 Barrel Racers
- Jordan Briggs, Tolar, Texas, $177,779.15
- Dona Kay Rule, Minco, Oklahoma, $127,441.79
- Wenda Johnson, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, $121,594.27
- Steve Hillman, Granbury, Texas, $120,602.22
- Hailey Kinsel, Cotulla, Texas, $119,389.58
- Shelley Morgan, Eustace, Texas, $110,460.92
- Sissy Winn, Chapman Ranch, Texas, $101,848.16
- Margo Crowther, North Fort Myers, Florida, $96,870.71
- Emily Beisel, Weatherford, Oklahoma, $93,964.76
- Kassie Mowry, Dublin, Texas, $92,553.30
- Bailey Choate (R), Fort Worth, Texas, $90,892.81
- Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi, Lampasas, Texas, $88, 431.79
- Jessica Routier, Buffalo, South Dakota, $86,863.10
- Lisa Lockhart, Oelrichs, South Dakota, $84,870.91
- Leslie Smalygo, Skiatook, Oklahoma, $84,453.00